It’s been a long time since a new Japanese sports car gave executives at Porsche, BMW or Ferrari cause for concern. The golden era came at the tail end of Japan’s economic miracle in the 1980s and lasted into the nineties. Now, there’s a whole generation of drivers who didn’t live through the upheaval of the usual performance-car pecking order. The storied European brands found their dominance challenged by the first (and best) Honda NSX, by Mazda’s spectacular rotary-engined RX-7s, by Nissan’s Z cars and Skyline GT-Rs, and by Toyota’s Supra and mid-engined MR2. And let’s not forget the world-rally championship rivalry between Subaru’s WRX STI and Mitsubishi’s Lancer Evo.
Fast forward three decades to the 2023 Japan Mobility Show, and the big Japanese brands once again all have hot new sports car concepts to show off, only this time they’re all-electric (with two notable exception).
Japanese brands may not have anything to prove when it comes to sports cars any more, but, apart from Nissan, they’ve still got everything to prove when it comes to electric cars. Toyota, Honda, Mazda and Subaru have yet to make a significant impact on North America’s EV market.
At the Mobility Show, Toyota showed a two-seat EV shaped suspiciously like the old MR2. Subaru had a delightful, rally-inspired electric coupe that would make a great poor-man’s Porsche 911 Dakar. Nissan showed a far-fetched electric GT-R successor that might not be as far-fetched as it seems. Mazda was one of only two brands without a pure EV; Mazda had something better, a beautiful plug-in hybrid sports car concept called the Iconic SP. Honda offered the two-door Prelude hybrid as a “prelude” to the brand’s “full-fledged electrified future.”
For gearheads feeling nostalgic for the last golden era of Japanese sports cars – many of whom now cover the auto industry for major newspapers and websites – it’s tempting to see this unexpected salvo as a sign of a new golden age. Your favourite affordable car brand has not forgotten why you love it and is, in fact, bringing back your teenage dream-car for the electric era. But that’s not the whole story.
This wave of sports car concept vehicles – concepts that may never see the light of a dealership showroom floor – is less about turning the automotive world upside down again and more about showing that even less-expensive EVs can be exciting, sporty and desirable. (South Korean automakers Hyundai and Kia beat their Japanese rivals to the punch on that, but never mind.)
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. This was the first ever Japan Mobility Show, rebranded from the old Tokyo Motor Show in apparent acknowledgment from the car industry that, you know, cars might not be the only way to get around in the future. There were e-bikes and hydrogen-powered scooters, three-wheeled things and flying cars, and even a suitcase that transforms into an e-scooter. (It’s called the Honda Motocompacto and it’s wonderfully silly, like something out of a sixties Bond film.) But these things were all sideshows compared with the five new electrified sports car concepts that stole the show.
Alfonso Albaisa, Nissan’s senior vice-president for global design, was surprised by all the new sports cars. “I expected a certain type of thing: mobility, and the car being less of a personal thing – that’s what all of the messages were telling you,” he said. But, instead, all the major brands brought out impractical new concepts. “[The sports car trend is] completely organic and unconnected, but it’s a signal that humans get frustrated. When the technology is delivering something singular, like everyone’s doing it […] there’s just a desire to rebel against homogeny,” Albaisa said.
Nissan’s 1,300-horsepower Hyper Force concept, with its pop-out carbon-fibre canards, giant wing and cyberpunk cockpit, is nobody’s idea of practical “mobility.” That’s exactly why it’s exciting for enthusiasts, though. (Well, that, and the prospect of an all-new Nissan GT-R arriving at the end of the decade, fuelled by Nissan’s upcoming solid-state batteries, which are said to be safer and more efficient than lithium-ion batteries.)
Mazda’s chief executive officer, Masahiro Moro, also pushed back against the car as merely another electric appliance. “Some may say vehicles will become maybe like a smartphone, becoming a commodity, but we try to prove that’s wrong. A car is a car, and we can provide excitement even when power sources change. Japanese manufacturers have that kind of spirit, based on their heritage, so I’m not surprised everybody came up with this sort of response,” Moro told The Globe and Mail.
Mazda’s Iconic SP is my pick for best-in-show, a small, low-slung coupe you’d never mistake for a transportation commodity.
Toyota’s FT-Se concept is an obvious callback to the mid-engined MR2, launched in 1984. The FT-Se is tiny, a two-seater roughly the size of a Porsche Cayman, meant to showcase what’s possible on Toyota’s upcoming EV platform.
“They are not only eco-friendly. Electric cars also offer their own flavour of driving fun and automotive seasoning,” Koji Sato, the new president of Toyota Motor Corp., said in a speech at the show.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that sports cars like these can cast a halo over a brand – even a brand playing catch-up on EVs – pulling in customers who nevertheless end up with practical SUVs anyway.
The writer was a guest of Nissan. Content was not subject to approval.