There we sat, the 7 of us nodding off intermittently on the Odakyu highway bus en route to our Hakone destination in Japan. Besides the gorgeous scenery and abundant onsens, this area is renowned for it’s iconic twisty roads as featured in Initial D and is also home of our destination Fun2drive.
Before my very recent trip to Japan, I decided I wanted to get behind the wheel this time around instead of being the typical spectator. A tad skeptical that I’d actually find anything let alone in English, I was surprised to discover a little business called Fun2drive from my interweb searches.
Using the trusty Google Translator, I discovered they hired out sports cars to the public and amongst their fleet included the much desired NSX and R35 GTR. On top of that they also had suggested routes around the Hakone area which resembled a bunch of squiggly lines.
Enough said! My interest had now piqued and I fired off an enquiry email hoping for the best.
In the interest of tasting as many cars as possible within a day, I proposed hiring out 5 cars to our manly Japan crew which was met with unanimous approval. With international licenses complete, online forms filled out, deposits paid and our booking confirmed we were ready to tackle Japan’s touges in style!
After 2 hours on the bus and with the car park lot now in sight, the weary bunch of us were transformed into giggling little school girls.
Stoically braving the cold sat the FD RX7, S2000, NSX, R34 GTR & R35 GTR which we would commandeer for most of the day. There was also a Evo 6.5 TME but that wasn’t available for us doh!
Greeted by Yoshi, who patiently answered my 50 emails and organised our booking, everyone was eager to get driving.
Unfortunately for us the conditions were definitely not optimal. It was raining lightly and visibility was low with mist everywhere. Definitely didn’t dampen our spirits though!
With the weather the way it was, we all knew to take it easy especially with the rear wheel driven cars. Yoshi could obviously feel our amazing driving auras so he proposed a 6 hour route which took us through some of the Initial D stages and also the infamous Mazda turnpike! (I’ve dreamt about driving this road ever since watching the Motörhead video). A thick stack of paper notes exchanged hands along with ink to paper and we were on our way!
My first car to start off the day was one I’ve always wanted because it ticked every box bar one, reliability (I’m sure I’m not alone here). Whichever angle you look at it, the Mazda RX7 FD is a gorgeous piece of work, I could stare at it all day, even if it was bright yellow!
Inside the cockpit was comfy enough although the centre console and shifter felt a tad high. The subtle “brap brap brap” could be heard thanks to an aftermarket exhaust.
For the first time driving a RX7 FD my base impressions were pretty good, the engine felt smooth while handling was nimble and responsive. Disappointedly though the weather hadn’t improved in the slightest so the roads were quite slippery resulting in a slow pace meaning I never got a chance to get a good feel for the car. On top of that the first run was quite short… Boo!
Next up was something of a rarity here in oz, a factory manual Honda NSX NA1. For all 6 drivers on the day, this was the most anticipated car to drive and with good reason! This was Honda’s fabled supercar built to topple the European rivals back in the Japanese golden era. For a car made 25 years ago it hid its age extremely well, interior and exterior were schmick as!
I felt like I was part of something special sitting behind the wheel of this beauty. Everything just felt right, from the heavy solid throw of the shifter to the low riding seat position to the no nonsense cluster and cockpit it simply felt good – reminded me of how a car should be (dem feelz). This example had an exhaust whose sound I could only describe in one word: Manly. It was deep, throaty and refined. Blip the throttle and heads would turn. Open her up through to 8000 RPM and she simply roared – unique in comparison to all the four banger exhaust noises we’re used to hearing on the street.
The weather had not eased up and if anything had gotten worse by adding an unwelcome thick layer of fog. Visibility was down to an all time low as we steadily climbed up the mountain.
For the most of the drive, revs did not climb over 5000 RPM and corner speeds were very tame. This didn’t bother me too much considering I couldn’t control the weather and it was a joy just to drive the NSX. When I did have a chance to let it rev out though, the C30A mid ship V6 VTEC engine answered with smooth and linear power delivery to the redline. If you’re wondering about outright power, I can’t say I was amazed. I actually expected more from the fabled Honda unit but you could probably blame that on my turbo roots which expects exponential power surges, I couldn’t even get the wheels to spin!
The thing with the NSX is though, I never felt disappointed. This was a gentleman’s car refined for cruising and the occasional squirts and although I never had a chance to throw it around hairpin corners I’m sure it would have ate them up with no problems too. I could only imagine the fun factor steering one of these around Wakefield and SMSP.
Would I buy one? Hell yes. With power steering? Nah I like the post bicep pump. At $100K AUD though? Hmmm no thanks…
After stopping for a feed near the Mazda/Toyo Tires Turnpike rear entrance and watching all the WRXs, EVOs and RX7s pass by, we returned to our JDM fleet parked neatly outside. It was a beautiful sight to behold which I’m told could have been majestic if not for the dismal weather – on a clear day Mount Fuji would be clearly visible in the background (would make an awesome hardparked photo).
The steady rain had eased to a light sprinkle now with the fog clearing which I was thankful for as we were about to tackle the Mazda Turnpike. I only came to know about this revered stretch of road a few years ago when Motorhead released their Recaro feature on it (stunning video here). Whilst not exactly twisty, it has elevation changes, straight ways and sweeping corners to keep any earnest driver on his toes.
With the good VTEC vibes still coursing through my body, I was eager to jump into my next NA VTEC machine – the Honda S2000. Out of all cars that Fun2Drive hire out, this was the most modified. A bucket seat, roll cage and gauges made up the inside view while a hard top, widebody fenders and Alcon 6 pots brake calipers were evident on the outside. Not so obvious though was what was lurking underneath, a Motec tuned F20C with ITB’s; nuff said.
I’ve always had a soft spot for S2000’s and always wanted one as a second (track) car because quite simply, they’re just a lot a fun.
Jumping into this S2K I felt right at home, it was noisy, cramped and bumpy… just the way I like it. Intentionally the first behind Yoshi’s Liberty B4 for this route, the entourage rolled out.
It took a bit of getting used to leaving the revs around 5000 RPM as not only is this something I’d rarely do in my S15 but the engine and exhaust noise were close to deafening at that rev range. And when VTEC kicked in (yo), you definitely knew about it as the “BWAHHHHHH” bellowing out through the ITBs is the only thing you hear. The car itself felt great, it was well balanced overall in terms of braking, handling and power. Stabbing the throttle at high rev ranges and getting instant response was fun as was chasing Yoshi through the glorious downhill turnpike. Traffic at times did put a damper on the momentum but Yoshi always tried to make the best of it by giving them some room and then giving chase.
Jumping out of the S2000 at the end of my drive though, I actually felt a little let down. For a car I had set my sights on as potentially my second car I felt it simply needed more ooomph. Even with this tuned example, below 5500RPM it felt worse than T51R turbo lag on a 2 Litre and even once in the VTEC zone performance was just average. A good but tame overall package that comparably a Silvia could provide.
It needs to borrow torque from the NSX…
For the next driver change it was my turn to be passenger which meant choosing my chauffeur vehicle, was it even a question? I just couldn’t get enough of the V6 VTEC masterpiece. As we ventured to lower altitudes the heavens opened up and chasing grip soon became less of a worry – I even noticed everyone driving that tiny fraction harder. Just my luck, improved conditions when I wasn’t driving. Not to mention too that the Nanamagari Touge route was nothing short of amazing, this was indeed the real life Initial D hairpins as seen in the 5th stage battles; the NSX took the corners on like a champ (with the TCS light blinking frantically). All I could think about was hopping into my next drive with the same conditions and roads.
Why oh why does the drive seem so long when you’re a passenger?
From everyone I spoke to prior to this day, I came to the conclusion that a Nissan Skyline GTR R34 in stock form was a slow boat. This GTR only had a cat back exhaust so my expectations were set well and truly low. This was Godzilla though, and my achievable dream car! So despite my preconceptions I was still excited to give this all it had to offer on the touge… and boy was I surprised. This was no slug, the shove from the 2.6L six at low revs was more than plenty to get you going and it’ll keep barging on steadily till the tacho ends. Throw in the sweet inline six note on top of this and I was truly in a nice place… Almost as nice as the NSX.
The cockpit was pretty basic though which was expected #becauseNissan bar for the informative display screen. I didn’t even get much time to play around with it as I focused purely on pushing the GTR harder and harder around the Yugawara Parkway corners. This was actually one of the most memorable drives out of the whole tour for me as I really tested the BNR34’s worth through the great mix of uphill and downhill corners on this route. At first I was hesitant going WOT on corner exit but with the dry tarmac and ATTESSA 4WD system proving it knows how to find traction I was soon throwing the car into the corner and letting the car pull itself out mid corner… this was night and day difference from my RWD Nissan Silvia S15. I’ve never really taken an AWD hard around tight corners on touge roads back home (blame our crappy roads for that) but with this car there was no hesitation, it instilled confidence. Even with the surplus weight compared to its RWD rivals, the only time I felt it was under heavy braking and acceleration from a standstill.
The drive was engaging and I loved it, I was truly impressed – I want one… And I’m going to get one eventually. Now imagine one with HKS V-Cam, Borg Warner 8374…
You could say the best was saved til last, but from my previous drive of the R35 GTR in the U.S (link) I was full of mixed emotions. I love this car for too many reasons to list and it was a Nissan. Motoring documentary and friends pronounce how quick the R35 is in a straight line and around corners but my experience behind the wheel of one at Las Vegas Speedway nowhere near reflected any of that.
Transmission Race Mode? On. Suspension Race Mode? On. Traction Control Race Mode? Hmmm… better leave that one on. Clutch in and let’s go! Oh wait…
First thing I do when I have the chance is plant my foot to the floor and only one word comes to mind: Power. I don’t know what drugs the R35 Godzilla in the states was on but it needs to go to rehab because this is how a GTR is meant to feel like. Acceleration was just brutal. Every gear dialed out so quick that I was finger blasting the paddle shifters like an excited youngster, there was no stopping this unstoppable force. I know it’s no fair comparison going from 206kW to 357kW but the VR38DETT is an absolute monster, there is power everywhere. Handling wise compared to the R34, the difference going up a weight class in the R35 was more evident as the car felt big and bulky on braking and initial corner turn in.
Just like the R34, smashing the gas pedal mid corner brings no fear except in the R35 you can do it one handed… yep it’s that easy, point and shoot. It’s subtle but you can feel the electronics kick in and help lightly counter steer for you while clawing the 1800kg body out of a corner rocketing the car in the desired direction. The electronics really make it easy to drive quick.
After spending a bit of time keeping the 255/285 wide tyres at optimal temperature, I soon realised that this car was bit of a paradox. You see, there’s no denying the R35 is amazingly quick and being quick in itself is fun. But being quick in this car meant heavy electronic assistance which somewhat dulls the raw driving experience and takes away the engagement from the driver (call me old fashioned too but I also love the feeling of stick shifting). Now I can relate to why people say this car can be boring, and I agree to an extent. I’m all for the raw driving sensation but it also dawned on me that those electronics are there not just to maximise speed, but to do so while keeping your head firmly attached to our body. After all, we’re not all pro race drivers (well not yet anyway :P). Good job Nissan, good job!
Seeing that this was the final drive of the day, it would have made sense to use this as a cruising cooldown session – our good mate Yoshi had other ideas though, and so until the end of the Tsubaki Line route, the R35 Godzilla obliged to my every command breathing fire down the B4’s rear bumper and keeping my rear view mirror clear of any foes. A monster clearly deserving of it’s name.
I look forward to having this beast in my garage! (In white of course)
By the end of our Fun2Drive 6 hour tour we were all pretty spent, the touge demands all your energy and attention. But the smiles on our faces, you simply could not wipe them off… the memories of piloting our favourite JDM cars through some of the best roads will be imprinted in our memories forever. Because unless you’re a local in Japan, when else would you ever be able to experience such an amazing thing? And no, playing the Initial D arcade game doesn’t count.
I could only wish for such amazing roads back home in Sydney but I know alas that can never be. And so the reverse thought occurred, how would Pearl hold up on the Hakone Touge?
Writing this article and looking through all the photos brought back so many pleasant memories, I can quite honestly say it was one of the highlights of my Japan trip. Even now we all still talk about our favourite roads and cars like it was yesterday. A quick look on Carsales makes us appreciate the experience even more as these JDM heroes slowly get out of reach.
A big thanks goes to Yoshi and the rest of the Fun2Drive crew for their organisation and patience throughout our experience, they’re super friendly and catered to all of our needs. I hear they’re adding another NSX and a Subaru WRX STi 22B and who knows what else to their fleet so there may be a sequel to this article yet!
Thanks also to my boys Lee, Dylan, Jony, Sang, Sukree and Josh who were happy to tag along and be part of this awesome experience.
Hope you enjoyed the read!