Where Did The Fun Japanese Automakers Go?
Mazda and Nissan seem to be the only ones left.
America in the 1990s wasn’t great simply because our government had a surplus, gas was a dollar and it was OK for “Homey the Clown” to whip children on television. Also, I’m going to stop any sort of socioeconomic analysis now, because you’re not here to read about the awesome time I had in elementary school.
But what I can unequivocally state, from hours of playing “Need for Speed” as a little kid, is the fantastic array of Japanese cars we had in America during the booming '90s. As if those pixelated game cars -- the Acura NSX, Mazda RX-7, Toyota Supra – weren’t enough, we were also treated to the all-wheel-drive Mitsubishi 3000GT and Nissan 300ZX. We had the funky Honda Civic del Sol, which an older man in my hometown still drives in factory lime green. Even my neighbor’s Camry was cool, with a 5-speed manual transmission, hot mag wheels and slick black-green paint. There was such a time.
Today, the Japanese have lost much of their mojo. Toyota has no sports car aside from the $375,000 Lexus LF-A, and the rest of Lexus is stodgier than the Mercedes S-Class it copied 20 years ago. Honda has become nearly as dull as Toyota. The Accord is old, critics dislike the Civic, and the S2000 roadster is dead. Acura is still trying to remove its ugly silver noses. Subaru, save for the WRX, is even more boring than it always was. Mitsubishi has been a marginal competitor for years, and Suzuki is better known for its motorcycles and ATVs. Seriously, try to find a Suzuki car dealer near you.
Sure, the new Subaru BRZ and Scion FR-S are evidence that blood does indeed circulate through these automakers. But joint ventures like this imply that neither company is talented enough to develop its own enticing product. Whether that’s true or not, that’s how it looks.
That leaves Nissan and Mazda. Nissan still has its street cred. Infiniti is a budget BMW -- and darn good at it. Witness the world-beating GT-R, the affordable, legendary Z, and sporty sedans such as the Maxima. The Cube is insane, the freaky Murano CrossCabriolet has inspired a Range Rover, and the Juke is some weird wind-up toy that belongs on a Hot Wheels ramp. Some of these cars may not sell well, but hey, at least there's passion.
Then there’s Mazda, the “zoom zoom” brand that still has the best 2-seat roadster on the market under $30,000 in the Miata. It build a Wankel-powered sports car, a Euro-style compact minivan, a fun, high-quality small sedan with upscale options such as blind-spot monitoring, a curvy midsize sedan copied by Hyundai, and a new crossover that comes with a stick. There are a few losers -- the underpowered Mazda2 hatchback and outgoing Tribute, an old Ford clone -- but Mazda’s sprightly attitude is clear.
In February, Honda Civic sales were up 36 percent versus last year; the CR-V was up nearly 25 percent. The Toyota Corolla continues its unglamorous streak as the world’s best-selling car of all time. So, despite my unyielding enthusiasm for fun cars, it doesn’t matter. Honda and Toyota, the best-selling Japanese brands, have figured out a winning formula: dull, dependable, utterly predictable transportation.
I’m not about to kick the Camry or any other popular Japanese car into the dirt; I drove the 2012 Camry XLE for a week and -- gulp -- really liked it. I get why people keep buying them. But the Corolla S doesn’t cut it as a driver’s car any more than the Subaru Legacy is sharper than a cookie cutter. Can’t we buy cars en masse that are also exciting, cars that make us look forward to our next breath on earth?
While most of the Japanese brands have scrapped much of their souls to become best-sellers -- OK, the NSX Concept looks amazing -- Mazda is truer to its original form. It builds great-looking, fun-to-drive cars that are (finally) getting decent gas mileage. But in today’s stagnant economy and $4 gas, that may not be enough to stay in business.
Clifford Atiyeh has spent his entire life driving and riding in cars he doesn't own. He was raised in Volvos and has grown to love fast, irresponsible vehicles of all kinds. He lives in Boston, is a member of the New England Motor Press Association, and has reported for The Boston Globe, Car and Driver, Popular Mechanics and The Times of London.
I have to agree with frostyross on this one.
In order to get the same "excitement" out of driving a 4-wheeled (or even 2-wheeled) vehicle on the road as one does while riding, say a dirt bike, one would be 20 mph beyond "go directly to jail-do not pass go"!
The only way, then, would be to participate in a "track day". Too much money and too much trouble.
As what is apparent, most do not view or need their transportation to be a source of excitement or entertainment for them. I enjoy driving my Highlander because it is comfortable, quiet, smooth riding and has great features like the sunroof, premium sound system, navi and such AND never asks me to put money into it for anything other than routine maintenance. But, it is just transportation after all.
I get my excitement from snowmobiles, jet skiis, ATVs and motorcycles (all Japanese of course because they build the best toys too). If you are fortunate enough to have these sort of toys, no car stacks up for excitement. Driving fast on a flat surface with a four wheeled vehicle doesn't muster any adrenaline from my system compared to off road toys.
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