Japan

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.

Top Secret Revisited

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I’ve been doing ACLASS since 2008 and it’s pretty crazy to think that this December will be the blog’s 7th anniversary. I often look over the site’s stats and analytics and it comes as little surprise that my Top Secret features from 2010 remain some of the most popular. Considering those were written 5 years ago, I figured the photos could use a little updating and resizing to take advantage of the blog’s wider layout. I encourage new and regular readers alike to check out each feature, see how much Japan’s tuning industry has changed and revisit some of Smokey Nagata’s most famous creations.

Visit the links below for Parts 1, 2 and 3!

Top Secret: Part I

Top Secret: Part II

Top Secret: Part III

 

Luke Huxham Is Creating The New Look Of Japanese Tuning

Nissan’s board of directors should put Luke Huxham in charge of their marketing department. The director/cinematographer has a way of capturing Japanese tuner cars, specifically the Nissan GT-R in ways few others (including Top Gear/BBC) can. His latest homage to Japan’s most famous automotive lineage comes in the form of a tribute with Nobuteru “NOB” Taniguchi at the wheels of two iconic machines from HKS – the R35 GT1000+ and the R32 GTR Gr.A. Turn up the speakers and enjoy in beautiful 4K.

Then there’s the Motorhead Hill Climb…

Huxham is not only gifting viewers with the kind of accessibility to these cars rarely seen before, but more importantly creating the new visual identity of the Japanese tuning industry. Where Video Option and Best Motoring’s Hot Version provided coverage in a quirky, uniquely Japanese kind of way, Huxham is doing the opposite. Gone are the comedic intro spots and umbrella girls and in their place; glorious visual imagery, tightly packaged graphics and cinematic quality sound. The combination of which presents Japan’s cars, drivers and the culture that fuels them with the respect and an intensity they so deserve.

Anyone who loves JDM will always have a soft spot for the touge battles of Hot Version or car reviews of Video Option. This however is the new JDM where European cars share the stage with the country’s domestic offerings, social media has enabled limitless accessibility and Luke Huxham is capturing it all on film.

Videos courtesy of Luke Huxham, Motorhead and HKS.

Happy 2014

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I wanted to start the year off properly and give the blog some attention. Between work, vacation and the holidays, I haven’t had much time to blog. Things are settling down though and normal service will be resumed. There have been some pending changes for A Class in the works for sometime and hopefully they can be realized in 2014. It’s funny, I always vow to do better with the blog at New Years so lets hope it actually happens!

Hope everyone is enjoying their holiday! Formula 1 starts in 73 days. In the meantime, watch one of the best car videos I’ve ever seen.

Video courtesy of Motorhead.

 

The 2013 Japanese Grand Prix

Today’s Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka Circuit produced the kind of unpredictability and tension that have been lacking from the sport in recent months. Despite another Vettel win, the rest of the field was very much up for grabs.

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Spa-Francorchamps may have the must stunning backdrop and Monza the most interesting heritage, but Suzuka without a doubt, has to be the most exciting circuit in Formula 1. Beloved by the drivers and fans, Suzuka Circuit was originally intended as a test track for Honda (which they still use today). The track was designed in 1962 by John Hugenholtz and features an out and back, figure-8 design. Suzuka is a brilliant mix of high speed straights, flowing S-curves and tight hairpins. Its design can yield high rewards for the most precise drivers, however making a mistake can prove costly, as we all witnessed throughout the weekend.

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Sebastian Vettel arrived in Japan with the Driver’s Championship all but clinched and would’ve been crowned today, had it not been for a 4th place finish by Fernando Alonso. Red Bull Racing’s prowess experienced a few glitches early in the weekend with a KERS problem on Vettel’s RB9. The absence of KERS may have given Mark Webber the break he needed as he secured his first pole since Korea in 2012.

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The RB9s of Webber and Vettel had lackluster starts from the front row. Amidst the scramble, Vettel made contact with the W04 of Lewis Hamilton past the pit exit. A solid performance from Webber however was not enough and a change in tire strategy saw him pit 3 times and eventually lose P1 to his teammate. Following the race, Webber kept things upbeat but there was little doubt his team let him down. After pitting for the first time in lap 12, Webber was back in on lap 26 which meant a 3rd stop was all but certain. Had the engineers kept the driver out for another 5 laps, Webber likely would’ve taken the car to the end and won his first Grand Prix of the season. A 2nd place finish was the best consolation for Webber, but a disappointing result in contrast to a win that should’ve been his. It was interesting to hear the panic in Vettel’s voice during radio transmissions as he was held up in traffic towards the end. With Romain Grosjean and Webber shrinking the gap, Vettel’s response was a departure from his usually calculated demeanor.

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The day saw another fantastic drive from Romain Grosjean in the Lotus. After an excellent start from P4, he took the lead into turn 1 and proved to be a difficult challenge for Webber throughout the race. It’s been a massive evolution for Grosjean over the last 12 months. In 2012, he was branded a lunatic by his rivals after causing numerous racing incidents. Fast forward to 2013 and Grosjean is beginning to exhibit the level of skill and maturity that Lotus will need in a leader following the departure of Kimi Raikkonen next season.

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The unpredictable nature of racing at Suzuka provided some excellent shuffling across the field. Nico Hulkenberg and his Sauber teammate Esteban Gutierrez were quick all weekend and out drove the likes of McLaren and Scuderia Ferrari for much of the race. Gutierrez achieved a stunning 7th place finish with his teammate Hulkenberg just a head in 6th.

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Hulkenberg has become one of the heroes of Formula 1 and there are rumblings that he’s close to inking a deal with Lotus for 2014. The combination of the German and Romain Grosjean would be fantastic to watch and a great opportunity for Hulkenberg who’s never gotten the big break he so deserves.

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Fernando Alonso’s frustration with Scuderia Ferrari continued throughout the weekend. While it seemed unlikely he would ever leave the team, never say never. The F138 continues to struggle against its rivals from Mercedes and Red Bull Racing and a much deserved 4th place finish was the best Alonso could do at Suzuka.

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His teammate Felipe Massa performed well in qualifying and started from P5. Ultimately he secured the final World Championship point finishing 10th overall.

Penalties and mechanical errors contributed in large part to a disappointing weekend for Mercedes. Lewis Hamilton qualified behind the Red Bull’s on Saturday, just before sharing a stone-soaked handshake with rival Vettel.

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Despite Hamilton’s PR-friendly Twitter feed, his dissatisfaction with Mercedes’ performance is written all over his face. Hamilton suffered another blow today after getting clipped by Vettel at the start of the race. A tire puncture sent him to the pits after lap 1 and the subsequent damage to the W04’s brakes ended his hopes prematurely.

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His teammate Nico Rosberg was handed a drive-through penalty after leaving the pits early and nearly colliding with the incoming Sergio Perez. The penalty contributed to an 8th place finish and not the kind of result Mercedes were looking for.

Jenson in his cockpit

As beloved by the Japanese fans as Jenson Button and McLaren are, their support did little for the team who are in their worst slump in over 20 years. Button spent a majority of today’s race trading places with his teammate Sergio Perez, who was unable to break into Q3 on Saturday.

Sergio in action

McLaren have declined to answer questions about their driver lineup in 2014 but at the moment no one is safe. While it’s likely Button will continue on with the team, Perez’s fate is more uncertain.

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Overall an entertaining Japanese Grand Prix and one that fans certainly needed. It’s unlikely the rest of the season’s “Tilkedomes” will provide the same brand of racing and Vettel will certainly get his crown by Abu Dhabi. On the other side of things, inconsistent calls from the stewards continue to plague the sport. At some point they forgot it’s called “racing” and an emphasis on safety and over policing the drivers have many up in arms. Today’s controversial penalties provided for some very candid and blunt driver interviews in the media scrum following the race.

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There are just 4 races to go in this 2013 season! Formula 1 heads to the Buddh International Circuit in 2 weeks for the Indian Grand Prix.

Photos courtesy of F1 Fanatic.

ZERO/SPORTS Anniversary Festival

It doesn’t seem like too long ago that we were watching the demise of ZERO/SPORTS. Back in 2011 the company filed for Chapter 11 – a time when it was the thing to do if you were part of the Japanese tuning industry. After some modest Tokyo Auto Salon appearances, the company appears to have found new life with the Subaru BRZ. Back in April, ZERO/SPORTS hosted a special Anniversary Festival at the company’s tuning facilities.

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Apart from the usual festivities which included food vendors and dyno pulls for customers, 3 generations of the brand’s famed demo cars made appearances.

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As you’re likely to find with most of Japan’s larger automotive brands, ZERO/SPORTS has an impressive retail, tuning and maintenance facility called ZEROMAX. The space allows customers to get a closer look at the company’s products and meet with consultants to discuss the various tuning options available.

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Out back, customers were invited to put their cars on the dyno.

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ZERO/SPORTS has always been known for their work with the Subaru Impreza. At one point they had the most dominant STi around Tsukuba Circuit. Today the brand’s attention has shifted towards a more street-tuned approach with their latest project the CZS Impreza.

While the CZS Type ZERO aero adds a certain elegance to the current crop of Imprezas, the brand will always be most famous for their GDB Time Attack car.

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Also on hand, the BTZ007R2 GC8 demo car.

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They just don’t make them like this anymore.

In recent years the future of Japanese tuning has looked at times bleak. However it’s great to see brands like ZERO/SPORTS carrying on. With their impressive retail and tuning facility ZEROMAX and a firm grip on the BRZ market, bankruptcy is hopefully a thing of the past.

Photos courtesy of ZERO/SPORTS.

D1GP Still Happens

D1GP still happens in Japan and I am as surprised as you are. A lot of people in and out of the sport predicted the series would die with the departure of judges Daijiro Inada and Keiichi Tsuchiya. At the end of the day earning a living was more important and most of the drivers stayed.

I remember the days when D1 was up there with Super GT as a hallmark of Japanese motor sports. Maybe it still is, but people sure aren’t talking about it like they used to.

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In the foreground, Takahiro Ueno’s 2JZ-powered BMW 335i sporting a crazy new livery. I wish he was still competing in the Toyota Soarer. That in red with the Vertex Ridge kit is one of the all time great looking Japanese tuner cars.

Photo courtesy of Vertex.

Tokyo Auto Salon 2013

It’s early Monday morning in Japan and this year’s Tokyo Auto Salon has officially come to an end. Here’s a sampling of all the rest of the cars present at Makuhari Messe.

As always Nissan had a very big presence at this year’s show. While the GT-R remains the king, Silvas and Skylines have not been forgotten.

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TAS needs more builds like this fantastic 180SX from SPIRIT Rei.

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It’s hard to go wrong with a white R32 on Advans. Funny enough it’s the simple builds that stand out most at TAS.

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Phoenix’s Power had the GT-R well represented at the show including this lime green example on BBS LMs.

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Next door to Phoenix’s Power was Top Secret. They also showed up with a few different GT-Rs as well as their Rocket Bunny kitted 86.

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This year could be the biggest ever turnout for imports, both European and American at TAS. Ferrari had a large presence as did Porsche and BMW amongst others.

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The Ferrari F40 was given a very nice display this year. The Japanese have always been obsessed with European cars and as exotics get older and become cheaper, we’re going to see a lot more tuners working with them.

Despite strong showings from Nissan and Toyota, Mitsubishi didn’t fare as well in 2013. The Evo X is now 5 years old and it’s beginning to show. It’s disappointing to see a car which once littered the show floor at TAS, suffer the same fate as its Subaru rival. With Mitsuibshi moving towards EV production, the CZ4A may be the last of the great tuner cars from the brand.

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Varis continues to dominate the market. I’m disappointed that Voltex never created their own Evo X wide body kit to compete.

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Unsurprisingly, Toyotas dominated the show in 2013. The 86 is the new darling of the Japanese tuning industry, massively overshadowing its sibling the BRZ.

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A JZX100 with strange lights inside of the wheels. This was a trend seen on a number of cars at TAS.

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Original Runduce was present with their 86 demo car kitted in Varis aero. This car just looks so good and is probably my favorite 86.

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After all these years, the Mazda RX-7 continues to be one of the very best looking Japanese cars.

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Last but not least there’s Subaru. As with every year, I was disappointed in the turnout for Imprezas. While the STi fights to remain relevant, the tuning industry seems to be moving on. I blame Subaru for not giving the car the AYC and extra 30-50 horsepower it so deserves.

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D Language came out with a very large booth featuring their STi, Evo and 86 demo cars.

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Blitz was also on hand with a GVB STi showing off some of their latest electronics and performance parts, including this 6-pot brake kit.

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Despite filing for bankruptcy in 2012, Zero/Sports was on hand with a GVB STi. They’re hardly the dominant force they once were at TAS.

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I’ll end with this truly awesome looking wide body GVB STi from Varis. This kit has kind of gone under the radar with all the attention on the 86.

That about does it for TAS coverage on A Class. If anything else exciting comes my way, I’ll be sure to post it. Overall I’m disappointed by this year’s show. There’s a real lack of variety right now in the Japanese tuning industry. I suppose it’s been a long time coming. With major players like Honda, Mitsubishi and Mazda failing to produce exciting cars like they once did, the industry has been forced to rely on Nissan and Toyota. Subaru can be happy with their role in the 86 and their own BRZ but as the Impreza continues to get heavier and slower, we may see another great fall by the wayside. On the bright side, the amazing reception the 86 has gotten has shown other manufacturers what’s possible. Hopefully in the next few years we’ll see more of the affordable, fun cars the Japanese automotive industry so desperately needs.

Photos courtesy of GTNET.