automotive industry

Japan’s Automotive Identity Crisis

List five sports or performance cars under $50,000 that the Japanese automotive industry is producing right now. I’ll get things started:

  1. Honda Civic Type R
  2. Mazda MX-5 (Miata)
  3. Toyota 86 (FR-S)/Subaru BRZ
  4. Subaru STI
  5. ???

What else? Anything besides the 370Z which I’ve intentionally not mentioned because no one bought one. Don’t be fooled by unattainable halo cars priced to compete with Ferraris or wishful thinking concepts that will never see a production line – the Japanese automotive industry is in the middle of an identity crisis.

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Tokyo Auto Salon continues to be one of the most important motor shows in the world and the 2016 edition just wrapped up last month. It was an interesting glimpse into not only Japan’s aftermarket industry but the country’s automotive industry as a whole. What really stood out in 2016, as opposed to other years, was the lack of new sports cars. A show long celebrated for its variety, has become a showcase for the Nissan GT-R, a car that’s been with us since 2007 and now costs over $100,000 new.

Seeing the finest examples of affordable performance cars has always been what’s made Tokyo Auto Salon so exciting. Historically, the show’s been filled with the best modified offerings from Nissan, Toyota, Honda, Subaru, Mitsubishi, and Mazda. For a nearly a decade now, the focus has begun shifting more heavily towards European cars the GT-R, a fine example of Japanese engineering, now mostly a case of been there, done that. The fact that aftermarket parts manufacturers and tuners are still so focused on this car speaks to the larger problem of a lack of alternatives from Japan’s half dozen automotive heavyweights.

With the exception of the four models mentioned above, there’s been a sharp decline in affordable, performance-oriented cars coming from Japan. In the last decade we’ve seen production end for the Honda S2000, Mazda RX-8 and Mitsuitbishi Evo. Mitsubishi also threatens to pull out of the North American market completely. Honda, who once set the gold standard for their entire market were forced to redesign the Civic after one model year because it did so poorly. Nissan, the Japanese manufacturer with the richest motorsports history has become more known in North America for SUVs, trucks and crossovers. More recently, Korean manufacturers like Hyundai and Kia are starting to take Japan’s place in the automotive marketplace.

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Everyone is obsessed with the Ford Focus RS right now. It arrives in North America later this year and will be a massive hit with enthusiasts. Starting at around $35,000 which is cheaper than you can get a Subaru STI for these days, it’s just more proof that there’s a market yearning for this type of car. The Toyota 86/Subaru BRZ was supposed to be the wakeup call to Japanese manufacturers when it became a global sensation 4 years ago. We had all hoped it would jumpstart a second coming of Japan’s greatest hits in the forms of new Silvias, Supras and RX-7s. Instead, Toyota lost money on their LFA technical exercise, Honda gave Tony Stark an NSX that thinks it’s a McLaren and Nismo’s IDx concept pointed at all of us and laughed.

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An automotive industry founded on affordability, cleverness and fun is producing more questionable offerings than ever, but it doesn’t have to stay that way:

Understand your customers – If you listen to the media, everyone drives a hybrid or an electric these days. Wrong. The Prius remains the one exception that’s had overwhelming success globally. Aside from it, Japan’s hybrid and electric offerings (think Honda CR-Z) cater to even more obscure, niche markets than their performance cars. How did Subaru make the transition from cult car maker, thought to be from Australia and driven by people in Vermont, to the powerhouse it’s become? They have the Impreza and its loyal owners community to thank. Enthusiast culture continues to thrive and with an entire generation growing up in Japanese cars, the customer base is well established and ready for the next 86/BRZ competitor.

Stop trying to be European – Japan has always been great at doing its own thing. Cultural philosophy plays a huge role in the design process and that sets them apart from their competitors. Everyday heroes like the Skyline and Supra took on and in many cases beat some of the best Europe had to offer. Luxury is never something Japanese cars have done very well, but functionality, reliability and affordable performance are. The ever bloating ranges from Acura, Infinity and Lexus have come at the cost of their parent brands and with little to no motorsports pedigree, halo cars priced well into the six figures will always struggle to lure away buyers from the established Europeans.

We deserve your very best – This is an argument that can also be applied to the European manufacturers and something I discussed concerning the Subaru S207. Past arguments made pertained to fears over sales figures and the archaic notion that we’re not worthy. Welcome to globalization. Japanese manufacturers would do well to take more calculated risks with some of their special performance models. The limited production S207 is a prime example of a car that would fly out of Subaru showrooms in America. Japanese manufacturers should have little concern over being able to sell upgraded trim and performance packages abroad. If it’s really an issue, make it a special order option through the dealership. The days of impossible to obtain JDM bumpers should be long gone.

Time to move on from the GT-R – Our collective fascination with all things Nismo, Skyline and GT-R will never wane. The R35 defies what’s possible in a production car and will remain one of the greatest technical achievements of its generation. With an asking price of over six figures however, few will be lucky enough to ever own, much less modify one. That’s unfortunate considering a majority of the Japanese aftermarket caters so heavily to the GT-R. It’s time to build something else!

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It could be argued that the late 90s through the early 2000s were the golden age of Japanese sports cars. Nearly every manufacturer had multiple offerings in their respective stables. The aftermarket industry was also thriving at pre-stance movement levels when people still upgraded performance. We can blame stricter emissions globally as a reason for the demise of many of Japan’s greatest hits, but consider the fact the BMW are still putting inline-6’s in their cars with great success and most European and American manufacturers have made the jump to turbochargers, something Japan made mainstream long before everyone else.

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Automotive brands are obsessed with tapping into their histories and using them as marketing strategies. How about using history as means of understanding what you’ve always been best at? Japanese manufacturers should challenge themselves to rekindle some of what made them great in the first place. People don’t remember who made the most successful mid-sized sedan, they do remember who built the engines for the most dominant car in Formula 1 history.

Nissan, Toyota, Honda, Subaru, Mitsubishi, Mazda – it’s time to have some fun again!

Photos courtesy of Subaru, Ford, Lexus, Acura & Nissan.

Japanese Sports Cars: A Dying Breed?

Is Japan the car crazy country it used to be? It’s an interesting question to consider. Expensive taxes, stricter environmental regulations and a struggling economy, have forced most Japanese to reconsider their motoring needs. That coupled with a younger generation that would rather use public transportation than get a driver’s license, leaves many of us in doubt.

Mitsubishi has already called for hybrid power. The brand is working towards shifting its efforts (and image) into producing more eco-friendly vehicles. The Evo remains all but extinct in its current form.

Honda has entered the eco-performance realm with the CR-Z and rumors of the NSX followup, have claimed it too will be a hybrid, with multiple electric motors. Toyota continues to expand their Prius range and ventured into hybrid motor racing with the TS030. The car had an unsuccessful campaign at the 2012 24 Hours of Le Mans, but was successful in giving consumers a look of where the brand is headed.

Even Subaru has shifted their focus to more of a luxury market. After canceling their WRC program, the Impreza has continued to become heavier and more tame. It makes us wonder if there’s any point in having an STi at all and how long we have until it faces a similar fate to the Evo.

Today there’s been rumblings that Nissan could be reconsidering the GT-R, a car that renewed interest in a brand that had been quiet for years. Sure the Fairlady Z has always been around, but the newer iterations have never quite lived up to their ancestors. The GT-R was the car that broke the mold and showed us all where the future of performance motoring, might be headed. But now a new GT-R has yet to be approved and it begs the question of whether we could bare witness the end of an era.

However, all is not lost. Subaru and Toyota have shown us that there’s still fun to be had, with the BRZ and 86. As predicted, the collaboration has been a massive success and renewed consumer interest in compact sports coupes. It makes no claims to be anything but a driver’s car and it’s refreshing to see Japanese manufacturers having a bit of fun again. Hopefully the car’s success will inspire competitors to follow similar paths. We’ve all be waiting for the next S-Chassis and now Nissan has more of a reason than ever to meet the demand.

Eco-friendly motoring is an unstoppable force and there’s really no going back. The Japanese are at the forefront of this movement and we can only hope that exciting, affordable Japanese sports cars aren’t completely engrained into the pages of history.

The Japanese Tuning Shop

What is a tuning shop exactly? The answer to such a question is something highly debatable. Right off the bat the answer may be, a place that upgrades a car’s performance. But there’s obviously more to it than that. Let’s take a look at the shop itself. It’s the space where everything comes together: cars, technicians, tools and data, the end result of their collaboration.

To get even more specific, consider Japanese tuning shops. I’ve always envisioned them as the essence of organized chaos. They can usually be found occupying the ground floor of a multi-story building, serving various purposes, typically unrelated to cars. Sometimes tuning shops are situated on main roads, but usually they’re down an alley or an unassuming neighborhood street. Forget about driveways and parking lots, there’s usually no room for either. One, maybe two cars occupy the space between the entrance and the street. There are always vending machines too, all serving different purposes: drinks, smokes and even food. In fact, Japanese tuning shops have so many similarities, you could almost write a handbook on them.

If you read my feature on Top Secret, then you already have a pretty good idea of how Japanese tuning shops operate. The workload is split between customer cars and the shop’s demo cars. Each needs to be up to the highest standard because they both directly affect one another. It can become confusing how these builds are even possible. Too look inside a Japanese tuning shop would reveal a maze of tools, unused parts and empty shells. These shops are pack rats in their finest form, throwing away nothing. Yet somehow it all works out and business gets done.

What happens when you break out of the mold? Few shops have been able to do it in recent years. But for those who have tapped into the right market, business is good. Maybe you already know a thing or two about Midori. They’re famed for their Skyline builds and now the shop is focusing much of it’s attention on the R35 GT-R. It comes as no surprise that it’s a win-win, to tailor your business to the GT-R market. The car has proven to be a big hit across the globe and given it’s price tag, it’s invited a wealthier clientele to enter the Japanese tuning scene.

This brings us back to the discussion of Japanese tuning shops and breaking out of the mold. Midori has done it by moving into a state of the art facility, last February.

No one has moved in yet, but this spotless operating room is where the car surgery will take place. The polished green floor pays homage to the shop’s name and provides a stark contrast to the typical, oil-laden concrete of the average shop’s floor. Air conditioning units in the ceiling provide a constant stream of cool air so the garage doors can be closed, while work continues on hot days. It’s a technology we all take for granted, but it’s something fairly uncommon in most shops.

It may not look like it, but the maintenance area has enough room for 3 vehicles and resembles a space, lab technicians would be more at home in.

All the the real magic happens in the engine assembly room. The climate controlled space has air purifiers in the ceiling, to remove dirt and dust that may interfere with an engine assembly.

A GT-R found it’s way home. Things are tight, but in a country like Japan, space is a very precious commodity. You take what you can get and that goes for everyone, including shops.

Midori’s new shop is small and may not be in the same league as industry giants like Trial, Phoenix’s Power and Top Secret. These shops are more like car dealerships with large spaces, many lifts and bays for multiple cars to be worked on at once. But in Midori’s case, their new shop represents something we haven’t seen a lot lately, expansion. The workspace may be no bigger, but the technology has changed. The approach to modifying cars has evolved to a more sophisticated level. No longer is it about greasers wearing coveralls and turning wrenches (even though that’s badass), it’s about technicians using computers and technologies to make cars perform better. As modern cars grow more advanced, the modern mechanic needs to grow more intelligent as well.

In many ways, tuning shops are even more important than the cars that they produce. In fact, they hold an extremely crucial role in Japan’s automotive market. Most enthusiasts in Japan don’t live in single-family homes, let alone have a garage to park their cars in. As a result, most people don’t have the resources (or knowhow) to work on their cars themselves. For this reason, tuning shops are a crucial element to the Japanese car life. Here in the states, most of us have garages or friend’s houses where we can do the work ourselves. For us, taking the car to the shop, can mean bad things to come. In Japan it’s the opposite. Customers form relationships with shops and technicians. The shops provide the same care to customer’s cars as they do their own. Loyalty is also a very big factor. If Phoenix’s Power builds your Supra, you’re not going to have it tuned at Top Secret. The “customer-for-life” concept plays big in Japan. It’s a great thing, but also why many shops are having to close their doors. It can be very difficult to bring in new business with so much loyalty, already established.

With that said, it’s a very exciting time for enthusiasts here in the states. We’re starting to see a similar trend of really awesome tuning shops popping up all over the country. Shops that care about their customers and are passionate about what they do. They’re not in it for the industry hype, or to live in some false lifestyle. It’s just about being around cars all day long. While I love the Japanese tuning industry more than any, I predict the US surpassing it eventually. We are already building cars just as fast and exciting as our Japanese counterparts and I only see this becoming more prevalent. Especially since it’s becoming more difficult to source the parts and build a JDM-inspired car.

I may be getting on the extreme end of this discussion, but it’s definitely something to think about.

Photos courtesy of Yashio Factory & Midori Seibi.