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Face Off--1990s Jellybean Quasi-Sportsters

Jelly Bean 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 has ceased operations.] 

Impulse 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.

DelSol2Honda 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.

Scoupe2Hyundai Scoupe
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.

MX32 Mazda MX-3
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.

NX2Nissan NX2000
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.

Paseo2 Toyota Paseo
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?

My Opinion
Keeping strictly to the versions of these cars within this class, my ranking goes something like this:

  1. Mazda MX-3
  2. Nissan NX2000
  3. Honda del Sol
  4. Geo Storm/Isuzu Impulse
  5. Toyota Paseo
  6. 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:

  1. Isuzu Impulse RS
  2. Honda del Sol VTEC
  3. Mazda MX-3
  4. Nissan NX2000
  5. Toyota Paseo
  6. Hyundai Scoupe

All of the images in this post came from Wikipedia.

--Chris H.



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Personal Ranking:
1. Mazda MX-3 - V6 is interesting enough to overcome packaging and weight distribution issues.
2. Honda del Sol - With the 160 hp engine, the only thing holding it back was the purity of the Miata.
3. Isuzu Impulse/Geo Storm - The Storm was really an attempt to build a competitor for the MKII CRX, a car I'd take over any of these in a heartbeat. The Impulse was a novel feature list car, with all the things that make a car a fun date and a lousy long term prospect.
4. Toyota Paseo - Just an economy car, but one that really delivers on the promised economy while being as dependable as the sun.
5. Nissan NX2000 - Hard to look at, but at least they weren't around very long. Badly built out of stuff Toyota wouldn't use as packing material.
6. Hyundai Scoupe - I don't know. It may have been worse than the Nissan, but I never drove one. The Excels from a couple years earlier were Nissan bad.

Hmmmmm. Well, heck, I know about as much about these cars as I do about the mating habits of the New Zealand owl parrot. I will say I have always had kind of a secret hate for the Paseo. It's shape just seems. . . .wrong. I feel my soul being slowly sucked out of whenever I behold one.

I'd go for the del Sol on the theory that it's the successor to the CRX. Suspension a little soft? Easily solved: they make sway bars and coil-overs for a reason.

I like the cleaner looks of the Nissan NX2000, but the Honda Del Sol is more pure sports car. And as CJ said, it lacks a purity.

Something about Honda's styling/designs have always seemed just short of the greatness of their mechanicals, IMO.

I've actually been in an SCoupe, and it was an experience I'm not sure I'd wish to repeat.

Oh the company was fun, and some of the activities were highly entertaining, but the car itself was an utter shitbox. To the extent that the suspension was coming apart with only... ..erm, "Light" use and that on the drive home the headlights failed multiple times.

I seem to remember the Nissan being rather a pig of a machine from the little I know of it as well.

I am still driving my 1993 paseo I just love it because it never has given me any trouble and it's got over 200,000 miles

1. Hands down the NX2000. It would rip up any one of these cars on the road. Parts are plentiful, they are proven, handle like on rails.... if I did not have a 92 VW GTI 16v... I would have this car's cousin the Sentra SE-R or the NX2000 (I like a real back seat and prefer the more boxy styling by far of the SE-R, though the NX handles more flat, OK... a SE-R with Koni's and sway bars;) I looked at the SE-R in 1992 and the Recaros, teutonic nature, and much more all around long term cool factor of the MK 2 VW GTI was the clear winner by ;eaps and bounds.

2. The Mazda MX-3 GS is a close second. Scares me to think of repairing one though. My friend needed over $900 of work on the Cat converter. Yikes! My 92 GTI was only $200 for a new Cat. I like the interior in the MX3 GS more than the NX. The styling as well... but the 2 liter is a better engine than the odd MX3 GS V6 1.8 liter. I seriously considered one of these in 1992 too. Still, a GTI is timeless IMHO.

Honda Del Sol- VTEC 160 hp model. These things are no CRX, despite the healthy HP. It is ugly. They have little character. But... it would hold up, so that is something. I had a boss with one,

Isuzu RS or Geo Storm GSi is my 4th choice. They are rough around the edges and have a rather poorly designed interior (ever try sitting in the back seat of one of these things???... your head would smack the rear hatch window if you were 5'6!). However, they handle well enough and are about as quick as the MX3 V6. Still cannot get the image of cheer leaders in my high school driving the base model in that hideous bright neon teal green! It was THE car next to another "base model" pretend sports car... namely the Mitsubishi Eclipse, Eagle Talon, and Plymouth Laser.

Scoupe "Turbo". Rare. Actually nice looking, I think. When I bought my new GTI 16v in 1992, one of these smoked me pretty bad! I was a little inexperienced with shifting, though (based on the HP and numbers on the track.. I should have "pulled that dude"... the guy expressed this himself at the next light).
I think it would be less refined than the other cars listed, have plenty of torque steer, but it would likely be charasmatic... like my 87 Sprint Turbo with less rear seat and more sound proofing.

Last place... Toyota Paseo. Nothing particularly wrong with it. I actually think it would not be all that more exciting than the Del Sol. Thinking back on road tests... no one was really all that impressed with them. I would prefer one over the Mitsu Eclipse base models lines, no doubt.

...i've never driven the del sol, but my autocross friends who have tell me that its chassis flex is incurable - honda took out the roof from the CRX but never bothered substantially reinforcing the compromised moncoque...depsite a healthy dose of power in upgraded trim it'll never have have handling to match, and all the suspension upgrades in the world can't change that...still, it's a neat little car; a fun rendition of a 'sporty' two-seat commuter (doing more-or-less what GM executives tried to make of the fiero) and i've always been rather fond of it for the design purity by which it's just that, nothing more...

...i found the geo pretty attractive in its day, but of all the cars here i think it's aged the most poorly - somehow its design reads as fussy to contemporaneous eyes, and really isn't that anathema to the whole early-nineties jellybean aesthetic?..i think it needs to age another ten or fifteen years before i can re-evaluate it objectively, but right now it's not working for me...

In defence of the Paseo, it did have a (relatively) sweeter 16 valve engine, rather than the dull and often unreliable 12 valve from the Tercel.
Overall it's a decent drive, as only a light car with a revvy engine can be.

That being said, I voted for the Mazda. There's something special about Mazda's old in-house (non-rotary) engines. You can still feel it in the MX-5, but almost everything else is based on Ford designs. Let's hope the zoom comes back now they're no longer a Ford company.

I think it's a little odd you discount the Del Sol Si and Impulse RS as being too upgraded to be in this class for comparison. The 1.8 V6 in the MX-3 was the option (read: pricy) engine as well and probably should be regarded the same way. Even the standard 1.6 4 cyl. in that car was plenty spunky around town though and it'd probably be my choice of this group. The NX2000 styling still interests me but I don't remember the car fondly from a test drive back then.

And what's with the cheap shot against the VW Cabriolet? What would you prefer in THAT class? A LeBaron or Metro convertible?

@ Kenny: How do you figure the NX2000 would be better than the Impulse RS? Seems to me the Impulse RS would eat everything here for breakfast.

The NX2000 pulls better on the skid pad, the 2 liter (also shared with the Infiniti G20 models) is responsive and pulls the car from 0-60 in less than 8 seconds.

I have been in the Geo Storm GSi. I was less than stoked with the outward vision, dash design, fit and finish, and all around refinement. Sorry... the NX would be a better all around car IMHO.

The Cabriolet aged well... they were well made from ground up. Yeah, I don't get the "shutter" either? If I could find a mint condition Cabriolet, I would snatch it up before any of these cars... despite the less enthusiastic power train, they were good handling and very very well made convertibles. Better drop top design than BMW, Miata, etc. Even had a REAL glass rear window. The follow up Cabrio was weighty, boring too look at, and bulbous in and out.

Oh... The "RS" Impulse... that is quite a different car than the Storm performance model, the GSi... not even really the same class...ya know?
I would tie that level model with the NX2000. The NX is a better all around daily driver likely. The RS with it's more aggressive (and more useful power train than the Del Sol) would strike me as a higher performance car than just about any of the above.

Still... the NX2000...

No Miata? That was the jelly beaniest of the bunch.

While I usually gravitate towards Nissans, let's face it, it looks aren't what you'd call breathtaking. I have to go with Isuzus because they're different (despite their jellybean-ness) and rarity compared to the rest.
Besides, my family had a first-gen Impulse, so in a way I'm kinda biased. ^^;

...the MX5 is a proper sportcar; the topic of discussion is economy-class sporty coupés...

To ...m... ...I like your é !

if I'm not mistaken, the 90's incarnation of the Lotus Elan used the running gear from the Geo/Isuzu in this write-up.
A bit of a Jellybean in its own right.

This might have been better titled-
"Secretary special Chick Car fight of the 90's"

I saw a Paseo in a Walmart parking lot yesterday. It was a pale teal affair with a spoiler. I was awestruck by its continued existence - these days, they're almost as rare as a Ford Aspire or a Toyota Solara, and for many of the same reasons.

I voted for the Geo/Isuzu because it was the quintessential early '90s "jellybean" - it was cheap thrills with questionable styling and surprisingly decent performance. Was it practical? Heck no - as kenny pointed out, the rear seat was beyond pointless if you were over 5'5". Did they age well? Not even slightly; even if the styling didn't scream "early '90s" and even if some of the color choices didn't blare out "we started working on this car in the late '80s", the bodies and build quality aged about as well as you would expect a Geo to age. I don't think I've seen one in anything remotely resembling "good condition" in years. That said, even a poorly running one will smoke you out if you're not paying attention, and you have to respect that.

The Honda del Sol is a great convertible. Unfortunately, the styling is just a little too cutesy for my taste. It looks and feels like a Geo Metro convertible for people that want a little more kick and class than a Geo Metro would ordinarily be good for, but don't want the sportiness of a Miata.

I still see the occasional Mazda MX-3 on the road and they've held up fairly well. The same can't be said for the Nissan NX2000. Come to think of it, I don't think I've seen an NX2000 in several years. My take on the MX-3 is that it might be a little too competent for me to typecast it as a "jellybean quasi-sporter," even though that's what it really is. I don't know... I just can't muster a strong emotion for it either way.

The Hyundai Scoupe is an interesting historical footnote, and I think there's something strangely compelling about its story. You had me at "a sports coupe based on the lowly Excel". It's a shame that the end result wasn't something as hilariously compelling as the '80s Chrysler "throw a turbo in it" line of cheap "performance"-oriented econoboxes. I will now imagine a world rife with Excel GLH Shelby hot hatches plying the roadways and chuckle to myself accordingly.

Hey, the Scoupe now has 1.1% of the vote! I was wondering over the weekend whether it would receive even one vote.

Shawn: "I think it's a little odd you discount the Del Sol Si and Impulse RS as being too upgraded to be in this class for comparison. The 1.8 V6 in the MX-3 was the option (read: pricy) engine as well and probably should be regarded the same way."

Yeah, I really struggled with this. In the end, this wasn't a perfectly balanced test - are the Paseo and Scoupe in the same class as the NX2000? - and I had to make some judgment calls.

I pulled the Impulse RS out of the pool because it was a little too expensive/rare to really merit inclusion here. They were more of a limited-production special and weren't made in the volumes of the other cars. I pulled out the VTEC Del Sol because it came so late in the model run - it was really a late 1990s car and the jellybean heyday was really much earlier, when the more standard Del Sol came out. The MX-3 V-6 was optional, but it was a commonly produced option.

Besides, we really had three different classes here. One class was the 100-115-horsepower class, which was the Paseo, Scoupe, NX1600, and the stock MX-3. Then you had the 130-horsepower class, which was the Storm GSi, MX-3 V-6, and NX2000. Then the Impulse RS and Del Sol were in the 160-horsepower class, which felt like enough to make them unfair additions to this comparison (but it didn't stop me from ranking them supplementally!).

Shawn: "And what's with the cheap shot against the VW Cabriolet? What would you prefer in THAT class? A LeBaron or Metro convertible?"

Well, I think that's the point - a CRX aficionado would be unhappy with a LeBaron or Metro convertible serving as the CRX's replacement as well. I actually rather like the Cabriolet, but at the time it had a reputation as a sorority girl's car, great for profiling in but in no way a serious driver's car. I'm not sure exactly why it was singled out (as a Golf-based car, it probably drove pretty well), but to the extent that anybody thought of it as a sportster, they thought of it as a poseur's sportster.

I get defensive because a '90 Cabriolet was my first car. And believe me, I drove it like a serious drivers' car :)
While it was a pig off the line, it COULD handle quite well.

I had an 82 Rabbit convertible for a shirt while. Fantastic steering and handling. I was really impressed.

Even the 1.7 liter basic motor did okay.

A 1.8 liter later model... 84 Rabbit GTI based Cabriolet may get to 60 mph in 11 seconds but the close ratio tranny made good use of the 90 horses and it lurched through corners. From 84-93 they were basically the same power train.

It was basically an 84 Rabbit GTI with the added weight of a convertible.

In 1990 they added 4 hp... probably just helped off set the air bag weight.

Love these cars.

For a car with so little changes in a long

I've been scanning craigslist lately for a good condition, later model (94-95) MX-3. These years came with airbags instead of the robo-belts and had the stronger B6D 4-cyl engine. If you think teal was 'bright', there was also a special run of hot-pink ("Raspberry Metallic") models.

The NX2000 is a great car but its almost impossible to find one that hasn't been botch-modded or thrashed. The NX1600 is pure weak-sauce that makes the Paseo look masculine.

Speaking of which, Toyota could have had a winner if they would have given the Paseo the 4A-GE it deserved. There are swapped examples on the 'net, and it doesn't appear to be cost-prohibitive or insanely difficult.

I owned a Geo Storm GSI. Bought it new with 14 miles on the odo. The rear tires were bald at 500 miles. The dealership said I backed into a parking block and screwed up the alignment. Oooook. Ended up taking it to a buddy at a Honda dealership, and he showed me where the shims *used* to be in the rear axle. A little judicious welding and the car tracked perfectly from then on.

That's when I found out why they called these things Junior Corvettes. At that time the only more expensive tires in America were the ones that actually went on the Corvette. And the shocks were $250. *Each*. I only paid $10k for car new, and it had $2K of tires and shocks.

But lordy could that thing corner. I used to take interstate cloverleaves at 80 MPH and the tires wouldn't even bark. I also used to cruise Hwy. 61 in Iowa at speeds in excess of 100 with no problem at all. In fact, the only problem ever came when the car was still.

Yes, our Geo Storm GSI was flash yellow, yet we were hit three times in one year while the car was perfectly stationary. All the people who hit us said the same thing :


Really? Exactly what does a screaming bright yellow car blend in with for a background? So, we had to dump the car lest our insurance company drop us.

But I still would like to see what that GSI could be with a V6. Or turbocharging.

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