By on April 2, 2013

For anyone like myself – that is, a car fan who grew up in the 1990s and watched Japan’s sports cars disappear from the American market in one sudden swoop, news that Japan’s once mighty auto industry is being “hollowed out” might come as a shock. The cars that defined my youth – the RX-7s, Supras even the VTEC Honda compacts, are a distant memory. Most of what Japan offers on our shores are aimed at the mainstream, while at home, kei-cars and hybrids dominate the market.

A lot of the criticism leveled at Japan is that their focus on the mainstream market and alternative powertrains is what sparked their auto industry’s current malaise. But this is a superficial and fallacious assumption that supposes that the glut of superb Japanese cars in the 1990s is a baseline for our expectations of what a Japanese auto maker should be building and selling. In fact, it is an aberration that will never occur again.

Japan, early 1990s. It is a boom unlike even the MBS-fueled manic episode that tinted the last days of my adolescence. Everything is expensive, but who cares, because everyone is rich! Contrary to what Detroit tells you, the reason nobody in Japan buys foreign cars is because of conformity. There is a famous phrase in Japanese business culture; “the nail that sticks up, gets hammered down”. You, the salaryman with cash to burn, will support the home team. You will buy one of these fabulous cars created by our all-conquering auto industry, and you will replace it every few years due to the shakken inspection system and because it is uncouth to drive an old, used car.

If 1950s American cars are a reflection of the optimism and prosperity of that era, then let’s look was offered by a country that saw its stock market plunge by trillions of dollars. Gullwinged-Mazda kei cars. Honda Legends with four-figure gyroscopic navigation systems. 1.6L V6s engines in D-Segment Mitsubishis. Why? Because they could. It was pure, unabashed hubris that led auto makers to field umpteen variations of the same mid-size car or open different sales channels for each model, like the Honda Accord, which begot the Honda Vigor, Inspire, Ascot, Innova, Rafaga, Saber and Torneo. All of them were only slightly different from one another but they were sold across three separate sales channels dubbed Primo, Clio and Verno. It was a scenario that made General Motors pre-bankruptcy sales strategy look lean by comparison.

The competitive nature of the Japanese auto industry and the “gentlemens agreement” limiting cars to 276 horsepower meant that an arms race of technology was being waged. R&D budgets were limitless. No technology was too complex or too expensive to implement on any given product. Twin turbo rotary engines at Mazda, four-wheel steering and all-wheel drive at Nissan, active aerodynamics at Mitsubishi, and of course, the all-aluminum, F1-inspired NSX at Honda. Even at the lower end, there were countless high-performance variants of the lowliest econoboxes: Type-Rs and Spec-Rs and Cyborg Rs and 9000 RPM, 1600cc VZ-Rs and BZ-R’s (not to be confused with our current, boxer-blighted BRZs) which were Corollas with 5 valves per cylinder and individual throttle bodies. That was technology that Ferrari never even saw until long after the BZ-R was introduced.

It was utter insanity, but Japan was in a unique position to support these offerings. Aside from its economic growth, its demographic picture meant that those born just after WWII, when birth rates were still high, were hitting their earnings peak. And since everyone was flush with money, they could afford to buy these cars.

When the bottom fell out of the economy, the cars mentioned above were already too far along in the development cycle to be canceled. The OEMs had no choice but to release them after sinking so much money into their development. And while the higher end product was pulled from our market, they soldiered on in Japan. With no foreign competition, there wasn’t much to lose. Everything was so advanced and over-engineered that they still felt – and in some cases, even looked – fresh and modern despite being a decade old.

Now fast forward to 2013. Nearly a quarter of the population is over 65, and Japan’s population growth is negative. The bulk of consumers are likely buying their last car, and young people are famously not interested in the automobile.  Now that there is no domestic consumer base, the product development ethos has irrevocably changed. What were once solutions to local problems and tastes must now be targeted at a global audience, with all of the peculiarities and regulatory demands and business cases that come with it.

Instead of the three-rotor Mazda Cosmo or the gorgeous Nissan Silvia, we have the Toyota 86, a car that was apparently so risky that a corporate behemoth like Toyota had to partner with a relative bit player like Subaru just to bring it to production. The one upshot in the economics of the current economics of the auto industry is that to maximize the ROI for this car, there will inevitably be more variants. Definitely a convertible. Maybe a sedan. Just maybe, if we’re lucky, a shooting brake.

It is fashionable nowadays in the automotive press to stake out a position that brands oneself as the vanguard of automotive enthusiasm, defender of all that has “soul” and “character”, while admonishing the manufacturers for offering bland pablum instead of the exciting enthusiast machines that once existed. Ultimately these are just the ignorant ramblings of those who are unable or unwilling to understand the external forces that shape cars; macroeconomics, government regulations, demographics, geography, trade policies.  The auto industry is not a charity that produces widgets for driving enthusiasts. It is a business like anything else, and its output is directly related to the input.

Meanwhile, you can go to the dealer and buy an MX-5 that has barely risen in price, when taking inflation into account, since being introduced nearly 25 years ago. You can still buy an honest-to-god Made In Japan European-market Accord, or a sublime rally-derived Mitsubishi. You can finally buy a new Z car or a GT-R, two products we clamored for in the late 1990s. Now they’re here, along with the WRX , a product that we also cried out for not too long ago. Are things really that dire? Or are we so dissatisfied with our present that the only escape is to romanticize an era that should have never been?

 

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119 Comments on “Generation Why: Demographics And The Insanity Of Japan’s Golden Bubble...”


  • avatar
    Ubermensch

    Very informative article and this line in particular:

    “The auto industry is not a charity that produces widgets for driving enthusiasts.”

    Enthusiasts on most automotive forums should do well to remember this when they go blathering on about brown, RWD, manual transmission wagons or the like. Don’t get me wrong, I am one of the biggest fans of such a vehicle. I’m just realistic and know it will never happen here.

    • 0 avatar
      philadlj

      I’d substitute “no longer” for “not” in that quote, as Derek points out, during the golden bubble automakers and consumers alike were swimming in so much cash, things got insane…or as insane as things can get with a 276-hp ceiling! Not to say they were charities, but there was SO much choice back then for a buyer of any budget. There wasn’t just one brown RWD manual wagon available, there were several.

  • avatar

    The generation that desires Japanese sports cars is technically BANKRUPT: a bunch of college kids living in their mum’s basement, working a half-time job and balancing a hundred thousand dollars worth of student loan debt. None of these cars are cheap unless they are used and abused.
    The Nissan Z, BR-Z and FRS might as well cost $50,000 cause they can’t afford to take out a $28,000 loan for them. To them, the Nissan GT-R is like a Bugatti Veyron: you can dream of owning one, but for 99.99998% of em – IT AIN’T GONNA HAPPEN.

    And then there’s the price of INSURING a young teenager…

    Might as well stick to your $200 smartphones and their $80 a month contracts!!!

    • 0 avatar
      danio3834

      I remember when you could lease a car for $80 a month. And I’m not even that old.

    • 0 avatar
      raph

      Sounds like a recipe for restored gozillion dollar toyobarus and godzillas down the road when these guys reach retirement age, the kids are gone, and the house is paid off.

      Anyways,

      Pretty insightful article, NSX aside I think the only other Japanese sports cars I ever took a liking to where the Miata and RX-7 and perhaps a sprinkling of others (old Z cars always seemed like good hot-rodding material for a SBC or SBF transplant).

    • 0 avatar
      swaq

      So if every single person of any age in the United States was dreaming of a GT-R only 63 would have been sold? I think your percentage might be a tad off there…

      By the way, I bought a BRZ last week.

      • 0 avatar

        Congratulations Swaq on your BR-Z purchase!!!

        Now you’ll just need to find a steep downhill slope so you can race people -__-

        • 0 avatar
          Mykl

          …..or he can go to a racing organization that places cars in classes for competition, which is basically every single one of them.

          So few people buy brand new cars to go racing that the statement “nobody buys brand new cars to go racing” is basically true.

          • 0 avatar

            Oh really? So if he got placed in class with competition, who would he be up against?

            Hyundai Elantra?
            Toyota Corolla?
            Ford Fiesta?

          • 0 avatar
            Mykl

            You’ve never participated in any form of organized motorsports, have you?

          • 0 avatar

            Looks like the classing would be C Stock (SCCA Solo): BMW M Coupe (1996-2000), BMW M3 (E30/E36), Ferrari 308/328, Lotus 7, Lotus Esprit (non-turbo), Mazda Miata (1999-2005), Nissan 350Z/370Z, Porsche Boxster (1997-2004), etc.

            Doesn’t matter to me though. Why is it assumed I want to race my daily driver? My criteria for a new car was RWD, manual, and good fuel economy. I can’t afford the Rossion Q1 yet, so this will have to do for now.

        • 0 avatar
          swaq

          Why would I want to race on the street? If I desired a fast straight line car I’d be keeping my Supra. I just wanted a daily driver that wasn’t front-wheel drive.

          • 0 avatar
            mbaruth

            The twins are hopelessly outclassed in C Stock, unfortunately. Proposals are being drafted to move it to G Stock or D Stock.

      • 0 avatar
        raph

        I swear the toyobarus are gonna be the fox body Mustangs of this decade. I keep telling a buddy that we ought to get into to the toyobaru parts business while there is still a business to get into.

  • avatar
    Domestic Hearse

    There is an arms war amongst OEMs today, but it’s waged by the premium luxury brands, those catering to those who’ve managed to escape the current economic downturn unscathed, or even wealthier (as the top of the food chain often does in such times).

    Perhaps, as the BRIC nations mature and their populations reach middle class status, a new Japanese inspired arms race will begin again. Hot hatch Civics, turbo’ed Mazdas, 4-wheel steered Preludes VTECs, and R-Spec Nissans will be brought back for a new generation of consumers, eager to display their newfound credit worthiness.

    Of course, by then, I’ll be too old to care and I’ll be puttering my electric golf cart around a gated Florida community, wearing my Blue Blockers, trying to execute the perfect Scandinavian Flick in front of the bingo hall.

    • 0 avatar
      juicy sushi

      These cars were never about the consumers though. This was corporate ego writ large, trying to find an audience after the fact. The engineers were given free reign by management that no fear because they would not be held accountable for poor performance (which, at the time these cars were being designed, was considered impossible).

      Really, the best context for these cars is the late 1960s muscle car wars. The economic context was slightly different, but the corporate and demographic context was the same. It was the land which corporate accounting forgot.

  • avatar

    Part of the problem is that we look back with rose colored glasses. Think of it like music – back in the day music was so much better than it is now, hence the reason for so many “classic rock” radio stations. What we forget, however, is that the current crop of stations are skimming the cream off the top of 15 years’ worth of music. All of the crap – and there was a LOT of crap – has fallen away and we are left with the distilled excellence of a generation.

    When we think of the cars of yore, we see them in a similar light. We forget that many of the most celebrated rides were not something the average person could or would buy “back in the day.” People today act like these cars were in reach for normal people, but I liked cars and I made almost twice the minimum wage (which was $3.35) so I should have been driving an NSX, right?

    Wrong. Most of us then were consigned to the same crap then that we are consigned to today. The rich people are still getting their top of the line supercars, those of us who want to dump the larger portion of our paychecks into a car payment can still get a muscle car and the rest of us can still buy hotted up economy cars ala the Genesis Turbo, Turbo Dart, the Ford Foucus, et-al and live normal lives.

    What we want is what we always wanted – those supercars at less than superhuman prices. We didn’t get it then and we aren’t getting it now. No macro-economic or anthropological discussions needed, the more things change the more they stay the same.

    • 0 avatar
      Battlehawk

      Thank you. Even my own parents say “cars were soooo much cooler in the 60s” and don’t believe me when I say most of the 60s era cars were sold in mundane configurations or that a new V6 Camry is faster than nearly all of them. The cool and fast cars are simply the ones anyone cared about keeping.

    • 0 avatar
      sportyaccordy

      This was awesome. This this this +12.

      Not to mention, today’s $50K performance car can give a scare or outright beatdown to yesterday’s supercar. We are still reaping the benefits of all that excess.

  • avatar
    tenzin

    Ah it was like a walk down memory lane. I too grew up in that wonderful era and I believe your prophecy about never seeing this again is right because we are nearer the end of the automobile era than we are at its beginning.

    • 0 avatar
      JMII

      Like our parents who grew up in the “golden age” of muscle cars the import craze of late 80s / mid 90s was just as passing phase… a short window in time. The real shame is unlike muscle cars that were produced in low volumes these cars were high production models, thus nobody treats them like rare classics (at least not yet). Plus all have been crashed or riced out to point on having almost no value. The other difference from the muscle car era is that even in their day these cars were crazy expensive, I could only afford a Prelude Si and eventually an Eclipse GS-T. The Nissan 300ZX, RX-7 and Supra were all way beyond my budget. The NSX might as well been made of solid gold from my standpoint in high school / college. It took until I was 40 to afford a USED 350Z. Granted I could have gone for broke and purchased one years ago but instead I bought two houses and boat.

      The fact that the WRX and GT-R is even available to purchase today is amazing. To think when Gran Turismo came out in ’98 these cars were only available in digital form to lust over. The real question is will those same cars become the big ticket items at Barrett Jackson in 2028? Will our generation follow in parents footsteps and begin collecting the cars we desired in youth? Not sure, as unlike our parents we never had a physical connection to these vehicles, our only interaction with them came thru a Dual Shock controller.

      • 0 avatar
        28-Cars-Later

        You raise some interesting points. From what I’ve bee reading Gen Y’s automotive apathy combined with a lack of connection and general rarity in clean examples, these models may be doomed to the history books instead of your neighborhood garages and local car shows.

        • 0 avatar

          Let’s not blame it all on the ricers, though. Piss poor rust proofing killed a LOT of these cars before their time.

          • 0 avatar
            CJinSD

            I was a car obsessed kid in the ’70s, and became a car obsessed teenager in the ’80s. The now-collected cars of the ’60s and ’50s were thinner on the ground then than they are now. ’64.5-’66 Mustangs were an exception, as they weren’t really performance cars in the first place, but the big block muscle cars vanished during the gas crunch and then you couldn’t even buy the premium leaded fuel they needed. If you look at the lengths people go to in order to bring back or re-create a muscle car, you are seeing just how neglected and unwanted they were for decades. The reality is that they were just as abused when new, just as badly modified, just as raced and wrecked, just as susceptible to fickle fashion changes, just as difficult to insure, and about half as durable as the cars of the ’90s. Whether or not the Supras and CRXs will be restored and collected will come down to whether or not we still have a middle class in 20 years.

        • 0 avatar
          Xeranar

          I think generational talk is way too strong a term to throw around. The majority of cars were saved by a dedicated few or general apathy of sale. Better naturalbody protection will save a fair number. I just saw last week a square hheadlight prelude that has to be close to 15 years old that looked brand new. There will be scores available but I suspect they will never command the prices of the 64.5 mustangs or the supercar segment.

        • 0 avatar
          carrya1911

          I agree. The cars that fetch high prices at Barrett Jackson are an anomaly that I don’t believe will ever be matched. They may have been driven to the stratosphere by nostalgia, but that nostalgia has been passed on to multiple generations. It’s not just the guy who cruised in a buddy’s ‘Cuda back in the day who wants one…his son wants one, too. And so does his grandson. Thus I think they’ll continue to sell for stupid money, with the finest original examples pulling 6 figures. The ones that aren’t in original condition will be made into clones or resto-mods for the foreseeable future…and as they get totaled or wrecked the available numbers will shrink ensuring rarity.

          Later cars don’t have the luxury of 3 or 4 generations worth of car guy lust that a 1965 Mustang 2+2 or ’68 Charger has. As vehicles they may be vastly superior to any of the Detroit iron of the day, but they don’t have that magic. The pool of people who appreciate them will be much smaller than the pool of people who drool after the old Detroit iron and so values probably won’t be anywhere near as high.

          …and let’s face it: Nothing from our vision of the Japanese golden age has the raw emotional appeal of a 1963-1967 Corvette Stingray.

      • 0 avatar

        Well stated.

        • 0 avatar
          jhefner

          What I think will make the cars of the 90s harder to keep alive or recreate are the plastic body parts and electronics. Both have a limited shelf life; and both will be harder to find intact in a salvage yard.

          • 0 avatar
            RedStapler

            What about DIY replacement parts with a 3D printer? Or given the low cost of mass customization today you could get together on a model specific forum and round up 30-50 people needed to do a small run.

    • 0 avatar
      Kendahl

      I don’t see the personal automobile disappearing for a long time, if ever, because there isn’t a practical alternative. What I do expect, and already see the beginnings of, is a gradual transition to self-driving vehicles.

      • 0 avatar
        CJinSD

        The practical alternative is to disarm the public, implode the economy, use up billions of bullets herding a manageable number of survivors into concentration camps, and preserve nature for the ruling class. It is called Agenda 21. You can read about it on the UN’s website.

        • 0 avatar
          mike978

          Agenda 21 which is about Sustainable Development says nothing about concentration camps and the like.

          I don`t think the need to minimise say water usage (low flow toilets, showers etc) automatically leads to concentration camps. But I see shades of grey in most things, not just black and white like some.

          • 0 avatar
            LuciferV8

            “Agenda 21 which is about Sustainable Development says nothing about concentration camps and the like.”

            Well, duh.
            Were you also expecting Stalin to mention something about starving millions of Russians in his five-year plans? As with all other totalitarian power grabs in history, the devil is in the details.

            I’m capable of seeing things of shades of grey too. In fact, there’s a bit more than grey I can see. I see a whole world of “brown” being dumped on our heads with Agenda 21.

            “I don`t think the need to [minimize] say water usage (low flow toilets, showers etc) automatically leads to concentration camps.”

            There’s a statement that’s either very disingenuous or highly uninformed. I’m pretty sure that the 300-page, 40 chapter document that is Agenda 21 has a lot more in it than just a few handy tips on how to save water.

            What it boils down to, is a coordinated effort to reduce individual property rights and economic freedom under the guise of promoting the two nebulous concepts of ‘sustainability’ and ‘social justice’.

            Read more and get informed:

            http://www.rightsidenews.com/2011040721994/life-and-science/energy-and-environment/agenda-21-in-one-easy-lesson.html
            http://www.freedomadvocates.org/
            http://www.democratsagainstunagenda21.com/

          • 0 avatar
            mike978

            Talk about obtuse. Of course they are not going to talk about concentration camps. But it is a leap to get to there.

            My comment about water usage (which was just an example) was to show that you can be pro-sustainable development without advocating or supporting some Stalin type scheme.
            The market itself is regulating this with smaller lot sizes (as land prices go up) etc.

          • 0 avatar
            LuciferV8

            “My comment about water usage (which was just an example) was to show that you can be pro-sustainable development without advocating or supporting some Stalin type scheme.”

            It reads like a defense of Agenda 21.

            “The market itself is regulating this with smaller lot sizes (as land prices go up) etc.”

            That part I can agree with. The free market is already doing a lot of the work on limiting certain types of land use. We don’t need draconian restrictions on property rights in order to manage our environment.

        • 0 avatar
          JD-Shifty

          oh my god, I get so tired of these paranoid freaks

  • avatar
    tjh8402

    First up, I think one manufacturer in particular gets cited for losing its way with enthusiasts, Honda. While I wish Nissan had a Silvia and legitimate Sentra SE-R available, I think that they, and as mentioned, Subaru, Mitsubishi, and naturally Mazda have done a good job of giving enthusiasts cars to have fun with. I think where the criticism comes from is that with the exception of Mazda, all these enthusiast offerings are aspirational cars. They’re not like the old Civic Si’s, Preludes, and Integras that were affordable cars. Again, Mazda’s offerings excepted, if you want to have fun, you have to be bringing at least a $30k check with you. I’ve left Toyota out of this discussion because with the exception of the Supra and MR-2, did they ever really offer exciting cars? The Celica was borring for most of the 90s, only getting a legit performance version with it’s final generaion introduced in 1999. And clearly, they have given enthusiasts the ultimate gift in the form of the FR-S. Otherwise, I think the criticism of Toyota losing it’s way is more with the decontenting and lack of quality of recent offerings vs the sainted 1992 generation Camry.

    • 0 avatar
      juicy sushi

      If you think Toyota didn’t have a history of exciting cars perhaps you should visit some of the Japanese car nostalgic sites and learn about the cars made prior to 1990. Toyota’s history is about even or further ahead than Nissan’s in some respects.

      • 0 avatar
        tjh8402

        @ juicy sushi: I know Toyota had some exciting cars pre 1990. However, that isn’t the era that Generation Y people like me remember as being the “golden age” of Japanese performance cars. the only 1990s era Toyotas that I lusted after in middle and high school were the Supras and MR2s.

        • 0 avatar
          sportyaccordy

          Actually Toyota’s excitement peaked in about 1994. Go learn the history, and then form opinions.

          • 0 avatar
            tjh8402

            @sportyaccordy I was in 4th grade in 1994 and I’m at the older end of Gen Y. My point still stands as by the time I was in middle school, you had the Mk IV Supra and the MR2 and that was it as far as fun Toyotas. I remember the introduction of the T230 Celica, MR2 Spyder, and IS300 (9-11th grade) being big deals because Toyota was getting fun again (we thought).

        • 0 avatar
          Demetri

          There was also the Lexus SC/Toyota Soarer. The Celica was kind of a snoozer as far as performance goes from 94-99 (at least in North America), but the early 90s model was more fun and had a GT-Four turbo model. Then they brought back the performance with the 2000 model, which was an awesome car to drive. On the low end, they also had the Paseo during the 90s, which while not that fast was a nimble and fun to drive car. On a whole, the bread and butter cars were better to drive in the 90s too. Corolla, Camry, and Tercel all drove better than their 2000s counterparts.

  • avatar
    billfrombuckhead

    Japan has the highest debt per capita in the world from buying down the yen to make their cars and electronics exports more competitive. Now that they have marketshare they’re going for profits. Other countries might monkey with their currencies but Japan is far and away the most aggressive.

    http://www.nbcnews.com/business/japan-tops-list-countries-deepest-debt-1C7100630

    • 0 avatar
      juicy sushi

      That is a rather limited understanding of how and where Japan’s debt came from. A better understanding would be gained from understanding Derek’s article. A massive bubble economy collapsed in Japan post-1989, but the Japanese government has spent the last 25 years attempting to stimulate the economy through a combination of free money and massive public works pork barrel projects (many of which were in the areas affected by the recent earthquake and tsunami).

      It wasn’t directly about currency manipulation to help business, it was about shovelling money down the throats of key political constituencies to stay in power, and re-energize the economy. Unfortunately for the Japanese, the scale of their debt is only exceeded by the scale of the incompetence of their political class. If you could think of every nasty stereotype of pork-barreling Republican and Democratic politicians, then you’d still lack an understanding of just how bad Japanese politicians can get. The only thing worse is the Japanese keep re-electing them anyway.

      • 0 avatar
        billfrombuckhead

        Alan Mulally agrees with me.

        http://finance.yahoo.com/blogs/daily-ticker/ford-ceo-chides-japan-currency-manipulation-151018184.html

        • 0 avatar
          buyside123

          The Japanese Yen has appreciated 125% vs. the US dollar since 1980. The Yen is now at the same level if was throughout the mid-1990s and is within +/-25% of its value since 2000, with some periods of strength 2010-2012 and some periods of weakness 2013, 2000-2002, 2004-2007. So yes, Alan Mulally’s opinion as the CEO of one almost bankrupt company to one almost bankrupt country is, in a word, crap.

      • 0 avatar
        raph

        “If you could think of every nasty stereotype of pork-barreling Republican and Democratic politicians, then you’d still lack an understanding of just how bad Japanese politicians can get. The only thing worse is the Japanese keep re-electing them anyway.”

        I weep for the Japanese then. I wouldn’t wish our politicians even on our worst enemies.

    • 0 avatar
      VA Terrapin

      billfrombuckhead,

      You don’t know what you’re talking about. The biggest reason for Japan’s high debt is due to domestic stimulus packages like massive spending on public works projects and huge bailouts of zombie Japanese banks.

      As for currency manipulation, the biggest currency manipulators by far are the United States, Europe and China, with Britain and South Korea doing some currency manipulation of their own. Record profits for GM and Volkswagen are in part because of currency manipulation by their home countries. Now that Japan wants to join in on the currency manipulation game, Mulally now wants to cry about currency manipulation. I won’t even bother to break out a tiny violin to play for him in this case.

  • avatar
    jco

    this is my generation. and the Japanese cars of that era will always be important to me. I remember clearly the day the WRX showed up here. because I had a deposit on one, and was at the dealership waiting when my black sedan rolled off the truck.

    the Japanese 80s are to us as the 60s American iron are to my parents’ generation. the cars and the companies were the best of the era. and the people buying them were young and full of post-war reconstruction cash. and if they didn’t have that cash, they still were at an impressionable age and desired them. Barrett-Jackson exists for these people. the almost-old and old guys paying 6 figures for the unrestored or original-looking cars they couldn’t buy back then. or did buy and sold and have kicked themselves over for 30 years. and they were angry at those same companies in the 70s/80s because they weren’t ‘made like they used to’.

    time moves on. every car, no matter the origin, was putting on weight by the late 90s. and that trend, due to MPG concerns, is just now coming to a point where current advanced technology is enabling a gradual reversal of that while still conforming to regulations.

    i’m guilty of continuously ranting on the internet about Honda. but these same market forces that we’re seeing today are the ones I’m hoping will force them to draw on their depth of engineering competence to make lighter, more efficient cars that handle well. Toyota threw serious weight behind carbon-fiber R&D. and they’ll see benefit from it. Honda will not want to let that go unchallenged, and shop-vacs in minivans won’t bridge that gap. i don’t expect 2015 to be 1991 again. and as much as we’d all love to see another Supra, i think new more practical sport-focused models with shared platforms and engines can be a realistic expectation. and Honda putting a new Type-R into production isn’t more internet dreaming.

    not every model can be a hybrid. most will have to be conventional gasoline models. Mazda is doing skyactiv. high-compression, small-displacement, and possibly turbocharged engines are happening all over the market now. is it so ridiculous to expect that Honda should excel at something like that given it’s history?

  • avatar
    L'avventura

    Derek, I think we discussed this in the other thread, but these 90′s ‘Golden Era’ cars were built during Japan’s “Lost Decade”, a time when Japanese car companies neared bankruptcy(Mitsubishi, Mazda, Isuzu, Subaru, Suzuki and Nissan), foreign companies took control (Daimler, GM, Renault) the yen sky rocked, and the country was at its absolute worst economic doldrums.

    Yes, some of these sports cars were developed at the tail of the bubble, but when bubbles bursts, and money gets tight, production of these sports/image vehicles also gets canceled. Much like how the front-engine V10 HSV-010(NSX) was canceled after the 2008 US Housing Cash and the Japanese retreated from F1 and other motorsports in the 90s.

    These cars sold poorly. Contrary to the assertion of this article, its the bursted bubble that constrained sales of these cars. The yen skyrockets while these cars are in production, like a meteor to the Yucatan Peninsula, these cars are wiped out due to their noncompetitive price.

    Finally, returning to development, the reason these 90s Japanese sports and luxury cars existed in the first place was because in 1981 Japan was forced to sign a Voluntarily Export Restraint, which forced Japan to limit its exports to 1.6 million cars. In the 70s Japanese car companies grew making cheap & fuel-efficient cars after the 1970s Oil Crisis.

    This export restraint, mixed with the 1985 Plaza Accord, forced Japanese companies to move upmarket and make transplant factories in the US (movies like Gungho depicted this). These restraints were why many Japanese car company made luxury brands like the Lexus, Acura, and Infiniti.

    And really, a lot of the ‘golden era’ cars Doug lists, aren’t really that good. The Mitsubishi 3000GT and SVX, while unique and interesting, really hasn’t stood the test of time. The cars that replaced it, the WRX & Evo, will be more fondly remembered years from now.

    • 0 avatar
      juicy sushi

      I think you mis-read the article. The collapse of the bubble was the issue which led to the poor sales, but you are incorrect that some of these cars were developed at the tail of the bubble. They all were. While 1989 was the end of the Japanese bubble, it took a few more years for the full effects to filter down. Hence the early 1990s Japanese cars were being initially snapped up, as people still had money. It was only from 1993-1994 on that things began to really change.

      These cars wereN,t a product of an export restraint, these were corporate expressions of ego, and you need to understand Japanese culture to appreciate why. The quest for achievement and “perfection” are a key element of Japanese aesthetic and business culture. As such, perfection needs to be expressed in something beautiful and amazing. A new family sedan won’t enable that. You need to do the same kind of flagship everyone else does, hence the sports cars.

      • 0 avatar
        L'avventura

        The technically bubble burst in 1990-1991 when Japan’s housing market fell into free fall. Before 1994 Japanese property lost a third of its value compared to 3 years ago.

        Things got real bad real fast. It didn’t wait till 1993-4. Japan’s bubble didn’t deflate, it burst. And it burst big.

        Here is the data to back it up:
        http://www.doctorhousingbubble.com/japan-real-estate-bubble-home-prices-back-30-years-zero-percent-mortgage-rate

        Secondly, while the talk of Japanese culture to strive for “perfection” and ‘beauty’ is nice, the reality is that its business.

        The 1981 cap on Japanese auto exports is significant in pushing for what types of cars Japanese brands made, consider for a moment that Toyota alone sells around 2 million cars a year in the US last year, the Reagan administration, allowed only 1.68 million Japanese cars to enter the US a that time (COMBINED).

        For Japanese brands in the 1980s moving factories to the US and moving upmarket was the only way to grow. This is a business reality. And let’s keep in mind, Japanese brands have grown in the US market since the 1990s.

        The likely reason its considered the ‘golden era’ is because it was really the first time that Japanese brands were able to compete against Western brands as a whole. Particularly in sports and luxury cars which were a product of the Old World. Hitherto, Japanese cars had an image of being cheap, frugal, and reliable, but not every exciting or premium outsize of a few outlining points (Datsun 240Z, Toyota 2000GT, etc.) The advert of those sports cars, and brands like Lexus, changed that.

        To say that those cars were an ‘aberration’ and that Japanese cars have not been able to achieve that since (from Doug’s article) is simply false with a lack of understanding of the economic history of the Japanese automarket.

        • 0 avatar

          You conveniently ignore one major factor; the fact that nearly all of these cars came out around 1991 (including the lower end stuff like the Corolla BZ-R) indicates development times well into the height of the boom. The thought of canceling them wasn’t on the table because they were already too far into development to kill. So what did the OEMs do? They just kept this stuff on sale for years, updating it slightly. The S13 evolved into the S15, the R32 became the R34 and the RX-7 and 300ZX remained unchanged.

          The Voluntary Export agreement and transplants have NOTHING to do with my article. Most of the cars I mentioned were never intended for export to America. You are mis-reading it and arguing with me about points I never made.

          My argument is not that these cars were the be all and end all of awesome, but that people in the same age range as Doug and myself should not consider that era to be the baseline for our expectations of Japanese cars.

          • 0 avatar
            L'avventura

            Cars are frequently canceled, delayed, modified due to the economic situations of the market.

            Conception and R&D are but a small portion of the cost of car. Factory, tooling, labor, regulations, supply chain, and maintenance of bringing a car to market are the real ways we measure and date a car.

            These things costs billions upon billions, and its not when its developed, its when it hits the market. Its not a ’1985′ NSX or ’1987′ FD RX7, or any year it was conceived in a mind of an engineer or when it was approved in a boardroom, its a 1992 FD RX-7, its the year it hits the market.

            Your argument for these cars are that, “No technology was too complex or too expensive to implement on any given product”

            Let’s keep in mind that Prius, an expensive, complex car, was developed in the early 90s with the first concept appearing in 1995. Released when gas was below a $1 a gallon, the Nissan Leaf started with an EV program from the 90s as well. Through thick and thin, economic boom or bust, Japanese automakers continue with R&D, we measure by when the car hits the market.

            As an automotive journalist I hope you understand the economic realities of autoindustry. Because the 1981 voluntary export agreement is EXACTLY why the Japanese built the cars that are currently being discussed. Its why brands like Lexus, Acura, and Infiniti exist.

            That said…

            I understand your argument that you don’t want these cars to serve as a baseline to judge Japanese cars, its a point I agree with you on, however, the economic points made in this article I disagree with for all the above reasons.

      • 0 avatar
        L'avventura

        Just to more provide data to complement what I posted above.

        This is Japan’s stock market during the bubble burst:
        http://tinyurl.com/bs7g69a

        As you see, the market crashed in 1989 (as you’ve said). The real estate market, which I posted above, went into free fall two years after that (and has never recovered).

        The impact in the real estate market is always delayed in any bubble burst, primarily because it takes time to sell homes, people don’t sell their homes until absolutely necessary. Its a less liquid asset than stocks, bonds, cash, or cars.

        Panic selling of homes was in full swing by the time any of these cars were released. The market did not wait till 93 or 94, I don’t know it you remember, but taxpayer bailout of banks was a huge issue and a massive political fight discussed in the early-mid 90s. These cars were released at a time when the economic stress on these companies was at its highest.

        • 0 avatar
          juicy sushi

          Yes, but they were in development for the half decade prior, so 1984-1989 depending on debut. The 300ZX and GT-R on the early side of that (both debuted in 1989), with the rest following (all debuted by fall 1992). And these were not out of the blue, except for Honda and Mitsubishi. They were culminations of 20-25 years of engineering ambition. They may not have all been sold outside Japan (most were), but they had sporting history going back to the late 1960s and early 1970s. They had followed the Japanese baby boomers up-market, but the 1972 Toyota Celica was aimed at the same guy the 1993 Supra was. Derek is correct that these cars were the product of Japanese companies chasing a demographic and economic bubble. It was especially pronounced in Japan, and that was the main driver, but the North American and European markets had similar demographics and economics, just at a milder scale.

          • 0 avatar
            L'avventura

            These are cars of the Lost Decade. This is where you, and Derek, are wrong. This is when it was made and sold.

            As I said before, yes, some of these cars may have been developed during the tail-end of the boom years, but they were sent to market in the worst economic environment possible. Companies making them neared bankruptcy during their production.

            Let’s not forget what the real ‘bubble cars’ were. Mazda’s Amati 1000 with a W12 engine, the Yamaha OX99-11, 3.5l V12 cars. Ridiculous and extravagant with no market. All of which were canceled when the economy fell.

            This of course ties into Doug DeMuro’s argument from before that this is somehow the peak of Japanese sports cars that have never since been matched. That these sports were ‘aberrations’.

            That concept too is wrong, Japanese cars since have become, more expensive, and more extravagant since. The R32 GTR may have been expensive for its day, but nothing near what the current R35, six-figures and 545hp we have now. We have the LFA and the upcoming NSX that’s been green-lighted, expensive beyond what came in the bubble. Not to mention another six-figure Lexus sports coupe that just got the OK for production. All cars made during economic recession.

          • 0 avatar
            juicy sushi

            You misunderstand. They were approved by the same management pre-collapse who were in charge post-collapse. They didn’t think the economy would go sideways for two decades at first. They believed a recovery would come. After that, the tooling was already paid for, they just built them as long as they could justify the losses.

            The LFA and GT-R are very different animals, and were conceived from the start for a global audience, unlike the JDM focus of the cars discussed in this article.

          • 0 avatar
            L'avventura

            @Juicy Sushi

            You make a lot of assumptions; that the tooling was paid for even the sentiment in the decision makers of these companies.

            In 1989 when the market crashed, sentiment was bad, by 1991 it was at its worst. This is two years mind you and the situation was only getting worse (look at the data I provided above).

            Around this time talk of a taxpayer bailout of the banks was starting to happen. Keep in mind, that while this sort of talk is new now, it was radical back then.

            Economists knew that the economy would not recover until the banking system was removed of toxic loans (the banking system in the primary method of monetary expansion). The banks were finally bailed out in mid-late 1990s (which is why the US acted so quick after the 2008 housing crash to bailout banks).

            Keep in mind, after the bubble burst the yen started climbing, as Japanese companies started repatriating their overseas holdings back to Japan. Given those facts the executives knew full well of economic realities when these cars were released. The economic outlook at that time was negative, not that it would recover.

  • avatar
    Kyree S. Williams

    “The auto industry is not a charity that produces widgets for driving enthusiasts. It is a business like anything else, and its output is directly related to the input.”

    Did you hear that, Camry and Accord haters?

  • avatar
    grzydj

    Lexus LF-A isn’t REALLY cool? Isn’t this just a rehash of the “Hey guyz, JDM cars were REALLY cool “article” that you referenced?

  • avatar
    niky

    Clap clap.

    I still look on the 90′s with fond memories and a modder’s eye on scrapyard engines that would a good project make. Nissan’s lovely SR20DETs, SR20VEs and SR16VEs are still circulating and make wonderful project engines. Ridiculously over-engineered motors. Even the base, naturally aspirated ones had forged rods, which some people would cannibalize for other builds.

    And that, is Japan circa-decada-90, in a nutshell. Over-engineered. Everything designed and built wildly better than they had to be.

    Yet people moaning for those lost days are missing what’s out now. Economy engines are producing, on average, more power per liter, at less than stratospheric revs. Turbos everywhere. Diesels you could only dream of back in the days. Turbos everywhere. Lots of fun, quirky cars. Even a few nice sportscars if you’re not too prudish about the badge on the trunk.

    Sure, the kids of today are less interested in them, and can’t afford them. And maybe will never be able to afford them. But the kids of yesteryear are pretty spoiled for choice when it comes to nice new things to play with.

    • 0 avatar
      sportyaccordy

      Yep!

      Put it like this. 1996 Supra Turbo would cost $74K in today’s dollars. A new 370Z, with basically the same level of performance stock, starts at less than half of that. A 135i, w/the same horsepower and “modability”, starts at basically half that with a BMW badge. I think both cars cost less than an MK4 Supra Turbo used (and weigh less too).

      The only things that era had over this one are romance and ambition. But as TTAC auto execs just can’t seem to grasp, romance and ambition don’t make for good business… and the near collapse of the Japanese auto industry is the most relevant evidence of that. The times we live in today show that fun cars can still make business sense without losing anything.

  • avatar
    L'avventura

    Japan’s demographic shift is a hackneyed talking point and in this article is misplaced.

    Japan’s problem isn’t that there isn’t enough young people, its that those young people are more interested in smartphones, cloths, and Twitter than they are about cars.

    Part of that reason is that Japan has overbuilt their infrastructure during the late 90s-early 00s. To pull themselves out of economic depression, they tapped their JGBs, saddled public debt, invented QE, and went on a spree of public spending that built their modern public transportation system that has made car ownership unnecessary to most youths.

    Gasoline is Euro-like in Japan, ugly boxy kei-cars are ubiquitous and functional, and kids would rather take pictures of their food at a trendy restaurant so they can upload it to their blog rather than hang out in a car- which they rarely even do these days.

    Its not that different than many parts of the world; the sports car as a status symbol is fading. Exacerbated by an increasing ecological sentiment that looks at gas-guzzling vehicles negatively. Sports cars are now something for ‘enthusiasts’ rather than symbol of larger cultural prominence.

    • 0 avatar
      juicy sushi

      The demographic shift is not a hackneyed talking point, and is correct, especially in the context of the article. The “aging crisis” as they call it is a very real problem which has been at the heart of their economic malaise. Their failure to address it is an interesting example of political inaction in the face of adversity.

      Kuruma banale (boring cars) is not a problem for Japan. Nor is the recent public infrastructure spending the reason for the lack of car demand. The Japanese consciously moved in that direction in the 1950s, and the number of rail lines hasn’t changed dramatically.

      Kuruma banale is a problem for Japanese car companies, but they are not the most important industry in Japan. The changes in priorities for Japanese youth is more of a reflection of the last 25 years of economic malaise and the lack of opportunties facing Japanese youth. They aren’t interested in the rampant consumerism of their parents because due to the lifetime employment system in Japan (which most companies aren’t trying to abandon)they face a glass ceiling. Japanese companies need to keep paying extensive salaries and benefits to their parents, and so only offer contract positions with no benefits or job security for young people. In turn, Japanese governments, desperately appealing to the aging baby boomers, pork-barrel public infrastructure to keep Japanese industry going and do nothing to encourage entrepreneurialism or new industries.

      Demographics are at the core of this, as the demographics have dictated the emergence of this situation.

      • 0 avatar
        L'avventura

        The demographic shift in Japan is a real issue but its not the real issue for Japan’s shift away from the automobile. Its hackneyed, overused, in that its used to explain every Japanese economic ill, unfortunately its not as simple as that.

        “Kuruma-banare” does not mean “boring cars”, it means moving away “hanare” from cars as a whole. Its not a measure how the enthusiasm of Japanese towards exciting cars, its a movement away from the automobile as a primary mode of transportation.

        While I’m based in Washington D.C., I go to Asia and Japan enough to tell you how over-active Japanese rail and public transportation spending is. I’ll list to you some recent examples, the Narita Airport was just opened in a couple years ago, the Tohoku line is being extended this year, the Yuraku-cho & Sobu connectors lines are currently being extended. The SkyTree was made by Tobu, a railway company. Let’s put it this way, the Aqualine (tunnel going underneath Tokyo Bay) and the Rainbow Bridge didn’t exist when the Japanese bubble burst. Odaiba, an artificial island, became what it is only very recently.

        • 0 avatar
          L'avventura

          Correction for the above, I meant to say Narita Airport line, obviously not just ‘Narita airport’. I specifically mean the new Ueno to Narita line which just opened a couple years ago (and they plan to connect to Asakusa in the future).

          Also, in talking of the Rainbow Bridge, the Yurikamome line is also implied. Which was built in the mid-late 90s.

        • 0 avatar
          juicy sushi

          Yes, but none of that is a new phenomenon. The public infrastructure spending goes back to the early 1960s at least. In particular the most egregious pork barrel examples have a long precedent. Kakuei Tanaka being the best example.

          The JDM consumption of these cars was driven by the consumer culture of Japanese baby boomers. Kuruma banare (literaly “the banality of cars”) is one aspect of the general rejection of their parents’ culture by Japan’s generation Y and millenials. Another example is Soshokukei Danshi (the grass eating boys).

          • 0 avatar
            L'avventura

            Public infrastructure spending has always gone on, same as pork barrel, the difference is that Japan after the bubble burst has spent TRILLIONS to lift itself out of the lost decade.

            These public works spending is why the Japanese public debt is twice its GDP (something it wasn’t before the bubble). They essentially invented QE (quantitative easing) where the government will issue bonds and the treasury buys them, to fund these massive public works. That’s over 200% of a $5.5 trillion economy.

            Secondly, Kuruma-banare is NOT the ‘banality of cars’, its written “車離れ”. Kuruma “車” “car”, and “banare-離れ” which is separate, to come apart from. Japanese are moving away from cars, hence “kuruma-banare”, I expected more from someone named Juicy Sushi.

            http://tinyurl.com/c9xwdvm

            This is the metro map of greater Tokyo:
            http://tinyurl.com/cwlcwdt

            As you can see, it basically covers the entirety of the city, all the way out to other provinces like Chiba and Gunma. Lots of lines, lots public transportation. You can see how much rail lines have been built.

            And its not just more rail lines, they invest in bus, LRT, and even high-tech bike parking to connect train lines. Like this expensive bike parking:
            http://tinyurl.com/yd8w6we

            You don’t need a car. The reasons for car ownership are diminished in Japan.

          • 0 avatar
            juicy sushi

            L’avventura, you miss my point. Yes, they have spent massively trying to get out of a depression. But the public transport spending was always there. There never was a good reason to own a car in most of Japan. The culture of the boomers drove the buying of cars. It was part of the conformist vision of success in Japan. Japanese youth aren’t buying into that vision, hence the death of the JDM market.

          • 0 avatar
            L'avventura

            @ Juicy Sushi

            The reason for Japanese not driving cars aren’t because their “conformist vision of success” has changed. They are not driving them because of more pragmatic reasons; cost & necessity, not ideology.

            Japanese car ownership has fallen to 36% of the population (as of 2009), down from 40% a decade ago, and near half two decades ago. Further more, kei and ‘normal’ cars are now near neck and neck.

            Also, I think you somehow think that government spending on infrastructure has been constant over the last 50 years. Trillions of dollars was not always there, all of those was a product of the massive infrastructural over-investment over the last 20 years.

            Those trillions of dollars have changed the transportation landscape of Japan.

          • 0 avatar
            juicy sushi

            L’avventura,

            It’s obvious we’ll just have to agree to disagree on what is cause and what is effect, but I beg to differ. The culture mattered. The public transportation spending over the past 20 years did not fundamentally change the relevance of car ownership in Japan. It never was necessary. Plenty of people in urban areas never bothered. My wife’s family never needed one growing up in rural Fukuoka-ken in the 1980s, and until the 1970s most Japanese people never even could afford one anyway.

            Japanese baby-boomer culture drove the JDM market as cars were a sign of attainment and status. The Ken & Mary campaign was emblematic of the mind-set of the youth of that time period. Those boomers then kept buying cars as they grew up, not because they really needed to, but because it was part of the consumer culture they grew up in. Their children aren’t buying into that culture of consumption in the same way, and so aren’t interested in buying cars or the other stuff that went along with it.

            Car ownership is going down because Japanese youth don’t see the point (also, because there are less of them, the trend will continue as the boomers age and get off the road). Yes, the recent public transportation spending has made it even less necessary, but that spending didn’t create the reduced demand, the generation gap in consumer culture did.

            It’s probably a mix of both perspectives, but we’re not going to convince each other of our respective positions, so we’ll just have to agree to disagree.

      • 0 avatar
        CarShark

        You know what I’ve been waiting for? The Japanese youth to say “screw this noise” and leave. They can’t get better jobs because of older people. They’ll pay higher taxes to fund the retirements of older people. Politicians cater primarily to older people. They learn English and other languages as part of the curriculum, so why not just leave?

        • 0 avatar
          L'avventura

          Where should they leave to?

          Unemployment of young workers are over 50% in the worst parts of Europe, with the better parts, like Germany, flooded with young immigrant laborers from worst parts. Its over 20% in the US, China too, for all its growth struggles with a glut of college graduates and no jobs at that level. Japan is at a still high 10% for employment of the young.

          Nowhere is safe from aging demographics, its a problem all countries will need to face. Particularly those with high level of social and healthcare services like Europe and Japan.

          For Japan deflation is the main issue, savings grow with deflation (good for the old), but it also depresses wages and economic growth (bad for the young), its consistent moderate inflation that Japan needs. We’ll see if the LDP can provide it.

          • 0 avatar
            juicy sushi

            Given that Abenomics is essentially doing the same overspending again, probably not. It’s going to get really funny when the government screws over all these loyal LDP voting boomers by imposing a haircut on Japanese bonds.

          • 0 avatar
            CJinSD

            Not that I want to be cold, but Canada is pretty tempting because of their low population density and natural resources. It would be the work of a weekend to completely change their demographics and turn them into the sort of economic freedom blessed nation that the progressives have eradicated elsewhere.

          • 0 avatar
            juicy sushi

            We Canadians like our progressive socialized health care and aren’t going to become an American’s ideal of anything. We would like to become our own ideal, if we could stop bickering long enough to agree on what that is.

          • 0 avatar
            Athos Nobile

            I dunno if it is an extended phenomenon, but I met last year a young engineer that emigrated from Japan to here.

            And advanced economies will need highly skilled people in years to come (if I believe the hype).

          • 0 avatar
            CJinSD

            The thing is that there are only 35.5 million Canadians. There are more smart people left in the US than that. We could jump the border and remake Canada in our image.

          • 0 avatar
            mike978

            Another pipedream CJ, since the freestate project
            http://freestateproject.org/
            has not got very far and has much more limited goals.

  • avatar
    TorontoSkeptic

    Not sure how related this is… but what jumped into my mind is that the Japanese brands hadn’t embraced the separate luxury marque yet at this point. For all our hating on Toyota, you can go buy a 400+ hp V8 RWD Lexus IS. For all our griping about Nissan Altimas being boring, there are 330 hp RWD manual G37s readily available. The R+D goes into the luxury brands where the per-car profit is much, much higher than it will ever be on the Corolla/Sentra/Civic.

    “The 1%” has tons of nice options for $40k+ cars with interesting configurations, stick, V8, 6-speed manuals, whatever you want. That just hasn’t trickled down. If anything there is a lot of downward pressure on car prices and features because of high gas prices, and the other stuff of life getting more expensive (rent, food, day care, property taxes, water bill, whatever).

    Toronto is riding the housing bubble of the century and I still see tons of Versas, Honda Fits and Fiat 500s all over town.

  • avatar
    fozone

    Experimentation was the key to why Japanese cars were so interesting in the 80s and 90s. The article alluded to this — if the BRZ is as “risky” as any manufacturer wants to go today, is it any wonder that cars are so homogenized and boring? And people wonder why kids are disinterested…

    I’m not one that even obsesses about “performance” (since anything over about 75 mph doesn’t matter in any practical sense); that’s not why these cars were special. They were simply nutso and interesting in ways modern cars aren’t.

    If you’ve ever spent seat time in an 80s Subaru with its Star Wars dash, checkerboard interior and farting air suspension or a Mitsu Cordia (the one with the “nose guy”) or Starion, you’ll know exactly what I mean. They seemed like they were designed by people on another planet, not by Steve in accounting.

    I miss the insanity.

    • 0 avatar
      Willyam

      Agreed. For most of us in the 80′s, we were thrilled to have <150 hp Camaros, Cutlasses, general malaise velour-mobiles. We just knew not to stoplight race ANYTHING built "before the advent of the catalytic converter" (obscure movie reference wink wink).

      Then, a friend got a Starion. So weird he eventually totalled it, but for its short life, it was fascinating. Then a Plymouth Laser. A Corolla FX-16. The list went on. Supras with inflatable lumbar bulbs, two-seat CRX's. Our first Honda was blue over blue with popup headlights. Joy.

      Personally, I commute in a 2001 CR-V every day complete with factory picnic table, fold-down center-console and dash-mounted window switches. It's soul would live on in the Element for a while, but the current CR-V is the same lozenge-shaped five-passenger vehicle as all the other Japanese and Korean CUV's. I miss weird too. (But not enough to buy a Cube…there's limits.)

  • avatar
    jacob_coulter

    Japanese cars had an uphill climb with many consumers for a variety of cultural reasons, but I think a big part that won over a lot of people in that generation were these “golden era” offerings that so many lusted over. Suddenly, “Honda” couldn’t be said with a scowl.

    I agree that for the most part, this era though is dead and never coming back. But when you take off the rose-colored glasses, the boring, mainstream stuff now offered basically gives you identical performance of high end sports cars. I think a new Accord V6 would actually be pretty close in acceleration with a first year Acura NSX.

    Still, it’s just not the same, and you can definitely feel a shift in the culture. It used to be even non-enthusiasts aspired to own sports cars, but now they could care less. Cars are viewed now more as an appliance through the lens of a spreadsheet.

  • avatar
    mike978

    On a different topic – where is Bertel? One post in 8 days and it is end of the month sales data time. I am assuming a well deserved vacation, but ….

  • avatar
    philadlj

    I could live with a 276-hp “gentlemens agreement” between automakers in the states (not a government regulation, mind you!) No car I’ve ever owned has had more than 140, and it’s not as if I’m holding up traffic.

    • 0 avatar
      jacob_coulter

      That “agreement” was a joke to keep the nanny state of their back.

      You can keep your 140hp golf cart and I won’t interfere, just don’t try to make my choices for cars for me. The world would be a boring place for an auto enthusiast.

  • avatar
    icemilkcoffee

    It’s not just the factories churning out all of these fantastic turbo’ed and 5-valve beasties. It was also a heady time for all the tuning houses that produced every manner of performance or cosmetic mods. Sadly most of them have fallen by the wayside now. I still have a large collection of Option magazines from that era. It was truly a renaissance era for japanese cars.

  • avatar
    Type57SC

    I’m surprised by the comment about everyone in Japan being flush with cash in the 90s. I assumed that with the stock market crash, dropping by half in a couple years, that the 1991+ consumer was terrified of the future wealth position, similar to the vibe in western countries after big stock market crashes. I get that the OEM’s had the 90-93 MY cars too far along, but that would seem to leave a lot of new development money put toward crazy things in the mid nineties.

    good article. thanks

  • avatar
    Onus

    All this talking of the Japanese economy and Young people not wanting cars sounds a awful like everyone else at my age here in the US. Us late teens and early 20s.

    I love cars but if i could have fantastic public transportation i’d take that. I’d keep a nice car just to screw around with on the weekends.

    • 0 avatar
      smartascii

      I’m not being rude or condescending; I’m genuinely curious: Why? When I consider my commute, I see two alternatives.

      1) Ride in my car, which takes me directly to work. I set the temperature and can listen to whatever radio, music, podcast, etc. I want. Arrive at work fresh, pressed, and dry.

      2) Get up earlier, so that I don’t miss the bus that arrives at the train station exactly 45 seconds AFTER the train I want has left. Be cold while I wait for the train. Board the train with all of humanity, some of members of which appear not to have showered since November. Stop every few feet for additional strangers to board, eventually leaving me with no choice but to dangle from a strap, seatless, making involuntary intimate contact with the large gentleman who must have had sardines and garlic for breakfast. I can, it’s true, listen to whatever I want on my iWhatever, but I’ll be distracted worrying that my pocket’s gonna get picked. Arrive wrinkled, unfresh, and possibly soaked in rain or sweat.

      So HOW is public transportation the choice of the young? I truly don’t understand…

      • 0 avatar
        Reino

        It is due to the indoctrination of our youth into thinking “Cars = bad”, “Public transport = good”. I must say I thought the same thing when I lived in Chicago and commuted to an office job in the loop. But then I moved out and discovered that most people don’t have office jobs surrounded by a continuous looping train. Young people will learn soon enough when either their job or their choice of home eventually ends up out of the public infrastructure.

      • 0 avatar
        juicy sushi

        Not all public transit is like that. Some of it is cleaner, faster and much more pleasant. Also, double or triple what you pay for gas, then add a few hundred a month for parking within walking distance of work (and then the same for home) and then see how much more appealing a $100/month train pass sounds for your financial well-being.

        • 0 avatar
          CJinSD

          So if you price people out of commuting by cars, suddenly using mass transit becomes better than…not having a job or a place to live? That philosophy is not compatible with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, although brainwashing the youth while not teaching them a thing about our history seems to be making it irrelevant.

          I lived in Manhattan for years. It took me about one and a half of them to get to the point where not riding the subway was worth whatever price I had to pay. I’ll leave mass transit to the frottage fans.

          • 0 avatar
            juicy sushi

            Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness may be in your constitution, but it’s not in everyone else’s. More to the point, it’s not in the Japanese constitution. They cram 100 million people into a space the size of California. This creates different societal values about space and individual rights.

          • 0 avatar
            CJinSD

            I notice they lost interest in reproducing a while ago. Maybe they needed more rights rather than less.

          • 0 avatar
            juicy sushi

            Their birthrate isn’t too different from the rest of the G7, it’s the lack of immigration which highlights the matter.

            And you try hard to run away from the point but please try to remember that the 7 billion other people on the planet have their own ideas on enjoying life, and don’t want to be like you.

          • 0 avatar
            Ambulatory Freak

            Quite possibly others don’t think riding the bus violates their God given right to sit in traffic every morning

      • 0 avatar
        niky

        The rest of the world is not America. The United States is an unusual place, shaped by long-haul rail-lines, interstate highways, cheap gasoline and suburbia (created by cheap gasoline and cars).

        In the rest of the world, countries and cities are closer together. Cities are more crowded. People live closer to where they work. Public transport works when you have large masses of humanity moving from the same point A to the same point B every day.

        Owning a car, paying yearly registration and maintenance and gas bills, is a hell of a lot more expensive than taking public transport. Still, outside of America, for the working class (not the unemployed youth, mind), car ownership is an aspirational thing, precisely because people don’t like publc transport. But public transport is what enables them to develop the financial security and flexibility to get to the point where they can buy a car, in the first place.

  • avatar
    Big Al from Oz

    I loved the GTRs, we our Group C racing evolved into Group A.

    Vehicles from around the world showed up and the little 2.4 litre GTR was kicking ass.

    The V8 powered Holdens and Fords just didn’t have a chance.

    In racing trim the GTR was to weigh 1 100kg, but in racing trim in Australia it weighed 1 500kg and it kept on beating the Fords and Holdens.

    Nissan dropped it when our racing Federation wanted them to weigh an incredible 1 800kg so the V8 Fords and Holdens that weighed only 1 300kg had a chance.

    Fantastic engineering from Japan when it was at its zenith industrially and economically.

    Yes very similar to the muscle cars of the late 60s and early 70s in the US when Neil Armastrong was walking on the Moon.

    Since the demise of the Japanese high tech sports car Japan has been going sideways and the corporate bean counters have taken to making more corporate decisions to stay alive.

    But since then Japanese car in both quality and engineering has moved ahead in leaps and bounds, transfer of technology I suppose.

  • avatar
    LuciferV8

    Things change over time, and seem to rise and fall in cycles. I personally think that there will one day be another golden age of the automobile, but it will come on the wings of a solution to the oil issues facing the world.

    • 0 avatar
      Athos Nobile

      “I personally think that there will one day be another golden age of the automobile”

      We are already living it, and maybe we’re at the tail end of it.

  • avatar
    dabradler

    Damn baby boomers are to blame for everything…

  • avatar
    Darkhorse

    Everyone seems to want to lament the demise of the automobile, especially those of us who belong to the “Boomer” generation. Think about it; when we were born the US had about 150 million people. Compared to now, the roads were pretty empty even in major metro areas. I remember the DC Beltway (I495) opening when I was in college. Unless there was an accident, it always moved traffic well. Today it’s a parking lot most of the day. We have 320 million people in the US now. What would you expect?

    What sane person would want a Honda CRX for bumper to bumper traffic? Most of us want our Camcords and such. Automatic trans, A/C and good infotainment systems. The hot cars should only sell in the “fly over” country where they have some room to roam.

  • avatar
    ajla

    I don’t feel bad about the loss of “enthusiast” cars, just regional identity in general.

    In 1985 a Buick Regal, Toyota Camry, and VW Quantum were not sports cars but they still took a unique approach to a market segment. There was variety in the world. Now it’s all just some anonymous, Xerox’d mashup. It’s like everything is badge-engineered.

    Really enthusiast cars is the one place were you can still get some segment variety.

  • avatar
    CurseWord

    Thank you for this paragraph Derek. Lots of my brothers in auto writing arms bitch about boring-but-good cars, or whine about why a maker didn’t build this or that, or skimped here or there. They forget 1. There’s other people in the world, and they buy WAY more cars than “enthusiasts”.

    And 2. there’s a LOT more decisions involved in making a car, and people, and accountants, and suppliers, and every piece influences the car. It’s easy to complain a company skimped on a plastic when you detach from the reality of cost-cutting and the other 8 million players involved in running a car company.

    “It is fashionable nowadays in the automotive press to stake out a position that brands oneself as the vanguard of automotive enthusiasm, defender of all that has “soul” and “character”, while admonishing the manufacturers for offering bland pablum instead of the exciting enthusiast machines that once existed. Ultimately these are just the ignorant ramblings of those who are unable or unwilling to understand the external forces that shape cars; macroeconomics, government regulations, demographics, geography, trade policies. The auto industry is not a charity that produces widgets for driving enthusiasts. It is a business like anything else, and its output is directly related to the input.”

    • 0 avatar

      Check out “Car: The Story of an American Workplace”. You’ll never want to do a car review again.

      • 0 avatar
        raph

        This?

        http://www.amazon.com/Car-A-Drama-American-Workplace/dp/0393318613

        Quick question, will it fuel my love of engineers and hate for bean counters? I love stories that paint horns on them down right villainous bean counters.

        • 0 avatar

          This one and no, the finance guys play a very important part in the birth of a car as well. It’s not the Lutzian dichotomy that so many mouth breathers love to rant on about.

          • 0 avatar
            LuciferV8

            You know, every so often I hear arguments that the aftermarket performance industry is soon to be irrelevant because OEM’s are making such fantastic cars there is no need to modify them. I suppose that as the forces of economics push automotive production back toward the boring car mean, the aftermarket picks up the slack. Then when the aftermarket gets red hot again, the OEM’s try to grab a share of it by stepping up their performance numbers, and the cycle repeats yet again.

  • avatar
    Power6

    This argument seems a little repetitive around here and a bit of a bad premise too. Yes there was a time when a certain class, lets say the Corvette class was well covered by the Japanese makers. Production costs and exchange rates did them in for the US, but their makers were able to carry on selling other cars.

    But stretching well back into the 80s, and forward into the 00s was a bevy of interesting enthusiast cars from Japan. We got SE-Rs instead of GTI-Rs, Acura RSX instead of the Type R etc. So in some ways we missed out on the expensive high-tech products but we liked what we got. I don’t think economic bubble and exchange rate explain the change in product from Japan. There needs to be discussion about the decline of coupes, the rise of SUV, increasing safety standards, CAFE and more.

    Celica, Corolla GT-S, MX-6 GT, Prelude, Integra/RSX, DSM trio, Accord/Maxima/Camry V6 sport models with stick. All gone. In the meantime we got the WRX, EVO, Speed3, RX8 notice none of those are Toyota/Honda, they simply choose not to field such a product, Civic Si is sort of close and a nice car.

    The customers’ desires have changed for sure. in some ways the American brands seem poised to pick up the slack with enthusiast models.

    • 0 avatar
      Demetri

      Whenever I think about the current Civic Si I can’t help but compare it to the classic Hondas and wonder where the progress is. Compare it to a 20 year old Prelude VTEC. Yeah, the Civic Si has about 11 hp more, a limited slip differential and better fuel economy. The Prelude weighs less, has a way nicer interior, more personality, and actually looks nice.

      Part of the problem is that the current model is such a step back compared to the previous generation Si. That one was actually a good looking car, had a better interior and basically the same performance.

  • avatar
    CelticPete

    You get to it in your article. But what’s going on with the Japanese cars is that they have gone from being the cutting edge car that enthusiasts and geeks were proud to buy (after doing alot of research) to the cars that people who don’t CARE about cars buy.

    The people that used to buy Buicks because they were safe now all buy Toyotas or Nissan Altimas. It’s pretty sad for the domestic companies that they lost these kinds of buyers.

    Now its only the educated consumer that will give the domestics and germans a chance now. I know this argument sounds elitist but its true. Its in the ads. I kid you not.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H3dr8XFQr4k

    The theme of both honda and toyota very often is – buy our cars. Your life might suck but our cars work well enough that you don’t have to worry.

    So yes most of the cool cars are gone if you were a Japanese car lover. Of course I don’t know why this site has groups of NAs that constantly seem upset they have good more choices in car buying now then they did in the 80s and 90s.

    When I feel like supporting the Japanese culture I watch anime with my asian g/f. That’s something pretty unique to Japan. The cars OTOH were always derivative anyway.

    Don’t get me wrong if I was buying something used I might go Japanese. But new car? Outside of a few models pretty boring. And even the Miata and BRZ lack enough torque for the money you are paying.

  • avatar
    Styles79

    Just a minor point, if anyone actually reads that drive.com.au article, they’ve got the Mitsubishi Emeraude wrong. The smalles V6 the Emeraude came with is an 1800, the Lancer 6 had the 6A10 1600 V6.

  • avatar
    RatherhaveaBuick

    I’m 21.

    I remember in the late 90s, early 2000′s when the whole tuner cars thing was exploding. Everyone wanted a Civic and my friends and I lusted after the cars of the Fast and Furious cast when I was a 4th grader. We lusted for Skylines and Supras and NSX’s and all that jazz. Bigger the spoiler the better.

    Looking back, the majority of these “import tuner” cars in Super Street magazine (was a proud 11 year old subscriber much to my parents dismay) are UGLY AS SIN. Recently I was talking to my best friend from childhood and we couldn’t believe how atrocious some of these cars really were (Ahem..Paul Walker’s Eclipse). Times really do change.

    The picture of the Gran Turismo cover is really what made me click this link because when that game came out all I did was go back and forth between playing with Matchbox and Playstation racing games.

    It was definitely a different time for Japanese performance cars, for better or worse. The whole Tuner craze aside, 90s Japanese sports cars are simply more attractive in every way compared to the fleets of STi’s and Civics I see in my college parking lot, driven by spoiled kids and being floored from speed bump to speed bump.

    To me, the 90s was to Japanese performance what the 60′s was to American muscle cars. After about 2003, all that was left were riced Civics, the WRX, (with respect), the unattainable-to-most NSX and maybe a lousy excuse for a Celica. The Eclipse doesn’t count for shit IMO…

    As of right now, regardless of the amount of Japanese cars claiming performance I think the only real shining examples would the STi, the BRZ, Lexus ISF and the incredibly exotic GTR. Mitsubishi’s are pathetic, and Toyota has nothing to offer.


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