Skyline

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 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.

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.

Runduce GT-R

Earlier this year I made claims that the Ben Sopra kit was one of the most disgusting abominations ever to grace the lines of an automobile. Despite all the hype leading up to SEMA next week, I stand by those claims. 35 grand to turn your GT-R into a Decepticon? I’ll pass.

This is much more like it. The Varis x Original Runduce GT-R. This kit has been around for a couple years now, but it’s still one of the best options on the market. What I love about well designed aero is its ability to enhance the existing appearance of a car without completely changing it. Varis has always been exceptionally good at that, especially with their Original Runduce collaborations. Check out the kit they’ve just done for the FR-S!

Photo courtesy of Varis.

GC10 At The Daikoku

It’s been a while since I did a Throwback Thursdays post. In fact it’s been a while since I’ve posting anything other than Formula 1 racing!

I’ve said it before, but red is by far the best color on the Hakosuka. I think it accentuates so many details on the body that get lost with the more popular colors like white and grey.

One of the major advantages to modifying a Japanese classic is that you don’t have to do much to the exterior. Most of the more popular cars look great bone stock. Fender flares, wheels, a drop and you’re good to go.

I need to make a pilgrimage to the Daikoku parking area one of these days.

Photos courtesy of Kevin Pratt.