Industry insight: Japan in Europe

The Oriental performers

Prompted by a Seiko time/date chronometer, photographed by Pentax and printed via Panasonic, this month's subject matter is the rise of the Japanese performance car— in particular the four-wheel drive wares of Toyota and Honda's blooming multi-valve motor selection.

Mustering assorted performers, Japan plc is now gathering strength for an assault on the luxury car market. From Daihatsu's triple cylinder turbo one-litre to the most expensive current Japanese car in the UK, the 2.7-litre Honda Legend Coupe, the motorised empire of the Rising Sun continues to expand. And now it is aiming at more profitable areas than its initial foothold within the economy classes.

Yet the country that sells Britain and other western economies rafts of Toyota MR2s, and their sophisticated like, is far from finished with sporting prestige. Recent evidence of Japanese intent was provided by the news that Nissan now has a Milton Keynes base for its serious Group A saloon and Group C sportscar racing aspirations, in addition to its American and Japanese centres.

Meanwhile Japan's number one, Toyota, has also been spreading its involvement. We recently attended the Dutch launch of Toyota's GT-Four Celica in road and rallying specifications, and our impressions were that Lancia will face serious World Rally Championship opposition and that Audi's exports of the quattro theme will meet similarly powerful competition. On sale in Britain from March 23 at £20,495, the Toyota GT-Four attracted attention not just for the rallying potential of four-wheel drive, 16 valves and turbocharging — it also entered national newspaper headlines for its commitment to run on unleaded petrol.

Many current Japanese and European designs can run unleaded these days. Yet the Toyota is claimed to be "the first car to go on general sale with a catalytic convertor in the exhaust system and thirst for unleaded fuel only" in Britain.

Toyota says there are now more than 550 fuel stations selling unleaded in the UK, but will supply each car with a five-litre safety fuel-can, just in case. Toyota (GB) Ltd continues to eulogise overseas availability, and lists the Netherlands, some of the launch, as having "almost 100%" unleaded fuel availability. Ironically, however, in the company of Toyota Team Europe engineer Gerd Pfeiffer, we had to play "hunt-the-fuel-station" to assuage the GT-Four's narrowneck tank with Super unleaded.

This minor delay, near the Valkenswaard rallycross circuit on the Dutch-Belgian border, reminded us that lead-free fuel supplies could be difficult in France, the destination for many British motorists. In Britain we found little difficulty in obtaining unleaded fuel in the south for a converted Ford, when there was a problem the nearest Texaco outlet supplied the answer, as it had in Holland. Incidentally Ford itself has issued a statement confirming that neither Escort RS Turbo nor the turbocharged Cosworths can run unleaded fuels, but the rest of Britain's range (with varying degrees of adjustment) will swallow these environmentally-conscious brews.

Even by the recently-elevated standards of Japanese car-pricing in Britain, the GT-Four Celica is expensive. Yet the consumer's choice among similarly powerful all-wheel-drive coupes was really limited to the original 200 bhp Audi quattro, and that is destined to die this June, to be replaced by 20-valve five cylinders and a new range of coupes.

The only direct Toyota challenge in all-wheel-drive horsepower comes from the recently UK-debuted Lancia Integrals which has 185 bhp versus Toyota's 182.4 bhp. However the £15,455 Lancia is only available in LHD. The five-door Delta body may be more useful, but looks extremely dated alongside the sleek Celica.

What does Toyota provide in its £20,000 plus GT-Four package?

For just over £5000 more than the non-turbo Celica GT of 147 bhp, poseurs would be disappointed — there is little visual difference between the 4WD turbo and it fuel-injected cousin to signify a 32% power bonus and two more driven wheels. True there are badges swarming all over the boot-lid and the engine bay, but there are plenty of less-significant Japanese machines suffering the same affliction.

Like Audi, Toyota has taken an existing design and adapted it to its 4WD needs, but it is worth remembering that the Celica GT runs its 2-litre 16V engine transversely, rather than using Audi's north-south front-drive layout. Using a Toyota-branded GT26 turbocharger with water cooling for the Behr intercooler (rather than a water-cooled turbine casing in the Garrett or KKK manner) releases the 182 horsepower progressively to a peak of 6000 rpm. Top indicated boost is 8 psi and static compression is highish for a turbo running 95 RON octane at 8.5:1 cr.

Maximum safe rpm for the 1998cc (86mm x 86mm) powerplant is indicated at the easily-attained 7300 rpm red-line. The company reports a 42% increase in torque over the normally-aspirated engine of the same size, which means 184 lb ft replacing 133 lb ft, peaking at 3600 revs.

Such power and torque increases endow the substantial kerbweight of 2794 lb with the ability to reach 60 mph in less than eight seconds, reaching an independently-timed maximum beyond 137 mph. Estimated fuel consumption statistics, in the light of those weight and performance figures, are promising, nearly 25 mpg is expected, even in urban use.

The permanent 4WD element contains few surprises. Unlike Lancia (Torsen) and Audi, no rear limited-slip, or locked differential, has been specified; but like the original Audis in pre-Torsen centre-differential days, a 50:50 power split is provided by bevel gears.

To package 4WD, a five-speed gearbox and transverse engine-location with a need to feed power rearward, Toyota created a mult-purpose transaxle. It houses both helical-pattern gear sets for front and centre differentials, plus the necessary transfer gears, and a viscous coupling which acts upon the central differential to control slippage front-to-rear.

A three-piece propshaft, carrying four constant-velocity joints, takes power to the hypoid gearing of the back differential. The transaxle is neatly executed and spaceefficient, but the system has obvious limits under duress in tight corners. There is some evidence of wind-up and hop as the viscous coupling tries to cope with tight junctions under full power.

Therefore it is no surprise to find that Toyota's Group A challenger (scheduled for an early May debut in Corsica) has its biggest changes to the transmission system.

As demonstrated by 1987 World Champion Juha Kankunen, the 265 bhp device had the British Xtrac six-speed gearbox, 25-75% power bias to the rear via epicyclic gearing, and limited-slip differentials (multi-plate type) front and rear.

We were allowed to drive the championship challenger ourselves, and the quality of gearchange offered by the non-synchromesh six-speed in its simple double-H pattern was exceptional. Michael Endean at Woking's Xtrac factory supplies a wide variety of famous Formula One, sportscar, rallycross and rally teams with everything from his sophisticated hydro-mechanical 4WD to individual gear ratios, but this rapidly expanding specialist concern has excelled itself in this particular application.

For public sale of its 4WD turbo coupe, Toyota has made a number of detail modifications to the Celica. Typical are the water cooling for the oil radiator, double-core water radiator for a claimed 30% improvement in heat dissipation, increased water pumping capacity and "specially strengthened" floorpan.

Both braking and suspension have received attention; the principles of four-wheel disc brakes and struts remain, but the struts are gas-filled and the front and rear anti-roll bars measurably thickened.

Standard in Britain is the fitment of electronic anti-lock braking, which bears upon ventilated front discs of 10.04in diameter and larger rears, measuring 10.6in but of solid construction. The rally car has massive cross-drilled units from a choice of British suppliers — either Lockheed or Girling.

For road use, Toyota supplies 6J x 14in wheels and Dunlop D87J rubber (205/60). The rally car was assessed on 7x 15in Speedlines, with Pirelli G2 chunky tyres suitable for the heat and terrain of Grecian tracks.

Both road and rally GT-Fours have power-steering, the former effortlessly twirling at just under three turns lock-to-lock. The latter provided power-assistance at parking speeds, but was notably heavy thererafter.

In action the German-registered road car was memorably swift and stably comfortable. There was not a trace of transmission noise as it whispered across the paddock, and Toyota has certainly not fallen into the turbo-lag trap.

The 182 bhp four must be revved more than a Lancia or an Audi to get the same performance, yet the engine is happy to wend its way, at an increasing dohc rowdiness, all the way to the 7300 rpm red-line. The gearbox is a shade clonky in Toyota's favoured cable-change manner, but very light to operate at speed. An overseas journalist lost fourth gear during his test run, a failing which we gather has occured before on the LHD launch stock.

At higher motorway speeds the Toyota sets new standards for near-silent travel amongst recent 4WD performers and its absorbent suspension should win over those who like creature comforts. Standard equipment includes all the £15,000 GT's goodies — air-conditioning, electric operation of windows and a fine tilt-slide sunroof, plus central locking.

GC will shortly be driving the GT-Four and a forthcoming Toyota saloon to use the same 4WD system, so I will just say that the rally car was even more fun at slightly raised boost (14.2 psi) and a rowdy 7500 of the displayed 9000 rpm.

As to Toyota's latest saleable Celica, there is no doubt in my mind that the company executed its challenge to the dominant Lancia Delta HFs with considerable sophistication and skill. Yet there are still Europeans who will tell you the Japanese only engineer gimmicks . . .

I expect such "head-in-the-sand" comment was made in the British motorcycle industry, amongst precision German camera makers and the Swiss watch industry, before the Japanese demonstrated their capabilities. I know there are plenty of people in Daimler-Benz and Jaguar who tell me "the Japanese just have not got the image, the sheer depth of experience, that Europeans have in the luxury car business. This is one area they will not conquer."

Honda's CRX 16-1.6i sits alongside a Ford in my garage because it offered more individual driving fun for £8000 than I could find elsewhere (today's CRX, with 5 bhp more, demands £9600). On 125 lightweight bhp, my CRX has recorded 33-41 mpg over six 1988 tankfuls. Only the baby Honda's annual insurance could be said to be expensive.

I admired MLC's BRM Elan coupe of yore —a dohc 1.6 to savour. Now that Lotus is said to be going front-drive with its Isuzu 16V "new Elan" for 1989, I think the CRX's front-drive may yet become respectable in the MR2 era.

To be honest, the Honda has not been 100% dependable. The Gatwick Airport car-park rescue serviceman quipped "Blimey — thought you could walk on water with these. I've never seen one break down in here before!" He was needed to retrieve me when my five-month-old pride and joy suffered a split radiator.

Thankfully, there was no evidence of any further damage, for I was literally able to glide into a parking spot when I saw the water temperature needle's rapid ascent. It took three weeks to get another radiator, but the dealership who sold me the car at list price (Bell & Colvill) civilly lent me an Aerodeck in the interim.

Since that unpleasant surprise, the CRX has performed with exhilarating precision in the remaining 16,000 miles and 18 months of my ownership. So it was with special interest that I transferred from Honda's smallest coupe to its largest.

The Legend 2.7i V6 of 24 valves demonstrated the kind of peaceful 135 mph speed which Honda, and others from the Orient, will be promoting strongly in the near future. Toyota has its four-valve-per-cylinder V8 readied for a forthcoming large saloon, the 90° aluminium V8 of 3.8 litres presently developing 232 bhp at 5600 rpm. It exhibits dohc on each cylinder-bank, via the scissor-type camshaft gear drives publically debuted on some of the current Corolla range.

The Toyota V8 was shown at Frankfurt last year, then yielding 235Ib ft of torque at 4000 revs, and must also be a possibility for future Supra coupes. Incidentally, it is likely that these more expensive Toyotas will be sold under the Lexus badging, an approach which echoes Honda's adoption of the Accura label to sell more prestigious products to the Americans.

I enjoyed the 177 bhp Legend coupe enough to drive it 482 miles to Snowdonia and back one snowy but sunny Sunday. Currently I am awaiting the Rover 827i with the same power-plant, for I want to see whether the "home team" managed to overcome the Legend's restless suspension. That is the main snag to the welcome provision of mid-range torque which distinguishes the 2.7 V6 from its four-door 2.5-litre Rover 800/Honda Legend predecessor. JW