Face Off--1990s Jellybean Quasi-Sportsters
As you might infer from the awkward title of this post, I had a great deal of difficulty coming up with a name for this face off. The category and the eligible cars were clear in my head--all of these cars were of Japanese or Korean manufacture, they were essentially miniature sports coupes largely based on economy car underpinnings, and they shared similar ovoid profiles--but I really struggled with the challenge of turning that into a pithy description.
In the end, I went with jellybean as a general descriptor because I felt that it worked on several levels. Most obviously, it describes these cars' overall look--diminutive, heavily rounded, and available in bright and sometimes garish colors (the Mazda MX-3's signature teal stands out here). The comparison works at a deeper level too--like these cars, jellybeans are cheap, sweet, and a lot of fun, especially for the younger set. More mature tastes generally prefer something a little more substantive, but even so jellybeans retain an attraction as a fun occasional treat.
Now that I have sufficiently tortured that metaphor, on to the poll and the jump!
[The poll widget is no longer available because Vizu.com has ceased operations.]
Geo Storm/Isuzu Impulse
When Isuzu retired its gorgeous but aging first-generation Impulse in 1990, it replaced that larger rear-wheel-drive sports coupe with a car in the jellybean mold--a compact, front-wheel-drive, two-door hatchback with a small, 130-horsepower, four-cylinder engine. The Impulse also received a clone, the Geo Storm.
While they conformed tightly to the jellybean mechanical formula, The Storm and Impulse differentiated themselves on a few fronts. They sported more angular and aggressive lines than most of the other cars featured here; the Storm and Impulse were also unique in that they were also offered in two-door wagonback bodies, albeit with less powerful base engines.
Thanks no doubt to its GM-backed marketing and distribution, the Storm handily outsold the Impulse. The Impulse, however, had more available performance options, such as a Lotus-tuned suspension. The Impulse was also available in RS trim, bristling with a 160-horsepower turbocharged engine and a performance-tuned all-wheel-drive system. While the fire-breathing RS is out of the jellybean class, as an early proto-Subaru WRX it's certainly worthy of lust in its own right and gives its little brothers an image boost.
Honda del Sol
Also briefly known as the Civic del Sol in the United States and the CRX del Sol in other markets, the 1993-1997 Honda del Sol was at least nominally considered the successor to the second-generation Honda CRX. In practice, though, the del Sol was a very different car than the CRX; for one thing, rather than a two-seat hatchback, the del Sol was a two-seat targa coupe. For another, the CRX's emphasis on precise, knife-edge handling had given way to softer behavior, more suited to cruising than bruising. The CRX was most happy on a twisty back road; the del Sol was more at home cruising cheerfully along a sun-drenched boulevard.
To the CRX's hard-core fans, then, the del Sol represented something of a betrayal--a soft-edged repudiation of everything that had made the CRX special. Yes, the del Sol was cute, it was easy to live with, and open-air cruising can be fun; but to the true believers, this made the del Sol little more than a modern version of the (shudder) Volkswagen Cabriolet. I'll admit that I was one of those faithful; while I never owned a CRX, I loved its stripped-down approach and its promise of practical thrills. The del Sol seemed like a CRX stripped of its soul.
In retrospect, that might have been a little unfair. Compared to the other cars here, the del Sol looks a little less watered-down and its 130 horsepower a little more impressive. Plus, in this group, its promise of open-air motoring is a real differentiator. It doesn't matter what you're driving; it's innately more fun with the top down.
Plus, there was also a 160-horsepower VTEC version of the del Sol towards the end of the model run that also featured some suspension tweaks. That power and suspension upgrade went a long way towards changing the del Sol's otherwise-innocuous character and earned it some much-needed performance credibility. That hot-rodded del Sol is a little bit out of class in this group, but its sheer presence makes the rest of the line more attractive in my eyes.
Hyundai is one of the hottest automakers in the world; according to Wikipedia, it is the world's largest automaker by profit, the fourth-largest by units sold, and it is growing faster than any other automaker. It continues to win accolades for product quality and safety, and its Genesis coupe is a world-class entry. For today's highly successful Hyundai, then, the Scoupe represents a painful look back into a grim past.
Hyundai made its American debut in 1986 with the Hyundai Excel, an economy car that was notable primarily for its price--$4,995. The Yugo GValso debuted that year and undercut the Excel with a $3,990 price tag; but while the GV offset its price tag with a distinctly agricultural driving experience, the Excel was a pretty typical econobox. It was cheap, but it was still more or less a real car. Customers purchased the Hyundai Excel in droves, only to quickly realize that the build quality was completely awful--Hyundai quickly became a joke, and sales cratered.
The Scoupe, coming as it did before Hyundai's revolutionary 100,000-mile warranty and deep dive on product quality and engineering, represents one of the company's first, tentative attempts to fix its image problem. As a sports coupe based on the lowly Excel, armed with a 92-horsepower engine, and branded with a gag-reflex-inducing cutesy name, the Scoupe was not a promising performance-car initiation for Hyundai.
As with the Excel, the Scoupe did not distinguish itself with its build quality, and its driving experience when it debuted was not competitive with the other cars represented here. Still, even in those days, Hyundai was a pretty quick learner, and the addition of a 115-horsepower turbocharged engine and a "Lotus-tuned" suspension helped make the Scoupe a little more credible. That push for incremental improvement would continue with the Scoupe's successor, the swoopy Tiburon, and, eventually, today's excellent Genesis. While the Scoupe was a dumpy little hot-rodded Excel with a silly name, it also represents the first step towards the Genesis--the genesis of the Genesis, if you will--and as such it can claim at least some significance.
In my mind, at least, the MX-3 is a defining jellybean car, combining a tiny platform, wildly curvaceous styling, early-1990s paint schemes, and tempest-in-a-teapot fun. It also has an additional point of differentiation, a 135-horsepower 1.8-liter V-6--this was both the only V-6 engine available in this class and one of the smallest V-6 engines ever offered in North America.
As a trim, light sports coupe, the MX-3 can be considered the spiritual successor to the 1970s RX-3 that we featured in our Super Coupe face off. Like that RX-3, which offered a smooth, powerful rotary engine, the MX-3's V-6 gave it an advantage in a class filled with four-cylinder-powered cars. While 135 horsepower didn't represent a revolutionary level of peak power, the tiny, 1.8-liter V-6 was smooth and torquey compared to its four-banger competition and gave the RX-3 a level of refinement and cachet unmatched by the other cars in this class. The RX-3 also boasted a more overtly sporting suspension setup than the other cars represented here, and the result was a pint-size sports coupe that offered big-time fun--a bit like a Honda CRX with a back seat.
A friend of mine in college had an MX-3, and I remember it as being smooth, quick, and much more refined than one would expect of a car of that size.
Along with the Mazda MX-3, the Nissan NX2000 has always struck me as one of the standard-bearers of this pint-size sports coupe class, and like the MX-3, the Nissan NX was among the more capable cars available in this class.
The NX was the successor to the Nissan Pulsar NX small sports coupe; but unlike the Honda del Sol, the Nissan NX represented a much more serious sports coupe than its predecessor. The two Pulsar generations were known mostly for their angular lines and modular body styles, but the NX was a smoothly styled sports coupe with some real sporting hardware.
Back in the early 1990s, the Nissan Sentra SE-R was considered a surprisingly serious and capable mini sports sedan that so completely belied its plebeian Sentra roots that it rated comparisons with the classic BMW 2002tii. Even now, that original SE-R is regarded with veneration and respect. Given that, it should mean something that the top-of-the-line NX, the NX2000, was essentially a reskinned and even more capable SE-R.
The NX2000's 16-valve, four-cylinder engine put out a strong-for-its-time 140 horsepower, it featured a limited-slip differential to help put that power to the ground, and it offered larger brakes and wider tires than the SE-R. Even more remarkable, given its Sentra roots, the NX2000 was considered one of the best-handling front-wheel-drive cars around.
I don't think the NX2000 ever received the respect it deserved; it seems to be almost forgotten today, but at the time it was a legitimate sports coupe.
I don't have much to say about the Toyota Paseo, because I find it stultifyingly dull. It's essentially a reskinned Toyota Tercel with a 100-horsepower engine, passed off as a sports coupe. At the time, I thought it was an insult to the real sports coupes on the market, and that opinion has not dramatically changed over time.
I'm sure the Paseo was as reliable and durable as any Tercel, but as a sports coupe I find it completely bland and inoffensive--which is to say, dull and pointless. Toyota, would it have been that hard to offer a turbo version? Or even an Impulse RS-like Turbo All-Trac?
Keeping strictly to the versions of these cars within this class, my ranking goes something like this:
- Mazda MX-3
- Nissan NX2000
- Honda del Sol
- Geo Storm/Isuzu Impulse
- Toyota Paseo
- Hyundai Scoupe
Choosing the MX-3 as my favorite was pretty easy; the MX-3 is the smoothest, most grown-up, most serious sports coupe of the bunch, followed closely by the NX2000. Both of these cars were real sportsters in cutesy camoflage. The del Sol takes third over the Storm GSi and the similar Impulse because of its promise of open-top fun and Honda cheerfulness. As much as I loathe the Paseo, and as morbidly interesting as a Scoupe Turbo would be, the sheer competence of the Toyota and the horrific build quality of contemporary Hyundais more than outweighs the small difference in appeal.
Just to be unfair, I'll also run a ranking that takes into account all available versions of these cars:
- Isuzu Impulse RS
- Honda del Sol VTEC
- Mazda MX-3
- Nissan NX2000
- Toyota Paseo
- Hyundai Scoupe
All of the images in this post came from Wikipedia.