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.


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.


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.


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!


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.


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.

The S207 Is The Impreza We Need

Subaru have always had a knack for teasing foreign markets with limited production models. Since the days of the 22b and Spec C, the automotive industry has shifted towards making performance and exclusivity more accessible. With North America becoming Subaru’s largest sales market, the all new S207’s 400 unit production run makes little sense.

Set to hit the Japanese market on March 6 of next year, every unit will likely be sold within minutes and that’s kind of a shame. With a reported 328 horsepower and the very best off-the-shelf parts as standard, it’s the car the current STI should’ve been and the Impreza North America needs.


The Impreza is a car that’s continued to gain weight and surface area since its inception. The current generation’s chunkier profile, designed by the most uncompromising of health and safety standards bares little resemblance to the World Rally Championship winning car that started the bloodline. With the addition of all new mesh wheels, a carbon front lip, rear diffuser and spoiler, the S207 wears its sportiness well.

Unlike S20X models of the past, the S207 will come with two different trim levels. 200 units will be available in standard trim while the remaining 200 will be sold with the NBR Challenge package (pictured above) and that’s the one you want.


Why not make the NBR Challenge which includes the additional aero the only option?

Of the 200 NBR Challenge units, 100 will be painted Sunrise Yellow. Additional upgrades include everything you’ve come to expect from these models including fully adjustable suspension, upgraded ECU, turbocharger, 6-pot front brakes, exhaust and premium interior. The latter has always been a major selling point for these special edition Subaru models.




A car with a racing pedigree, built for the backroads, at home on the track, turbocharged with 328 horsepower, AWD, a proper 6-speed manual and they’re building 400 units? It’s kind of a farce to be honest.


Lets consider the price – the top of the line NBR Challenge model will run about $53000 and that’s not so bad considering your average BMW 435i costs about the same these days. The S207 is an enthusiast’s car and there’s little doubt if sold in North America it would be a massive hit even at that price.


The sad reality is that a majority of the 400 will spend their lives tucked away in the garages and showrooms of Japanese car collectors. With STI putting their very best efforts on display, the S207 is a car that’s meant to be driven. Subaru are doing themselves a disservice by continuing to neglect the North American market when it comes to their special performance models. It’s a brand that unlike most, gained popularity through a rich and devoted enthusiast culture. Without petrolheads starting off in WRXs and eventually growing up into Foresters, Legacies, and STIs, Subaru wouldn’t be the fastest growing Japanese manufacturer in the market.

In a in more sheltered past it made sense for Japanese manufacturers to keep the very best for themselves. However in this growing global marketplace, making their very best accessible to the masses may be just what Japanese manufacturers need to be doing to regain relevance with consumers largely looking elsewhere.


Photos courtesy of Subaru.


Top Secret Revisited


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.

Original Runduce Imprezas

It doesn’t get much better than these classics, the Original Runduce GDBs.


It’s a coin toss as to which car is better. Where looks are concerned, it’s hard to argue against Voltex aero, but the STI in the foreground is sporting a very unique and slightly insane 500 HP HKS twin-turbo EJ25.

The twin-turbo STI was wearing Voltex aero and up for sale on Global Auto back in 2010. These two make me seriously miss the golden era of Japanese demo cars, before everyone was on Rocket Bunny’s payroll.

Photo courtesy of Original Runduce.

‘Fast & Furious’ Is To Thank

Furious 7 is out this weekend and it will likely be the last (good) entry in the Fast & Furious franchise.


I’ve heard the departure of Paul Walker’s Brian O’Conner is handled with particular care so it should be a fitting sendoff for the character and the actor. It seems with any film series, the longer it goes, the more nostalgic we all feel about its different entries. While I have my favorites and least favorites in the series, 2 Fast 2 Furious stands out in particular, not because of the film but because of what I encountered on my way into seeing it and how that has impacted everything since.


I remember 2 Fast 2 Furious being a big deal because it was the sequel to a film many people considered a cult thing. Sure car people loved it, but the general masses had no interest in blow-off valves, nitrous or 10 second cars. The local movie theater was doing a special promotion for the film’s release and upon reaching the theater’s front doors, I was greeted by a silhouette which will be ingrained in my memory forever.


I had only laid eyes on the Subaru Impreza WRX one other time before and it was at the Cincinnati Auto Show in 2001. The car hadn’t yet gone on sale in America but Subaru were beginning to take orders and promote the turbocharged, road going rally car. I remember sitting in the driver’s seat, steering wheel in my left hand, gear stick in my right, transfixed on the OEM boost gauge – an optional extra. I proudly told my dad I would have one and a year later I was once again greeted by the same World Rally Blue WRX headed into 2 Fast 2 Furious. The theater was raffling the car away to some lucky owner who has probably since ruined it, crashed it or both. I remember telling my friend Ben who is close friend to this day how much I wanted that car. Half an hour later as the Universal Pictures logo morphed into a gear stick to David Banner’s ‘Like A Pimp’, I was still thinking about the WRX outside.

It’s funny how things work out sometimes. Had I not seen 2 Fast 2 Furious at that theater on that night, I may have never cemented my love for the Subaru WRX. The Fast & Furious series is a generational benchmark. It’s shaped the way so many of us in our 20’s and 30’s think about cars and about action movies. The original is by far the most quoted movie in my social circle and amongst car enthusiasts everywhere. Say “I live my life a quarter mile at a time” or “no one likes the tuna here” and people are immediately in on the joke. Say what you will about the ridiculous plots or over the top characters, the Fast & Furious series is a commentary about how much cars can mean to people and how they can bring people together. Cars are where I found my closest friends and have been a constant source of happiness in my life.


My love of cars has always been there but in so many ways it was the Fast & Furious series that made them a part of my life rather than an admiration from afar. 14 years later, I’ll be driving my WRX to see Furious 7.

Photos courtesy of Universal.

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.


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.


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.


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



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.

Car Station Marche VA STI

The VA STI seems to have a much stronger following amongst tuners than the previous GR sedan. Jalopnik has called for the beige-ification of Subaru and they’re definitely onto something. While the brand’s latest attempt at a car desperate to hold onto its past isn’t a looker, the performance and potential are still there.


CS Marche has a long history motor racing Imprezas and expect to see much more of this particular car fitted in the latest offerings from Varis.

Photo courtesy of CS Marche.


The GRB is the most recent iteration of the STI that I actually like. The newer sedans just aren’t cutting it – not that you ever see them in the wild anyway. Has anyone actually seen a modified GVB driving down the street or at the local meet? The newer generation of STIs don’t seem to be getting the love from owners and one of the reasons could be a lack of decent parts from manufacturers. In recent years, the STI hasn’t really been a big hit with tuning shops in Japan. Most are still deferring to the Evo and many of done away with AWD sedans completely to focus on the 86 and GT-R. This lack of attention has left a hole in the aftermarket, add to it the fact that hatchbacks are a far more popular option in Japan and Europe (hence the GRB) and it really has been an uphill battle for new generation of STI sedans.

Luckily this problem is much less so for the model’s hatchback counterpart and the GRB remains the best looking of the new generation of STIs. My friend Nat’s car is definitely no exception.


I love the car’s simplicity and the way it appeals to people who know, while remaining fairly anonymous to everyone else.


Nat’s EQ tuned STI is putting out over 300whp on E85 with stock internals, turbo and drivetrain. The perfect setup for a daily driver.


What really sets his car apart for me are the beautiful matte black Volk CE28Ns. While the wheels are certainly aggressive, it’s the tires that really finish off the looks, especially in person.

To drive, it’s a great street car. A bit of understeer in the corners (most Subarus are) and extremely responsive at the exit. Compared to my WRX with a VF34 and FMIC, there’s virtually no lag and excellent midrange torque. I can’t wait to drive it again with the new E85 tune.

Nat claims to be done with this build. I doubt it.