Nissan

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.

83rd 24 Hours Of Le Mans

Porsche’s weekend-only drivers showed up the WEC team, the Nissan GT-R LM NISMO would’ve been better off competing in LMGTE Am, Patrick Dempsey wound up on the podium and Fox Sports completely botched the race coverage. It was everything Formula 1 isn’t, it was the 83rd 24 Hours of Le Mans!

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The WEC is experiencing another golden era and has once again taken its place on the top step of international motorsport. This weekend’s 24 Hours of Le Mans proved to be another classic and saw Porsche dominate with a record 17th win. The Number 19 919 Hybrid driven by the Le Mans-only trio of Nico Hulkenberg, Earl Bamber and Nick Tandy completed 395 laps of the Circuit de la Sarthe. It was a statement win over Audi who struggled with reliability issues throughout the race. The number 7 R18 e-tron quattro of Marcel Fassler, Andre Lotterer and Benoit Treluyer finished third, behind the Number 17 919 Hybrid of Timo Bernhard, Mark Webber and Brendon Hartley in second. As with any running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, maintaining the race lead was a chess match and it seemed likely that the Number 17 Porsche would stand victorious, but a penalty for overtaking under a yellow flag may have been the decider for Mark Webber’s first victory at la Sarthe.

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The real standout of the show was Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg who has proven to be an unbelievable talent time and time again and still has yet to get a top drive in Formula 1. It was only his first running in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and likely won’t be his last. The WEC has become the ideal landing spot for Formula 1 drivers who have increasingly become disenchanted with the series. Racing drivers talk and Webber has done his diligence recruiting throughout the F1 paddock. His friends Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso could wind up in the WEC if things at McLaren don’t turn around. Alonso was just quoted last week saying that Le Mans is more fun to drive than F1 and with Hulkenberg’s success, the allure of endurance racing will have many in F1 considering their options.

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With Porsche’s success and the return of Ford next year, Ferrari, Mercedes and McLaren will certainly be considering runs at the WEC as well.

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If you chose not to spend the €9.99 on the WEC official live stream, you were limited to Fox Sports’s fragmented coverage which could only be described as “abysmal”. The Fox Sports broadcast team lead by Speed alum Bob Varsha, was ideally put on mute in favor of the voice of Le Mans, John Hindhaugh on the Radio Le Mans live stream. Though Fox Sports Go was supposed to have nonstop coverage of the event, the website and app experienced freezing and loading issues. On cable, which was a Where’s Waldo-type of channel navigating experience, the final hours of the race were interrupted by soccer coverage. When it comes to international motorsport, American broadcasters just don’t get it.

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Another year is a long wait until the teams are back at la Sarthe. Luckily the WEC is less than halfway through its season with the 6 Hours of Nürburgring on August 30. My hope is that as the sport continues to attract a larger American audience. seamless, more available coverage will follow. That’s certainly more likely to happen than Formula 1 can get its act together.

Photos courtesy of WEC and FIA.

 

The A Class Top 10 Most Read In 2013

2013 was another big year on A Class and I couldn’t be happier with all of the support. Despite it being one of the leaner years in terms of posts, there were some big milestones including the blog’s 5 year anniversary at the beginning of December! A Class also crossed the 1 million mark in total visitors and experienced its busiest day ever with over 1600 views on March 25. Take all of that into account and 2013 was a big success!

In honor of the new year, I wanted to take a look back at the top 10 most read posts in 2013.

1. F1 Legend: The McLaren MP4/4

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McLaren’s MP4/4 is considered by most to be the greatest Formula 1 car of all time. Its 6-cylinder, turbocharged Honda engine was capable of over 1000 HP and helped the car win all but 1 of the Grands Prix it participated in during the 1988 season. At the hands of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, there’s no better car and driver combo to earn the top spot on A Class’ most read posts of 2013. Read the full story.

2. NISMO Omori Factory: The R-Tune

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These days it’s become pretty common for car enthusiasts and bloggers alike to make to pilgrimage to Japan. However back in 2006 the closest most of us got to our Japanese tuning idols was through DVDs and YouTube. I was fortunate enough to make the trip to the Land of The Rising Sun and visit NISMO Omori Factory in Tokyo. My accounts of the visit are some of the articles I’m most proud of and they’ve also proven to be the most popular. The R-Tune parked outside Omori Factory was one of those “pinch me” moments that I’ll always cherish. Read the full story.

3. BenSopra 180SX At TAS

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Any Japanese auto enthusiast will tell you that 2013 was the year of Miura-san. The head designer for Rocket Bunny and a slew of other Japanese tuning houses was churning out a new build seemly every month. While things started with a bang at Tokyo Auto Salon last January, the style and the hype quickly grew tired. Love his designs or not, you have to respect that Miura-san took full advantage of his time in the spotlight and the way things are going, we’ll be seeing more of his work for many years to come. Read the full story.

4. Kansai Service 86 & BRZ At TAS

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There was no other car in 2013 that captured the collective imagination of the automotive industry quite like the Toyota 86 and Subaru BRZ. Many called it the savior of the tuning industry and for good reason because the car absolutely revitalized it. At its core the 86/BRZ is a throwback car, a greatest hits of what true enthusiasts love most about driving – a fizzy engine at the front, a proper manual in the middle and RWD at the back. Kansai Service did their part in creating 2 shining examples of what the aftermarket has to offer at last year’s Tokyo Auto Salon. Read the full story.

5. NISMO Omori Factory: Part I

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At its core, A Class has always been about my love for all things Japanese tuning and motor sports. I can’t think of a place where the 2 meet in perfect harmony better than NISMO Omori Factory in Tokyo. The articles I wrote about my experience there in 2006 have been some of the most read ever on the blog and 2013 was no different. NISMO has since moved to a new location but the old showroom was absolute magic. Read the full story.

6. Rocket Bunny FR-S

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More validation that Miura-san and the Toyota 86 dominated the Japanese tuning landscape in 2013. While you’re likely to see carbon copies at meets and shows around the world, this is the car that started it all, an imported Scion FR-S with a touch of madness. I’ve grown tired of the repetitive nature and overly hyped trends of the industry in 2013, but give credit where it is certainly due. Read the full story.

7. Throwback Thursdays: Lancia Delta Integrale

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I adore Italian cars and this is proof that I should feature them more often. Their presence and style are difficult to match and the Delta Integrale is one of those rare Lancias that actually drove and worked as good as it looked. In my dream garage there would most certainly be one of these in red with a tan interior. Read the full story.

8. Okachan’s C-SER GRB STi

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Yashio Factory’s Okamura-san is one of the most outspoken and well known personalities in the Japanese tuning industry. Known for his fascination with the color pink and building some of the fastest Silvias on the planet, Okachan began working with Subarus and started C-SER. The brand has become a mainstay in the Japanese time attack scene, offering a wide selection of power and suspension components for later model STis. Where other manufacturers have shied away from Subaru in recent years, C-SER has filled the void. Read the full story.

9. Tokyo Auto Salon 2013

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There are few things in the automotive industry more exciting than Tokyo Auto Salon. Every January the Makuhari Messe comes alive with the latest and greatest the Japanese tuning industry has to offer and 2013 was no exception. While the show has dwindled from its glory years last decade, it’s still something to behold. Many things really are bigger in Japan and car shows are certainly one of them. Read the full story.

10. ‘Leave Me Alone’ Tee

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The most famous quote in international motor sport in 2012. During the final laps on the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, (then) Lotus driver Kimi Raikkonen barked the now infamous words “leave me alone, I know what I’m doing” to his engineer before taking his first win of 2012. In the last 2 seasons, Raikkonen was managed to win the Formula 1 fan base over by being himself. In a sport dominated by scripted responses and corporate contracts, Kimi has always been Kimi. Things got ugly at the end of 2013 between the driver and the cash-strapped Lotus, who weren’t able to pay him. Now off to Scuderia Ferrari in 2014, Raikkonen was just named the most popular driver in the sport by a recent poll on F1 Fanatic. Read the full story.

2013 saw many trends come and go within the tuning industry. It saw Mark Webber retire from Formula 1 amidst a major identity crisis for the sport. There was Audi dominating Le Mans, a new hyper car war between McLaren, Porsche and Ferrari and the tragic skiing accident involving Michael Schumacher – may we wish him the very best with his recovery. There was hype, there was bankruptcy, there was Chris Harris power sliding an all of our computers. But most of all, 2013 was a proper year to be a petrolhead. Farewell 2013 and hello to an exciting new year. All the best in 2014.

Function Is Greater Than Form

I don’t typically like to use other people’s writing as a means for my own content, but this article from Adam Zillin at 7Tune hits the nail on the head.

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Adam makes some excellent points in his discussion of the R35 GT-R and the Japanese philosophy of tuning. It’s a must read for anyone who’s grown tired of the commercialization of automotive tuning, the wheel fitment and stance movements.

The true passion we all share for driving, modifying and appreciating our cars can never be summed up by Instagram “likes” and t-shirt sales.

Photo courtesy of Adam Zillin.

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.

The Automated Lifestyle

What do automotive manufacturers have against the manual gearbox? It has been a fight to the death (quite literally) for years and I still can’t wrap my head around the reality that my kids will never learn how to use a clutch pedal. I suppose it’s part of a larger issue that stretches well beyond our cars and to our innate desire to live an automated lifestyle. Why should a human being have to perform a task that can be done by a machine? Why learn to write cursive when you can type on a keyboard? Why type on a keyboard when you can use a voice command? Seem my point? The human race seems to be moving in a direction where “do it yourself” does not compute.

Automation is intended to make our lives easier, free our minds from the menial tasks that once dominated countless hours of our days. Yet in 2013 people have more friends on the Internet than they do in real life and more are diagnosed with depression than ever before. Our collective unhappiness boils down to the simple fact that our desire to create, our desire to accomplish something isn’t being utilized because technology does it for us. As highly social and intelligent beings, it is our job to create, to do tasks and to be active members of the physical world that surrounds us.

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Driving a car used to be a highly physical experience. It required practice, skill and depended on the driver to be the least bit coordinated. The act of pushing in a clutch pedal and shifting a gear stick is a physical experience, but in this world of automation it’s been deemed unnecessary. We’ve all known this evolution in the way we drive our cars has been coming, but today’s announcement that Porsche would not be putting a manual gearbox in their upcoming GT3 RS, further cements the reality. While recent 911s were merely a shell of their spirited predecessors, they were one of the last high end sports cars to offer a full driving experience with a manual gearbox. In some ways it made them a bit more special than their peers. However the new model will continue with the same electronic steering that’s infected all 991s and the addition of a PDK.

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Sure some will be quick to mention the GT-R and how the immediate power delivery and phenomenal handling, fill the void left by the absence a manual. But at what point will the automation end? At what point is the driver no longer part of the equation? Formula 1 has had the technology to race cars without drivers for years. Google has designed a car that doesn’t need your help. But do we really want that reality? Formula 1 implemented regulations that kept the focus on act of driving because what is a sport without the human element? With no mental or physical challenge can it even be considered sport?

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There’s a reason we tune into all 58 laps of a Formula 1 Grand Prix, pay our hard earned money to watch Kobe Bryant play LeBron James and still see more live action films than anything with a digital cast. It’s because of our demand for the human element of sports and entertainment. It’s something we can relate to and it’s the one thing we all have in common. Surely we’d want to keep that human element as part of our daily lives as well? Surely we find satisfaction in cooking dinner from scratch, drawing a picture or properly driving a car?

We live in a generation of new equals better, but is that really the case? I’m not so sure.