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Michael's Speed Zone

13th October 2001

By Michael Knowling

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It's easy to get caught up in all the hype surrounding many of Japan's supercars. Vehicles such as Subaru Impreza STi, Mitsubishi Lancer Evo, Nissan Pulsar GTi-R and Mazda Familia GT-R have become amongst the most craved vehicles in Australia. Though - with good reason - you'll mostly find its people who've only seen their pics and read their specs that are most craving them...

Certainly, many of these supercars don't have anything remotely close to a supercar feel about them - except for when they're under full steam.

Having already been behind the wheel of a Familia GT-X (sort of a Mazda Japan equivalent to an Aussie KF/KH Ford Laser Turbo), I admired its range of performance applications and value for money. It was a very well rounded 'buzz box' package. As such, I expected the highly sought-after gun GT-R Familia (with 154kW, improved brakes and suspension) to really knock my socks off. No such luck. The Familia GT-R left me feeling kinda like somebody had tried to achieve too much with a simple package and they'd detracted from the overall appeal of the GT-X.

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I guess it all comes back to complexity and manufacturing costs. When a car company is trying to attain max performance 'on the cheap' using an existing relatively ho-hum engine, there will always be shortcomings. In the Familia GT-R's case, its giant turbocharger helps give the car road-rocket top-end performance - but it doesn't come close to maintaining the torque spread (and therefore flexibility) of the GT-X model. Therefore, without the benefit - and associated cost - of added variable cam timing, sequential turbos or multi-throttles, a basic cut-price ball-tearer such as the GT-R obviously tries to cover too much ground - and it inevitably gets stretched a bit thin in places.

Something that also struck me about the Familia GT-R was its relatively low build quality. The paint and panel margins were okay, but the engine still felt like a good-for-collecting-the-shopping 1.8-litre four, the doors felt very thin and flimsy and the interior trim - while reasonably comfortable and practical - was just like you'd find in Auntie Beatrice's church-on-Sunday Mazda 323 pov pack. A leather wheel, gearknob and some skimpy splashes of cheap leather do not complete the transformation from a low-rent trim into something to lust after. This cheapie feel is largely forgivable in the bargain GT-X, but it's not what you initially expect in a supposed supercar such as the GT-R.

And, with a second-hand asking price of around 17 grand (for this particular late '91 vehicle), I had to stop and wonder what other car of similar age and money gave the same feeling of cheapness and lack of refinement. To the best of my knowledge, there are none.

All of a sudden, the little Mazda supercar was starting to feel a bit ratty; it's one-and-only claim to fame was its high rpm performance. I soon struck this little critter off my personal list of 'maybe one day I'll get one' cars.

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Another rally blaster people dribble over are the Evo 1 - Evo 6.5 Mitsubishi Lancers. Certainly, any of these vehicles are terrific for hauling arse on a winding road, hanging it out over dirt tracks or generally blowing the doors off other vehicles in the traffic light GP. Their downside, however, is that they're based on a basic Lancer economy design. It only takes a close of the door, a push on a panel, or an increase in sound system volume, to get the impression that 100 percent of buyers' money has gone into developing the awesome mechanical package. There's minimal focus on trim quality or crash safety. Of course, many enthusiasts would argue that these are primary reasons why this sort of vehicle is more affordable than other exotic cars with similar performance - but way too many people don't recognise (or chose to overlook) the significant trade-offs.

If you want to feel satisfied with the quality of the vehicle surrounding you, a Japanese budget-based supercar is almost always below par. It's hittin' sand in the bunker.

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Continuing the based-on-a-plain-car theme are vehicles such as the Nissan Skyline GT-R and Toyota Supra RZ. These more sophisticated machines generally don't suffer from the engine response downfalls of the aforementioned 'little leaguers'. They also don't have the tacky feel to the same extent as the smaller fliers (which are, obviously, derived from a more economy car based design); but the big 'uns aren't exactly the Crown Royale on wheels, either. Everybody into speed knows how quick these things can tear up the road, but - again - there's still a definite in-breeding feel to them.

It's the most expensive version of a cheap car you can buy.

In summary, if you're interested in (or own) one of these Japanese supercars, make sure you regularly take it for a real good honk. If you don't, consider yourself driving the most aged, unrefined, cheaply built lump of metal you could have spent your money on...

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