By on November 25, 2013

Three of the world’s most important auto shows began last week. Since my invitations to the various press events must have been lost in the mail I, like virtually everyone else in the world, followed them over the internet. I’m OK with that, really. I hate fighting the crowds and by the time a show closes high resolution photos of the most important cars are always all over the world-wide-web, anyhow. With the photos are the journalists’ impressions. Some are good and some are bad, but they all make me think. For example, there’s this article from the Top Gear website on the Tokyo motor show that asserts, on the strength of the cars at this year’s show, “Japan is back.” Hold on – Really?

To be sure there were some important and exciting cars at this year’s Tokyo motor show. Honda showed us a new NSX and the S660 sport compact that compares favorably to the Beat kei class sports car that Honda produced back in the last century. Nissan showed us the amazing three-seat, electric “Bladeglider,” a hotted up Nismo GTR and the retro themed IDx. Toyota’s performance car offerings came in the form of the Lexus RC and a convertible FT86. While Toyota ripped the top off of their Toybaru twin, Subaru went the opposite route and gave baby some back with their Cross Sport. So far as I could glean, that was about it for cars intended to stir the hearts and minds of enthusiasts. That would have made for a pretty small show though, so augmenting the really interesting stuff were was a whole slew of hybrid/electric/gas, etc SUVs, sedans and city cars intended to appeal to the masses.

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From my perspective what we got are some new toys of the uber rich, two small cars that my all-American ass won’t fit into, a couple of modifications on a car I probably won’t buy anyhow and one wanna-be-retro Nissan that might actually have some possibilities if they don’t screw it up with a powertrain that serious enthusiast wouldn’t want. The emphasis on products with hybrid or alternative energy powertrains and other technical innovations says some good things about state of Japanese industry and the many different body styles on display indicates that the Japanese have noted the success of Korean cars’ design language and are finally looking somewhere other than Mercedes for inspiration, too. Good news for sure, but does any of it mean Japan is back?

For me, the glory days of Japanese cars happened roughly between 1985 and 1995. The cars of that era had good, solid lines and, while the designs weren’t daring, they did have their own unique sense of style. There was technical innovation too and it came wrapped up in practical packages. Real performance was offered across all the price ranges and the variety of new cars was enormous. There was something there for everyone and if you could not afford a Twin Turbo Supra or a Turbo 300ZX, you could, at the very least, take home on of the good looking down-market alternatives: the AE86 Twin-Cam Corolla or the 200SX Turbo. Today, that wide aray of choices is no longer a part of Japan Inc.’s current line-up.

I’m not sure why that is, but in the process of writing this article it suddenly hit me that the cars on display at this year’s Tokyo motor show says something about how our society has become ever more divided over the past couple of decades. It doesn’t take an economist to point out that the rich have gotten richer and the rest of us poorer. The market reflects that reality. The rich get supercars, those of us in the middle get family trucksters and the odd toy while the unwashed masses receive battery powered practicality. The choices are gone and fun is being increasingly reserved for those who can afford it. It wasn’t that ay 20 years ago and the sad truth is that Japan isn’t anywhere close to being back. But then, none of us are, are we?

Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast, he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

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38 Comments on “Tokyo Motor Show: Are The Japanese Really Back?...”


  • avatar
    Lorenzo

    The lack of real choices is a good point, and may be the future of the car industry. We’ve already seen the lack of choices in car interiors: you can have any color as long as it’s black, some shade of gray, or tan/ecru. The exterior color choices are coming down to black, white, and silver.

    It all comes down to production efficiency at the lowest possible cost, and that’s a cookie cutter production line with no room for variation. I seem to remember a Chrysler president in the early ’50s whose goal was to eliminate special (factory) orders. Just pick whatever is available on the dealer’s lot. It looks like the industry is bringing that attitude to its logical conclusion.

    • 0 avatar
      imag

      Lack of choices? Colors aside, I am sure that we have more model choices than ever.

      I looked for backing for that and found a random website with a nice graph. No idea if it is accurate:
      http://www.statista.com/statistics/200092/total-number-of-car-models-on-the-us-market-since-1990/

      I do think that platforms have gotten much more expensive and complex, so dedicated sports car chassis are going away.

      • 0 avatar
        Mr Mk3

        Hopefully bespoke platform oddities like the Toyabaru twins and MX-5 will continue to flourish. Otherwise the afforable fun future is indeed a bleak one.

        • 0 avatar
          imag

          Agreed. I will admit that it is hard to justify when sports sedans have equivalent performance. The M3, loved as it has been, has destroyed much of the buying case for a low RWD bespoke two seater.

          Unfortunately, it is much cheaper for manufacturers to add a sporty model to a volume sedan or hatch than it is to build an entirely new car for enthusiasts who are willing to drive a less practical vehicle.

          I am thankful to Mazda and Toyota for keeping the segment alive for those who do not have supercar money.

          • 0 avatar
            Mr Mk3

            Sports sedans do good a sports car impression (the last two M3″s a good supercar impression with their hilarious running costs) but there’s no substitute for the low curb weight a proper sports machine has. Sadly the market for straight up frivolties is a small one, and mostly governed by the image and perceived/actual cost rather than the driving experience. I would love nothing more than a return to form, bring back the MR2 already so I can finally replace my spyder I’ve been daily driving for 12 years (put 140k on it since new). Where I’m going I don’t need trunks.

          • 0 avatar
            imag

            I’m with you there. Performance aside, light weight, low seating position, and small size is what makes a sports car feel sporty.

            I hope they can muster up another MR2 as well. They once again have a manual transmission for their FWD Corolla, so they have a drivetrain, but they would have to give the motor a bit more sparkle.

    • 0 avatar
      Kenmore

      “The exterior color choices are coming down to black, white, and silver.”

      I’ve just invited dealer spam for the 2015 Colorado because they offer a forest green. That plus the fact that it’ll fit in my garage with my snowblower parked in front of it makes me overlook its annoyances like no 8′ bed/regular cab option.

      I really like forest green.

    • 0 avatar

      Custom coachwork was once the sole province of the wealthy and special (factory) orders are headed down the same road. Explains why you can have Rolls-Royce make a special kind of redwood trim for your Wraith but the proles have to make do with whatever’s on the dealer lot at the time. Makes it much easier on manufacturer and dealer alike.

    • 0 avatar
      Superdessucke

      A lot of this is the market. Yes, there’s no choices for us car guys but the middle masses can choose from about 91 models of mid sized crossover. That’s what the people want. This is why you have a Nismo Juke but no performance models whatsoever on the Sentra or Versa. You would if someone would buy it, but no one except a few geeks would.

  • avatar
    redav

    Cars are better than ever, with more features, better reliability, excellent performance & economy, all at a price comparable to what they were then … and that is proof that the non-rich are getting poorer?

    • 0 avatar
      CJinSD

      No, but the fact that we passed peak car ownership years ago certainly is.

    • 0 avatar
      imag

      No, the proof is that the one of the most expensive cars in the world in 1962, the 250 GTO, cost $18K, or $135K in inflation-adjusted dollars. That’s because the wealthy then didn’t have as much money relative to everyone else.

      Today, luxury automakers are adding anything they can to get their cars to charge more from people for whom the cost is chump change. Lamborghini threw an outrageous body kit on a car that starts at $500K so that they could charge $4M for it. The margins at Ferrari an Porsche are huge because their buyers won’t miss 50 grand here or there.

      And the non-rich are absolutely getting poorer. Incomes have stagnated and inflation hasn’t. That’s what happens when you print lots of money and hand it out to the ultra-wealthy. Printing money like that is literally pulling value out of every dollar you have. I don’t understand why people do not see this stuff. It is not politics; it’s basic economics.

  • avatar
    Felix Hoenikker

    The base engines on today’s grocery getters are at least as powerful as the optional enginess on those cars of the 90′s. What I see lacking are different body styles.

    • 0 avatar
      Lorenzo

      I agree. There are more models to choose from, but most of the models within any segment seem to be modest variations on the same theme. I almost think a 1955 Lincoln Capri with its chrome tits and small fins but with a modern drive train, brakes and suspension would sell.

  • avatar
    DeadWeight

    “Are The Japanese Really Back?”

    With VERY few exceptions (i.e. 4 cylinder Accord Sport), I think…

    …NOT!

    After sampling a variety of GM offerings recently, however, I AM growing absolutely more confident that GM is definitely showing objective evidence that it’s about to tear a gaping hole in Japan’s North American automotive fortune balance sheets (this coming from a person who is the first to admit he is both shocked & awed by the rapid pace of improvement in GM’s quality, technology and design during the last 4 years).

    • 0 avatar
      imag

      I don’t know about a gaping hole, but they are finally getting better. They did have a long way to go though.

      I actually feel like Chevy needs to overhaul that bow tie. Unfortunately, it still symbolizes cheap to me. It has been tacked on to so many bad vehicles – and looks so tacky itself – that it really could stand a revision.

  • avatar
    Reino

    I wish we got concepts and such in Denver. All we get are the production cars. We didn’t even get a C7 last year :( At least we got the F-Type

    • 0 avatar
      bumpy ii

      The car shows I’ve been to are a mix of regular production supplied by the local dealers, and upcoming production and the occasional old concept car from 3-4 years ago, supplied by the manufacturers’ road show crews.

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    “For me, the glory days of Japanese cars happened between roughly 1985 and 1995.”

    That applies to all things Japan, really. Cars, anime, electronics, etc, but you already knew that and the reasons for it.

    • 0 avatar
      DeadWeight

      Samsung out Walkman’d Sony.
      Hyundai out-Corolla’d Toyota.
      Gogigui out grilled Japadog.

    • 0 avatar
      bd2

      Ironically, Toyota has become like the old GM, increasingly selling on price, its reputation of past glory and increased reliance on rental fleet sales.

      15 years ago, the Camry, Corolla, etc. – commanded a premium, but no longer.

      Nissan has gutted its sporty heritage – the Sentra and Altima have basically become Nissan’s equivalent of Toyotas, much less the highly successful Versa (which is still way better than the Yaris, esp. the Versa hatch).

      Mitsu is a shell of its former self, tho it looks like they may start a modest comeback of sorts.

      Mazda now has the best lineup of any Japanese brand and probably out of any mainstream brand. But the problem for Mazda is to translate that to increased sales. While the new 3 and CX-5 have done very well for Mazda, it needs to increase exponentially sales of the very well reviewed 6.

      Subaru has seen sales grow and grow – seems like the demise of Saab and the greater no. of buyers opting for AWD has really helped Subie.

      Honda, out of the mainstream Japanese makes is in the best shape.
      While Honda has had some pitfalls, the pre-freshed Civic, the Crosstour, the CR-Z, the Element, etc., right now sales of the Accord, Civic and CR-V are humming along with little reliance on fleet sales and higher transaction prices (something that Toyota has failed to keep up).

      As for Japanese luxury sales – aside from Acura CUV sales and Lexus FWD-based ES and RX sales (and maybe LS sales), been rather disappointing.

      • 0 avatar
        imag

        Mazda’s volumes have largely been restricted by their production capabilities and their crappy dealer networks. Fortunately, the Mexico plant should help the former problem. The latter seems to be a persistent issue for them.

        The difference between Toyota and GM is that Akio Toyoda saw what Watanabe did and has been taking major steps to reverse it. It took two decades and a bankruptcy for GM to reverse course. Time will tell how both reversals go…

    • 0 avatar
      ash78

      Don’t forget the ability to add very-slightly-racist comic relief characters to movies, from UHF’s affable karate instructor-turned-gameshow-host Kuni, to Police Academy’s bumbling recruit Tomoko “and is this your rubbery wife?” Nagata to Sixteen Candles’ Long Duk Dong who, despite the name, was also played by Japanese-American actor Gedde Watanabe who also did the first role in UHF.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    I went to the L.A. Auto Show Friday , it was interesting but not really anything there I’d like to buy .

    I looked at the Chevy Colorado , it was behind a low fence and the sales people were apoplectic I wanted to actually _touch_ the damn thing .

    Based on comments here , I made a point of sitting in the Fiat 500 Abarth with my also big brother (we’re both 6 footers) ~ it’s not so snug as I expected .

    -Nate

  • avatar
    Lightspeed

    What disappoints me is how despite every vehicle being different, they wind up all looking the same. Look at the positioning of things like HVAC vents, the shape of steering wheel spokes, the shapes of tail-lights, the shape of wheel-openings and wheel-flares. They’re all the same across brands in so many cases. It’s the same with houses, you can walk blind-folded into a hundred different suburban tracthomes and not bump in to anything beciuase youknow what to expect. I know some design things reach natural conclusions, but somehow, there is a dumbng-down going on here.

    • 0 avatar
      imag

      Optimization of fixed parameters. Crash safety, aerodynamics, packaging, sheet metal technology, weight reduction – they all lead to similar designs when those designs are as heavily optimized as they are today.

      But really, I’ll bet many people today couldn’t tell an Alfa Spyder from a Datsun Roadster from a 250 California. After all, they all had the same mandated headlights. The 70′s bricks all looked pretty similar. And I’ll bet folks who grew up with prewar cars thought they all looked the same…

  • avatar
    Big Al from Oz

    When in France midway through this year I rented a Yaris. It was the French made 1.4 diesel.

    I found this vehicle to be a surprise. It wasn’t the best at anything, but very good overall. The area that impressed me was FE and power/torque. I average slightly over 47mpg, that is average.

    The vehicle was tight to ingress and egress from considering my build (185cm or approx 6’1″). Once in, it was quite comfortable.

    High speed driving on the Autoroutes it sat on 150kph easily, with still more to go. Being a diesel, hill and mountains were traversed easily. I went into the Pyrenees and over into Spain (Espange, also not many F-150s around DiM/Pch101 ;) and the diesel went into and through the mountains much better than any gas vehicle could, with the three adults I had on board.

    I think I wouldn’t not have liked to been the rear passenger as you are sitting over the rear axle.

    All in all maybe the diesel version should be on offer in the US. This was my first exposure to a tiny diesel car. I was surprised, this vehicle was highly suited to driving in France/Spain.

    If you read my posts I’m not generally a big Toyota supporter. This Yaris surprised me, maybe because it being a Toyota I was expecting a ‘wet towel drive’ like a Camry or Hilux.

    It cost less to drive than my diesel midsize BT50 here.

  • avatar
    roadscholar

    I can buy a Mustang GT for $31K MSRP. Super rich?? I think not.

  • avatar
    CJinSD

    Buy a uaw car and fund the next progressive’s campaign. You’ll get what you deserve.

  • avatar
    brid1970

    Yes, the show is back, and the Japanese are back in China. But a sudden and fatal clash of rivals in the East China Sea could change that in a heartbeat.
    In the event of a prolonged absence of such a clash, which Chinese carmaker will be the first to show up at the Tokyo show?

  • avatar
    Shawnski

    Dear author, what tripe; the “rich get richer and we the poor get poorer”. Perhaps Unions, fairness, and buying Jap cars have gotten us where we are now. Perhaps a real Government job, is in order, besides media…at least it pays better.

  • avatar
    DGA

    With the new car offerings now days I’d be very hard pressed to buy a new Japanese one and at this point in my life I can afford a lot of car. Honda is making their take of Camry and Corolla, while everyone else tries to copy those two in my mind. Just mindless sea of SUVs and hybrids. I’ll be holding on to my ’08 Legacy GT for quite a long time.


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