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 Atiyeh on this one for the most part the sporty Japanese cars, with the exception of the Nissan 370 and Infinity 37G, are gone. Sure you could bring up the Lexus LF-A or the Nissan GT-R, but honestly how many of us can afford them. To add insult to injury the LF-A is a limited production so if you don't already have one chances are you'll never get one.
As it stands right now the 2015 Acura NSX is still a concept so it shouldn't even be included on the list. Yes I like it's styling and I'm pretty sure that the performance will on par with if not surpass that of the old NSX and then there's the price which as yet to be announced. Seeing as it's 3 years from production I'm not surprised here, but I suspect that I will be around $95K which still places it outside the range of most consumers.
As far I'm concerned the best sportscar that Japan had going for it as of late was the Mazda RX-8 it was sporty and inexpensive. This coming from a Honda fan is a sad admission. The S2000 was a nice little roadster but cost $10K more than it was worth.
It builds great-looking, fun-to-drive cars that are (finally) getting decent gas mileage.I take exception to this statement! I have been getting 45+ MPG in my mazda6 diesel sportwagon since 2004!
American companies are not any better at making sports cars then the Japanizes. Other than the Corvette what is there? Dodge finally brought back the Viper but it is a Mercedes SLS in disguise, and Ford no longer makes the GT. The Camaro, Mustang, and Challenger are muscle cars, not sports cars. Find a road with a lot of twist and turns and you will soon know the difference. I have to give props to Cadillac for the CTS-V. One I almost forgot about.
If you are looking for a sports car you have to look to Europe. From Alfa Romeo to Zonda the Europeans know how to have fun. They have everything covered from the zippy little Fiat 500 abarth and VW Golf GTI. To the Audi TT and Porsche boxter, the 4 door fun of the AMG’s and M classes of Merc and BMW. All the way up to the super exotics from the likes of Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and Aston Martins.
Looks like the Europeans can show both the Americans and Japanese a thing or two about sports cars.
Motorcycling is probably the most fun thing you can do while wearing leather.
I tried motorcycling for a year. It's great, just not for me. I am a sports car guy through and through and that's all there is to it.
I disagree with Had It and Frosty on this one. There is nothing like a good sports car, even on public roads. You guys may be happy with your humdrum Highlanders or whatever else may be, but I am not. I want something with just a little more fun to it than that. Like the Scion FR-S for example. Here is to hoping I can actually get one.
There's nothing wrong with carmakers capitalizing on their market share with vehicles that the majority of the general public want to buy, but if you want to get the fun factor back, you need to put some substance into the engine. Styling w/o performance does not make a fun car.
As for Lexus, you forgot the IS F.
Honda and Suzuki are making motorcycles!!
Motorcycling is probably the most fun thing you can do while wearing leather.
Track days are great. Though the "up-front" costs are a little off putting--bike, leathers, helmet, gloves, boots. It CAN be done relatively cheep, or you can spend more. Possibly a lot more... After that, it is just paying for the track day. Most are $200 - $300, and you usually get 8 20-30 minute sessions. Great fun.
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