Three of our favorite 90's sports car icons! But given a blank check, which one would we choose?
At LBI Limited, we have a special place in our hearts for ‘90s Japanese sports cars. Of course, these boxy, striking pieces of ‘90s engineering are reliable and exhilarating to drive. But best of all, they redefined what a performance car can be––not Italian, German, or British, relatively affordable, and definitely not buttoned-up. Japanese sports cars showed us that inspired driver’s cars can come from somewhere other than Munich or Sant’Agata Bolognese.
We’re thrilled to have represented some of the great Japanese performance cars like our recently sold 1997 Mitsubishi 3000GT VR-4. That got us thinking: With a blank check and the mission to buy the greatest ‘90s Japanese sports car ever built, what makes the shortlist? What would we choose?
Keep reading to follow us through our daydream.
#1. Mitsubishi 3000GT
We know you saw this one coming, but can you blame us? The 3000GT is one of the all-time greats. First introduced at the 1989 Tokyo Motor Show from the Mitsubishi HSR (Highly Sophisticated-transport Research) project, the 3000GT was a 2+2 grand tourer known as the “GTO” outside of the United States. And its striking, spaceship-esque styling complemented its signature AWD drivetrain to give it real appeal over the competition from Toyota, Nissan, and Mazda. For the 1990 model year, Car & Driver clocked the 3000GT at under 5 seconds from 0-60, thanks to strong torque from its V6 powertrain and colossal grip from all four wheels. The 3000GT even debuted with one of the first generations of four-wheel steering (4WS), which could articulate the rear wheels up to 1.5 degrees to help with high-speed stability.
When Mitsubishi refreshed the 3000GT for the 1994 model year, it became a world-class performer. In the top-of-the-line VR-4 trim, horsepower jumped to 320 thanks to two turbochargers, and drivers enjoyed a 6-speed manual transmission with upgraded disc brakes. Better still, drivers got a full dose of luxury & performance for under $50,000: chrome wheels, an oversized rear wing spoiler, and a plush leather interior completed the experience for VR-4 buyers.
Rarity & Value
During the early 1990s, the 3000GT was one of the most popular Japanese sports cars imported to the US. It outsold the Nissan 300ZX, the Mazda RX-7, and the Toyota Supra combined, in fact. And in North America, the Dodge Stealth launched with identical running gear and powertrain to the base model 3000GT. The Stealth sold well until its discontinuation in 1996, meaning that the 3000GT recipe made a major mark on 1990s America.
By the late 1990s, however, the 3000GT had aged, and Mitsubishi had trouble justifying premium prices for an outdated platform. When Mitsubishi downgraded the performance of the base 3000GT in 1997, it refused to drop the base price, which alienated many of the model’s loyalists. Demand for the 3000GT slowed to a trickle, especially for the higher-end VR-4 trims that reached US shores. In total, nearly 84,000 3000GTs and ~63,000 Dodge Stealths were sold, of which only ~16,000 were high-performance VR-4 variants.
Today, the VR-4 remains the most valuable of all 3000GTs, with ultra-rare folding hardtop VR-4s commanding an extra premium. You can find a driver-level VR-4 coupe for under $30,000, while condition #1 examples can easily fetch $50,000+.
Given its performance and rarity in later model years, that’s a bargain compared to similar options from Britain and Europe. We’d take a high-spec VR-4 coupe any day of the week.
#2. Toyota Supra
It’s impossible to mention ‘90s Japanese cars without mentioning the legendary Toyota Supra. Recently reincarnated as the GR Supra sharing running gear with the BMW Z4, the Supra’s story is steeped in motorsports history. The name “Supra” was first used for the second-generation Celica coupe in 1978, and it quickly became synonymous with Toyota’s latest racing technology. By 1984, British driver Win Percy piloted a Celica-Supra to victory in the British Saloon Car Championship, and Per Eklund won the Ulster Rally’s Group A title in a similar car.
The Celica-Supra nameplate soon separated, with the former using a consumer-friendly FWD platform and the latter retaining its performance RWD focus. It was after this split that the Supra became a rallying presence, and Toyota developed a homologated, 270-hp Supra to compete in Group A rallying and the World Rally Championship throughout the late 1980s.
The third-generation Supra, named the “A80,” debuted at the 1993 Chicago Motor Show. With svelte styling reminiscent of the legendary Toyota 2000GT, the A80 propelled the Supra to “halo car” status for the Toyota brand. And it had the performance to boot––A80 Supras came with naturally-aspirated or turbocharged 3.0-liter straight-six engines, generating from 220 to 326 horsepower. That powerplant meant 0-60 came in as few as 4.6 seconds, besting the likes of the Acura NSX, the Mazda RX-7, the Corvette LT1, and even the Porsche 928GT.
Critically, the “JZ series” straight-six, as it’s known in enthusiast circles, could withstand aggressive aftermarket tuning. Enthusiasts successfully tuned Supras to 2000+ horsepower without engine failure, and these highly modified examples have defined the Supra’s reputation since it rolled off of assembly lines.
What we love most of all, however, is how advanced the Supra was technically and dynamically, even in bone-stock form. With its sequential twin turbos, a top-of-the-line Supra could generate 90% of its peak torque from 1,300 to 4,500 RPM on the way to a top speed of nearly 160 mph. It was light, down 124 pounds from the second-generation Supra. And it wore advanced coilover shocks and massive disc brakes front and rear, delivering track readiness unmatched outside of Stuttgart.
Better still, the Supra could achieve all of it for 200,000+ miles, running circles around its less reliable counterparts from Britain and Italy. It tells a story of no compromises, which is precisely why we love Japanese sports cars so much.
Rarity & Value
Just over 11,000 Supras were produced during its 5-year production run from 1993-1998, of which ~7,000 were Turbo variants. Those numbers confirm the car’s niche buyer target––with a base MSRP of $40,000 in 1993 and limited trunk and rear-seat space, the Supra Turbo was a performance toy that fell short on practicality. Regardless, the ~11,000 Supras that did sell created the gold standard of cult followings, a following that Toyota is still trying to chase with the 86 and the relaunched Supra.
The most desirable Supra Turbos include the 6-speed manual hardtops, of which only 326 were produced worldwide. Expect driver-quality hardtops to sell in the $70-90,000 range, depending on mileage and color scheme. For #1 concours examples, Supra hardtops can easily fetch north of $120,000, with prices appreciating over the past two years then more recently cooling off a bit.
Also collectible are the “sport roof” models, which wore Targa-style T-tops that preserved the car’s sumptuous body lines. Across manual and automatic transmissions, approximately 6,700 “sport roof” Supras left the factory, making them by far the most common Supra Turbo available. Expect a 10-15% discount for a sport roof Supra over a hardtop.
#3 Mazda RX-7
The most unconventional Japanese sports car, the Mazda RX-7 catapulted the brand into the hearts & minds of American gearheads. Originally launched in 1978, the RX-7 defied tradition with its compact rotary engine, and its striking styling helped it cut through the sports car malaise of the late 1970s. Importantly, the first-generation “SA” RX-7 prioritized lively handling––its Wankel motor fit entirely behind the front axle, giving the car a perfect 50:50 weight distribution seldom found outside of true supercars. Its advanced, live-axle rear suspension was precocious for the 1970s, helping the RX-7 corner and grip like few others on the road.
The RX-7 continued to develop into the 1980s, continuing to push the limits of rotary engine power and design. By 1984, Mazda managed to squeeze 135 horsepower from just 1.3 liters, and 1987 saw the launch of the RX-7 Turbo II, which used forced induction to coax 182 horsepower from the same compact unit. During the ‘80s, Mazda engineers added creature comforts, like power steering, while keeping the RX-7’s curb weight to under 2,800 pounds. The result was a torquey, throaty powertrain and featherweight handling dynamics that hooked enthusiasts.
But the RX-7 truly blossomed during its third generation, dubbed the “FD.” Launched in 1993, the third-gen borrowed styling from the C5 Corvette and the Mitsubishi 3000GT, and it established the RX-7 as a competitor to juggernauts from Toyota and Nissan. Using a sequential twin-turbocharged version of the 1.3-liter rotary engine, the FD produced 255 horsepower that rocketed the FD from 0-60 mph in under 5 seconds. It could do the quarter mile in 14 seconds, and its Torsen limited-slip differential paired with a 5-speed manual transmission to maximize lateral grip. In typical RX-7 fashion, the FD weighed under 2,800 pounds, splitting that weight 50:50 between the front and rear axles.
The FD’s speed, quality, and lightness earned it MotorTrend’s Import Car of the Year award for 1993. The American buyer market was not so generous. Owners complained about its temperamental rotary engine, which burned oil and fuel at an alarming rate. Worse still were reports of the engine melting down for rev-happy drivers, and enthusiasts began to look elsewhere for their high-performance Japanese coupes. Despite its critical acclaim, Mazda discontinued the RX-7 in the US after the 1995 model year, making the FD an instant collectible.
Rarity & Value
Just under 14,000 FD RX-7s were sold in the US from 1993-1995, making RX-7 ownership an exclusive club. A sizable percentage of those 14,000 experienced catastrophic engine failure, so the examples that do survive command an extra premium. And the RX-7’s feature in the “Fast & Furious” franchise only added fuel to the fire as enthusiasts channeled their inner Paul Walker.
Today, a clean, driver-quality FD RX-7 will sell for $30-40,000, with prices trending upward over the past 24 months. Though the RX-7’s reliability has hurt its long-term stability as an investment, we’re confident that the rare unmodified example with extensive service history will continue to hold its value.
At that price point, we see the RX-7 as an affordable entry to the world of exotic icons. Though we’d have to use some real will power not to rev out that glorious rotary engine at every stoplight ☺.
The bottom line
The ‘90s gave us the evolution of some of Japan’s finest sports cars, each with its own unique take on what truly got an enthusiast’s blood pumping. Where the 3000GT and the Supra focused on technical excellence at a premium price point, Mazda’s RX-7 threw caution to the wind, delivering a thrillingly experimental driving experience that was sublime when it behaved, and utterly catastrophic when it didn’t.
What all three cars achieved, however, is a reimagination of what a performance car could be. Mitsubishi’s 3000GT, Toyota’s Supra, and Mazda’s RX-7 focused uncompromisingly on the driver experience and added a flair for the exotic, a combination that had been largely confined to Europe’s automotive legends in the decades before.
In truth, we’re equally taken by all three recipes for the ultimate Japanese sports car. And that brings us to our ultimate question: given a blank check and the mission to pick the best, we’d take one of each.
Written by: LBI Limited Specialist Frank Kosarek (@nctoackrover)