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2021 has been kind after all. With the Integra (yes, it's a Honda) unveiled last month, Japan's Big 3 have all revived iconic nameplates this year.

31 Dec 2021

Any attempt to address how a single car has fought its way into the automotive history books is a task of herculean measure. To try this with three cars is… perhaps journalistic suicide. 

Yet this is the challenge that Toyota, Nissan and Honda appear to have presented to us in the cursed year of 2021. Like precious drops of rain in a drawn-out drought, press release after press release fell into our laps as the Z, GR 86 and Integra were unveiled in flashy events, stirring up a storm of chatter among hardcore enthusiasts and casual drivers alike.

The Toyota GR 86, Nissan Z and Acura Integra were all greeted with abundant enthusiasm
We'll start by saying this: It's impossible to go into everything these cars have represented (and still represent), have offered (and still offer) within the space of one article. 

So we won't.

Still, in a climate that is increasingly uninhabitable both literally and figuratively for the internal combustion engine, we are duty-bound to dive into why the Z, GR 86 and Integra are so important as iconic nameplates.

A brief history: What's behind a name

The Datsun Sports roadsters (left) were important predecessors to the original Fairlady Z (right)
Our story begins with the most powerful and oldest (at least officially) of the lot, the Nissan Z. 

Back when Datsun hadn't been killed off once (and then feebly revived) yet, Nissan had sensed its own potential for developing cars for the track thanks to the success of its Sports roadsters. As the sixties wound to a close, the first Fairlady Z started life in Japan, and then arrived in America, with a 2.0-litre naturally aspirated inline-six. 

The Z cars have been routinely pitted against more premium brands over the years 
Understanding the engine capacities of each new Z car had actually been quite straightforward until the latest one, for which the numbers were just completely dropped. For instance, the 1969 Datsun 240Z had a 2.4-litre inline-six. The outgoing 2008 370Z, on the other hand, was powered by a 3.7-litre version of Nissan's award-winning 'VQ' V6 engine.

In its 370Z guise, the car was already churning out performance good for 0-100km/h in 4.7 seconds - quicker than the Porsche 987 Cayman. In increasing measure - from the very first Fairlady Z all the way to the 370Z - this became the Z's proposition: The deliverance of a solid power uppercut from a machine positioned as a mid-range car to more unequivocally premium ones. 

The NSX supercar also opened the gates to Honda's revered performance division: Type R
On the other hand, the Honda/Acura Integra's history is much shorter, especially if we focus on its proper rise to prominence in the early 1990s. While the Integra had already been praised from the jump in 1985, wholly retrospective interpretations will likely point its modern-day legacy back to a single letter: R. 

The early nineties also saw Honda aggressively widening the scope of its involvement in motorsports. In conjunction, gallons of effort were poured into creating the legendary, lightning-in-a-bottle Honda NSX (Type R), which still stands as one of the period's most well-loved supercars. 

The DC2 Integra Type R can be regarded as the main reason for the nameplate's enduring fanfare
But track days and supercars are not what the common man on the street is acquainted with daily. Cognisant of this, Honda turned its attention to something cheaper and more mass market as an entry point. By reducing weight and bumping power on the DC2 Integra, the Integra Type R was officially birthed. 

Part of its thrill was the fact that one knew it was a front-wheel drive car and only had a 1.8-litre naturally aspirated engine (the follow-up DC5 generation brought this up to 2.0-litres). Yet it never broke its promise of immeasurable fun.

Fitted with Honda's VTEC, which blended power and efficiency into one engine, and armed with Honda's newfound knowhow from the actual racetrack, the Integra Type R absolutely tore up street circuits. Thanks to this outsized history, the nameplate - even without the Type R suffix - has maintained a cult following till today.

Co-developed with Subaru, the first-gen Toyota 86 was also powered by its flat-four boxer engine
We then come to the more complicated one of the bunch: The GR 86, successor to the 86 (or GT 86). 

We say complicated firstly because it's not strictly only a Toyota. Half-Toyota is more the truth; the GR 86 was developed in conjunction with Subaru (again), shares all but some cosmetic changes with the BRZ, and is powered, crucially, by the latter's famous four-cylinder boxer engine. 

Secondly, it's not only two generations old if we want to bring in the idea of spiritual precession and succession. 

Drift king: The AE86 Corolla Trueno holds a special place in the hearts and minds of enthusiasts
Let's start with the number 86. As Toyota doubled down on its export market domination, it continued to dedicate some efforts to motorsports with rear-wheel drive versions of mass market models, including the plain-as-white-bread Corolla.

With a high-revving twin cam engine switched in, the AE86 Corolla Trueno (and Sprinter) was something else. Slowly, it burned its way into the zeitgeist of the drifting scene, becoming a star not just on the track and among tire shop owners, but also on-screen thanks to one Takumi Fujiwara. 

But the AE86 wasn't the only antecedent. While Singapore got the car with a numbers-only badge, the tacking on of the letters 'GT' in other larger markets like the U.K. also purposefully drew attention to another hallowed car in Toyota's history.

Marrying a sweet straight-six to its svelte gran turismo styling, the 2000GT was a halo car for Toyota
Unleashed upon the automotive world of the late sixties, the mid-engined 2000GT featured flowing lines, pop-up headlights and gran turismo styling, and boasted a sweet straight-six under the hood. It was a wondrous thing to behold visually, but more importantly, it drove well, winning races both in Japan and America. 

The fact that it wasn't far fetched to mention the 2000GT in the same breath as a Jaguar E-Type gave Toyota's brand an unimaginable leg up, and proved that in spite of its general reputation for building bland and reliable cars, it could pull bits of magic out of its hat as and when it felt compelled to. Today, the 86 is still known for being tail-happy and corner-loving.

What they've meant so far

The new Z car will probably be up against the likes of the Porsche Cayman and Audi TT again
To be clear, the Z, GR 86 and Integra are very different. 

Technically and numerically speaking, they're not really what you might call 'peers'. The Z has always had the largest engine, the most power, and more cylinders. Consequently, it has found itself slotted in between the likes of the Cayman and 911 (or the Mustang and Camaro, in the U.S.A.) over the years. 

The 86 and Integra, meanwhile, take on the challenge of sub-250bhp and go about quite differently in packaging the idea of fun.

The 86's version of events includes rear-wheel drive, an aggressively low centre of gravity and obsessively calibrated rear-front weight distribution. This thing loves to burn rubber. The Integra, on the other hand, pushes both the boundaries of front-wheel drive as well as smaller-displacement engines (VTEC kicked in, yoooo) to their limits for the ultimate no-frills driving experience.

VTEC kicked in, yooooo: Honda's VTEC technology allowed its engines to be both ferocious yet also fuel-sipping when necessary
Nevertheless, there's no denying they've all been held together by a multi-layered je ne sais quoi

The baseline reason is still relevant today: Think Toyota, Nissan and Honda, and one is more likely to think cheap, dependable and unexciting.

When each carmaker then proceeds to pull out stunning sports car after stunning sports car, we are naturally still awestruck. The Z, Integra and GR 86 are special because they have proven over time that the Japanese carmakers are fully capable of creating pedigree-drenched machines that are fun to drive, as pedantically as they make mass-market practical models.

In relation, there's also the very simple virtue of them being "affordable" sports cars. At USD$40,000 (prices here aren't the fairest yardstick for comparison), even the most powerful Z is not yet at BMW financial territory. This relative accessibility is all the more pronounced for the GR 86 and Integra. 

The 86 (as well as the Integra) served as a versatile canvas for tuning among enthusiasts
Then there's their calling card: The fact that their chasses are all very amenable to the intricate and oft-unaddressed world of aftermarket augmentations.

In an interview, a Nissan rep confirmed that the Z would maintain its spirit as a blank sheet of paper for enthusiasts who want to mod the car, while still competently offering all the sports car one could need with its original specs. The 86 and Integra are also famous (or notorious, depending on your view) for having their engines tuned for more low-range torque, which the stock cars are said to lack. 

All these qualities work together to create a magnetic, within-reach aura of accessibility that European brands will probably struggle to ever arrive at. The average Joe or Xiao Ming can't see himself driving a BMW M5, let alone a Lamborghini Huracan. An Integra, though? Hmmm, could probably save up for that (and for the mods thereafter). To the budding petrolhead, the cars bearing these nameplates serve as certified canvasses on which the wildest visions can be brought to life. 

What they still mean now

With the advent of EVs, driving stick is all but doomed to evaporate into our history books 
Beyond what these cars have meant to the enthusiast community all along, a number of qualities also continue to endear these nameplates in a rapidly modernising automotive world.

Drivers who enjoy driving with just one foot would indeed be fine if they wanted a Z, GR 86 or Integra, since all three are getting an automatic transmission, as is a given for a modern car (the Z will get an incredible nine-speeds, while the GR 86 will get seven; the Integra's is unconfirmed). 

What isn't a given, however, is the option of a six-speed manual transmission... which has also been confirmed on all three cars.

The Toyota GR Supra (left), and the R35 Nissan GT-R (right), for all their merits, do not provide drivers with the option of a manual transmission
Supercar-makers like Lamborghini and Ferrari have long ditched stick shifters in favour of paddle ones coupled to dual clutch transmissions. Even bigger brothers from the Japanese brands, such as the supercar-esque Honda NSX and R35 Nissan GTR, as well as the recent BMW Toyota Supra all come solely as automatics now.

You can't blame the carmakers entirely for this, since they're simply responding to market demands. But the fact that the Z, Integra and GR 86 are persisting down this path shows that their parent companies are united and resolute in wanting to keep the original enthusiast spirit alive. 

EVs offer a very different sort of driving pleasure that cannot emulate that of combustion engines 
This potential financial cut that the carmakers are taking also extends to other aspects of the cars. In the era of SUVs, carmakers are learning that you don't have to go out of your way to create a performance car specifically when you can just hammer in on a performance SUV. It is against such a backdrop that the two-doored affordable coupe stands, presenting a very bold 'screw you' to market trends while rising to the purist's idea of what a sports car should be like. 

Finally, against the electric revolution, the fact that Toyota, Nissan and Honda have decided to still invest in new combustion-engined performance cars at all is somewhat surprising.

It's not that instant power isn't fun (just ask anyone who's been in a Tesla Model 3). EVs are fantastic, in as much as they deliver an instant, shocking gut punch of torque. 

But the real ones will tell you they want to work for their power; not just hear, but also feel, viscerally, the revs build. This sort of one-with-the-machine sensation differs greatly from the sort of sweep-you-off-your feet tech that the 21st century has inundated us with so far. 

A final hurrah

The front fascia of the Nissan Z hasn't been as warmly received as the retro-throwback rear
Much is often made of the V12 naturally aspirated engine clinging onto the last vestiges of its existence, as regulations increasingly bow to the demands of emission reductions (and understandably so). But in the process, we may perhaps have forgotten about the everyday man's sports car.

This isn't to say that the Z, Integra and GR 86, shining lights as they are, don't have their dull spots. 

Reception to the styling, for one, has been particularly mixed on the Integra and GR 86. (Why risk tipping such revered cars into anonymity?) And while the Z's rear design has been praised as a modern take of the 1989 Z32's, the front hasn't been so warmly received either.

The Integra is unlikely to ever come to Singapore if no further plans for RHD versions follow... Sad
Some have also expressed disappointment at Nissan's decision to re-tool an old platform, rather than introduce a new one. For the first time ever, the Integra and Z are getting downsized turbocharged engines too. Among the three, that leaves the GR 86 behind as the sole torchbearer of natural aspiration.

But the worst part of it all? The Integra was announced exclusively under the Acura brand - not Honda - and will be built solely in America... meaning that it won't reach right-hand drive markets like ours. That's a real, "No, I won't be consoled!" shame for a car that has such strong heritage as a JDM model (we're talking in the context of the Singaporean market). 

Will the GR 86, alongside the upcoming Z and Integra, become a classic car when EVs are the norm? We think so 
Nonetheless, put into perspective, these are little quibbles to have for cars that we already weren't sure we'd get in 2021. The very virtue of sticking stick shifters into these machines, of investing money and time into giving the affordable combustion engine sports car a potential final hurrah in a silent, electric era, and of honouring the spirit of iconic nameplates, already primes these cars for classic status.

Sometime, when we're having a dry, quiet spell in the year 2040 and you suddenly hear what sounds like thunder rumbling, don't be fooled. It may just be the sound of a Z or a GR 86 approaching quickly but briefly into view, only to disappear again, far into the distance. Then all will be silent again.

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toyota  nissan  honda  z  fairlady z  integra  type r  86  gt 86