Younger enthusiasts don’t remember the name Panoz. Yet back in the ’90s, this company was one of the best known limited production American brands. Successful in racing, Panoz was one of those brands that offered many racing technologies in street-legal vehicles, which made them favorites with performance driving fans.
The Roadster model was introduced in the early ’90s and represented the modern-day version of the legendary Shelby Cobra. It was a pretty stripped-down open-top two-seater built of aluminum, which kept its weight down. Panoz used a lot of Ford Mustang components, including the engine, drivetrain, and suspension, which meant that the Roadster had 300 HP and amazing performance.
Even before retro was a thing, Nissan presented a very influential and crazy-looking compact model called the Pao. It was for sale on the Japanese market only, and all models came in right-hand drive configuration.
The design kind of resembled the Austin Farina or Mini, but underneath the body, the Pao was an advanced car with independent suspension and 52 HP engine. It was sold for just three years between 1989 and 1991, with over 50,000 made.
Daihatsu is one of the prime manufacturers of Kei Cars with its entire range dedicated to those small vehicles. Their most exciting model is definitely the Copen, a tiny roadster. If you want to visualize what Copen is like, try Miata but the half size.
The Copen is introduced in the early 2000s and is in its second generation. As expected, the 660 cc engine is under the hood, and power is below 70 HP mark. However, the turbocharged engine is highly tunable, and if you want, you can get some pretty lively performance from this compact roadster.
One of the unique ’80s cars was Nissan’s Pulsar in the NX Sportbak package. This car’s idea is to combine a regular two-door coupe with a wagon body style but not in a Shooting Brake kind of way. Nissan decided to make a standard coupe but add body extensions, which transformed the Pulsar Sportbak into a wagon.
Introduced in 1986, Pulsar Sportbak did receive some attention from car enthusiasts, but eventually, people turned to more conventional coupe styling, and wagon canopy addition was less desirable. The model was discontinued in 1990 and still remains one of the strangest production cars ever made.
The venerable K-Car platform saved Chrysler from bankruptcy in the early ’80s, and the company used it for most models in its lineup. Minivans and compact sedans were built on it, and it was cheap and easy to produce. However, in 1986 Chrysler decided to introduce a luxury convertible called the Le Baron.
Not only that, 2.2-liter four-cylinder wasn’t the best choice for the car, but Chrysler’s stylist also gave the Le Baron faux wood panels on the side, mimicking the classic ’50s and ’60s station wagons. The crazy and ludicrous mix of styles featured on this car turned off many buyers, and Chrysler sold only less than 2,000 copies.
At first glance, the Toyota Sera looks like a generic Japanese compact from the early ’90s, but drivers can see why this little car is so special when you open the door. Conceived on a regular Corolla platform powered by a standard 1.5-liter four-cylinder, Sera is technically a regular car. Still, the design and technical solutions of the cabin, doors, and roof are unique.
The Sera project was kind of a design exercise to show the world how a boring compact car can be transformed into a design marvel. In order to do so, Toyota installed a glass canopy, which partially opened with butterfly-style doors very rarely seen on anything except for the McLaren F1 supercar. This feature’s production was very demanding, and Toyota needed special tools and machines to fabricate door mechanisms and make a specially curved glass. However, Toyota’s engineers managed to pull it off, and the Sera was introduced in 1990 and stayed in production until 1996, during which time over 16,000 were made. Unfortunately, almost all sold exclusively in Japan.
The 1985-87 Nissan MID 4 is a courageous and competent mid-engine sports car concept, which unfortunately didn’t become the production model. Even though it is mostly forgotten today, it is still a fascinating engineering piece that deserves a better look.
The MID 4 had a mid-mounted 3.0-liter V6 engine with around 200 HP, specially designed all-wheel drive, and almost perfect weight balance. Nissan envisioned it to fight sports cars from Ferrari and Porsche. Unfortunately, the company pulled the plug at the last moment, and MID 4 was left as a concept that influenced the Honda NSX.