Civic

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.

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The New Honda Civic Type R That We’re Not Getting

Yesterday I criticized Honda for blending in with its Korean competitors who at the moment are building more interesting cars. Lets be honest here, the last few years haven’t been great for the Japanese manufacturer. The CR-Z has mainly been a dud, the Civic was taken back to the drawing board after just one model year and their lineup looks as if the words “speed” or “performance” aren’t allowed to be mentioned in the design department. However that was then and this is now, Honda is looking to make a comeback (sort of).

The brand’s new partnership with McLaren could be their biggest news of the last decade. The late 80’s in Formula 1 were dominated by McLaren-Honda, one of the most successful partnerships in all of professional motor sports. The team hopes to recapture some of that success with the new turbocharged MP4-30 and possibly the most exciting driver pairing in the sport, Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso. With all the attention Honda are getting from Formula 1, a new performance road car is precisely what the brand needs.

Enter the all new Civic Type R.

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It’s a striking thing to say the least. Based on the European hatchback version of the Civic, the Type R hopes to inject some fun back into the brand. The car has been in development for quite some time – the original concept was revealed at the Geneva Motor Show last year.

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What makes this car so different? You’re looking at the first ever turbocharged Civic. The 2L 4-cylinder VTEC engine is expected to produce something in the range of 300 HP which will make the Type R Honda’s most powerful Civic ever.

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Combine that power plant with those extreme looks and you’ve got something pretty special.

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With the Mitsubishi Evo on its way out and the Subaru WRX dominating that portion of the market, the Civic Type R will hopefully be a new option for those growing tired of the same old thing.

The good news is that this year’s Geneva Motor Show will unveil the production model for the first time. The bad news is that it won’t be coming to the US.

By now we’ve all gotten used to this sort of thing. Manufacturers teasing American enthusiasts only to reserve their most exciting creations for the European and Japanese markets. It was this type of thinking that kept us from getting the Subaru WRX STI until 2004 and never the other countless models of Japanese and European performance cars kept out of our reach. Emissions and crash safety are a large part of the reason why the United States has been missing out. We have possibly the strictest crash safety regulations in the world and one of the strictest emissions policies. When a manufacturer looks to sell a model in the US, they must be willing to invest millions of extra dollars into R&D just to meet our strict regulations. For flagship models like the BMW 3-Series, the investment is warranted, however performance models produced in smaller quantities at a greater expense are the casualties. Unfortunately what we get instead is usually something in between the high end performance model and the more sensible commuter.

The Civic Type R is indeed coming to America, likely not in these clothes however. Hot hatches are all the rage in international markets but Americans and their big lumbering SUVs never really bought them. Size matters here and it’s why compact cars have never gotten a strong foothold in the market. Our Civic Type R will likely be an iteration of the coupe or sedan but Honda says the power plant will be the same one everyone else is getting. So maybe there’s hope yet?

With the new NSX and Formula 1 season looming, it’s about time Honda retraced some if it’s performance roots.

Photos courtesy of Honda.

Sergeant Rear Diffuser

One of the coolest parts about working at Bulletproof has been exposing myself to different cars and all the cool stuff that’s out there for them. I was talking to a customer last week from the UK and he was interested in the super rare Sergeant rear diffuser for his EK9 Civic. I had never seen the piece prior to talking to him but when I looked it up, I was impressed.

Sergeant is a fairly small shop that does mostly Honda-related tuning.

Here’s the diffuser installed on the EK9 rear bumper off the car. It’s a really nice piece, I’d rock one if I drove an EK9.