Welcome to another installment of Cars Of Future Past, a series at Jalopnik where we flip through the pages of history to explore long-forgotten concepts and how they had a hand in shaping the cars we know today.
We have Japan’s Bubble Era to thank for so many of those legendary late-’80s and ’90s sports cars we hold so dear. Just about every brand had one to call its own, even Mitsubishi. No idea seemed too outrageous — not in the pursuit of demonstrating technical prowess. OK, some definitely were, but each breakthrough seemed to have a way of informing the future.
It’s with that sense of boundless optimism in mind that we discuss this week’s Car Of Future Past: A midengine supercar that Nissan pursued for roughly half a decade, intended to battle the likes of Porsche and Ferrari not only in showrooms, but on any surface. Because this was the ’80s, and the finest performance cars weren’t rear-wheel drive.
Nissan started work on the MID4 in spring of 1984, and the world first saw it at the 1985 Frankfurt Motor Show. It was a testbed of sorts, showcasing technologies that would have put the marque in conversation with the world’s top performance car makers. Key among those technologies, all-wheel drive.
This was the era of Group B after all. As the Audi Quattro and Peugeot 205 began dominating the rally circuit and legitimizing all-wheel drive in the crucible of motorsport, increasingly more companies started pitching vehicles designed to bring that ingenuity to the road. The Porsche 959 and Ferrari 408, among them.
Like the 959, the MID4 had driven wheels at all corners. And as with many top-flight rally machines by this time, the car’s most important bits were positioned behind the driver. That explains the name, then.
Nissan minted a new engine just for the MID4: The 3.0-liter VG30DE V6, appearing here naturally aspirated, in quad-cam guise. This motor gave the MID4 a healthy 226 horsepower. It was also mounted transversely, just like the V6 in the athletic-yet-compact Lancia Stratos — another wedge that made a habit of winning rallies. Nissan was picking up on all the right lessons.
The MID4 weighed just 2,712 pounds. That was a respectable sum for a sports car built to something resembling production-spec, while lugging around the added all-wheel drive components. 67 percent of the V6's power was directed to the rear corners, with the remaining 33 percent handled the fronts. Each wheel steered.
All those qualities describe the textbook ’80s all-terrain sports car, and they still sound pretty enticing today. But to truly grasp the significance of what Nissan was doing here, you have to remember that the zenith of the brand’s performance offerings looked like this in 1985:
Not that the Z31 Fairlady Z was a bad car, mind you —it just wasn’t the MID4. The idea that Nissan could do all of that, and wrap it in a body that vaguely resembled a Ferrari 308 if you weren’t looking very closely, made the MID4 all the more surprising.
The MID4 originated out of an ambition within Nissan to build a benchmark supercar at a time when nobody would’ve expected it to. The kind that would show up all comers, and maybe even do it at a fraction of the price. Perhaps that reminds you of someone?
The GT-R ultimately claimed that world-beating mantle all for itself, and hit mainstream appeal with the R35 generation. Nissan has had its flagship for decades now and isn’t in need of another. And yet I still get carried away imagining what might’ve been if the MID4 had carried that torch instead.
The MID4's exterior design is often dismissed as derivative, and I can see why. However, much like how a really great cover of a song can overshadow the original, the MID4 lifted these ’80s car design tropes — the pop-up lights, the triangular C-pillar, the stubby rear overhang — and pieced them together in the most perfect way yet.
Call it a hot take if you like, but I reckon the MID4 cuts a side profile right up there with the greats of its time, like the F40 and Mercedes 190E Evo II. It’s expertly proportioned, lean yet curvy in all the right places. Few have ever done it better.
Nissan did try to do it better with a sequel two years later, called the MID4-II. This version was wider and longer, added twin turbochargers to the V6 and pivoted it 90 degrees for a longitudinal orientation, according to Pen. The original concept’s all-around MacPherson struts were replaced with double wishbones at the front and a multi-link arrangement out back. The entire car was stiffer, tauter and more responsive. I also personally believe it was beaten to an inch of its life with an ugly stick, though I’ve noticed many actually prefer its looks over its predecessor’s.
I can forgive the step backwards in design, because Nissan was clearly so committed to honing the MID4, iterating on the prototypes until the formula was optimized and ready for the big show.
Alas, that day never came. The exact cause isn’t known, but the collapse of Japan’s Bubble Economy probably had something to do with it. It isn’t known for sure if Nissan was eyeing a rallying program for the MID4, but if it was, the shuttering of Group B and, by extension, Group S, couldn’t have helped. That was the reason Lancia abandoned the ECV program, and Ferrari and Porsche never made it to the WRC either. At least the 959 still got its production run.
But remember: Even when cars die before they’ve ever truly lived, good ideas have a habit of persevering. The engine made for the MID4 later wound up in a number of Nissans, including the Z31 and Z32 Fairlady Z. And the all-wheel drive system, further refined and later dubbed ATTESA, began reaching a range of nameplates in the late ’80s. Among them, a coupe called the Skyline GT-R.
The MID4 is one of those cars that ought to be in every racing game that celebrates the era from which it hails. Unfortunately, it’s only in two: Sega GT 2002 and Sega GT Online.
In a time before Forza Motorsport, Sega GT was all Microsoft had for original Xbox owners who desired an experience like Gran Turismo. The first Sega GT on Dreamcast was an extremely messy game. The sequel has its faults, but it’s far more well-rounded. And the car roster is certainly inspired. Besides containing the MID4, it also has the Dome Zero, Jiotto Caspita and Alfa Romeo 33 Stradale. Online added even more oddities, like the Vemac RD350 and 1937 Auto Union Type C Streamliner.
I deeply hope to see the MID4 immortalized in a modern game, but that’s still mighty good company to be in. And it’s inspiring me to dust off my Xbox and copy of Sega GT Online tonight.
Correction August 20, 2021, 10:05 a.m. ET: An earlier version of this story stated that Nissan built the MID4 to compete in rallying. While the car is built like contemporary rally supercars, we could find no evidence of Nissan planning to enter the MID4 in rallies. The story has been updated to reflect this, and we regret the error.