Honda Civic Type R EK9 vs. Audi S3 8L, Toyota Supra A80 vs. Porsche 928 GTS Automatic, Mazda MX-5 NB vs. BMW Z3 E36/7 and Lexus LS400 UCF10 vs. Mercedes-Benz S500 W140

2018 John Joe Vollans and Drive-My EN/UK

Japan or Germany who made the best cars of the 1990s? Toyota Supra vs Porsche 928, Honda Civic Type R vs Audi S3, Mazda MX-5 vs BMW Z3 and Lexus LS400 vs Mercedes-Benz S-Class W140.


Who made the best luxury, ragtop, hot hatch and GT cars in the 1990s: Germany or Japan?

REPUTATION VERSUS INNOVATION  Was the German auto industry trading on past glories by the 1990s?


The W126/V126/C126 Mercedes-Benz S-Class was arguably the finest generation of luxury saloons ever made. How do you follow that? Well, if you were Mercedes-Benz in the 1990s you added a load of tech and hoped drivers wouldn’t notice the cheaper fixings and thinner-grade steel. It’s a similar story with VW’s perennial hot hatch in the 1990s. The 1980s saw the VW Golf GTI go from strength to strength. First came 16 valves, then supercharging and finally four-wheel drive By the 1990s though, the Golf GTI was bloated and squidgy, no longer a driver’s choice. Instead, it had become a middle-class shopping trolley.


	Honda Civic Type R EK9 vs. Audi S3 8L, Toyota Supra A80 vs. Porsche 928 GTS Automatic, Mazda MX-5 NB vs. BMW Z3 E36/7 and Lexus LS400 UCF10 vs. Mercedes-Benz S500 W140

Honda Civic Type R EK9 vs. Audi S3 8L, Toyota Supra A80 vs. Porsche 928 GTS Automatic, Mazda MX-5 NB vs. BMW Z3 E36/7 and Lexus LS400 UCF10 vs. Mercedes-Benz S500 W140

Engineers in Japan must have been rubbing their hands in delight. The big players – Mazda, Nissan and Toyota – had been established in the UK since the 1970s but it had taken a while for the public to catch on.

By the 1990s the reputation of Japanese car makers had finally reached the wider market and the performance, equipment level and reliability of their products proved hard to resist. With the arrival of Gran Turismo on the original Playstation back in 1997 the public’s desire for Japanese performance cars reached fever pitch.

To see if the new wave of Japanese models really did take on the establishment and win, we’ve gathered the top contenders in each market and pitched them against their Teutonic rivals. Hot hatches to luxury saloons, we take them all back to their natural habitats and reveal the best – then and now.

BMW ahead on the road, but did it make the better car?


WEST vs. EAST

The 1990s should have been Germany’s automotive decade. There’d been great leaps forward for Mercedes-Benz. BMW and Audi in the 1980s: Guards Red Porsche 911s had become icons, charging around the UK capital turning expense accounts into flat-six fury on the North Circular. Once, thrusting young execs and Chelsea girls aspired to British machinery, but the Germans had taken over.

The 1990s should have seen Germany build on Its success, but a mixture of aggressive cost-cutting and sometimes dodgy politics put the brakes on the train.

Then there was the threat from the Far East. Japan had already dished up a hefty karate kick to the established rule of the British car companies. For years, Ford, Rover and Vauxhall had dominated new car sales with built-to a- Price models, but by the 1990s Japan’s automakers had bigger sashimi to slice – the premium market.

In this feature, we’re lining up the Japanese cars against The German cars they challenged. Each car in our lineup epitomises the essence of each manufacturer’s genetic code. Some of the rivals are starkly different, others much closer than you might think. Each car has strengths and weaknesses, and what may have won the battle in the 1990smay not have been good enough to win the war. Which ideologies won out, and which cars make the best modern classics today? Time to pick a side…


East vs. West: Japan’s upstarts take on the … German establishment. Which nation made the best cars of the 1990s? We get behind the wheel of eight of the best to find out.


 

Honda Civic Type R EK9 vs. Audi S3 8L

What’s best on British B-roads – high revving VTEC thrills, or low-down 20v Turbo grunt?


 

B-ROAD BATTLEGROUND  HOT HATCHES

This tussle could come down to one thing: torque. If you love mashing your foot into the carpet and savouring a relentless surge of acceleration in any gear, you’ll favour the Audi. If, on the other hand, you prefer to work a little harder to extract the most from the engine in your performance hatch, then you’ll vote for the Civic.


Honda Civic Type R EK9 vs. Audi S3 8L

Honda Civic Type R EK9 vs. Audi S3 8L Weighty Audi is a bit dowdy.

There are equally devoted advocates on both sides, so we’re going to make our choice based on which one still floats our boat today – and on which one moved the hot hatch game forward the most in the 1990s.

Representing the establishment, we have the Audi S3. Sister company Volkswagen had sparked up the hot-hatch genre back in 1976 with the introduction of its MkI Golf GTI, a benchmark motor that became even better in MkII form. Unfortunately, the demands of safety legislators and eco-warriors brought a softening of the GTI edge in the subsequent MkIII and MkIV cars, changing them from lightweight B-road weapons into bloated dual carriageway cruisers. Something needed to be done to redress the balance. VW would opt to add more weight and a few more cylinders to regain some credibility, but the Golf R32 was still a couple of years away. Audi, on the other hand, stuck to what it knew best: turbocharging.


Honda Civic Type R EK9 vs. Audi S3 8L

Honda Civic Type R EK9 vs. Audi S3 8L

The first-generation S3 was based on the A3 platform but instead of the firm’s conventional quattro all-wheel drive system, the S3 became the guinea pig for VW’s new Haldex four-wheel drive arrangement, destined for the aforementioned R32. The engine was borrowed from the Volkswagen parts catalogue too, but instead of the narrow-angle VR6, the 1.8-litre 20v turbo APY engine was employed. This generated a healthy 210bhp at a lofty 5800rpm. More importantly for our two-car battle, it made 200lb-ft of torque at a more attainable 2100rpm.

The power delivery from the tuner’s favourite 1.8 Turbo engine gives the S3 constant and eager midrange pull, albeit at some cost to the outright top end power. By contrast, the EK9 Civic Type R takes an all-or-nothing approach. Until recently, Honda’s engineers prided themselves on not needing forced induction to make big power, and the EK9’s engine is certainly up there among their finest creations. The 1595cc four-pot B16B engine has one of the highest power outputs per litre of any production engine ever made. At its giddy 8400rpm redline it produces a mighty 182bhp.

There is a downside: peak torque is modest and sits way up the rev range. You get just 118lb-ft at 7500rpm. That’s almost half the torque of the Audi, which delivers its much greater grunt a whole 5400rpm lower down the tacho. But which is the driver’s choice, the high-revs screamer or the mid-range thumper? Let’s find out…


Honda Civic Type R EK9 vs. Audi S3 8L

Honda Civic Type R EK9 vs. Audi S3 8L It’s tinny, but that’s why it’s so skinny. It’ll look the same in ten years’ time.

As soon as you climb into the Audi through its huge driver’s door, you know that it’s not a light weight machine. The high-bolstered seats are comfortable but firm, and the controls are well placed. It’s all par for the course for VAG products of the era. That red LCD script dominates, and it’s good to see that in this example there’s no fade to the pixels as is usually the case in TTs of the era.

The engine fires easily and without fuss. If anything it’s a little characterless for a performance motor. We weren’t expecting a crackling snarl on start-up, but the flat drone we’remet with is still a disappointment.

The weighty feeling continues once we’re out on the road. The clutch is heavy yet positive, just like the gearchange. You have to make a concerted effort to swap ratios but the process stops short of becoming a chore. Engine performance is strong in the mid-range and is super easy to access. At no point do you feel you have to work for the Audi’s power – both a blessing and a curse.

Braking is efficient and progressive with good pedal feel. Handling is safe and predictable favouring understeer rather than the playful lift-off antics of earlier VAG machinery. After a short time behind the wheel we return the keys to our S3 feeling somewhat underwhelmed. Straight away it’s clear that the Type R takes a very different approach. The cabin is lit up by its bright red bucket seats and carpets, a look reminiscent of the Peugeot 205 GTI from a generation earlier. Get in and close the flimsy door. The reverberations through the cabin sound like you’re stuck in a giant biscuit tin, but you soon have more important things to worry about than sound deadening. Staring open-mouthed at the simply ludicrous figures displayed on the rev counter, for example, or fondling the perfectly machined alloy gearstick through its wonderfully mechanical gate.

That thin wall bodywork really comes into its own once the Type R is up to speed. You certainly can’t claim that the little B16B engine lacks character. Feed it some revs and it feels like it’s trying to break off its mounts and come through the bulkhead. The plus side is that progress is equally brutal. This thing feels seriously fast, even by today’s standards. Corners are dispensed with in near flat poise and the lack of weight to transfer means you can carry huge speeds through the twisty bits. The limited-slip differential hauls you hard out of apexes and allows you to get back into the working revs right away. You never have to let off… anywhere!

All right, so it’s an overused maxim, but in pure, performance driving terms, everything really is a lot better when it’s lighter. The braking becomes sharper, the performance more exciting, the handling less ruled by physics. Honda took the Lotus GP approach to a hot hatch and the result is truly remarkable. You wouldn’t want to take the EK9 continental touring, but if you wanted to get stuck into a serious drive, few things are more rewarding.


I BOUGHT ONE AUDI S3

‘I’ve owned my Audi S3 for three years and I’ve not had any issues,’ reveals owner Michael Mullen. ‘It’s given regular servicing and maintenance, which results in good reliability, and I only run it on Shell V-Power, which produces a faultless drive. Running these cars daily isn’t an issue although with high road tax and fuel consumption your wallet does notice it. This is definitely a car to keep a hold of.’


Honda Civic Type R EK9 vs. Audi S3 8L
Red badge isn’t morning, S3’swarning. Honda Civic Type R EK9 vs. Audi S3 8L – Will you grow fonder of the Honda?


Audi S3 2061 UK cars left

Honda Type R 250 UK cars left


I BOUGHT ONE HONDA CIVIC TYPE R

‘The little Civic is pretty easy to live with as a daily, a B-road blaster or track toy,’ according to owner Kirsty Duncan. ‘It has been very reliable with nearly 20,000 trouble-free miles so far. Running costs are relatively low, servicing is straightforward. I get about 30-32mpg from mixed daily driving. If you’re fussy and want new Honda bits the random things are pricey, like the centre caps or decals. Overall, it’s fun to drive, reliable and feels different.’

‘IT’S CLEAR THAT THE TYPE R TAKES A DIFFERENT APPROACH


TURNING THE CIVIC INTO THE EK9 TYPE R

Honda took the job of creating its first Type R Civic very seriously indeed. Other than simply adding the sublime B16B engine, it significantly modified the Civic chassis from standard, using much of its racing knowledge.

To start with, the stock EK9 chassis was strengthened in various key locations by seam welding. The strengthening was concentrated in areas of the monocoque that see higher than normal stress, mainly the engine bay, suspension strut towers and front and rear and rear suspension to body mountings.

Further strength was achieved by installing a front upper suspension strut brace to keep the geometry in perfect alignment even during severe cornering loads. A rear chassis brace was cleverly hidden behind the bumper. The anti-roll bars were also upgraded in both diameter and resistance, reducing body roll.


THE WINNER IS… CIVIC TYPE R

So which one of these two individually desirable hot hatches would we actually take home, given the choice? Does all that torque mean that we’d elbow our way through a crowd to get to the Audi S3’s driver’s seat? Not a chance. In this fight there’s only one winner, and only one car we’d want to hurl down our chosen B-roads. With so little mass, a much more involving driver experience and a screamer of an engine, the Type R is peerless. Your biggest problem will be finding a good R at an affordable price. They’re eight times rarer than the S3.


SPECIFICATIONS HONDA CIVIC TYPE R (EK9) / AUDI S3 (GEN 1)
Engine 1595cc, 4-cyl, / DOHC 1781cc, 4-cyl, DOHC
Transmission FWD, 5-speed manual   / 4WD, 6-speed manual
Power 182bhp @ 8200rpm /  210bhp @ 5800rpm
Torque 118lb-ft @ 7500rpm / 199lb-ft @ 2100rpm
Weight 1090kg / 1530kg
PERFORMANCE
0-60mph  6.6sec / 6.6sec
Top speed 135mph / 148mph
Economy 28mpg / 29mpg
WHAT TO PAY
Concours  £13,000 / £6000
Good £8,500 / £4000
Usable £4000 / £2000
Project  £3000 / £1500

 

{CONTENTPOLL [“id”: 135]}


 

Lexus LS400 vs. Mercedes-Benz S500 W140 S-Class

They’re both superb luxury saloons and both stack up as modern classics, but only one has moved out of banger-barge territory…


MOTORWAY THRUST EXECUTIVE SALOONS

It took a while for the Germans to win over the British market at the highest end. Look at the roads today and most executive cars wear German badges, but in the UK at least, Jaguar had always held firm. But by the end of the 1980s that was changing. The W126 S-Class traded on the strength of its internals and clean-cut styling; the Jaguars of the era were resolutely old-school – that applied to the wood and leather you’d find in an XJ, and to their reliability.


Lexus LS400 UCF10 vs. Mercedes-Benz S500 W140

Lexus LS400 UCF10 vs. Mercedes-Benz S500 W140

The rest of the world had cottoned on to this long before we did and by the end of the decade the S-Class was a byword for quality among the global elite. Imposing without aggression, luxurious without being ostentatious, quick without being vulgar, the S-Class was the car to beat. As it turned out, it was too much even for its creator.

The W140 project started in the mid-1980s, originally with a Jaguar-aping style in mind. But as time wore on, the perfectionist nature of its lead engineer led to repeated redesigns, re-engineering and massive cost over-runs. The appearance of a BMW E32 7 series’ V12 late in the car’s development couldn’t be countenanced by the Three- Pointed Star, and the ensuing need to keep up with the corporate dick swinging led to more delays. By the time it did appear in 1991, it was delivered into a crippling global recession, a deflated luxury market and a tsunami of public opinion that regarded the S-Class’s vast weight, size and thirst as ecologically and ethically unsound. But the biggest problem came from Japan.


Lexus LS400 UCF10 vs. Mercedes-Benz S500 W140

Lexus LS400 UCF10 vs. Mercedes-Benz S500 W140

While all this was going on Toyota had been secretly working on project F1 – flagship number one. Started in 1983, it had no time or budgetary constraints – the team of 60 designers, 1400 engineers, 2300 technicians and 200 support workers wanted to create the greatest luxury car in the world. And that car was unveiled in late 1989. The Lexus was quieter, more refined, better built, more reliable and, crucially for the time, far more fuel-efficient than anything Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar or BMW made, avoiding higher tax rates in the USA. The customer experience was better too – Lexus dealers viewed buyers as friends, rather than annoying inconveniences. Most importantly, it was cheaper than the opposition; BMW even suggested Toyota was making a loss on each one sold.

Before long Lexus had taken over the US market. Today these cars could be seen as dinosaurs from a very different age – far too low (even the Merc), as the well-heeled prefer to be high-heeled in SUVs of increasing size and vulgarity. The Mercedes-Benz is still enormous, even taking into account the 30 years of automotive design ‘inflation’. It’s certainly the least cohesive of the pair, a consequence of its chaotic gestation; subjectively that makes it interesting all these years later.

It’s not bland, though, which was the criticism thrown at the Lexus back in the day. And it has charm.

On the road both are beautifully refined. True, our Mercedes-Benz has a much more powerful V8 under its bonnet, but it does weigh 300kg more than the Lexus; the Merc will always pull away in the executive grand prix, but not without a good fight from the Lexus.

The LS400 can be hustled along with more dexterity on curvier roads; you really can feel the Mercedes struggle to manage its weight through the twisty stuff. The steering is crisper in the Lexus too; the Mercedes is more vague in its responses. Neither offers much in the way of feel but the way the Lexus manages its mass is much cleaner, and thus the LS400 is much easier to put your faith into.


Lexus LS400 UCF10 vs. Mercedes-Benz S500 W140

Lexus LS400 UCF10 vs. Mercedes-Benz S500 W140

On the inside the Mercedes just edges the Lexus for materials; the LS400 can’t quite shrug off its Toyota origins when you play with fixtures and fittings. But the Merc isn’t perfect either, as the asymmetric dashboard layout might irritate those with a leaning towards OCD. The drivetrain is another win for the Lexus, as it’s absolutely seamless – there’s no slurring, no hesitation; a computer lowers engine torque momentarily for a creamy-smooth shift. The S-Class can’t quite match that.

Mercedes-Benz was left reeling by the LS400. The sales lost and the corporate malaise that followed led to a disastrous programme of cost-cutting and a tie-up with Chrysler. The star had fallen, and in the meantime Lexus capitalised on the crucial American market with enormous success, crushing Cadillac along the way.

As modern classics they both stack up – but only one of them appears to be cherished, and that’s the losing side. The W140 is gradually moving out of banger territory; good ones are now five grand plus, while most LS400s remain resolutely pinned below two grand. Pass a W140 on the street and it’s more likely to be cared for than an LS400. That’s a huge shame – the Lexus is one of the most important cars of the past 40 years and deserves to be cherished. What’s stopping you?


I BOUGHT ONE

LEXUS LS400

‘I wasn’t considering a Lexus at all, but I was in the market for a new car, one over ten year sold with low mileage,’ says Robert Campbell, the owner of this one. ‘This Popped up and I couldn’t go past it after I tried it. This one’s up for sale (£7k), but I’m thinking of keeping as it’s difficult going to denim once you’ve worn silk. I love the fact it’s so comfortable and quiet.

The only thing that’s gone wrong other than consumables in 50,000 miles is some ball joints.’

BOUGHT ONE MERCEDES S-CLASS W140/V140

‘I love the build quality – it’s second to none – it’s got unique styling for a Mercedes, and great fit and finish,’ says Leigh Holbrook, the S500’s owner. ‘It’s the best S-Class ever made, better than any Lexus! Look out for problems with corroded wiring looms. Make sure everything electrical works, there’s more wiring in a W140 than a modern car. There’s a loom that runs the length of the driver’s side sill that’s the thickness of my forearm, and I’m not small.’

LS400 1730 UK cars left

W140 S-Class S500/500SEL/S500L 1500 UK cars left

‘A W140 IS MORE LIKELY TO BE CARED FOR THAN AN LS400’

Lexus overtook Mercedes- Benz sales in the USA.

JJ votes Japan. Nathan chooses Germany. And you?

The S-Class feels hefty everywhere. Not always a good thing…

Mercedes-Benz has to play catch-up.

W140 is much more coveted these days.

THE WINNER IS… LEXUS LS400

Though Lexus won the battle, Mercedes-Benz has won the war. Admittedly, the Three- Pointed Star lost its lustre as the bean counters wrestled the engineering department. Many thought Stuttgart had lost its way, but its current line-up has brought the firm back to the top seat of the prestige market. Lexus is still there but sales of its big saloons have dwindled. But in this battle, we’d still choose the Lexus over the Merc – it may not quite have the badge, but it’s much nicer to drive, much more calming, and much easier to look after. Time to buy.


SPECIFICATIONS LEXUS LS400 / MERCEDES-BENZ S500 (W140)
Engine 3969cc, 8-cyl, DOHC / 4973cc, 8-cyl, DOHC
Transmission           RWD, 4-speed auto                      RWD, 4-speed auto
Power                       [email protected]                        [email protected]
Torque                    [email protected]                     [email protected]
Weight                   1700kg                                      2000kg
PERFORMANCE
0-60mph                 7.9sec                                           7sec
Top speed              155mph (limited)                        155mph (limited)
Economy                 27mpg                                          23mpg
WHAT TO PAY
Concours                £8000                                       £10,000
Good                     £4000                                     £6000
Usable                    £2000                                        £3000
Project                     £500                                            £1500

 

Mazda MX-5 NB vs. BMW Z3 E36/7

Two retro-inspired roadsters – one reinvented the genre, the other had to play catch-up…


 

COAST ROAD CLASH SPORTS CARS

Before the Mazda MX-5, you could count the number of driver-focussed Japanese roadsters on one hand. There was the tiny Honda S600/800 and the Datsun Fairlady – and that was about it. BMW could boast the 315, 328, 507 and Z1 in its back catalogue. However, it was the Japanese maker – despite its lack of pedigree in the roadster game – that launched the small sports car by which all other modern roadsters are judged.

BMW took the arrival of the original MX-5 very seriously indeed. In fact, it took it so seriously that it built a whole new plant in America – its first on the continent – just to build a rival roadster (see box out, overleaf). The investment involved was enormous but the list price of Munich’s new sports car wouldn’t be. It was essential to compete with Mazda on value so the Z3 would have to borrow rather heavily from the BMW parts bin.

The E36 compact would donate its MacPherson strut front suspension, while the semi-trailing arm rear was an E30 3 Series leftover. Engines weren’t bespoke either, with both the M43 four-cylinder and the M52/4 six-cylinder powerplants coming from the contemporary 3 Series (E36/46). By far the most popular derivative, however, was the 1.9-litremanual version of the Z3 with 77,965 made. This isn’t surprising as it’s also the model That most closely competes with the MX-5.

On paper these two sports cars are near enough identical. The BMW makes the same power, but more torque, but the Mazda is 75kg lighter and that shows. The 0-60mph time for both of these cars is rather pedestrian, though theMX-5 does get there a second faster than the Z3 at 8.3 seconds. Top speed is the same – 127mph– though for once, the BMW’s engine is slightly more efficient, returning 35mpg. The BMW Z3’s retro styling was even penned by a Japanese designer, Joji Nagashima.

Many caught their first glimpse of the BMW Z3 in the 1995 James Bond film Goldeneye. Helped no doubt by Pierce Brosnan’s on-screen drive in an Atlanta Blue 1.9 (blink and you’ll miss it), the first year of Z3 production was snapped up before the car officially went on sale. Such was the demand for the new roadster that a waiting list formed, especially in RHD markets. With polarising but well-executed retro styling, excellent build quality on a par with Munich, and a sub-£20k price tag the Z3 was an instant hit. By the end of production in 2003, nearly 300,000 had been produced, its success guaranteeing a follow-up.

For the MX-5’s important second outing, Mazda didn’t mess with the formula. The safety legislators killed off the pop-up headlights, but the same attention to detail and quality of construction that ensured the first MX-5 was successful was still present. Everything that was traditionally great about open-top motoring was kept while the rubbish reliability of classic British roadsters removed. It worked so well that by the end of MkIII MX-5 production, Mazda had managed to shift 900,000 cars.

These two cars might have a lot in common in terms of performance but on the road there’s far more that separates than unites them. The BMW is clearly still a BMW, despite being built in America from obsolete models. The quality of the interior finish is certainly a cut above Mazda’s. It’s still not luxurious but it’s a lot more palatable on a long trip than the MX-5.

The M42 four-cylinder engine might not be a to tem to the gods of power but the little four-banger at least sounds willing and eager. Unlike the wheezy and laboured BP-4 unit in the Mazda. Revving the BMW engine out to its redline just feels so much more rewarding, which is odd as it gives up at 1000rpm below the Mazda’s. It’s all down to the soundtrack – the BMW engine has a gruff intake growl that switches to a high-pitched snarl above 5000rpm. The Mazda engine sounds rough and strained at anything less than full throttle and peak rpm.

Performance is very similar in both these cars but the additional torque of the BMW makes not only its power delivery more accessible but also means you spend less time flogging the crap out of the motor to make anything like swift progress. After you’ve finally managed to wind up either of these roadsters, both are perfectly happy hauling it back in. Braking is strong if not dazzling.

There’s really only one area left for one of these machines to nudge ahead and that’s when it comes to handling. The Z3 puts up a good fight but it always feels a little on the safe side, favouring understeer when we really start to press it through the fast coastal sweepers of North Norfolk. As the BMW begins to struggle just a little, the MX-5 finally begins to come alive.

The steering, which at first seemed over-assisted and nervous, now transforms, becoming direct and full of feel. Chassis balance is perfect, the car pitching around the back of your seat, and yet when you want to have a little tail-out fun in a slow-speed corner, this MX-5 will oblige. Straightening up and giggling before settling back and attacking the next bend, it’s clear the MX-5 has nudged it.

I BOUGHT ONE BMW Z3

‘Owning a Z3 brings out your adventurous side,’ according to Z3 owner Kevin Perry. ‘I bought mine to take my girlfriend out for the day as it was her birthday but I ended up keeping it. As a second car, it’s really cheap to run £150 classic insurance, and I get about 40mpg. Servicing costs are average for a car like this, about £150, which is a lot less than the six-cylinder cars. I tend to do it myself as it’s so easy and there’s a lot of help on Zroadster.org.’

I BOUGHT ONE MAZDA MX-5

‘I gave into temptation and finally bought a standard 1.8 MkII MX-5,’ admits owner Mark Barker. ‘For the small sum of £2K I am very impressed. It isn’t electric on the pick-up, but if you keep it on the boil in second, third and fourth on B-road twisties, it’s great fun. Enjoyment to £ ratio – I’m not sure it can be beat! The wealth of knowledge out there and the cheap parts mean when things do occasionally go wrong it’s not a nightmare to put right, apart from rust!’

‘ON THE ROAD THERE’S

FAR MORE THAT SEPARATES

THAN UNITES THEM’

BORN IN THE USA – SPARTANBURG, CAROLINA

Though it wasn’t the very first car to be produced by BMW on US soil (that was a 318i) the Z3 was the first entirely new model to be made at its new-at-the time Spartanburg plant in South Carolina.

Spartanburg holds the record for being the fastest factory construction in automotive history; from inception to production took just 23 months, with the plant opening in September 1994. The facility takes up more than seven million square feet, employs more than 10,000 staff and produces in excess of 1400 cars per day. It was also BMW’s first full manufacturing plant outside of Germany.

In addition to BMW 3-Series E36 and Z3 models, as well as the replacement Z4, the plant has also been home to all X-Series cars since the X5 E53.

Z3 and MX-5 start to differ in the bends.

Tenth anniversary edition interior is colour-coded.

Z3 interior lifted with M Sport package.

JJ’s bald spot visible from space.

MX-5 10K+ UK cars left

Z3 10K+ UK cars left

THE WINNER IS… MAZDA MX-5

Only just, it has to be said. But for ultimate driver engagement the MX-5 makes the better choice. However, this does come with an admitted condition. In all other aspects the Z3 is a superior car. It’s nicer to look at, has more interior comfort and quality and has higher residual value. Having driven the MX-5 for hundreds of miles over the course of this shoot it took our blast through the Norfolk countryside to finally see its real qualities, though for the long motorway run back to MC HQ, we’d have taken the keys to the BMW.

At the coast, which budget roadster rocks?


 

Toyota Supra A80 vs. Porsche 928 GTS Automatic

GRUDGE MATCH GT GREATS

You need to deliver some 1990s chocs to your missis. She’s in Paris, though. Which car do you take?

Big GTs of the old school have ground rules. They need to have good looks, refinement, luxury, and a reckless thirst for fuel while chasing three-figure speeds on trans- European jaunts. At normal velocities they can be difficult old hectors to use, see out of, put stuff in and transport more than one other person. And the steering will often be as uncommunicative as a hung-over Texan border guard. That’s certainly the case with the Porsche 928. It’s beautiful to look at, and heartwarmingly baritone in its V8 blare, but it’s not the easiest machine to use at anything below swift A-road pace. We still love it, though.

By the time the GTS appeared, those long-distance runs by Ferrari Daytonas, Maserati Ghiblis and, indeed, the Porsche 928 itself that had been immortalised in print were becoming increasingly irrelevant. When the newly engorged 5.4-litre V8 under its snout roared into life at Porsche dealerships, not many were there to hear it thanks to a global recession that had all but killed off luxury car sales. The 928 suffered especially as its price had risen spectacularly since its S4 heyday just a few years earlier. The Japanese were catching up, too. The Nissan 300ZX Z32 had taken the 944 Turbo formula and topped it. In fact, the Nissan was so good, it forced Toyota to drop the nearly-ready gen-four Supra and start again.

If you get behind the wheel of the finished Supra MkIV it’s clear that Toyota was aiming higher than the 944 and 300ZX. The swooping centre console, curved dashboard and Buck Rogers-style instruments all owe a sizeable debt to the similarly sci-fi 928 cabin.

Then there was the power. What you lost in cylinder count you gained in turbochargers. The 2JZ-GTE produced 325bhp, not far off our 928’s 345bhp, but it’s the nature of the Supra’s delivery that’s truly shocking. Even allowing for its manual ‘box, the Toyota feels more alive and alert despite weighing nearly the same as its German rival. There are two turbos, but hardly any lag. The first one comes in at 1800rpm, changing the engine note to a metallic roar then a high-pitched screech as bigger numbers appear on the dials. By the time the second turbo kicks in, you’d better be ready.

The Supra certainly has the drama and the pace to see off the 928, but the Porsche is still brilliant. Few cars feel so unapologetically indulgent. Hoof the two-stage kickdown (bespoke to the GTS) and watch the shark-nose effortlessly chomp through the scenery.

But the 928 only works well when punching a hole in the horizon. You might not want Elise-level feedback on that slog to St Moritz, but you’re still going to have to wrangle the 928 through traffic, and on those Alpine switchbacks you’ll definitely be wanting a tighter steering rack.

Here’s where the Supra showed up the Porsche’s narrow focus. Piloting a Supra is simple. Even with the rear spoiler you’ve got plenty of visibility, the steering is light for low-speed driving yet sharp for more taxing corners, and has just the right amount of feedback. The Supra handles with the delicacy and sharpness of an E30 M3.

True, neither of these cars can hide their weight in the corners when really pressing on, but the Supra makes a much better fist of it. It’s a revelation. Even against a manual GTS (which we drove last year), the Supra would toast the 928. It’s just so easy to unlock the power.

Time to talk about wings. Now, the Supra is revered by Japanese scene enthusiasts, but it wasn’t designed to be a hyper-horsepower drift-meister. It was meant to be a GT car, to be bought by older gents with conservative tastes. Turning up to the golf club in a Supra would probably put the owner’s membership status in jeopardy. Unlike the Sierra Cosworth’s appendage, the Supra MkIV’s wing wasn’t strictly functional; Toyota sold a version without it.

It all added up to poor UK Supra sales, despite its £25,000 advantage over the 928, before options.

Twenty years on and the Supra is a legend in its own wheeltracks, forged on the wave of The Fast and The Furious, Smokey Nagata hitting 197mph on the A1, and a million YouTube drifting videos. Prices are on the up: you’re looking at £30k for a manual car like ours.

The 928’s star has only started to rise in the past six years. An automatic GTS like the one you see here ranges from £30k-£40k; double that for a manual. Even so, the 928 remains an ‘outsider’ Porsche. Most still want a 911. You could argue that the 911 replaced the car that was, er, intended to replace it. A few years prior to the 928GTS, the 964 911 appeared with four-wheel drive. The hardcore sports 911 had matured into a usable daily driver with an increased dose of luxury. The 928 was doomed, despite one last flourish with the GTS. Tastes had changed: ecological and road safety concerns were relegating continental blasts to the status of a forgotten dream. And if you did still indulge in such journeys, the rise of the super-saloon made the traditional GT redundant. An BMW E34 M5, for example, was just as quick and had room for the kids and luggage too. GT cars had to adapt: they had to function as more than just A-road superheroes.

The Supra didn’t live on for much longer than the 928. Just 600 cars were sold here before it was pulled from the UK pricelists in 1996. By 1998, import tariffs had made the Supra too expensive in the USA, its key market. Japanese sales staggered on until 2002. It’s taken the best part of two decades for Toyota to reintroduce it.

Legacy wise, the Supra is important. Right up until the 1990s, cars were clearly pigeonholed into GT, sports car and saloon camps. In its pursuit of the ultimate GT car, Porsche made the 928 excellent, but only in that one grand touring dimension. Toyota focused on making the Supra a useable car first, building on that base to create a GT that could legitimately slug it out with the European elite.

If the unintended role of cars like the Supra and 928 was to open the way for today’s multi-function GT cars that can cruise the continent at high speed and then scrap with Elises on the Nürburgring, we’re good with that.

I BOUGHT ONE TOYOTA SUPRA

‘My dad was always into German cars, but I rebelled and started looking at Japanese cars,’ says Sunny Gautam, the owner of this Supra. ‘A review from Tiff Needell on Top Gear was the first time I swathe Supra, and then I saw it at the Birmingham NEC. The best bit about owning a Supra is that it’s at that sweet spot where you can fix and diagnose it yourself. This is one of three I own, each one built for a purpose, and this is my favourite.’

I BOUGHT ONE PORSCHE 928 GTS

Simon Watson owns this GTS, part of a private collection of 928s (occasionally some are for sale). ‘I’ve always loved the body shape and V8 engine. I got my first 20 years ago and still love them today. You can do a lot of work yourself. I have a big private stock of 928 spare parts, and I can help other enthusiasts. There are several suppliers for parts and specialists in the UK, I use Loe Bank Motors, Bury, Manchester. The 928 forum is a big help (928. org.uk).’

ISAO TSUZUKI: TOYOTA’S SUPRA MAN

The introduction of the Z32 Nissan 300ZX in 1989 caused a huge rumpus at Toyota. It was just ready to release the MkIV Supra, but it was clear it would be blown away.

Enter Isao Tsuzuki, who’d earned his stripes assisting in the development of the MkI and MkII MR2. ‘We conceived the Supra as a racecar that could be enjoyed and driven with confidence on American streets and highways,’ he said. Weight reduction was key.

950 meetings in the final two years of development brought sharp focus onto some of the gadgets that had bloated – and ultimately blighted – the high-tech Mitsubishi 3000GT. The Supra would have a better power-to-weight ratio than the Ferrari 348. Its carpet was Hollow pile, the bonnet was aluminium and the rear spoiler was made from a honey comb style resin, all resulting in a 20 per cent weight saving.

But Tsuzuki’s legacy lies with those he hired and inspired. Tetsuya Tada, the man behind the GT86 and the new Supra, cites Tsuzuki as his greatest inspiration. ‘He taught me all I know about designing cars.’

Toyota Supra 1200 UK cars left

Porsche 928 GTS 85 UK cars left

‘THE SUPRA HANDLES WITH THE DELICACY AND SHARPNESS OF AN M3’

‘PORSCHE MADE THE 928 EXCELLENT, BUT ONLY IN ONE DIMENSION’

When new, nobody was interested.

Toyota leads the 928 – but only just.

Wing doesn’t do much at normal speeds – but will make you a legend among millennials.

Which would you choose? Let us know…

Supra’s wrap around cockpit is spacious, but watch your kneeson the dash.

928’s cabin was ahead of its time in 1977 and still otherworldly now.

THE WINNER IS… TOYOTA SUPRA

If you’ve written off the Supra as a Playstation generation toy, then you need to cast aside your concerns. It’s a genuine corker. Not only does it pull off the GT thing with ease, it’s perfectly serviceable as something to shift around town in. We still love the 928, but it was at the end of its life by the time the Supra rocked up. That shows – and it only makes us wonder what the 928 could have been if Porsche had persisted. As it is, the 928 is a great GT car, but the Toyota Supra MkIV is a great car, full stop: one of the finest of its generation.


 

The Modern Classics view

Whether you’re an enthusiast ofGerman cars or not, you really can’t ignore the impact the Japanese had on the market in the 1990s. The established players had let the ball drop while the storm from the East whipped through their showrooms, whisking customers away.

Our hot hatches are a great example – by the late 1990s German hot hatches were as hot as a Siberian winter and almost as much fun. The Audi S3 went some way to address the sins of the Golf GTI MkIV, but the Honda Civic comes top for the hardcore thrills the GTI legend was built on. The Civic here is a Japanese domestic market car, and many have been imported to the UK, proving just how good they are. We struggled to find a suitable S3 – there just isn’t a passion for them.

The margins are closer between the Z3 and the MX-5. You get the feeling the Z3 was a compromise between the needs for sportiness and the ability to do the daily grind. The Z3 is a good car for the latter, but there’s really only one choice for a B-road and that comes from Mazda. It is quite rightly a legend.

Talking of legends, the Supra MkIV has got that mantle now. It took the GT formula and made barnstoming performance accessible for all driving skills. The 928 GTS is a loveable machine, but it’s the last of the old-skool GTs, marking the tipping point where a holistic approach to dynamics became much more important.

But the most deadly kick was from the LS400. It proved that Japan could take on perhaps the biggest name in the business and beat it on all fronts. The W140 S-Class, though a fine machine, was the wrong car at the wrong time.

The biggest compliment to the Japanese auto industry is that not only are its cars just as good, if not better, than the German competition, but they also forced the entire industry to up its game. Which would you choose?

Which one would you choose? Let us know via the letters page…


THANKS To Rockingham Motor Speedway, and the owners for putting up with the burning heat, in particular Sunny and Robert who made the trip down from Scotland.

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