I first visited Fun2Drive during a vacation to Japan in 2016. Long story short, I had the time of my life driving their ‘93 Birkin clone of a Lotus Super 7 on some of the best mountain roads Japan has to offer. Last October, I was back in the country to get all married and stuff, so I made sure to carve out some time to go back for more. Fun2Drive and the logistics of their tours are still the same, so I’ll spare you the repetition of those details and get straight to the new stuff.
For this visit, I chose a ‘00 Subaru Impreza WRX STi v6 Limited, which I’ll refer to as a WRX from this point forward because those are too many words. Of all the WRXs, I’ve always preferred the first generation for its looks and lighter weight. I know the more recent models have made substantial chassis improvements, but I believed I had it in me to forgive some flex when there’s a gentleman’s “276” horsepower being dispensed through a proper mechanical AWD system in a package roughly the size and weight of a BRZ. I’ve had some some seat time in both a ‘02 and ‘08 WRX (non-STi) in the past and found them to be enjoyable, but they stopped just short of truly clicking with me. I was hoping this car which I had admired from a distance for so long would finally be able to win me over.
I also had some company on this drive. A good friend of mine and his fiancee were along for the wedding and they wanted to get in on this as well. They were hoping to snag Fun2Drive’s ‘91 Porsche 911 Turbo, but it ran into some mechanical issues a few days before our scheduled drive and was still out of commission by the time we arrived. The timing of the 911's problems meant that most of the usual favorites were already reserved, so his car for the day would be the ‘95 Nissan Skyline GT-R (R33). It may be the least-loved of its brethren, but one has to consider that anything festooned with those three letters on a bad day is probably better than most cars on a good day. In any case, we were still planning on swapping at some point during the tour. Fun2Drive only charges $20 per additional driver for the privilege, so why wouldn’t we?
Fun2Drive structures their most popular tours around morning and afternoon segments, with the former being a mostly relaxed, scenic cruise and the later focusing almost entirely on winding mountain roads. My first visit with the Super 7 was for the afternoon only, but this time we’d be going all-in with the full day tour. Once you factor in the bus rides between Tokyo and Hakone, anything beyond the morning cruise will cost you the better part of a day, so we decided we might as well make the most of it.
The new-to-me morning segment would add a visit to Fuji Speedway, two mountain roads, a few other points of interest, and many views of Mt. Fuji. I didn’t get to do much in the way of sightseeing last time due to some heavy fog, so I was hoping the weather would be more cooperative and I’d be able to take in some of the scenery. Thankfully, luck was on our side in a very big way, because the tour landed on a warm and clear day ... right between a typhoon and a tropical storm.
We were joined at the start of the day by a few groups of people split between the Elise, the NSX, and the rest of the “modern” GT-R set (R32-R35). After the introductory activities at the Fun2Drive office, we hopped in our cars and headed through town towards Fuji Speedway. Traffic was light and the route was generally unremarkable, but we did encounter a tunnel or two in which we could, at the encouragement of our guides, conduct an “acceleration test.” Noises were made.
This mundane start gave me a good chance to get acquainted with the WRX and mentally readjust to driving on the other side of the car and road again. It wasn’t quite as easy as it was before in the I-can-see-the-entire-car-from-the-driver’s-seat Super 7, but the experience built up from that previous drive and two years of autocross helped me recalibrate quickly. As for my friend, he had recently spent some time driving around in Ireland, so making the switch here was a non-event.
We eventually arrived at Fuji Speedway, stopped for a brief photo-op at the gate, paid a nominal admission fee, and then headed on in. It wasn’t guaranteed that our tour would coincide with any events at this location, but again, luck was with us and the whole facility was abuzz with activity. We caught glimpses of police training, a small Nismo performance driving event, and even some racers putting in what appeared to be testing or qualifying laps. Our time here was limited, but it was still great to see in person after having spent many hours driving on it in Gran Turismo games.
Next, we headed towards the Mikuni and Myojin Touge, the first of the mountain roads for the day. Both were of moderate speed and difficulty, but nowhere near the length or intensity of those in the afternoon set. Regardless, I was more than ready to put the WRX to work by this point. I’ll get to my thoughts on how it and the R33 were to drive shortly, but I will at least say here that the WRX made an outstanding first impression. I could tell I was going to be in for a good time come the afternoon.
The driving calmed back down again as we exited the touge to spend our remaining morning tour time near Lake Yamanaka. This lake is the largest of the Fujigoko (Mt. Fuji’s five lakes) and the area around it provided some astonishingly good views.
The morning session concluded with a stop at a small shopping center near the lake. We discovered here that we were the only ones who had signed up for both halves of the tour, so while the other cars left to fuel up and return to Fun2Drive, we got to relax a bit longer. My friend and I also decided at this point that we’d trade cars for the next few segments.
Our guide eventually got the phone call to head out, so my friend and I traded keys and we departed for Nagao Touge. Not long after we had parked our cars, the rest of the afternoon group arrived with the R34, AE86, FD RX-7, and NSX. Once again, the tour guides went over the upcoming routes with us and then the part of the day I had been looking forward to the most was finally underway.
I’ll defer to my previous write-up again for this portion of the tour, because it was essentially the same as my last visit. The roads were just as great as I had remembered them to be, albeit with more hazardous plant matter intruding onto the road, courtesy of Typhoon Lan. Fortunately, our guides kept up their constant stream of radioed information about road/traffic conditions ahead and we all managed to stay out of trouble. Best of all, the troublesome fog from my drive in the Super 7 was nowhere to be seen, so the views and overall pace in many areas were vastly improved.
In terms of my overall thoughts on the tours, I believe the morning was at least worth doing once, but the afternoon is really where it’s at. Mt. Fuji was magnificent and Fuji Speedway was even better than I had expected. However, the afternoon is the clear winner when it comes to the main draw of driving interesting cars on interesting roads. It was just as fun the second time around and its scenic stops (weather permitting) should be enough to scratch any sightseeing itch you might have. It’s definitely the way to go if you only have the time or money for one.
First and foremost, we really need to talk about these decals. They’re little nuggets of concentrated 80s-90s Japanese weirdness, with fonts ranging from outrageously serif to LOL what’s CAPiTALiZATiON, outline colors that don’t give a damn what color the rest of the car is, and a smattering of accent shapes to round it all out. The designs make little sense and they sit in stark contrast to the gentle body lines surrounding them. That said, I actually kind of like them, but I can’t explain why. My best guess is that at some point while I was focused on driving, one of those wild serifs snuck into my brain and shorted some neural connection into appreciating that particular aesthetic.
Let’s get back to the car itself before I digress any further. It’s no secret that the WRX hails from the school of Throw a Bunch of Go-Fast Parts at an Otherwise Normal Car. There’s a rather plain Impreza body sitting beneath the wing, skirts, and aggressive front-end which doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to see. It’s very much the same story once you sit inside, with only the bright blue seats, MOMO wheel, and white gauge cluster being the only apparent differences. Don’t mistake this for a complaint though, because I’m an unabashed function over form kind of guy who just wants to know how something drives. If nothing else, it made for an amusing departure from what we’ve grown to expect from the appearance and features of performance-oriented halo cars.
Around town, the WRX’s size was just about perfect inside and out. It was large enough to fit all 6'2" of me inside with room to spare, but small enough that I didn’t have to worry about keeping it within the confines of its lane or squeezing past opposing traffic in Japan’s perilously narrow residential streets. The average-height seats and generous greenhouse also helped considerably in figuring out where the rest of the car was and building up the confidence to make haste through the tight mountain passes.
Speaking of those seats, I’d rank them among the best I’ve ever sat in. They’re well-bolstered with gentle contours and decent padding, so I was plenty secure and comfortable for the entire day. They do look a little out of place next to the rest of the interior, however.
I also took a liking to the WRX’s 5-speed transmission, at least once the oil warmed up. At the start of the day, I thought I knew what “shifting through a box of rocks” was like, but this was on another level. It also didn’t help that first gear spent the first 20 minutes being difficult to engage and trying its hardest to make me look like an idiot at more than a few stop lights. Thankfully, those problems gradually faded away and the car gave me a very usable linkage to work with. I wouldn’t call it smooth, but the short and mechanically communicative throws felt great. The clutch had a relatively narrow range of engagement which took a moment to get used to, but it was ready and willing to let me bang out some quick shifts by the time we reached the mountains.
In the grand scheme of things, this WRX isn’t exactly a featherweight, but 2800 lbs isn’t a whole lot to ask its drivetrain to motivate either. The sensations during full throttle acceleration were borderline giggle-inducing, aided by the blowoff valve and aftermarket muffler making all the right sounds (like so). The turbo starts to really get going around 3500 RPM and keeps the party going all the way up to engine’s surprisingly high 8000 RPM redline. I didn’t find myself bothered by what little turbo lag I noticed either, so squeezing out every last bit of power this car had to offer was a delight. I now understand why the EJ207 is held in such high regard.
The WRX’s 235-width Federal RS-Rs also turned out to be plenty for the amount of car riding on them and what I was asking it to do. Steering was direct, nicely weighted, and the rack had a ratio on par with that of most other sporty cars. There was an adjustable center differential at my command as well, but I had no desire to change out of the most rear-biased setting. That particular balance felt well-matched to the type of driving going on and even managed to hint at oversteer a few times while powering out of sharp turns. All in all, it’s a very intuitive experience. You point, you shoot, and the rest will simply play out in an unfiltered and predictable manner.
The only fault I could find over the course of the entire day was some drivetrain binding. On the inside lane of the tighter switchbacks, it would drag and hop and surge a few times as I accelerated out. I’m not sure if wear and tear or the inherent nature of its AWD system was to blame, but it was at least those occurrences were far and few between. Apart from that, the WRX was all I had hoped for and more.
Out of all the cars I’ve rented or borrowed to date, this is among the very small group that I walked away knowing that I’d welcome one into my garage any day. It does everything well and each minute spent behind the wheel was an engaging and fun one. It’ll be a very difficult temptation to resist once the v5/v6 cars become available in the U.S.
It wasn’t long before this trip that I had a chance to drive a 2010 GT-R (R35) up in Wisconsin. I found it to be exhilarating when making use of its substantial capabilities, but ultimately disappointing once it becomes apparent how fleeting those moments were and how poorly behaved the car was in many other scenarios. The R33, if its reputation for being the soft one is to be believed, is about as close to the other side of the coin as the newer GT-Rs get. Needless to say, I was very interested in seeing how they compared.
After swapping with my friend at the end of the morning tour, I drove the R33 through the Nagao Touge, Hakone Skyline, and Ashinoko Skyline before returning to the WRX for the remainder of the day. As expected, the R33 flipped the GT-R script almost entirely. For starters, it was nowhere near as monstrous as the R35. It’s simply no match for that reality-bending combination of power, grip, and electronic wizardry born from an additional 10+ years of R&D. Factor in some taller gearing and its twin turbos not fully waking up until 4500 RPM or so, and even the WRX felt like it moved with more urgency. It wasn’t a slow car by any means, but it just didn’t feel nearly as exciting in those moments when I could fully wring it out.
Where it regained all of that lost ground and even went so far as to surpass the R35 in my book was in the other 99% of driving. No matter what you’re doing, it feels straightforward and natural, as though it’s going out of its way to make every aspect of driving as easy as possible. It’s an honest Grand Tourer that can be enjoyed under nearly any circumstance.
Achieving that classification requires some comfort in addition to the performance, so I’ll start with that aspect of the car. Interior-wise, the R33 felt a little dated, which is inevitable for most 20+ year old vehicles, but it nevertheless made for a comfortable and moderately refined place to be. I wish I had more to say about it, but I spent most of my time staring at the ATTESA gauge and trying to figure out what it’d take to get it to move.
The chassis and suspension tuning were also a little on the soft side, but the whole package felt very well-controlled and provided more than enough feedback to keep me engaged. I could feel the weight difference between it and the WRX (about 300 lbs.), but the R33 managed its extra heft well and our pace was never fast enough to make it feel detrimental. It also helped that Fun2Drive didn’t skimp on the tires here either and gave the R33 a nice set of Dunlop ZIIs, with which I was already very familiar.
On the performance front, the RB26DETT provided plenty of power and delivered all of it in a silky-smooth manner. Like I said earlier, it wasn’t the most characterful engine, but for someone like me who hadn’t yet experienced an inline six made after the 1960s, that smoothness was a treat. The transmission was a good match for this car as well, with easy, medium-length shifts and a forgiving clutch. All together, the R33 culminated in in something my friend put best: You immediately feel like you know what you’re doing the moment you start driving this car. I thought he might have been exaggerating when he told me this at Fuji Speedway, but I found out just how right he was within moments of first taking off in this car. It really felt as if I somehow had months of experience driving it before the tour.
Now, you may have noticed I said “nearly any circumstance” a few paragraphs ago, and that’s because some caveats appeared in R33's usability when it came to its size. It was great to drive on the surface streets, highways, and most of the mountain roads, but that enjoyment had a tendency to disappear when things tightened up and became more technical. It’s not a large car by today’s standards, but both my friend and I both got the impression that it felt larger than it really was. Warranted or not, it sapped our confidence and got in the way of being able to drive as fast as we wanted from time to time. Some more seat time might have helped, but we didn’t exactly have that luxury.
While discussing the R33 on the bus ride back to Tokyo, we both agreed that the car’s size made things a little hit-or-miss throughout the day, but it would likely be amazing on U.S. roads. Personally, I love the thought of using one to eat up some daily driving or road trip miles, but it doesn’t quite mesh well enough with what I want from a car to make me want to buy one. As for which I’d rather have between this and the R35? Unless it’d be living at a track, it’d be the R33, no contest.