Mid4: Nissan makes a Ferrari (well….almost)

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In 1985, Nissan stunned everyone by releasing a mid engined prototype called the Mid4. The first thing you notice of course is that it looks a hell of a lot like a Ferrari 308. Back in the day, this was quite a bone of contention and the Mid4 designer Hiroshi Itoh received some criticism for it. However the really exciting thing was that Nissan had made several prototypes that were quite fully engineered and were convincing, driving cars. These were not just stylish concept cars built to look good on car show stands: Nissan invited car journalists from all around the world to its test track in Oppama to give its small fleet of fully engineered and trimmed prototypes hell and everyone was blown away.

The vibe at the time from all the car magazines around the world was that, here was a revolutionary high tech supercar that was just about to go into production.


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The Mid4 prototypes were powered by a normally aspirated 24V, DOHC version of the VG30 3.0L V6. At the time, the production version in the 300ZX was a single cam 2v design that only produced 175ps, but the Mid4′s twin cammer put out a very competitive 230ps.

200_interior.jpgThe chassis put the V6 behind the driver transversely (like an NSX or MR2). Power was fed via a Maxima transaxle and a 4WD system designed by Steyr-Daimler Puch. The system doesn’t have any relation to the ATTESSA system that was later used in the R32 Skylines because the Mid4 system uses a European style viscous coupling instead of the ATTESSA clutch system. Torque was split 35:65 front to rear.

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200_engine.jpgThe bodyshell was a steel monocoque structure but with plastic body panels, and final weight was a commendably light 1250kg, which is a great achievement, being lighter than the 1320kg aluminium Honda NSX would be several years later (and the NSX would not have a 4WD system to carry around either). Suspension would be struts all round, but the rear the whole subframe is tweaked by a hydraulic ram to give the back axle some rear wheel steering.

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So Nissan opened its test track to the journalists, who were invited to give the Mid4s a good thrashing….

And it was great! Everyone raved about the performance, which wasn’t a surprise since the Mid4 had a power to weight ratio slightly better than a Porsche 911 of the era. The handling was reported as being terrific, being very well balanced, slightly understeery in very tight corners but extremely neutral and trustworthy in the fast ones. And then right on cue it starts to rain and the 4WD traction wins everyone over.

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Car magazines all over the world ran the same story: that here was Nissan with a production-ready supercar, which would go into production very soon! But everyone waited…and waited….

And nothing happened.

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Then two years later, Nissan unveils Mid4-II. An evolution of the original concept, the Mid4-II put on some 180kg but in compensation the V6 DOHC mill was now twin turbocharged to the tune of 325ps. Still using the Steyr-developed 4WD system, the suspension was now double wishbones all round, and the motor was now longitudinally mounted rather than transverse. This allowed the room for chunkier chassis rails to go alongside the engine, enhancing body stiffness. So far, so good.

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After being stung by the criticisms over the original Ferrari-esque concept, Itoh-san had now penned a more dramatic (if less pretty) supercar that was all-Japanese in its look. The overall shape was an odd mix of rounded NSX nose and square-bustled Ferrari Testarossa tail….in fact it has a lot of touches of NSX and SW20 MR2 in it, but the Mid4-II predates the Honda and the Toyota by some years.  And whereas the original Mid4 had fibreglass panels, the Mid4-II was more convincingly panelled (mostly) in aluminium.

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Again, Nissan invites car journalists to its test track to give its new toy a good hiding. And give it a good hiding they did, timing the Mid4-II at 0-100km/h in 5.0s, the quarter mile in 13.5s and the Nissan supercar didn’t stop accelerating until 270km/h. There was some criticism over the handling being too twitchy at very high speeds (the calibration of the rear wheel steering was accused of being the culprit) but overall the 4WD chassis ate up its newfound twin turbo power with aplomb and yet again, everyone was blown away.  This time, the extra grunt of the twin turbo’d mill allowed the Mid4 to be drifted out of corners and the 4WD system gave it terrific traction and stability when going sideways.

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But then, to everyone’s great disappointment, Nissan called a press conference to admit that it had shelved plans to actually produce the Mid4….because the proposed Group S regulations for the World Rally Championship in 1987 were cancelled.

In 1986, world rallying was Group B: fearsomely fast, monstrously powerful competition cars that were arguably too fast for their own good. After some driver and spectator fatalities the whole series was cancelled, and the proposal was that it would be replaced by Group S.

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Group S is basically a similar format to WRC today, in that the cars would be limited to 300hp and (unlike Group A) there would be only a requirement for the manufacturers to make a small number of matching roadcars to qualify a particular model for competition. But then Group S was cancelled, and the world rally championship went into a Group A format instead, which required a production run of 5000 for any car to qualify.

So with the death of Group S, came the death of the Mid4 as a realistic production possibility…or so Nissan said at the time. Whether this is the real reason is debatable.  Certainly when the original Mid4 came out in 1985, Group S would not have been  a consideration, and it would have taken a big leap of faith to consider the wide and bulky, 1400kg Mid4-II as a competitive rallycar.

The reality was that Nissan was still thinking about it, and the Mid4-II track test for all of the journalists was a last-ditch effort to determine public reaction, to see if the world was ready for a Nissan supercar.  No one wanted the Mid4 to die, and so the press floated all sorts of rumours about the Mid4 being a possible hi-profile flagship for the Infiniti brand which was about to be launched in the USA.

But eventually the Mid4 was canned for good, and what we didn’t know at the time was that Nissan was working on an all-conquering supercar anyway: the R32 Skyline GT-R, which arguably made a much better circuit car than the Mid4 would have been as a rally car.

Probably for the best then!

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6 Responses to Mid4: Nissan makes a Ferrari (well….almost)

  1. importjap said:

    Fantastic article, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    I still wish Nissan had built the Mid-4. Who knows what derivative cars it might have spawned?

  2. Kev said:

    If the Mid4 had gone into production my initial thoughts were that it would end up pretty much like the NSX ie, expensive, and while everyone loves and respects it, no one actually buys it!

    I think maybe that might have been the case if the original non turbo Mid4 was produced.

    On the other hand, the Mid4-II would have had a hell of a lot more potential than the NSX did as a tuner car however, so if the Mid4 was produced in twin turbo 4WD form, it might very well have been a lot more successful than the NSX. Very possibly the ultimate JDM tuner car ever….what might have been, eh?

  3. RatDat said:

    I’d imagine that had they built the Mid4 it would have ended up in the same league as the Z32 is now. I remember Z32′s appearing in books of supercars back when they were new, alongside Ferraris and Porsches. Now they can be bought for peanuts here. That said, it’s still a tragedy they never went through with the Mid4 as it would have done the companies image wonders. Nissan have failed to follow through on so many great ideas. The Saurus is another car which would have been cool but clearly it’s limited appeal would have scuppered any chances of production.

  4. Kev said:

    I suspect the Mid4 would have fared better than the Z32 300ZX. Z32 is a good car, but it came out just before the generation of *really* good JDM cars came out, and so it was overshadowed by the RX7, Supra and GT-R.

    I’d imagine that the Mid4 might have been at the top of its game for a bit longer and may have compared to its Mazda and Toyota competition more favourably.

    That said, I think the 1990 Skyline GT-R did a great job for the Nissan brand image anyway, so it’s very very possible that the Mid4 was shelved because Nissan knew they had something very good up their sleeve for the 90s.

    And as for Saurus, you read our mind! There’ll be a little piece on that at some point in the future.

  5. steane said:

    Never even new it existed, and the first car that came to mind when I saw the original Mid 4 was BMW’s M1 from the late 70′s/early 80′s. Interesting story about the Mid 4 but I’m glad the GT-R came up trumps in the end.

  6. mattathias said:

    Mid4 II looks so first gen Infiniti at the back. You can’t help but think that this was done to make the GTR so much more palatable when it was released. Strange with the Japanese economic boom around that time that it didn’t go into production though, I mean how else would we have the Cosmo and the NSX. Probably a good thing though. It’s as ugly as a hat full of busted arse holes on a hot day sitting next to a fat chick.

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