Pull Over, Porsche

The Japanese have reentered the sports car race

The MR2 Spyder, S2000, RX-8, and, of course, the Z. As their zippy labels suggest, these are new sports cars about to hit the highways of the world. And they have more in common than horsepower to spare and an optional cherry-red paint job. They're all made in Japan.

That's right, the Japanese are back, after virtually abandoning sports cars to focus on such hot-sellers as minivans and SUVs. Having established themselves as major players in those categories, Japan's auto makers are gearing for a new assault on European and U.S. sports car manufacturers. The Japanese have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on six sleek new cars, ranging from the entry-level Acura RS-X to the high-end Lexus SC 430. It is their biggest push into the market for mainstream sports cars in 30 years.

The companies' objective is to reclaim the legacy of the 1970s, when they pioneered mass-production sports cars that offered plenty of zip at low prices. Once again, budget performance is a key selling point for the latest generation of Japanese sports cars.

Today there's less demand for such cars. According to Ward's Automotive Reports, Americans bought 873,401 sports and specialty cars last year, down from 1.3 million in 1990. But Japanese carmakers are betting that eye-catching road rockets will jazz up their staid image, lure nostalgic baby boomers into showrooms, and, especially, create a buzz among twentysomethings. Which explains why Toyota Motor Corp. is joining other auto makers on the Formula One circuit next year--and sparing no expense to promote its car and team. "It's good for the company's image because it appeals to the young and young at heart," says Shinichi Kato, who runs product development at Toyota.

"NOT A TOY." Sounds good. But can Mazda, Nissan, Toyota, and Honda muscle out the likes of the BMW Z3, the Mercedes SLK, Plymouth's Prowler, or the Porsche Boxster? The Japanese say they can. "This is not a toy," says Nissan chief design director Shiro Nakamura about the new Z, due out in mid-2002. "It's a serious sports car that can compete with other serious sports cars." The proof is under the hood: a monster 3.5-liter, 260-plus horsepower V6 capable of sprinting from 0-60 mph in six seconds.

Yet clearly this will be an uphill race. While the moderately priced Mazda Miata has kept Japan's sports car legacy alive, Japanese carmakers are now better known for dependable if staid vehicles that appeal more to soccer moms than drag racers.

Names like Toyota and Nissan simply don't evoke the envy and awe reserved for blue-blood European marques. "The Japanese have a very different understanding of passion, emotion, and spirit," says Christopher W. Cedergren, managing director of Nextrend, a market researcher in Thousand Oaks, Calif. "So their cars come off more like driving appliances." And the sales figures tell the story. Last year, for example, Honda says that it sold 6,667 units of its S2000. According to Ward's Automotive Reports, Porsche sold nearly twice the number of Boxsters.

The key for Japan's auto makers is striking a balance between performance and value. They're doing that by offering few frills and achieving economies of scale by sharing platforms. Toyota's MR2 Spyder, for example, uses the same chassis as the humdrum Celica sedan. Honda uses quality plastic instead of glass for the soft-top window on its S2000 and gives buyers no options on such features as the transmission (manual) and stereo (single CD player).

YEN'S ROLE. That doesn't mean these cars aren't fun and stylish. The S2000, for example, comes with a red starter button on the dashboard--a throwback to the days of racing yore. The Nissan Z's futuristic styling echoes the long-hooded Mercedes SLK.

The yen will play a crucial role in determining the success of the new generation of sports cars, as does what goodies come standard. Best-selling models such as Toyota's Supra, Nissan's Z cars, and the Mazda RX-7 all withdrew from the U.S. market in the 1990s after an expensive yen and over-engineering forced the makers to hike prices beyond what consumers were willing to pay for Japanese sports cars. "We learned lessons with the RX-7," says Mazda President Mark Fields. "We walked away from the original concept, which was to provide a good, cheap [sports] car."

So this time around, Mazda plans to keep the 250-horsepower RX-8, which features room for four adults, priced to attract consumers of all ages and incomes when it rolls into U.S. showrooms in the spring of 2003. "In the range of $23,000-$30,000, you have the meat of the market," says Philip Martens, Mazda's managing director in charge of product development. "That's where we want to be."

That will be a challenge for the RX-8 program, which before it wins final approval by Mazda brass this spring must first prove it can be profitable. One way Mazda plans to hold down costs is by using a new version of its classic rotary engine that's much cheaper and 30% lighter than its immediate predecessor, thanks in part to design ideas borrowed from the Miata model.

Mazda officials now say they may share the RX-8 platform with the next-generation Miata for further cost savings. And Nissan plans to do the same by sharing the Z platform with a production version of its XVL concept car, an upscale sedan, and at least two other models.

All of which means the Japanese are coming in hard and fast to take the inside lane from better-selling American and European rivals. It certainly won't be a milk run, especially in a market likely to be further hurt by a slowing U.S. economy. Yet, at a minimum, Japan's auto makers are well positioned should the public develop a new fervor for sports cars. "Younger male buyers are turned off by humdrum SUVs," says Yoichi Sato, chief designer of the RX-8. "And baby boomers looking for a nostalgic thrill are bound to rekindle interest in sports cars." As a current Mazda television ad running in the U.S. would have it: Zoom-zoom.

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