I’m not one to jump in the deep end, yet here I was on my first ever overseas trip, two hours from Tokyo, standing in front of a rental car shop.
There were no boring hatchbacks or sedans in front of me, no, these cars weren’t your standard A to B affair. I was at a shop called Fun2Drive and all the cars on offer here were straight out of my boyhood dreams.
Have you ever wanted to drive a GT-R, RX7 or an NSX for a day? This is the place to come!
Having driven less than 3 hours in Japan in total at this point, the nerves were setting in. What had I done? Signing the insurance paperwork, I worried if I had bitten off more than I could chew…
Tucked away in the serene mountains around Hakone/Lake Ashi this is the last thing you would expect to find, a rental car shop that specialises in sports cars.
Fun2Drive has an amazing mix of cars available, and just like any rental car you can rent them by the hour or even days at a time. Drivers can also choose to partake in tours which take you along some breathtaking roads, some made famous by the Initial D anime series. This is a great option to try out a heap of cars and have a tonne of fun trying to keep up with the instructor.
Booking these cars was a walk in the park. Just a quick google translation of the website and a few emails back and forth with the friendly owner, Chikara, was all it took. He spoke perfect English and made the whole process incredibly easy. On the day, I was met by Yoshi. He was super friendly and also spoke great English which was a huge relief being the ignorant traveler I was, I didn’t learn much more than “Hello” “Excuse me” and ” Thank you” before I set off on the trip to Japan.
First I had to complete a quick 10 minute driving test with Yoshi to see if I could be trusted with their precious cars. I was a little nervous, it had been more than 10 years since I was in a car with any sort of instructor. Thankfully I passed with flying colours. After dropping Yoshi back off at the shop, I set off.
I chose to go it alone and didn’t book a tour, I decided I would take 3 cars for 3 hours each. A sample box of Japan’s finest if you will. No maps, no guides, I was just hitting the open road.
I also decided to rent the cars in chronological order. So first up was a beautiful Hakosuka Skyline. After a quick drive, I pulled over to let that sink in for a minute…
Me, driving, Japan, Hakosuka… Bucket list? TICK !!
This KGC10 Skyline was a stunning example even though this was a replica GT-R. With my hands wrapped around the steering wheel and foot planted on the accelerator, I couldn’t tell and neither could passerby’s.
I found myself torn between staring at it and actually driving it. I must have walked around the car at least 8 times before I finally snapped out of it and jumped back in the drivers seat.
Back behind the wheel I was happy because the roads were just as beautiful as the car!! I was in driving bliss! The smells, vibrations and sounds of the throaty 2.0 litre engine as it powered up the hill were intoxicating.
The closest car I’ve driven in terms of age was a 1970’s MG coupe. While not without it’s charms, I didn’t walk away feeling an empty hole that could only be filled by purchasing a classic sports car. No, I just felt like I’d had a fleeting experience with something novel from a time I didn’t understand. It felt like a chore to wrestle around the corners and the engine response was a little underwhelming. I’m sure in its day, many a necks were broken if one came whizzing by.
The Skyline on the other hand, I found from the turn of the key to be something truly special. The initial sound of the fuel pump, then the engine coming to life sending a shock wave of vibrations from the front to the rear of the car, left me in a dizzying high before I’d even set off down the road.
Like most older cars, the steering was clunky and heavy at low speed. Once it was up and moving along though it felt very responsive and the suspension was quite a lot stiffer than I had expected.
I also really enjoyed the slight delay when pressing the accelerator before the car would begin moving. It didn’t feel like that annoying lag you get in an under powered or automatic car. It felt ‘mechanical’ like a million little pieces were coming together to thrust the car forward. It didn’t build up either, it was simply on power or off. This really made shifting down a gear before blasting up a mountain an addictive cocktail, like lighting the fuse of a rocket and jumping on.
Before long I was starting to feel comfortable behind the wheel and I began to just drive the car, I wasn’t premeditating my next move anymore or worrying if I would break this 40+ year old car. It was amazing to just lose myself in the car, the roads and the country.
After only a couple of hours with this Skyline, driving through a few towns it became apparent that this was no ordinary car… It was a national icon! Everywhere I went people were pointing, giving the thumbs up and gesturing to rev the engine.
People young and old were instantly taken by the car. Everywhere I stopped someone would come over and start taking photos of it. At one point an entire family came over and took a group photo with it!
After just 3 hours it was time to say goodbye to one of the best cars I’ve ever driven. I was dreading driving back to the shop. I was feeling like a kid returning to school after the holidays until I realised there were still two more cars to drive! My vacation wasn’t over!!
Flash forward 20 minutes and some 20 years of technology, and motoring in Japan had changed quite a bit! My car for the next 3 hours was this striking Honda NSX, in the ever popular Formula Red factory paint no less. As a self proclaimed Honda geek, I was in heaven!!
While booking my trip, I was easily most excited by the prospect of driving an NSX. This is the holy grail for Honda fans. This was as much Formula One tech Honda could cram into a road legal car at the time.
What could be better than driving around in your hero car on roads with this view?!!
With the giant Mt Fuji in the background everywhere I looked, I was constantly pulling over to snap away like crazy at the two amazing Japanese icons.
We all know how good the NSX’s looks… But how was it to drive? Did it live up to the dream? In one word, YES! I have never experienced such a well balanced car with so much feedback from the road before. The steering was manual and surprisingly light and the suspension was spot on. It never felt awkward, even at speed through corners.
The closest car I’ve driven before with a mid mount engine was a Toyota SW20 MR2 Turbo. The MR2 was from the same era and while plenty of things about the NSX reminded me of the MR2, like the interior, pop-up headlights and bright red paint. However, they were worlds apart. Taking the price difference out of the equation from new, they were both Japanese mid-mount sports cars. The MR2 felt awkward and snappy through corners, the turbo had lag and most of all the shift linkage felt very detached. The gear changing in the MR2 was probably my least favorite characteristic.
Now behind the wheel of the NSX, I was happy to report the handling was brilliant and the gear changes perfect! I’d read once that the NSX was known for having one of the best feeling gear changes. I couldn’t agree more.
As for the power? Funnily enough after reading countless comments on social media pages in response to those “what would you rather own?” type of pictures of some Japanese sports cars, comment after comment would say they wouldn’t touch an NSX because they’re slow, N/A etc etc. I guess the stigma of non-turbo cars got to me and I was not expecting anything exciting…
Oh how I was wrong, they were all so wrong. The response from this engine was amazing. Right from the get go, through to the high RPM, the power is constant and linear.
It didn’t suffer down low like most infamous high horse power Honda engines, there was no need to wait for this magical ‘VTEC’ to kick in and propel me down the road, which I think most of us are guilty of associating with angry loud noises and not actual increases in speed.
This was different, and the sound was phenomenal! It was literally singing as I carved up the mountain, radio off, windows down, just listening to the soundtrack of the C30A engine growling away. I was ecstatic! At one point I was following a convertible Ferrari 458 Italia. Let’s just say the driving was ‘spirited’ and the NSX was well and truly holding it’s own against the Italian thoroughbred.
All this from a 25 year old sports car, truly a marvel of it’s time. If you’re not into Honda’s or the NSX, do some reading and you soon will be. It has an aluminum body, the interior and windows were heavily inspired by the 360 view from an F-16 fighter jets’ cockpit. Even the late Aryton Senna played a part in the NSX’s development, giving the final advice on the tuning of the suspension and handling. Ladies and gentleman, the stars were aligned the day this rolled out of the factory.
Billed as the “affordable” super car, I get it. I really do. I came across a recent article of a man who owns one of the first NSX’s that came out of the dealership in 1990. Currently with over 400,000 kms on the clock, the car and owner are still just as happy as that first day. He was apparently from the Hakone area as well. I could not imagine a greater car to own in an even greater place.
Now after my 3 hours it was time to say goodbye to my new friend, I think I genuinely felt sad about handing the keys back. This time I’d somehow convinced myself in the short window of time that this was MY car, I’d fallen in love. Everything about this car was just so right. I thoroughly enjoyed my time driving the NSX and given the opportunity I’d own one in a heartbeat.
Now it was of course time to trade the NSX in for the third installment of my Japanese motoring sampler box, the mighty Nissan GT-R.
Not many cars can claim to simultaneously be both the topdog and the underdog. Nissan not only created the ultimate “tuner” car, which has been running rampant since it’s release in 2007 as a king among Japanese performance cars, it is also the indisputable underdog against the likes of many of Europe’s finest. Known to take down some heavyweight bulls, horses and even the odd German or two. The GT-R is nothing to turn your nose up at.
Truly a feat of engineering, this car shouldn’t be fast, it’s big, heavy and boxy. Thanks to some very clever thinkers over at Nissan/Renault (and two turbos) this car is capable of some neck snapping speeds!
The hulking car uses it’s muscular lines to channel air down over the bodywork, the suspension is active and changes to help make this small mountain feel like a sports car. It even has nitrogen filled tyres from factory because oxygen is too unstable!! So I’ve read the brochures, seen the videos, read the reviews etc… But what was it like behind the wheel?! Bloody good fun!!
While the NSX I was driving just moments before made me feel like there was harmony between man and machine, I felt like I was working along side the car to go faster and faster. In the GT-R I was definitely just along for the ride. Once you push that accelerator you’re just holding on. It goes from standstill to warp 5 in the blink of an eye. Roads just aren’t long enough, not even highways. While driving the GT-R, acceleration was the drug and I was hooked! I was slowing down every chance I got just to accelerate again.
The backdrop of Mt Fuji once again set the scene, now later in the day, the clouds had settled and things got a bit dark and angry as I finished my day with an equally dark and angry car.
After attempting my first parking job at the wheel of the GT-R one thing was apparent, this thing is huge!! No really, until you try to park one you cannot appreciate how truly large these cars are. I thought this might not translate well into the corners, I was however pleasantly surprised. While it certainly lacked the feedback of the NSX, this thing was quite nimble and the brakes were out of this world. It stops nearly as quickly as it takes off. This of course helped build my confidence when using the accelerator, god it was fast!!
After circling the same section of freeway (the on ramp was just way too much fun) it was time to pull over and spend some quiet time with the car, which of course isn’t possible until you come to a complete stop as the gearbox sounds like someone stuffed a Milo tin with firecrackers and rocks and then chucked it in the boot. I’ve been in quieter race cars! I’ve actually read that there’s a disclaimer when purchasing the car new that the gearbox is noisy and that you cannot take it back to the dealership to complain.
Would that stop me from buying one if I had the money? Hell no! This car made me feel like I was 5 years old again. Every time I pushed the accelerator I could feel the weight of my everyday problems lifting from my shoulders, to the back of my head where my tongue and eyes now were. This thing is just ungodly fast.
I was also infatuated with the flappy paddle gearbox, I loved it! Every chance I got coming to a stop, I would hit the paddle to downshift.
Like a rat in a cage pressing the button on a food dispenser, I was rewarded. Rewarded with the ‘eargasmic’ sound of the crackle and pop from the exhaust as the gear changed down. Every time the beautiful sound faded as quickly as it came, back to the deafening sound of the rocks in the Milo tin. That is until I pushed the “go fast” peddle again.
With the day nearly over, I sat quietly looking at the car for moment.
Here I was with a Nissan GT-R, a picturesque town, at the foot of a giant mountain, in one of the greatest countries on Earth. Until I experience the joys of parenthood, I think this will be the happiest day of my life. I really do mean that, I was truly free, keys in hand, I could drive this amazing machine wherever I wanted. That is, until my 3 hours were up.
As much as I’ve tried, I don’t think I can put my experience into words. So please go do it for yourself.
Visit http://fun2drive.co.jp/ and speak with Chikara and Yoshi and make your dreams come true, even it is only for a few hours.
Thanks for reading,