The Top 10 Most Watered-Down for America Cars
As large and as lucrative as the U.S. new car market has been for virtually its entire existence, pretty much every major automaker has nevertheless kept the good stuff out of our hands on at least one occasion. And even in the instances when they did offer us their best and brightest platforms, said best and brightest were often diluted, neutered or otherwise dumbed-down for Yankee consumption. Uncle Sam’s abnormally strict regulations are frequent recipients of blame for this, but the manufacturers deserve plenty of ticked-off fingers pointing at them for focusing on pinching pennies and/or sensing (rightly or wrongly) a lack of demand.
Regardless of who’s guilty, the fact of the matter is we Americans have been fed four wheeled equivalents of watered-down beer and for decades. However, the following 10 examples of this practice are the ones about which you should be genuinely pissed. Warn the neighbors, because you’re about to get loud…
We know what you’re thinking: “How could the final-generation Nissan Stanza have been more exciting elsewhere in the world? It was pretty much the motoring equivalent of elevator music or store-brand vanilla ice cream!” Well, back home in Japan, the U12-chassis Stanza (or Bluebird as it was known over there) could be had with a sizable variety of engine and drivetrain options, but the one we (and you) care about is the iconic SR20DET turbocharged and intercooled 2.0L inline-four (rated at 202 horsepower) and ATTESA all-wheel-drive system installed in the range-topping Bluebird SSS Twin-Cam Turbo. And in case you weren’t already jealous, there was a fetching four-door hardtop bodystyle (with no B-pillar between the front and rear doors connecting to the roof) available in addition to the conventional sedan.
BMW M3 (E36)
You would think that the debut of the second-generation BMW M3 (based on the E36 3 Series) was a joyous occasion. And for enthusiasts in most markets, it was. However, when info on the North American version dropped, more than a few Bimmer buffs were actually rather pissed. You see, instead of placing the muscular, 282 horsepower 3.0L straight-six (which bore the internal designation S50B30) used in literally every other market (including Canada, albeit in just 45 early cars) under the hood, BMW plopped in a different 3.0L six (known as the S50B30US) that, aside from larger cylinder bores to up the displacement and upgraded camshafts and other valvetrain components, was identical to the humdrum 2.5L inline-six found in the 325i and 525i. It was rated at a measly 240 horsepower.
Come 1995, the rest-of-the-world M3’s engine was enlarged to 3.2L and output climbed to an eye-popping 316 horsepower. Surely Munich would throw us this bone, right? Wrong! The new engine was, as before, the same size as the Euro one (3.2L), but was again only superficially different from BMW’s regular six-pot (which by this time topped out at 2.8L). Oh, and output was still 240 horsepower. Plus, U.S.- and Canada-bound Z3 M Roadsters and Coupes – which were, irony of ironies, made at BMW’s South Carolina factory – suffered the same fate. It wasn’t until 2001 and the debut of the E46 M3 that buyers on this side of the Atlantic got to enjoy the same fire-farting, six-throttlebody hellion that everyone else did in their hot 3ers and Z3s…but even then it was down by about five horsepower!
Lexus SC (First Generation)
Just as the original LS400 immediately established Lexus as a credible builder of large luxury sedans, the charming, California-designed SC300 and SC400 coupes that showed up a couple years later proved that Toyota’s premium label was serious about world class luxury coupes. And while the SC300 (with its 3.0L 2JZ-GE inline-six) and SC400 (with the LS400’s 4.0L 1UZ-FE V8) were both fine cars, neither one was particularly sporty. Fortunately for buyers back home in Japan (where the car served as the third-generation Toyota Soarer), there was a third engine option: the turbocharged 2.5L inline-six known to Toyotaphiles the world over as the 1JZ-GTE. Early versions of this engine featured twin turbochargers, while 1JZ-GTEs made after 1996 lost a turbo but added a redesigned cylinder head, variable valve timing and other tweaks, yet both versions were officially rated at 276 horsepower (per the infamous Japanese manufacturer “gentlemen’s agreement”). However, even at that blatantly-lowballed figure, the turbo six was still more powerful than even the V8, and a 5-speed manual transmission was standard throughout the model’s run (It disappeared from the USDM SC300’s option sheet after 1997.). Yeah, a raucous turbocharged version of the SC might not have meshed with infant Lexus’ smooth, quiet isolation chamber M.O., but just think how fun (and collectible) a hypothetical “SC250T” would have been…
Back in the mid-1980s, Ford management reckoned the best chance Mercury and Lincoln had at stemming the rising tide of European prestige imports was with their own European prestige import. It was for this purpose that the Merkur (German for Mercury) division was established, and its sporty entry-level model was the XR4Ti. The rear-drive XR4Ti was based on the Ford Sierra XR4i, substituting the Euro version’s 2.8L V6 with the 175 horsepower turbocharged 2.3L inline-four found in the Ford Thunderbird Turbo Coupe, Mustang SVO and Mercury Cougar XR7. Sure, it was a hot little number (hot enough to win the 1985 British Saloon Car Championship – renamed the British Touring Car Championship two years later – in the hands of Andy Rouse)…but Ford of Europe had bigger plans for the platform, and it enlisted the help of frequent-collaborator Cosworth to put those plans into action.
Cosworth cooked up a turbocharged and intercooled 2.0L DOHC inline-four generating 204 horsepower and known by the codename YBB, while Ford designers added flared fenders (to allow wider wheels and tires to be installed on Group A race and rally versions), a front grille opening to feed the intercooler and a redesigned rear wing to help the Sierra RS Cosworth, as the car came to be named, stick to the ground at speeds up to 186 mph (which was well above the street version’s v-max). The car also made use of the standard 3-door Sierra body shell, rather than the XR4i/XR4Ti shell which featured an unusual split quarter window treatment.
Still not jealous? Okay, dig the specs on the 1987-only Sierra RS500 Cosworth: An additional rear spoiler, additional rear suspension mounting points, front brake ducts instead of fog lights, and modifications to the engine (resulting in a designation change to YBD) that increased output to 224 horsepower in street trim and over 500 horsepower in race trim. Just 500 of these monsters were made to homologate some of the trick parts for racing and, like the regular Sierra RS Cosworth and the rear- and all-wheel-drive four-door sedan versions that followed, not a single one of them came to America; then again, bringing the Cossies over probably would have done bupkis to postpone or prevent the eventual failure of the Merkur experiment, and would have cost Ford a crapload of time and money in safety and emissions certification.
The Audi Q7 is a fine, fine full-size three-rows-of-seats German luxury SUV. However, unlike the BMW X5 and Mercedes-Benz GL, there’s never been a weapons-grade hot rod version of the Q7…right? Actually, Audi did make a high-po Q7; it just never brought it here. But instead of equipping it with some fire-breathing gas engine that puts a totes guano horsepower figure on the board, Audi instead created a 6.0L V12 TDI turbodiesel.
While certainly inspired by the 5.5L V12 beast that powered the company’s R10 TDI Le Mans Prototype, the Q7 engine shared only its configuration and fuel type with that racing powerplant. It was rated at 493 horsepower (on the U.S./SAE scale) and 738 lb.-ft of torque. Audi claimed that the Q7 6.0 TDI would scoot to 62 mph in 5.5 seconds and pull over 0.9 g on the skidpad…all while getting about 21 mpg U.S. Those are all spectacular figures, folks…
And they would have been figures that we would be able to try out on home soil: Audi initially planned to offer this bad mother trucker – complete with an AdBlue urea injection system to meet federal and California emissions regulations – on these shores beginning with the 2009 or ’10 model year. Alas, as we all know, it was right before that that the global economy sharted all over the bed and, as was the case with U.S.-market diesel projects from GM, Ford, Honda and Nissan that were also gestating around that same time, the American V12 TDI was canned. Yeah, we eventually got the V6 diesel version, but that thing really stretches the definition of “consolation prize,” if you ask us.
For all the (deserved) praise that’s been heaped upon the Nissan 240SX over the years, it could have been even better. And in markets outside North America (where it was called the Silvia, 180SX or 200SX depending on the generation, bodystyle and market), it was a better car…thanks almost entirely to the engines under its hood (Speaking of hoods, the notchback-only S13 Silvia had unique front bodywork with exposed headlights.). The USDM 240SX was, as its name implies, powered by a 2.4L engine, specifically the 140 horsepower KA24E SOHC inline-four (installed in 1989 and ’90 cars) and the 155 horsepower KA24DE DOHC version of the same (installed in cars from 1991 until the end of production in 1998). These engines – derived from a truck and family car design – got the job done, but they were hardly sport coupe material.
Elsewhere in the world, the S13 and S14 chassis Nissans were propelled by engines that traded displacement for playfulness: Early cars had either the CA18DE (a 1.8L DOHC inline four rated at 131 horsepower) or the CA18DET (a turbocharged version of the same engine rated at 167 horsepower), while 1991 saw a switch to the 2.0L SR20DE (producing 138 horsepower) and the turbocharged SR20DET (making 202 horsepower). The switch to the S14 chassis saw slight power increases for both the naturally-aspirated and turbo models.
Maybe if Nissan had had the stones to offer the SR20DET alongside the KA24DE over here, maybe the S14 240SX would have sold well enough to merit bringing the S15 Silvia over. Hell, the Nissan S-cars might still be in production, giving enthusiast buyers a cheaper, more practical alternative to the Z and the GT-R…and giving the engineers of the Toyobaru twins, the Hyundai Genesis Coupe and the American pony car troika serious headaches!
Much like the 1932-’40 Ford V8s were the go-to cars of hot rodding’s formative years, the early- to mid-1990s Honda Civics were the go-to cars of the import tuning craze of the late-‘90s to mid-2000s. They were cheap, plentiful, and responded well to tuning, particularly the hot dog Si models. But the Civic Si not the hottest version of Honda’s bread-and-butter model on the planet; that honor has, since 1997, belonged to the Civic Type R.
The first generation Civic Type R (based on the EK-series 3-door hatchback) featured a distinctive body kit, reduced weight via less sound insulation and other tricks, a seam-welded body shell, a helical limited-slip differential, close-ratio 5-speed manual transmission and a special version of the B16B 1.6L inline-four engine featuring a hand-ported cylinder head, an 8,500 rpm redline and an output of 185 horsepower.
The subsequent two generations of Civic Type R adhered to much the same formula: Improved chassis tuning, sportier styling and screaming VTEC-fed engine. They also stayed the course with regard to never coming to the U.S., as the Si remains the most potent Civic you can get here to this very day. The upcoming fourth generation Type R – the first to trade superbike-high revs for the fuel-economy, emissions and torque curve friendliness of turbocharging – is rumored by some outlets to be offered here eventually (or at least its engine is), but we don’t see Honda top brass coming around to the notion that people in this country actually do buy ultra-high-performance hatchbacks in worthwhile numbers anytime soon, even though Ford and VW are gearing up to send their even-hotter-hatches (the Focus RS and Golf R, respectively) our way…
Volkswagen Golf (Mk. 2)
The second-generation Volkswagen Golf (which, unlike its predecessor, was actually called a Golf over here) was a decent economy car, and the second-generation GTI it spawned was a decent hot hatch, particularly the later 16-valve models. However, the GTI was by no means the hottest Golf Mk. 2 under the sun; in fact, there were multiple models above it on the totem pole.
The first and most common mega-Golf was the G60, so named because it used Volkswagen’s supercharged 8-valve 1.8L inline-four designated the G60. In Golf G60 form, it was rated at 158 horsepower and 166 lb.-ft of torque, increases of 24 and 29, respectively, over even the 2.0L 16V GTI. Next up was the Rallye Golf, of which only 5,000 were made. It too was G60-powered (though the displacement was actually reduced by a whopping 18 cubic centimeters in order to come in under the FIA Group A regulations’ 3000cc limit after the forced-induction multiplier of 1.7 was applied), and didn’t make any additional power, but it did have VW’s Syncro AWD system, unique front and rear fascias and box-style fender flares. It was also priced at about double the cost of a GTI, and was actually more than half-a-second slower to 60 mph in real world testing thanks to all the extra weight of the supercharger, Syncro and other hardware.
But the absolute king of the stock Golf Mk. 2s was the Golf G60 Limited. Just 71 of these five-door devils were hand-assembled by Volkswagen Motorsport, combining more-or-less standard GTI bodywork (with the exception of blue striping around the grille) with Syncro, a sport 5-speed manual transmission, and a unique 16-valve version of the G60 rated at 207 horsepower and 186 lb.-ft of torque, interiors loaded with leather seats and power everything. Naturally, they were insanely expensive, so it’s no surprise most of them ended up in the hands of VW executives.
Renault Le Car
Like most foreign automakers in the 1970s, Renault had a fuel-frugal response to the decade’s energy crises more-or-less ready to sell to suddenly-MPG-mindful Americans in the form of the 5, a car that, when fitted with the modifications to the lights, bumpers, engine and other systems demanded by Uncle Sam, became the Le Car. But while the idea of the Le Car was sound, its execution – like so many French and Italian imports of the era – left quite a lot to be desired.
Perhaps more U.S. buyers would have been willing to forgive the Le Car’s tendency to troll its operator harder than a bored Trekkie on a Star Wars forum if it had flared fenders and replaced the rear seat with a turbocharged 1.4L inline-four generating 158 horsepower. That’s essentially what Renault and Alpine did to create the 5 Turbo, an extreme econobox designed to take full advantage of the FIA’s Group 4 rally car regulations. Once the necessary first batch of 400 cars required for homologation was completed, the car was replaced by the 5 Turbo 2; the new version utilized more standard 5/Le Car componentry, which raised the weight but lowered the cost, meaning this little freak was financially attainable for more buyers…provided those buyers weren’t in North America, of course.
Realistically, Renault was far too busy trying to figure out how to run recently-acquired AMC and Jeep in this country (and how to placate irate buyers of its own products) to put forth the time, effort and money needed to come up with a 5 Turbo that would have received the EPA’s and NHTSA’s mystical rubber stamps of approval. However, that doesn’t keep us from wishing they had…
Volvo 850 R
We love the Volvo 850 R: It’s a zany, turbocharged butter stick of an automobile that was available in the United States as a sedan and as a station wagon. What wasn’t available over here, though, was an 850 R with a manual transmission. Granted, the standard-shift 850 R was rare even in places it was offered (It was a 1996-only model.) but it was, on paper, anyway, one honey of a rarity: The 5-speed manual transaxle (codenamed M59) also incorporated a Torsen limited-slip differential, while the turbocharged 2.3L inline-five was tuned to belt out 250 horsepower and 260 lb.-ft of torque, increases of 10 and 40, respectively, over the 4-speed automatic 850 R. Acceleration to 62 mph was at least a half-second quicker, while the top speed increased by 6 to 158 mph. Yep, as powertrain snubs go, this one cuts deeper than most.