10 Reasons Why Japanese Cars Are Cool Again

Nissan 2020 Vision Gran Turismo 1 photo
Photo: Nissan
The Japanese auto market is filled with stories of engineering passion and ambition. What started out as a country infused by medieval traditional values turned into an industrial powerhouse that demanded respect. For example, the company that we know today for Micras and 370Zs started out way back in 1914, when Kwaishinsha Motor Car Works introduced its DAT car, named after investors Den, Aoyama and Takeuchi. Soon after, their models were known as Datsuns and the rest is history – modern history that is.
The Japanese gave us hybrids, drifting, the Miata and more cute boxes on wheels than the Brits. Yet over the past decade, their power has been diminished by numerous safety recalls and the growth of both German and Korean automakers. We firmly believe that by the end of the decade Tokyo will be back on top of its game. Here's why:

10. They aren't really Japanese

I know it's tempting to call every Toyota or Nissan an import, especially so with a Honda. But it's not true. They make so many Accords in America that some of them have to go into export markets. The new NSX, which is a hybrid sportscar said to have Ferrari 458 specs for Audi R8 money, will be manufactured in America.

Toyota, meanwhile, makes all-American pickups and all-American SUVs. The Corolla, which is their global best-seller, is not one model but many, tailored to the individual need of markets. It's not just a question of who the cars are made, but also at what cost. Currency fluctuations have hurt many companies' plans in the past, so now they are building them where they sell them.

9. Kei cars

Anybody who's ever traveled to Japan will tell you that the country is positively packed with tall, boxy cars that are smaller than a Fiat 500.
They're called kei cars and represent a huge chunk of the local car market, despite not being relevant anywhere else. All are powered by 660cc engines and some come with advanced systems like brake energy recovery, brake assist or lane watching.

The Japanese government has recently announced that many of the tax exemptions that currently support the kei owners. By doing so, they hope to make local carmakers more competitive on the global arena. Basically, they're being pushed out of the comfort zone and we think great things could follow, maybe even a new type of automobile.

You see, all those engineers who are currently working on the Daihatsus and Suzukis you've never heard about will have to start making rivals for European cars like the Peugeot 108. Maybe they'll make an electric scooter or perhaps they'll invent the personal hovercraft. Who knows? The city car segment might be forever changed.

8. Next-gen electric cars

Nissan recently announced that it will give out 2,000 of its Leaf electric cars to households living in apartment buildings in Japan. We think it's the start of a major testing program that will end in the launch of the second generation model.

Rumor has it that the Leaf 2 will have a double the driving range of the current model, at least 200 kilometers (124 miles). It will also have much more appealing styling that doesn't scream "look at me" everywhere it goes. Pretty soon, we're going to run out of excuses not to go green and then we'll actually have to buy an EV!

7. Self-driving cars

Like many other companies, Nissan also pledged to put self-driving cars on the road. It sounds like a hollow promise, but it's not. You see, unlike Americans who love to own guns and large pickup trucks, the Japanese are very discrete and civilized people for whom honking is not polite.

The Japanese prime minister is supporting development of self-driving cars and has even sat in a Leaf prototype as it toured the capital without a driver.

Here's what the company had to say about the PM's riding in their autonomous car: “The attendance of the Prime Minister underlines the support of Japan’s government for the development of autonomously driven vehicles, which have the potential to become a prime factor in Japan’s economic growth. The historic event was made possible through the support and planning of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry. The three participating domestic motor companies worked with the close cooperation with the related ministries and government offices.”

6. They have tradition

I don't know if you've noticed this, but Japanese car culture is probably more popular than its American equivalent, or at least it's going to be. No 25 year old grew up idolizing an Oldsmobile, a Chevy Impala or even a Buick. Most want or wanted a Mazda RX-8, a Nissan Z sportscar, a Honda S2000 or a Supra. Am I right?

If you want a metaphor with that, the Japanese sportscar is like a samurai sward that's lost its edge, while the some traditional American brands from yesteryear have almost completely rusted away. This is huge marketing potential we are talking about her.

5. Original styling

They used to be known as copycats, but a quick look at the latest batch of concepts will tell you the Japanese like to think way outside the box. Mazda made the amazing Furai, which I still have a secret crush on after all these years. Toyota is no different and their Lexus division deserves a medal for the RC coupe and NX.

4. Drifting and giant robots

Americans love NASCAR racing and make V8 engines with low-end torque. In Japan, they idolize going sideways in a car while laying down a cloud of smoke. They also dream of a world where giant metal robots battle monsters. No wonder the Toyobaru wasn't made by Chevrolet!

Because part of the county is deadlocked in snow for half the year, every carmaker makes all-wheel drive. It's why Subaru makes the cars it makes and it also forces engineers to think of was to compensate for the added weight and friction of the powertrain.

3. The new MX-5 / Miata

I guess I don't really need to explain why the new Mazda MX-5 is going to revolutionize. I probably also don't need to tell you that the roadster weighs under a ton or that Mazda hasn't made a bad car in a long time.

In 1989, Mazda launched a 2-seat sportscar that would go on to become the best selling of its kind. Almost one million units have been
assembled and the 2015 model could be a game changer. In an era where sportscars are actually fat coupes with posh badges, the Japanese aren't using big engines or lots of features to sell theirs, just clean fun.

Looking at the few details we have of MX-5 so far, it's not going to have that fake retro styling either. The interior, for example, features brushed aluminum, there are lots of buttons on the steering wheel and the navigation screen is as big as a tablet.

2. The new Toyota Supra

Details about this amazing automotive project are lacking at the moment, but BMW and Toyota have signed a partnership that should result in some sort of hybrid sportscar to replace the Z4 and pick up where the old Supra left off all those years ago.

Just like everything else these days, it will be a hybrid, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. This is a project that stirs the same passion within the company as the GT 86. And we all know how much of a cult car that has become.

1. The new Nissan GT-R

Only last week, Nissan officially confirmed that it's going to do one last update of the current GT-R which should stay on sale for a little over a year before being replaced by the all-new car.

Those of you who have read my previous articles know that I've never been a fan of the tricks the GT-R plays to be fast. However, if the R36 is as much of a revolution as the R35 was when new, it's going to go off like a nuclear bomb.

All signs point towards a hybridization of the car, not just in order to reduce fuel consumption and the impact on the ozone layer, but because electric motors will give it more torque. In 2017, you should be able to walk into your local dealer and order a stock Nissan that goes 0 to 60 miles per hour in around 2.7 seconds. Crazy!
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About the author: Mihnea Radu
Mihnea Radu profile photo

Mihnea's favorite cars have already been built, the so-called modern classics from the '80s and '90s. He also loves local car culture from all over the world, so don't be surprised to see him getting excited about weird Japanese imports, low-rider VWs out of Germany, replicas from Russia or LS swaps down in Florida.
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