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.


Voltex S2000

This crazy Voltex S2000 has been making its way around the blogs and on Instagram lately. I hope it drives as good as it looks.


What happened to Voltex lately? I know they’re still churning out GT wings, but they haven’t done a new body kit in forever. How about something for the GVB STI? I heard a rumor last year that like so many other Japanese shops, they filed for bankruptcy. Any truth behind that? I sincerely hope not.

Photo courtesy of Bill Kwok.

Top Fuel At TAS

I’m having one hell of a time finding any sort of Impreza presence at Tokyo Auto Salon. People must have forgotten about the STi in the midst of all this 86 & BRZ chaos. I’m also doing my best not to repost the same cars you’ve been looking at all day long.

Top Fuel showed up with a few demo cars this year including this 86.


Black cars have really been appealing to me lately, with the 86 being no exception.


While it’s hard to see on a black car, I could do without the INGS aero for which I’ve never been a fan. I’m sure this car will be fully kitted in Voltex once they get their aero finished sometime this year. The Advan RS-IIs however are working very nicely.


The car’s been dubbed the 0-1000 Type RR something or other and I’m not quite sure why. With the supercharger kit, it’s putting out 250 horsepower which is good for an 86 but hardly a monster.

Top Fuel also brought out their S2000 Time Attack car which will be in Australia at the WTCC later this year.


Leave it to Voltex for producing pure insanity! It’s a shame they’re no longer part of Team Cyber…


The engine’s been boosted to over 700 horsepower. That’ll do just fine!

What’s so interesting this year is just how much the tuning industry is changing. So many of the big players have faded into the background. Maybe it’s the move to more eco-mentalist motoring or maybe it’s the fact that the Japanese automotive industry just isn’t as exciting as it was 5-10 years ago. The golden era of turbocharged street monsters seems to be giving way to a more eclectic range of small displacement cars built for handling and a resurgence of vintage motoring. Granted I’m hardly in a position to summarize a show I haven’t even attended, but the landscape (even from abroad) is certainly changing. Whether for better or for worse, I’m not too sure…

Photos courtesy of CarWatch.

Seeker AP1

Seeker’s AP1 S2000 demo car.

The Chargespeed Super GT widebody isn’t a bad look for the car although I feel like it’s just a mashup of all the other great body kits from Amuse, J’s Racing, and ASM.

The Seeker SE.S ES exhaust is teetering on the lines of ear shattering. Although you can’t really see it in this picture, it’s just a straight pipe. I prefer it when S2000’s run single tip exhausts. I think it fits in so much better with the “roadster” feel of the car. It’s also cool when manufactures like ASM and Chargespeed (above) mold their rear bumpers to fit the single tip look.

The S2000 really needs little work to be an amazing performer. The engine bay has remained unchanged for the most part. The F20C has been kept with stock internals and the intake has been replaced by a Chestnut air box and Spoon carbon kevlar intake duct.

Here’s a clip from Touge Gunsai with the Seeker taking on the Arvou AP1 S2000. This thing is so loud!

The Finer Things

In light of Mr. Kanayama’s recent car accident which has left him in a coma, I thought I would take a second to talk about ASM and their amazing collaboration with Recaro.

ASM is known throughout the Honda community as one of the premier tuning shops in Japan. Their amazing attention to detail and taste for the finer things in life have set them apart from most other tuning shops. The company’s owner, Shinichiro Kanayama is known for his expensive tastes and his desire to achieve perfection with everything he involves himself in.

This attention to detail can be easily seen in the way ASM keeps their workspace in immaculate condition.

Their S2000’s including Mr. Kanayama’s personal car (pictured above) are known for their subtle, fully-functional styling. I like the lunacy of Spoon’s wide body kit, but it’s always been the ASM kit I’d put on my own personal car, if I drove an S2000. The front bumper is full dry carbon, amazing!

ASM is also known for their relationship with Recaro. They’re currently the largest dealer of Recaro seats in Japan and have been since 2005. The company offers an array of original ASM designs that are made in house at Recaro Japan. These seats have only been available to the Japanese public until recently.

ASM offers unique materials and stitching patterns, including alcantara on their line of Recaro seats. Visitors to ASM’s showroom in Yokohama are welcomed to test each seat to figure our which one is perfect for their car.

ASM also has 2 amazing blogs featuring the best photography and writeups of any tuning shop blog I’ve ever read. I came across these photos of a bugeye STi receiving the ASM treatment.

It would be nice if my car was still this clean! I wish Mr. Kanayama a speedy recovery, without him none of this would have been possible. He’s served as an inspiration for many.

Photos courtesy of my friend Colin Chu.


I feel like the Spoon wide body kit for the S2000 is a love or hate look. I happen to think it’s the best look for the S2000.

I love those massive fog lights on the front bumper.

I’ve seen so many pictures and video from Spoon’s Tokyo HQ. I need to make a trip over there next time I’m in Japan.

The Spoon fenders are such a work of art. They really enhance the lines of the car and work so well with the hardtop.

If Spoon isn’t your look for the S2000, then maybe this Amuse GT1 wide body from Hong Kong fits the bill?