When mid-engine cars peaked.
There was once a time when Japan ruled the mid-engine performance world. A time when a Honda, of all things, could outperform a Ferrari at the limit. A time when a Toyota was the most affordable way to get into mid-engine car ownership. A time when even the country’s local-market Kei-sized sports cars could rev all the way to 9000 rpm.
That time is long gone, of course. The NSX still exists and goes very quickly, but the new car could never evoke the same kind of revolutionary fervor as the original. The MR2? It died in 2006 after languishing in a dried-up market segment for years. And no new car under six figures in the year of our lord, 2022, can rev to 9.
With the electric revolution upon us, it’s hard to expect the glory days of Japanese mid-engine performance to return. So we thought it a good idea to look back at the golden days by driving two of the most memorable cars from the era: the Honda NSX-R and the Autozam AZ-1.
An economic boom in Japan during the Eighties and Nineties sent the country on a buying spree, and car shoppers rushed to spend newfound disposable income on a toy without having to worry about practicality or efficiency. This Bubble Era forced the country’s auto manufacturers to innovate as they tried to keep up with the market’s increasing demand. Toyota, Nissan, Honda, and every small manufacturer from Subaru to Suzuki attacked every niche they could, including mid-engine cars. As a result, they pushed out performance icon after performance icon, many of which would stay locked away exclusively for the ultra-competitive Japanese market. Games like Gran Turismo would give the rest of the world a taste of the greatness it was missing, though it was these same games that would lionize these cars as forbidden fruit, bolstering their legendary status even further.
To some, that red Honda badge is everything. The NSX-R is a game-over car for an entire generation of car nuts. A dream, one that hardcore fans would have over anything else in the world, even if their only experience with it came from a video game. After a brief stint behind the wheel, it’s easy to see why.
The first-gen NSX set a new standard for mid-engine performance, balance, and steering bliss. The NSX-R takes that one step further in a masterclass of road-holding and driver involvement. The lack of power steering is the first thing you notice, absent as part of a weight-savings initiative that cut over 200 pounds for improved performance. Even at a standstill it doesn’t take a huge amount of effort to turn the wheel, and at speed, I don’t think I’ve ever felt a better rack. It’s not as quick as the modern electric power steering systems of today, but the amount of feel traveling into your hands borders on overwhelming.
The Recaro-made carbon-kevlar buckets, another weight-savings measure, provide a surprising amount of comfort thanks to their generous padding and laid-back positioning. They also look epic and secure you firmly to the chassis through high-speed bends. The adorably undersized shift knob controlling the five-speed gearbox feels surprisingly normal once you actually use it; its notchyness ranks it among the best Honda shifters.
If there has to be a star of the show, it’s the engine. The naturally aspirated V-6 that sits behind the cabin displaces the same 3.0 liters as the standard NSX, and comes from Honda with the same power ratings: 270 hp and 210 lb-ft of torque. But there’s no way it’s making anywhere close to 270 horses. There’s a surge of smooth, constant power that erupts at the car’s 8000-rpm redline. If we had to guess, this thing is making 50-60 more hp than advertised. It’s a seriously quick piece of machinery, even for 2022.
The motor also sounds heavenly. There’s nary a bit of sound deadening between you and the engine bay, meaning plenty of intake noise as you travel through the rev range. Spend enough time behind the wheel and you’ll find yourself downshifting whenever you possibly can just to hear the engine spin faster. It’s addictive.
Honda built just 483 copies of the “NA1” NSX-R. According to the plaque on the door sill, the car you see here is number 96. Making it even more special is the Brooklands Green exterior hue. It’s exceptionally rare on the normal NSX, so we can only imagine how few NSX-Rs were sold in this shade. It’s not the color you envision when you think of Honda’s halo car, but it’s stunning nonetheless.
The Autozam AZ-1 is on an entirely different spectrum from the Honda. Comparatively, it’s not as rare, and doesn’t carry nearly the same historical significance. Senna never crushed Suzuka in loafers driving an AZ-1. But the car is so unique and charming that we couldn’t help but spotlight it.
The AZ-1 was originally a Suzuki project. The company was a dominant force in the small car market at the time, successfully cementing itself through dozens of microcars designed to conform to Japan’s Kei car regulations, which set limits on dimensions and engine size to give buyers breaks on taxes and insurance.
The AZ-1 is a good one-car explainer of how off-the-rails the Japanese car market was at the time. Kei cars were supposed to be one step up from a scooter. In the Bubble Era, the market was so competitive, manufacturers were willing to ask “What if we made one into a mid-engine sports car?” In the Bubble Era, there was so much cash flying around, manufacturers had the money to try that kind of niche idea out.
Suzuki developed much of the AZ-1 but decided against production, which is when Mazda stepped in. It acquired the rights, wrapped up development using a handful of Miata engineers, and sold it under its Japan-only Autozam sub-brand. As such, you’ll find a mash of Suzuki and Mazda parts inside, like the turbocharged 0.6-liter inline-three from the Suzuki Cappuccino and the door handles from the original Mazda MX-5 Miata. Interestingly enough, Suzuki later realized the error of its ways and actually sold a handful of rebadged AZ-1s as the Suzuki Cara.
Because it was designed to conform to Japan’s Kei car dimensions, the AZ-1 is incredibly small. Much smaller than even an original Miata. Think Austin-Healey Bugeye Sprite levels of tiny, except with supercar proportions and Nineties exotic styling. The two big round headlights stare directly into your soul, while the real, genuine gullwing doors provide enough thrills on their own to draw a crowd. It’s amazing how much specialness can fit into such a bite-size package.
The AZ-1 feels like a supercar, too. Like any Nineties mid-engine exotic it’s a tight squeeze in the cabin, without much room for your legs once you’re inside. The HVAC controls are mounted vertically in the interest of dash space, and the only things separating you from your passenger are a shifter and a handbrake. There’s an incredible fishbowl view from the driver’s seat, with glass almost everywhere you look, including the roof panels.
The steering is some of the quickest and most direct I’ve ever felt in a road car, eager to point the nose with just a hint of steering input. Like the NSX there’s no power assistance here, but since everything is so light you don’t really notice. There’s nothing to dull any feel from the pavement, resulting in a ton of information hitting your fingertips. The suspension is on the stiffer side, too, meaning lots of agility despite the ridiculously narrow 155 section-width tires. For inexperienced drivers it might feel a bit too darty, but enthusiasts with enough seat time under their belts will appreciate the Autozam’s willingness to change direction.
That Suzuki turbo-three is as miniature as road car engines get, but thanks to its turbo there’s still enough low end to make the car feel quick at low speeds. You don’t have to reach all the way into the 9000-rpm range to get pushed back into the fixed-back bucket. But considering how lovely it is up there, we wouldn’t blame you if you did. Don’t let that 64-hp rating fool you, this thing feels fast enough to keep up with heavy hitters on your average back road.
Because the AZ-1 uses cables to actuate its shift forks, the action from the knob isn’t as perfectly sublime as it is in its bigger NA Miata sibling. But it’s still well-built; it reminds me of old air-cooled Porsche shifters. Except when you knock the knob into your knee every time you go for fifth.
These two cars represent the very best of what Japan had to offer the mid-engine segment at the time. They were products of their environment; frivolous machines that were only produced because of the circumstances around them. It was these circumstances that allowed manufacturers to explore limits and push boundaries, creating some of the most fun, interesting, and, in the case of the AZ-1, strangest mid-engine cars on the planet.
It’s clear at this point the term “mid-engine” will begin to fizzle away into history as the electric revolution pushes on. But cars like the NSX-R and AZ-1 are stark reminders of how Japan turned up the wick in the Nineties to create some of the best-driving midship sports cars the world has ever known. Not only were Japan’s offerings better to drive than European counterparts at the time, but they were also cheaper and more reliable, allowing a greater swath of people—at least in Japan—to experience the joy that comes with a mid-engine experience. They changed the landscape forever, forcing the rest of the world to catch up. Mid-engine cars have certainly gotten faster since these two were built, but we’re not sure they’ve ever gotten better.
If you have enough money and taste you can experience this greatness too, because these cars are coming up for sale as part of The Cultivated Collector’s JDM collection, appearing on Bring a Trailer soon. If you value the mid-engine experience, you won’t miss this opportunity.
Brian Silvestro Road & Track staff writer with a taste for high-mileage, rusted-out projects and amateur endurance racing.
Keyword: Honda NSX-R and Autozam AZ-1: Driving the Pinnacles of Japanese Mid-Engine Performance