By on February 12, 2012


This article appeared in S:S:L in April of 2009, so adjust comments regarding the “current” Honda and Acura lineup appropriately, thanks! — JB

I remember the event as if it were yesterday, although in fact it was twenty-six years ago. My relentless, Rommel-esque campaign to get my mother into a 1983 Honda Civic 1500S had very nearly reached a successful conclusion. For months I had worked tirelessly to steer Mom towards a Honda dealership for our new “family car”, always with the ostensible and sensible goal of purchasing the $6,995 1500GL wagon. Once we were inside the doors of the dealership — doors I had personally darkened many a time before then, since it was only a four-mile walk each way from my house — it would be a simple matter of bait-and-switching her away from the wagon and into a bright red 1500S hatchback. I’d walked to the showroom the day before and verified the presence of one, priced at a compelling $6,495.

As fate would have it, however, the red 1500S had sold, leaving just a black one available. (The 1983 Civic 1500S, the only Civic of that generation to carry the “S” tag, was available in just two colors: black and red.) No matter: we’d take it. In just a few nearly tearful moments, I convinced her that the 141-inch long, two-door hatchback was an ideal car for a single mother and two growing boys. The sales manager, displaying the utterly despicable greed that is still a hallmark of Honda dealers today, allowed us to buy the car at sticker. Providing, that is, we would pay an additional $349 for a two-speaker cassette player and $99 for a useless tape stripe.

That Civic was a truly great car. Economical, quick enough, sporty-looking, bulletproof, fun. It certainly would have lasted my mother a decade or more, had she not been struck just two years after the purchase by a drunk driver in a Cadillac deVille. The impact put parts of the back seat into the front seats. Hondas were not terribly crash-safe in those days.

Still, the ’83 Civic was the best Civic in history up to that point. The ’84 “breadvan” Civic was better. Much better. The Civic that followed was even better, and so on, until we reached the point of the 1999 Civic Si coupe, widely acclaimed as nearly everyone’s favorite Civic. And then a funny thing happened.

I don’t think my Mom ever drove like this, although she was known to be a little aggressive from the stoplights. But this is that rarest of rare Civics: the one-year-only second-gen 1500S.

The last two generations of Civic haven’t been that well-received among Honda enthusiasts, although the current Si sedan seems to be making some friends. Nor do the newer models appear to be much like the Civics of old. The weight has shot up, from around 1800 pounds to nearly 3000. The current Si has four times the power of the 1983 Civic 1300FE. I’d say that the modern Civic is like the old Accord, but that would be fibbing, since you could park a 1977 Accord behind a 2009 Civic and it would be utterly, completely, invisible. Many of the virtues once prized by Honda owners — simplicity, light weight, low component count — seem to have fallen by the wayside.

If the Civic has lost its way, the entire Acura lineup has lost its mind. The recent introduction of a V6-powered TSX is an unintentionally eloquent statement about the elephantine size and weight increases of Acuras in the past decade. A brand which launched with the nimble Integra and iconoclastic Legend is now stuffed full of monstrous Accord-platform derivatives, each bigger than the last. If the original Legend were to return to Acura showrooms, it would be the smallest and lightest car available from the brand today.

Something’s rotten in Tokyo, and it isn’t limited to Honda. Toyota’s current lineup is a bloated mess of two-ton Camry variants, without a single sporting vehicle in the lineup. Virtually everything Nissan sells is either an “FM” or an Altima derivative, and they are all powered by the unlovable VQ engine. The Maxima, which was a world-class sporting sedan two decades ago, has been reduced to Altima-in-drag status. Subaru has accomplished the unique feat of making every single Impreza it has introduced in the market somewhat less popular than the one before it. Mitsubishi has precisely one decent product — the Evolution — and the new model isn’t as good as its predecessor.

This isn’t the way things are supposed to be. We take it for granted that each new Porsche will be a significant improvement over the previous model, the abysmal 1999 “996″ aside. The same is true for Ferrari, Lamborghini, Mercedes-Benz, and even Volkswagen (in the post-MkIII era). Styling quibbles aside, each new BMW is an improvement. Audi has been on a tremendous roll in the past decade. Heck, even Lotus is making a succession of decent cars lately. Nor can you forget about the domestics. Among US-based automakers, there’s been an amazing spiral of desirability lately. Who wouldn’t rather have a new CTS than an old one? Do you like the Charger SRT-8 more than the old Intrepid Sport? Is there anybody out there willing to take a 2002 Taurus over the new 2010?

Talk to any Ford, Chevrolet or Dodge fan about trucks and you’ll hear how great the new ones are. Listen to a Toyota loyalist and he’ll tell you the average 1984 Toyota truck, known simply as “Truck” in this market, will still be on the road when every Tacoma ever made has fallen apart. Nobody’s excited about the current Nissan Titan or Toyota Sequoia. The Land Cruiser “wonks” absolutely hate the new one and are panic-buying the previous-generation V8s at ridiculous prices.

Strange, isn’t it? Ask nearly any Japanese-car enthusiast about his favorite cars or trucks, and chances are that you’ll hear the old list of Japan’s Greatest Hits. The 1989 Civic Si. The hachi-roku Corolla. Toyota’s original LS400 and the follow-up 1992 Camry that made that same build quality affordable for the masses. Mark IV Supras. Twin-turbo Zs. Mitsubishi Evolution 8 and 9. The pignose STi. Celicas of all shapes. Integra Type-R. Fifth-gen Accords. All these truly great, game-changing, world-beating Japanese cars, and almost all of them built between 1985 and 1999. Even the Skyline guys will admit that, yeah, given the choice they’d really rather have an R34 than the new car. In fact, one could argue that there’s only been one truly great, completely iconic new Japanese car built in the past decade, and it’s the friggin’ second-gen Prius.

This was very possibly the finest Japanese sedan in history: a cost-no-object moon shot of a high-quality midsizer. It killed the Taurus stone dead and made Camry a household name. Why isn’t the current one nearly as nice inside, or nearly as well put together?

Something’s changed, but what is it? What’s happened to make Japanese cars less desirable than their predecessors? We could blame it on government regulation, but that hasn’t stopped the 2009 Boxster S being approximately a zillion times better than the 1997 Boxster 2.5. We could talk about a changing market, forgetting that those “changes” took away the Bonneville and gave us the G8.

I would suggest, instead, that the problem is a lack of authenticity and character. Virtually all the great Japanese cars mentioned above were the product of Japanese design teams designing cars for either their home market or a broadly defined “world market”. The 1983 Civic was, in many respects, a simple ripoff of the Mini Cooper, but it was clearly and thoroughly a Honda in execution, from the grinning grille to the dumpy taillights. The Celica and Supra may have been Japanese Mustangs, but they were still recognizably Japanese. Just as importantly, in the Seventies and Eighties there were clear and distinct differences between Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Mitsubishi, and Subaru. (Note that I’m leaving Mazda out of this, since they are really neither “domestic” nor “foreign”.)

With the arrival of “transplant” factories and the development of US-specific models, often with the assistance or interference of American design teams like CALTY, that Japanese magic started to fade away. The current Camry, Accord, and Altima are all very similar cars. They look the same, they drive the same, they’re equipped and priced along similar lines. This is reasonable, because they are all aimed at the same buyer. The 1995 Camry was very different from the 1995 Accord, and they were both way different from a 1995 Altima… but today’s models are almost NASCAR-style “common template” competitors.

In fact, the current “CamAltiCords” resemble nothing so much as the old General Motors A-bodies: big, bland, soft crapwagons designed to drag middle-aged people from home to work and back. Those of you who read Orson Scott Card’s “Speaker For The Dead” or “Wyrms” may remember his concept of a lifeform which mates with arriving aliens, shares their DNA, and takes their shapes. A very similar process has taken place with the Japanese transplant manufacturers. When the Accord arrived in this country, the most popular car sold in America was the Cutlass Supreme. Guess what? The 2009 Accord is closer in size, weight, power, and general appearance to a 1978 Cutlass Supreme than it is to a 1978 Honda Accord.

For your own amusement, go check out the dimensions of the 1978 Ford Fairmont. Now go dig up the dimensions of the 2009 Nissan Altima. Spooky, huh? In replacing the domestic manufacturers as the default bread-and-butter sedans, the Japanese nameplates accidentally became the cars they were replacing. Thirty years after the full-scale “Japanese invasion”, it turns out that the American market has completely co-opted its conquerors. And the same kinds of fat, annoying, self-satisfied, middle-class faces that stared out the windshields of Malibus and Zephyrs back in 1983 now gaze lifelessly from Camrys and Accords.

Meanwhile, the contrarians, free-thinkers, and avant-garde types who bought those 1978 Accords have moved on… and many of them have moved on to the domestics. The same kind of person who loved the original Accord’s low dash and rakish styling might find the new Fusion to have twice the character of any Camcord. The clarity of purpose and execution that marked the original Camry can now be found behind the wheel of a Malibu. Freed from the job of providing a million bland sedans a year to people who hate cars, Ford, GM, and Chrysler are producing truly great vehicles again. That’s what happens when you don’t need to serve the mainstream, and it’s why GM has managed to produce a new Camaro even as Toyota cancels their Supra project. Each new domestic automobile feels more vibrant, more completely realized, more American than the one before it.

The Japanese are now stuck in the same trap that swallowed the domestics thirty years ago. They’ve acquired the mass market and they need to build cars for that market. Until they are freed of that immensely profitable burden, they won’t be able to make great Japanese cars again. Don’t look for them to give up that market willingly, because their massive transplant facilities depend on seven-figure sales. It’s like crack. You can’t quit once you’re hooked on massive volume. Luckily for those of us who love great Japanese cars, however, salvation is just around the corner.

It took Toyota thirty years in the market to build a better, more popular mid-size sedan than GM could, but in just a decade, the Hyundai Sonata has moved up to parity with the Camry. In five more years, Kia and Hyundai could be the new mass-market champions, cranking out a million bland sedans from their own shiny transplant factories. And, if history is any guide, the Chinese, once they hit America in force, will catch the Koreans even more quickly than the Koreans caught the Japanese.

Faced with dwindling sales, loss of profitability, and a declining foothold in the American mass market, what will Toyota, Honda, and Nissan do? I’d like to think that they will forget about trying to make the perfect 3900-pound vanilla sedan. I’d like to think that they will open up their old catalogs and rediscover what made them great. In my dreams, the Celicas and 200SXes will come rushing back out of the factories, the Civics will once again be wide, low sportsters, the Z-car will be a bespoke platform and not a chopped-down Infiniti FX. We’ll see more cars like the Cube and fewer ones like the new Maxima. It will once again become possible to tell a Camry from an Accord. In short, the best Japanese cars will return, just as we are seeing the best American cars make a reappearance now. If that happens, I might just drag my Mom back down to that crummy old Honda dealer for a Civic. Come to think of it, maybe I’d buy one for me, too.

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94 Comments on “Avoidable Contact: The end, and the beginning, of great Japanese cars....”

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Hmmmmmmmmmmm definate food for thought Jack. (For some reason it also makes me think about how I like 70s and 80s porn more than the current stuff even though I’m only 35. Maybe it was more “authentic” too?)

    I know if I had to choose between domestic, Korean, and Japanese sedans I know that Japanese would be at the bottom of the list.

    • 0 avatar

      You make no sense. All Detroit and the Koreans do is copy Toyota and Honda products. That is all that is left of Detroit. Then, Detroit tries to use their media departments to tell us Detroit copies of Japanese cars are better than the real thing.

      Why would you prefer a Detroit or Korean copy of a Toyota or Honda? You know Detroit and Korea have not been able to copy the legendary Japanese quality and reliability.

      What is keeping Detroit alive:

      1) Continued government help in the terms of low interest rate loans and large scale fleet purchases from government agencies;
      2) Fleet dumping
      3) Low credit score people who don’t have the score to get a Toyota or Honda.

      • 0 avatar
        Volt 230

        Everyone is making their cars bigger, just look at the latest BMW 3 I think Honda will hole the line with the upcoming Accord, but you cant’ expect the Civic to be what it used to be, to make it a good handler, they price will have to go up and make it too expensive for some people to even look at. The days of Honda being able to charge a premium for their vehicles is over, their engineering prowess and innovations have diminished.

      • 0 avatar

        When Toyota or Honda makes some faster AND larger then my 300C, call me and my 750 credit score.

      • 0 avatar

        Posts such as this make me wonder about the nature of perception. With the exception of the Miata, there is nothing from Japanese companies that moves the spirit, NOTHING. I owned four Maximas starting with an ’89 SE 5-speed like the one in the picture. Can’t get one like that now. My first new car was a first-gen RX-7. It was a bold, wonderful car in an otherwise bleak era. Where is it now? Gone.

        My last six cars have all come from Detroit. All had either combinations of form or styling (or both) that are unavailable from Japan. Show me Japan’s equivalent of the Dodge Charger R/T, Mustang or CTS Wagon (V or non-V). you can’t. These cars are all steadfastly American in a very good way. Jack’s point is exactly right. Yes, there are still boring American cars. But they don’t dominate the lineup as they did not so long ago. That’s a remarkable achievement.

      • 0 avatar

        This is in reply to “morbo’s” comment about his 300C. A 750 score doesn’t mean anything. Its actually a combination of your net-worth, credit limit or score. So you can very well have a 750 score but only have a credit limit of $5,000. Anyways that wasn’t the point of my response. My point is ASSUMING you have a SRT-8 (which is the only reason to brag about a 300c) it’s still not comparable to a toyota or honda. Because your srt-8 is using a 6liter engine to push a car 0-60 in about 4.9-5.2 seconds. Which is crap. A big @$$ engine like that should be able to accomplish more than that. Some food for thought: 2011 accord coupe 3.5L v6 with a 6mt does 0-60 in 5.2 seconds. A 2011 lexus is350 which is also a 3.5L v6 does 0-60 in 4.8 seconds. Both cars are naturally aspirated. So tell me, which is better? American muscle which uses gigantic engines and accomplishes nothing beside burning a whole in your wallet with the gas bill or a japanese engineering which accomplishes the same speed plus better handling, reliability, and better gas mileage?? This wasn’t a personal attack to you, i’m just trying to open up peoples’ eyes. I do give detroit credit for vamping up the quality of the cars being built currently but only time will tell the reliabilty of the new cars. the new fords and GMs are really appealing these days.

  • avatar

    Every car maker (regardless of nationality) has the tendency to make their models bigger until the market says “enough”. The better car makers just bring out new smaller lines that the customer can purchase. Don’t like the size of the new Accord? – move to a Civic. Don’t like the new Civic? – move to the Fit.
    Explaining the model “creep” to bigger sizes is difficult to understand. Acura already made a perfectly good V6 model – the TL. Why make the TSX into a V6 model? And the economics were even harder to understand – the V6 TSX was $35k or more – expensive – not much different in price from a TL.

    • 0 avatar
      Volt 230

      That is the problem, the market has not said “enough” just look at the numbers for the larger VW’s and now even the 3 is bigger. The Kizashi a nice car can’t sell because its the smaller car in its segment. That is why Honda dares not make the next Accord smaller, like its EU version.

    • 0 avatar

      My list of far superior older Japanese cars than new crap-by-comparison:

      1994 Civic EX Manual (snick-snick perfection) Transmission (drove like it was hard wired to your brain, amazing power for displacement, incredibly fuel economy, bulletproof, no excess).

      1989 Nissan Maxima w/the legendary 3.0 Liter. Drove and was refined like no car at its price point had a right to drive or be refined. A proper 4 door sports sedan, and Japanese BMW.

      1993 Acura Legend 6 speed manual. What wasn’t to love in this sleek, ergonomically perfect, bulletproof Legend.

      1993 Toyota Camry V6 – A Lexus (with build quality and details excellent even by Lexus standards). Not my style to be insulated, but arguably the most affordable true luxury car ever available to the middle class.

      1978 Nissan/Datsun 280Z 5 Speed Manual. Nuff said. Who said only Italians know how to design a truly gorgeous vehicle? Only pictures dare do it justice (so far ahead of its time that it is blows ‘modern’ designs away, exterior and interior wise):

      • 0 avatar

        1978 Datsun 280Z ahead of its time? Hilarious. It was almost as good as an 8 year old 240Z, for starters. Mind you that car was a cheap copy of a three year older Toyota.

      • 0 avatar

        Rust, cold starts problems, general dependability and daily driveability were problems with the 240Z.

        The 280Z was vastly improved in these areas.

        I realize it’s the genesis of the monikor, and that it’s therefore the purest, but the 280Z (minus bumpers) looks better, too.

        I know my opinion is the minority view, and that’s okay.

    • 0 avatar

      The domestics haven’t creeped since the 1980s really. Back then each model would grow until it displaced the last model in it’s evolutionary climb. Since then the growth in nameplates has been steadfast in Detroit. The problem you’re seeing is that when Honda and Toyota arrived on our shores they sold only Sub-compact cars. The civic was a sub-compact car until the 7th generation (2001). The accord was a compact until the 4-5th generation in the early 90s. The Corolla made it to compact size in 88 (and lived an entire generation with the Camry in the same size designation). The Camry made it to midsize in 1992. There is a far bit of wiggle-room in each size definition so a smallish midsize and a large midsize can be vastly different cars.

      What ended up happening was the tiny peppy Gen X kids bought to befuddle their baby boomer parents turned into the cars that baby boomers themselves were driving. Looking at the sales numbers on wikipedia for the Camry illustrate the point perfectly. The Camry sold well from day one, about a quarter of a million units but the second it hit midsize and cutlass supreme-esque it’s sales nearly doubled.

  • avatar

    I enjoyed this post and I relate to Jack’s entire argument. Where the cognitive dissonance kicks in is around the fact that I also would not choose to go back.

    I loved my 1999 Integra and wrung every bit of automotive pleasure from that vehicle that was possible

    It was light, fast, toss-able, handled like a dream, durable but not over-engineered and had the simplicity of automotive Lego.

    However… It wasn’t the best car for commuting to work every day, and that era gave way to the Sentra SE-R SpecV. Heavier, more complicated, over-engineered in comparison but more drive-able, better for commuting, far more torque down low and still a great 4-cyl, a 6-speed and a track-ready feel.

    However… then came the moment when vehicle number 2 had to be driven by my wife as well as myself, among other new domestic tiny-person requirements. So the SE-R SpecV gave way to the Maxima SV. Compared to the Integra, the Maxima is huge, heavy, long, wide, complex and over-engineered to the Nth degree.

    It is also very comfortable, handles wonderfully, is ridiculously quick and makes my commute better. I love the sound and feel of the VQ35. I even love the feel of the CVT in Sport mode! (This probably has something to do with 1000’s of hours of video game driving, aka Gran Turismo syndrome.)

    So in short: Great post Jack, I totally agree… and you can’t make me go back!

  • avatar

    The Maxima shown in the pics (J30) 1989 may have been one of the most important cars the Japanese ever introduced to the US.
    A true mid size, elegantly styled they were a true styling departure. I remember seeing the SE in metallic white, 190hp engine with a 5 speed every bit as beautiful as the European cars of the time.
    The new Maxima is plain ugly.

  • avatar

    I know comments are to be directed at current Honda/Acura. But damn! I had that exact same red Maxima in the 1st photo! Except my grille was black (’91) and I still had black paint remaining on my front air damn.

    I am in agreement that as worrisome as Korea may be currently for the domestic, European, and Japanese makers, possible Chinese sales here in the future may be responsible for more lost sleep by auto execs.
    Unless the plot gets lost in translation.
    A few years back, but still recently, (I think in C&D) there was a story about a Chinese auto show, or perhaps a Chinese car maker at another countries auto show. I can’t recall if it was a printed press release or from a spokespersons mouth, but the quote which was trying to convey excitement went something along the lines of “I are going to come all over you”.
    Who knows, that may sell to some folks.

    • 0 avatar

      “Made in China” are still automotive curse words in the US, right up there with “diesel” or “station wagon.” I’m sure it will come, but not any time soon.

      The first established automaker who brings Chinese-made cars, or the first Chinese brand to open a dealership, better bring its A-game though, because it will have to make one hell of a first impression.

      (the irony of course is how reliant we are on Chinese made goods already, such as this computer upon which I type this post…)

      • 0 avatar
        PJ McCombs

        I suspect it will come sooner than many in the US expect. The “made in China” label carries the same stigma here in Australia, but that hasn’t stopped Great Wall pickups and SUVs from selling quite well. And their products are improving every couple of years, so the trend is unlikely to reverse.

  • avatar

    By every objective measure and a lot of subjective ones, the sporting variants of today’s Civic and Camry would absolutely blow away their equivalents of 20+ years ago, or for that matter, a lot of sports cars that were on the market at that time.

    A lot of this nostalgia is misplaced; today’s cars are better than ever (just so long as you are willing to pay someone else to fix them when they do break.) At the same time, all of these predictable enthusiast complaints do tell you that there is some merit to having halo cars, if only for the sake of image. Today’s Camry SE might smoke a mid-80s Supra or MR2, but doesn’t mean that there isn’t a place for a return of the Japanese pony or sports car.

    Unfortunately, the car market is flat. The growth is with trucks, CUVs and SUVs, not passenger cars. Investing in an array of difficult to insure, low demand coupes isn’t exactly music to the ears of those who are charged with making these companies profitable.

    • 0 avatar

      “today’s cars are better than ever (just so long as you are willing to pay someone else to fix them when they do break.)”

      Or if you’re a drifter.

      Or if you’re into nonrepair related modifications.

      • 0 avatar
        Brian P

        It will be interesting to see how the new Toyota/Subaru “hachi-roku” does.

        I’m tempted, but the lack of hatchback turns me off, and I’ve heard too much about Subaru engine woes (mostly head gaskets).

      • 0 avatar

        Eh, a modern 2012 Camry is substantially faster than a mid-80s or even 90s supra for that matter, only the last Turbo I6 matches the numbers of the modern Camry. Given a solid set of performance tires and some light suspension tinkering so the car doesn’t try to roll over on it’s self I would suspect you could lap an older Supra in a decent race.

        As for being able to repair it myself: That sort of shadetree mechanic shenanigans ended almost 20 years ago for major engine repairs. I wouldn’t trust anything less than a licensed mechanic to touch a mid-80s or newer car for the most part. I can pull wheels, replace brakes, change oil, and do most maintenance but if we’re going to be pulling cams or anything that requires a crane for lifting the block it will ultimately be cheaper to send it to the shop compared to the amount of money I make versus hours put in.

    • 0 avatar

      So long as what new car you get can be fixed too, most require special codes and do-das that you can only get at the dealers.

      Its the lack of simplicity and fixability that make me consider “1milllion mile” dream machines to be finished.

  • avatar

    Each new BMW has been better than the next since at least 2000. What they’re selling now has more in common with the Lexus ES300 than they do with the E28s and E30s.

    I’m not sure how people manage to compare the latest Civics to thirty year old ones while ignoring that they’re still about the lightest and smallest cars in their class. Must take a special brand of myopia.

    • 0 avatar

      Because compared to the cars of even 15 years ago, they’re still bloated tubs for people that hate cars. It’s not purely a question of size and weight; it’s a question of driving dynamics, which Honda kicked to the curb around the same time they started deleting rear suspensions from their cars. Installing barely adequate brakes doesn’t help. A Yugo GV was also the lightest car in its class for the time, but nobody pretends that it was better to drive than a Subaru Justy, Civic, or even Mustang from the same time period. A Focus, a car which is is significantly heavier than the current Civic, still provides a better driving experience than just about anything Honda is churning out these days. So does the current Mazda 3 and a raft of other competitors.

    • 0 avatar
      Sam P

      Today’s BMWs have RWD or AWD and longitudal engines, just like the E30. The Lexus ES has a transversely mounted engine and front wheel drive.


      • 0 avatar

        Front wheel drive and V6s are coming, at which point the badge will be all that is left. The Mini Cooper is a BMW in all but badge and it has been around for a decade. Car and Driver just finished a 40,000 mile test of the current 535i. They ordered it as purely as could be, with all the sport options and none of the tech toys. It still drove indifferently. They’re just luxury cars for badge buyers, like the ES300.

      • 0 avatar
        Sam P

        Given that even Lexus offers a full range of RWD sedans, I highly doubt that BMW will go FWD with transverse V6 engines any time soon for the 3, 5, or 7. Lexus only has the ES350 because it’s rather easy to sell a Camry with a nice interior to US car buyers.

        Furthermore, global ES production in 2009 was 89k units. 3 series production that same year was 397k units. I guess there’s more to the global car market than ex-Buick buyers who go for ES350s.

      • 0 avatar

        There is a lot more to a good car than the choice of drive wheels, but not much more to be said about current BMWs.

  • avatar

    The “evolution” of Honda reminds me of the much faster process by which the relatively light and agile 1961 GM full-size cars became the incredibly bloated ’71s only two generations later, with side-window and door curvatures that translated to no increase in useful space, and front-to-rear space efficiency that remained as poor as that of the 1965-70 cars. If not for the 1973-74 sudden rise in fuel prices (which led to the smaller 1977 models), I wonder whether those cars as well as the “intermediates” would have become larger still, and for no good engineering reason. (The only part of the weight increase between 1961 and 1971 that I can attribute to passenger safety is the introduction of side guard door beams and larger wheels in the 1969 models.)

    With respect to Honda’s current US offerings, one could argue that everything changed with the introduction of the second-generation Odyssey, certainly the most popular (mini?)van in these parts (Maryland suburbs of DC). Perhaps its success led to permanent changes in Honda’s attitude toward itself as well as Americans’ attitudes toward Honda, such that anything smaller and lighter than an Odyssey seems agile by comparison.

    I was an ’83 Civic owner myself – a 1300 4-speed (with 12-inch wheels) that didn’t even have armrests, much less a/c – and it was simply a great car, but you wouldn’t have wanted to put a child seat in it; we donated it when it was 14 years old and replaced it with something that weighed more than 1800 pounds.

    • 0 avatar

      Agreed. The Odyssey was and still is a ground breaking vehicle. It is also the execption to the rule that ‘everything Japan made since 1999 sucked’. Each new generation of Odyssey is indeed better than the previous generation. Of course car enthusiasts don’t notice it because they don’t ackowledge minivans as real vehicles that are capable of engineering greatness.

  • avatar
    Kevin Kluttz

    Have you forgotten the one thing that made everyone gravitate toward the Japanese cars? It was QUALITY AND DEPENDABILITY. I, for one, can attest to the fact that this is still the case. Been in both (a 2007 G6 V6 rental with 28000 miles with defective door locks and puslating, if not rumbling brakes; a 2010 Cobalt rental with a terminal sounding rattle up front when applying the brakes; then the stories of removable steering wheels and fires and missing brake pads; and I owna trouble-free, so far, 2006 Civic with 104000 miles)furrin’ and dermestics, and the ferrins’ still have the edge. By a country mile.

    • 0 avatar

      Did not get quality or dependability from my Honda Odyssey transmission even after using only Z1 changed every 10thousand miles. Broke about 70 thousand. Lots of other problems too from day one. Dealer deaf and dumb. More crap broke in Odyssey than my Ford or Chrysler.

      • 0 avatar
        Kevin Kluttz

        Then you’re the exception, not the rule. Heck, even GM builds a good car once in a blue moon. That would be an exception in this case, GM building one good car.

      • 0 avatar

        I bought an ’87 Integra new in 1987. Great car, manual windows, nothing too fancy but it was smooth, comfortable and reliable as any car could be. I put well over 200K miles and other than rust, it had no issues whatsoever. In late 2003 I decided to try Acura again, so I leased a new TL 6 speed. The magic was long gone. Lots of little problems here and there (usually when out of town away from any Acura dealer), hideously expensive maintenance and reliablity that was downright shameful compared to the Mustang I traded in (which had seen plenty of autcross and track miles without a single failure of any component).

      • 0 avatar

        I second that. My 2008 MDX had more warranty issues and a way worse dealer than my BMW. After dealing with a Honda snob sibling…too many to count and I was always buying some euro car…I finally go Honda and Honda is no longer “there”.
        Had a buddy with the first TSX. Recently drove a loaner. That train has left the station for good.

        The MDX drives well. Some engineers were clearly given an X5 and told to copy it. The more recent MDX ( yup, yet another loaner…I’ve driven the whole line on loaners :) :(. is aimed at the Lexus RX. Should have stayed with the BMW. The MDX and RDX are oddly the best sorted. The TL base is old school Buick, or maybe Monte Carlo. The SH version has all the feel of a video game despite very impressive handling, brakes and power. The TSX brings “meh” to a whole new level

      • 0 avatar

        My wife’s ’01 Ody has the glass transmission, too. At 215k, we’re on our third rebuild, and should be in line for another at about 260k (fingers crossed).

        If everything else hadn’t been dead-solid reliable, we’d have bailed on it a while ago, and wouldn’t have just spent a good chunk of money on the timing belt & water pump, along with ball joints, shocks, struts, oil pump seal, power steering seal, and a couple of other wear-out parts you’d expect to go after 200k+. We have the money to pay cash for something else, but my wife loves her Honda. Damn thing runs & drives like new now.

      • 0 avatar

        It must be a blue moon every month then. Quality variation between brands (and country of origin) isn’t a major differentiating factor any longer.

  • avatar

    I think somewhere in the 90’s we passed the point of reason for car evolution. Offcourse this could have something to do with age, and that I’m growing more conservative in my thinking, but I feel that it’s been a while since I saw a new car that was beautiful beyond the ‘first glance new car’ look. And I don’t believe that cars need to be more reliable than they were in the 90’s, or faster than they were in the 60’s and 80’s, or even more aerodynamic. And the way everything is rationalized, from interiors to badges, make every newer model of any car look cheaper and cheaper. If I had any saying in the matter, we should have just stopped building new cars and started concentrating more on updating and improving on the older ones. Luckily I can just choose to buy and upgrade an older car myself and not be bothered with all the weird heavy stuff that I meet on the roads :)

  • avatar

    I must say, nostalgia plays a huge part in our subjective reasoning. I am not a lover of the last 2 generations of Honda Civics. I grew up seeing my parents owning the 1984 Civic, then on to a 1988 Civic, 1992 Acura Vigor (remember those?), 1993 Corolla (5spd stick), and in 1998 they purchased a Camry LE and Civic HX (5spd stick). I inherited the HX around 2006 and drove it until it was rear-ended by a truck last September. I have to say, my girlfriend’s 2006 Civic EX has nothing on that car in terms of driving dynamics and pleasure, while I was able to compare apples-to-oranges.

    Yes, the ’06 was more refined – we could hear the music while driving 80mph on the freeway, felt more “solid”, and generally was nice. But there were issues like the sun visor breaking and falling off in 2009, merely 3 years after purchasing. Compared with the ’98, that sun visor worked fine with the exception of the cloth/felt material slowly tearing due to old age.

    I ended up purchasing a 2012 Hyundai Accent GLS (6spd manual) due to the familiar feeling it evoked while test driving. Not as great as the ’98 Civic in terms of dynamics, but pretty close to me. And more refined (quiet) as well as being right on budget. Honda dealers, on the other hand, had no stick shift Civics on the lot except the Si, and I didn’t like the Fit no matter how practical it may be. Also, Honda dealers were not negotiating at all.

  • avatar
    Sam P

    Slightly OT, but I saw a mint black ’83 Civic 1500S in traffic on I-90 in Seattle on Friday. In the Midwest that car would have rusted to bits by now, but salt on the roads is a foreign concept to the Pacific Northwest.

    Also, I had an ’11 Fusion V6 SEL as a rental car recently. I’ve spent some seat time in my in-laws’ ’07 Camry, and even with 20k miles of rental car abuse, the Ford drove with a hell of a lot more verve and panache than the Toyota, which feels like – Jack nailed it – a modern version of a GM anony-sedan, minus the horrific interior. If I had to sell my E46 Bimmer and get a mainstream sedan, I’d be heading to the Ford showroom long before I’d darken the doorstep of my local Toyota stealership.

  • avatar

    americans are getting bigger, fatter, and uglier. so are our cars.

    need anyone be reminded that the eyesore we call the “accord” isn’t even sold in international markets, but rather the euros get the entry-level acura in our market without all the parrotfish styling.

    we are an all or nothing nation. you either make a statement by driving the biggest, ugliest, heaviest pickup truck or SUV that will NEVER get used as it was designed to be, or we make some social statement and drive some marxist crapwagon like a smart or prius to show everyone we care. there is no common sense.

    we want to take our kids, their friends, their crap, and the inlaws all in one car–and manufacturers listen. or we want to be austere, economical, get mpg numbers that sacrifice comfort, safety, and reason and try to stuff our fat asses in cars even the slender japanese find cramped, and the manufacturers listen again.

    there are no damn common sense cars in our market, unless you look really hard to find them. everything is either an SUV, lifestyle pickup, CUV, crossover or some pissant tiny hybrid, european city car.

    you want a sensible midsized car, or, god forbid, a wagon and the salesman points you to the bloated accords and camrys, schizophrenically designed to be the biggest and best there is, but at the same time lost in a market that half of the customers walking in the door want a prius and the other drive off in a pickup, driven more by a statement that they want to make rather than a need.

    those ‘great’ japanese cars were great because we caught on to a passion of another nation for small, economical, fun cars that weren’t specifically designed for americans, or our tastes. if anything they were the antithesis of what we americans always wanted.

    since then the japanese moved stateside, bought plants, moved in, became fat and ugly like we are and started to make cars they think we want. and

    just like the garish car homer simpson designed, they have realized american car customers are stupid as hell and listening to what we want doesn’t make a car we want, but rather an eyesore that has long ago lost the passion the carmaker once had.

    start from scratch. close your american plants. import the crap we used to love in the 80s and leave the large retarded cars to GM.

    • 0 avatar
      Kevin Kluttz

      I love you, man, except for the fact that your SHIFT key must be broken. At least, unlike bryce, you do use punctuation. And the “large, retarded car” thing is a hoot! I love it!

  • avatar

    “Toyota’s current lineup is a bloated mess of two-ton Camry variants, without a single sporting vehicle in the lineup.”

    Really, Jack? Are you going to let that comment stand as it is, even after your own enthusiasm about the Scion FR-S?

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      I wrote this in 2009. You still can’t actually buy an FR-S, and it may be another half-year until they get here, and when they do the supply won’t match the demand… so I am comfortable not editing the statement. Three years later, it still holds true.

      On the day when I can walk into a Scion dealer and buy an FR-S without a six-month wait or a $5000 ADP sticker, it won’t be true any more, and nobody will be happier about that than I am.

  • avatar

    I can understand the Japanese car hate from Detroit. They are kicking the behinds of Detroit. Now that Toyota and Honda have cars to sell again, Camry and Civic are cleaning up.

    All Detroit firms look real bad in Consumer Reports. Detroit brands own the lower end of reliability rankings in Consumer Reports and JD Powers. In fact, I see in the latest Consumer Reports at your news stand now, the best values list is dominated by Japanese nameplates. Even the Corolla ranks higher than anything from Detroit in the same segment.

    Ford may see the problem. They just ran the head of engineering into retirement. They are worried. They should be. If I was living in Metro Detroit, I would dump the house and move the heck out.

  • avatar

    Been there, done that. My cars were in order:
    1986 Mazda 323 – purchased new, sold in 1996
    1987 Honda Accord – purchased 1990, sold 1997
    1990 Mitsubishi Montero – sold in 2000
    1999 Honda CRV – purchased 2002, still in the family
    2000 Mazda 626 – purchased new, sold 2010
    2007 Honda Accord (company lease 2007-2010, I hated it with a passion)
    2010 Toyota Prius – purchased new, still in the family
    2010 Hyundai Elantra Touring – purchased new, occasionally driven
    2011 Nissan Leaf – purchased new, driven daily

    I would guess that most Japanese car buyers of the past were after practicality first and foremost, but also grew up used to the high build quality, elegant styling, and ergonomics of Japanese cards. At least that was my experience. Thus, all the models we purchased (the 2007 Accord does not count) were very efficient in terms of utility vs total cost of ownership, and were also chosen for their simple clean designs.

    Also, in our current cars, we have examples of the phenomena Jack describes: the indestructible 1990s Honda, the recent game-changing Prius, and a car from the current Hyundai ascendancy. I also think the the Leaf may yet be the next game-changer, as the Prius was, so I am not quite as down on the Japanese now as Jack was (in 2009 when this was written). I am just really down on Honda.

    Once the Japanese developed a reputation for reliability, it was natural they would attract the laziest, least-interested portion of the car-buying public, those who wanted a reliable car and thought bigger is better. With such a natural audience, it was inevitable that sedans would get bigger quickly and start adding non-driving features to keep up with each other in the highly competitive family car market. I may have wished for the Japanese manufacturers to pay more attention to styling and drivability, but since most people prefer size over nimbleness and gas was cheap until the mid-2000s, market forces inevitably caused the Japanese manufacturers to make their mainstream cars bigger and heavier, and worse to drive. Those who wanted a good drive would have to go to the premium divisions of Lexus, Infiniti or Acura, whose existence also allowed a stylistic split between expensive nice cars and cheap deliberately uglified cars. Not surprisingly, the only manufacturer who didn’t make their cars both big and ugly was Mazda, which didn’t have a premium division. The 626 and first-generation 6 were thus designed to the older Japanese ethic, smaller, lighter, more stylish, and more nimble than the Accord and Camy, but those failed in the market place when Mazda didn’t do the advertising necessary to convince Joe Public smaller could be better. Ironically Mazda seemed to have changed philosophy at precisely the wrong time and introduced a bloated second-generation 6 just when interest in smaller cars and higher mpg was returning.

    But Honda really deserves the most invective, because they have strayed the furthest from their initial formula for success. I ascribe the downfall to cynical market-obsessed decisions, such as turning over US Accord design staring from the 2003 model year to an independent US team which was apparently ignorant of all Japanese engineering and international design principles. The result was a heavy goofy-looking car that appeared to have been styled by 5 different committees, with an interior featuring supersized knobs, cupholders, seats etc that made the driver feel like he had been put through some shrinking machine. Honda even cut short the prior generation Accord’s run from the the typical 5 years to 4, likely so they could have a faster response to the 2002 Camry redesign. The introductions of the US-only 2003 Pilot and 2005 Ridgeline can also be seen as similar cynical Toyota-chasing. This was antithetical to the original Honda philosophy of doing what it itself thought best to maximize efficiency and utility while allowing for some fun. I am less bothered by Toyota’s desire to be all things to all people, because they never offered an alternative philosophy, having done all sizes from the Tercel to the Cressida for as long as I have known them, and besides appear better at carrying out multiple projects than Honda without creating major duds.

    I think Honda has recently realized the danger of being too mainstream and is trying to be different from itself, unsuccessfully, with the Insight and CRZ. However, it is not clear if these efforts are cynical attempts to appear to return to their roots, or earnest but misguided. If the latter, Honda is misinterpreting their past hits like the Civic and CRX to have succeeded by offering less content for less or by being quirky different, not realizing the actual things that mattered were fuel efficiency in the hybrid space and simplicity in the sporty space. It is the long-term melding of efficiency and fun that creates customer enthusiasm and loyalty, not gimmicky advantages like the Insight being cheaper than a Prius (now defeated by the Prius c) or a 2-seater hybrid sports car (defeated by itself).

    • 0 avatar
      Kevin Kluttz

      If what you say is true about the model run, why was the 2002 Accord identical to my 2001? The 2003 Accord was late to the party because both the 2002 Camry AND the 2002 Altima both blew it away in the looks department. Then, that bulbous blob of a car they released anyway in 2003 simply destroyed the Accord, as far as I was concerned. I consider myself lucky to have owned the last true Accord. And it was with that generation (1998-2002) the model run became 5 years. And if you hadn’t noticed, the 2006-2011 Civic was a 6-year run. I don’t quite understand what they were waiting for, seeing there is no change in powerplant or transmission, save for the Civic si.

      • 0 avatar

        My bad I got the model years wrong on the 2003 Accord timing. It was the regular 5-year refresh. It’s eye-opening to read all the old reviews. The supposed driving experts at Car and Driver and Motor Trend were gushing about how Honda was staying true to its core values and how handsome the car was, while the bean-counters at Edmunds were skeptical.

    • 0 avatar

      “Honda even cut short the prior generation Accord’s run from the the typical 5 years to 4, likely so they could have a faster response to the 2002 Camry redesign.”

      Not true. The sixth-generation Accord was sold for five years, from 1998-2002. From ’82-’97, the car was redesigned every four years. It was also the first Accord to be designed specifically for the United States, featuring the same oversized seats and knobs you mention, but it lacked the horrifying ugliness that was introduced for ’03.

      The rushed refresh of the Civic for 2013 due to the bad reviews should neither surprise nor give hope to anyone. The ’01-’05 Civic received a series of upgrades to address the cheap interior (added chrome accents, redesigned the seats, redesigned the center console twice). And the Accord got a major mid cycle redesign in ’06 to fix the hideous back end. So I’m not convinced Honda has learned its lesson yet

      Honda’s continued reliance on its rigid trim level structure is frustrating, too. Strippo DX models are intended for newspaper ads, not retail customers. Buy a Civic or CR-V LX and you’ll still be denied low-cost items like variable wipers and a temperature gauge, but you will get stuck with with several prominent pieces of ugly black plastic exterior trim that are body color/chrome if you spend another ~$2500 for the EX. Of course, manual transmissions have now been banished from cars with leather interiors, unless you want the silly, bloated EX-V6 coupe.

      I’ve owned three Hondas. Loved my first Accord (5th-gen), liked my second Accord (6th-gen), sort of tolerate my current Civic (7th-gen) and pretty much despise the current lineup. Honda needs to make some major changes to win me back as a customer, but my hope for the future diminishes with each new product unveil.

      I’m about to purchase a new vehicle, but there’s just not that much out there. Honda’s no longer the easy default choice they used to be, Toyotas are too boring, Nissans and Mazdas are too ugly. Previous experience has left me with a considerable distrust/distaste and there’s nothing exciting about the GM lineup. The thought of owning a Hyundai/Kia is still completely unappealing, even though the cars have improved. So I’m going with Volkswagen in spite of the horror stories and incessant internet whining about cheap dashboards and uncovered trunk hinges in the new cars. At least they still offer a firmer ride, restrained styling, some thoughtful interior touches and seats designed for people who don’t eat three Big Macs a day.

      • 0 avatar

        The Honda trim levels baffle me too. I drove a lower-end Civic sedan a year or two ago as a rental (an odd occurrence) and was stunned to see that the car had a remote key fob for the door locks, but no remote trunk release. For that, you needed the next level up. Seriously? I think it was the first time I’d used a key in a trunk in ten years.

  • avatar
    Volt 230

    I’ve said before that Toyota showed GM and the other domestics that you could make quality, well built FWD cars like Corolla and Camry while GM was making crap like the X-cars and the J-cars, even Ford Taurus which led the segment for many years simply because they were more American sized than the Japanese ones, suffered when Ford neglected and the Japanese made theirs larger.

    • 0 avatar
      Kevin Kluttz

      Toyota TRIED to show them. GM apparently and arrogantly brushed them aside and continued to produce their own shit, most notably the 1988 GM10, the savior of GM, on which they lost over $3000 on each car built. NUMMI was started in 1987, and GM didn’t learn a thing.

  • avatar

    Great article Jack. I drove domestics until just 2-years ago. My last two were a Malibu Maxx and 91 Sunbird. Then a career change allowed for the purchase of a 2000 Lexus GS and recently a 90 Cressida.
    I really enjoy these cars and I am amazed at the quality of materials and assembly. While these two cars are often cited as bland, I rather think they have far more character than current equivalents. And, they are better made. Toyota has definitely lost the plot. I look at the current Lexus GS (2012) and the IS, and their interiors don’t hold a candle to the older cars. The Corolla, which was once called “the little Lexus” pales next to a Cruze or Fiesta. More and more these things look like the generic cars used in auto insurance company ads. I am driving the 2013 GS next week to see if they’ve gotten their heads back in the game. If not my next car will have to be another GS, but the last year of the 2nd generation.
    BTW, thanks for including that pic of the red Maxima, that has to be one of the most elegant sedans ever designed, definitely a high point of 80s design.

  • avatar

    Can we stop bashing Americans for being fat. You want fat go to Sao Paulo Brasil. You think everybody looks like Gisele or Adriana from Brasil, take a trip and find out. These people are orca fat and diabetes in Sao Paulo runs 26% of the population.

    And if we are so fat why is Ben Affleck on TV telling us children are going to bed hungry?

    Dont believe all this Super Size Me crap, and Coke is evil.

    The hatred for fatness and fat people is coming from Washington DC.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      Europeans bash Americans for being fat because it’s easier, and more fun, than thanking them for preventing the Thousand-Year Reich.

      Young Americans bash other Americans for being fat because they are upset about the fact that, statistically, they won’t be as successful as their fat-assed parents.

      Americans on the coasts bash the rest of America for being fat for the same reason the people who scourged themselves in public hated those who didn’t.

      Just my opinion, coming from a guy currently living in the Midwest who would have to lose 40 pounds to be on the right side of the Met Life table.

  • avatar

    We may (as enthusiasts) lament the passing of the light, tossable and fun import…but the manufacturers are giving the collective buying public of America what they want. Plain, inoffensive and predictable transportation is what sells in volume, and that’s what we get. My favorite two cars from the 80s/90s were the CRX Si (my sister bought one new, and that was as close to automotive nirvana as I have EVER been exposed to) and the Mk1 MR2. Even the late 80s Accord (oh, those crazy large, open windows and flip-up headlights) were a true joy and pleasure to drive compared to much of the domestic competition. But Americans want larger, softer…non-threatening…and that’s what we get. We’ve brought it on ourselves.
    For the record, I rented a Maxima of the same vintage as shown above…man, was that a fun car! Not much in the way of Nissan excites me now, though my need for a truck down the road has me considered a Frontier (that I’m trying to convince myself is “American” enough for me to buy. I work alongside our Servicemembers and as such, am rather patriotic…would prefer to support our manufacturing workforce and corporations…sue me!).

  • avatar

    Toyotas are what they always have been, and if the new Camry and ES are anything to go by, it looks like they might finally be putting some effort in. Honda’s fall from grace is pretty bad, especially if the new Civic drives that much worse than the 8th gen, which had awesome handling. The Accord is just fat and blobby, though I have no idea how it drives. Ford and the Koreans are bringing it in the style department while offering all of the vanilla that customers want.

    I disagree that those who buy the vanilla are car-haters though. I know someone who is very much in love with her new 2013 Camry. Different strokes for different folks. That’s why there are so many options out there.

  • avatar

    Am I the only one who thinks that “great Japanese cars” is an oxymoron?

    And I am qualifying, before you get the flame throwers ready ;) :

    Most of the Japanese cars I know (and the ones longed about here) are uber utilitarian, uber practical and uber reliable (at least according to the standards of the day/place described – and, gee, nobody mentions the fact that those older Civics, Accords, Corollas, Celicas and Cressidas used to practically decompose upon contact with road salt.) Good cars, utilitarian, you can fix them with a screw driver (or 2) but making someone lust after them and want to buy them, nope. Not many people on waiting lists for B210s, Mazda GLCs and Honda CVCCs. But there were plenty and cheap and they ran longer than the rest of the cars out there and would not explode on impact like some of them. Same kind of market that Renault 5 (Le car), Yugo and Excel tried to capture and they did (some with more success than others) a decade later.

    Decent, utilitarian, long-running (south of the snow line) cars. Yes! Great cars? Nope, unless the bar is way too low.

    • 0 avatar

      I beg to differ, true, I don’t live in salt country and I an early Civic, (second gen) from ’92 through 1998 and put 70K miles on it, racking it up to nearly 183K miles before it got replaced by an ’88 Honda Accord, also used and kept that poor thing until 2006 when a lack of regular maintenance and being rear ended sent it off to some buyer who needed the motor for his nearly identical Accord via Craigslist who’s motor was blown (even had the same paint color too).

      That Accord also went to nearly 183K miles without any major incident, outside of some minor fender benders and someone rear ending me.

      I will say, of the two, the Civic was the car I liked best even though the Accord was better equipped (LX-I 4 door and had the sunroof, but the AC didn’t work).

  • avatar

    Great article, Jack, but I think you’re giving brands like Mercedes and VW too much credit. Ferrari and Lamborghini sure, the Aventador in particular is a masterpiece, and it would kick the fat old Diablo into the weeds.

    You shouldn’t gloss over though that the Daimler/Chrysler era was a disaster for Mercedes. From the latter part of the ’90s until the mid ’00s, Mercedes was churning out piles of trash. The 2001 C-class especially with its peanut eyes and Fisher-Price interior was a real low point for the brand. I think now you can safely say that Mercedes has their mojo back, and BMW and Volkswagen are arguably losing theirs.

    What are the complaints you read about BMWs now? Numb steering, and wonky throttle response. The two most important controls in the car, and BMW can’t get them right anymore. How is that progress? Sure iDrive is better than ever, but at the cost of the 5 series *with sport package* driving like a baby 7 series?

    It seems like if you still want a BMW that’s an “ultimate driving machine” you pretty much have to get an M car, because the regular ones are just a Mercedes with orange interior lighting.

    Audi is unquestionably on a roll. Sure the cost cutting is way too obvious in the A4, but other than that, their new cars are more powerful, better looking, better balanced, better driving, AND they weigh less than their predecessors. The supercharged six is one of the best engines they’ve ever produced, and a worthy follow up to the 2.7T. I suspect the new turbo V8 will also be very, very good.

    I think Toyoda-san knows that things have gotten stale and a bit moldy in Toyota City, and I think things are starting to move in the right direction there. The newest Camry may not be the best one in history, but it does seem like a major improvement over its dirt cheap, junky, terrible driving predecessor. The new Lexus GS also shows a lot of promise.

    Honda on the other hand has lost it, perhaps irreparably. When you think of a fun Japanese car you think Mazda, and maybe a select few Nissans. You don’t think Honda. I was recently behind an Odyssey that somebody stuck a “Type R” badge on, and it made me laugh partly because of the idea of an Odyssey Type R, but also because NO Honda currently in production is worthy of a red badge and Type R label.

    Acura went from Type R, to Type S, to “A-spec”, to eh.. who cares.

    • 0 avatar

      I had my early 2000s BMW in for service last year, and I was given a current model as a loaner. The wonky throttle response drove me nuts. My father’s 2008 5-series is similar, but not as bad. If BMW’s still have the wonky throttle response when it’s time to replace my current car, I’ll be looking elsewhere.

      Likewise, the switch from inline-6s to turbo-4s in the current 3-series has given me less of a reason to buy a BMW.

  • avatar

    A 1990 Nissan Maxima SE, almost identical to the one pictured, was the car that converted my almost lifelong American (mostly Pontiac) driving father to switch to Japanese cars. I begged him to test drive it after talking him out of almost buying a Dodge Dynasty to replace their wretched 1987 Chrysler LeBaron. He was blown away by the quality of the car. He was totally amazed at the solid thump the doors made when closed instead of the crash and rattle of all his previous American made cars made. It was a car totally foreign to him(so to speak) and a revelation. It was the car Pontiac “should” have been making instead of the badge engineered plastic body-cladded turds they were rolling out.

    That car was handed down to my brother and ran virtually flawlessly for almost 200k miles, only needing batteries and tires. That generation of Maxima has aged really well IMHO and doesn’t look very dated even today. Unfortunately, my father had a Pontiac relapse in the mid nineties and bought an H-body Bonneville. What a horrible car that was. Fortunately, my mother hated that car and complained so much that he replaced it with a new Maxima after only a couple of years.

  • avatar

    Daily driver – 89 Civic hatchback with the engine it always deserved (dohc vtec b16a) though in the US we never got Honda’s best engine unless you count the limited numbers of the Del Sol VTEC or the ’99 & ’00 Si which had a terrible markup. Nope – Honda was already in the throes of can’t make the Honda too nice or fast b/c it will upstage the slightly different Acura stablemate. Honda should have dropped Acura in the late 90’s as they destroyed the brand making nothing unique anymore. The Integra was old, the NSX was old, the Vigor failed, the RL was pathetic, the TL was just ok. The TSX was a nice spark but way underpowered for the US market but fun to drive and nimble. Then they gave it the already well hated beak and a v6 to make it the 9/10 size TL (why…don’t know). Then they dropped the upcoming diesel to go in the TSX b/c Honda (that engineering company that could do what everyone said couldn’t be done) couldn’t get the diesel to meet emissions with the automatic transmission (not like manuals would not sell or be unique from every competitor). Then the diesel v6 that was supposed to go in the Pilot or MDX or Odyssey got canned as well b/c Hybrids were Honda’s most important focus. So how well has the hybrid strategy done Honda? Get sued for not meeting mileage? Sell 1/20th the hybrids that Toyota does? Create a 2 door sporty looking only hybrid that gets worse mileage than non hybrid sporty cars? I cannot believe how far Honda has fallen and its management is simply blind to the slow decay of their brand name. I stopped looking at Hondas years ago and nothing they make even interests me…even the NSX vaporware rumors again. When will that get canned again as well?

  • avatar

    Nice article there Jack.

    I tend to agree that cars that were once nimble and light were so much fun to drive and I also had a second gen Civic, I bought it used in 1992 with just under 113K miles on it and drove it 6 years and put about 70K on it during that time. It was super reliable, outside of some new CV boots (all 4), tires, brakes, exhaust and of course, the usual oil changes. The only thing I had to do right from the start, new clutch, clutch cable, timing belt and water pump.

    It was cheap to drive and own and very fun to drive too. It was the most driver oriented car of the cars I’ve had over the years, thanks to it being a 5spd manual and communicated to you what was going on outside through the seat and the wheel.

    Mine was the more pedestrian 1500DX hatchback in that pedestrian beige Honda called, Oslo Ivory with the tan cloth interior. It had AC and AM/FM radio, rear wiper/washer and electric defroster but little else. I just added a new cassette deck and speakers and I was good to go.

    The current Fiat 500 reminds me of that car in many ways, but in a more grown up way and it’s virtually the same size as the first gen Civic and I’m sure MUCH more enjoyable on a long drive though my Civic was fine on long trips.

    I just had to replace my truck that was dying a slow death and ended up with a 2003 Mazda Protege5 and it’s a lot like the Fiat in the driving dynamics, but makes do with a 2.0L 4 and 130hp but has much the same communicative chassis and steering not often found on more pedestrian cars and is small by today’s standards at 171 or so inches long. I love it.

    I miss that Civic too and it was replaced by a 1988 Honda Accord, top flight LX-I but it didn’t have nearly the same dynamics as the Civic though due to its larger size and had the same size motor as my current ride, thus not nearly as nimble and I don’t think it was a nimble as my Mazda come to think of it (been a while since I had it, having replaced it with the truck in ’06).

  • avatar

    Chasing volume explains why Japanese cars have become big, bloated, and dumbed down. I figure the main driver for the drop in (relative) quality is the rise of the Yen. The Japanese were forced to cut costs and decontent their products to be competitive on price.

    • 0 avatar

      Very insightful, I think you may be on to something there. Almost as if they went against the values and became more ‘American’ sacrificing quality while chasing the bottom line.

  • avatar

    I agree with Jack that Japanese cars have grown dull. Even Subaru seems to have lost its way: The Legacy makes the Ford Taurus look svelte, and the new Outback just makes me sad. Only the Forester seems to have retained any Subaru DNA.

    GM and Chrysler are certainly introducing more “American” cars—whatever that means. But Ford, it seems to me, has a split personality: the bigger CUV’s, the trucks, and the Taurus and Mustang all share a very American design ethos. The smaller cars, i.e. Fusion and smaller, as well as the upcoming Escape, are very European in design and handling. I think that if they can maintain decent reliability in those cars, they could seriously hurt VW, and maybe BMW.

  • avatar

    I personally like the Juke and FX, but the controversial styling of those vehicles will probably relegate them to at best “cult classic” status.

    I also think the Japanese automakers had their “legendary” heyday in the ’80s-’90s the same way the American ones had theirs in the ’50s, ’60s, and early ’70s. A CTS is more desireable than a Catera, but is it more desireable than a classic Series 62? How about XTS to an old Fleetwood? How many people would ignore a ’63 Galaxie to check out a ’12 Taurus? Very few things can live up to the expectations set by their most memorable past examples.

    And the Zeta Camaro is “better” than the F-body in pretty much the same way a 2012 Civic is “better” than the old ones.

  • avatar

    I don’t think the ’99 Civic Si was the height of the civic line. it was good, sure. but they were finally just giving us what a lot of the kids in Cali were already giving themselves: the B16 VTEC motor. Only they were planting them where they belonged, in the 92-95 models and also the CRX/EF hatch. because in most other markets, that’s what Honda sold. Yes, we got the Integra with the B18C, though. And then in 1997, the Type R. I’d argue the best Civic was another one we never got, the 99’ish Civic Type R. Those are the Hondas that we miss. They were light, the engines were some of the most advanced in the industry, and yeah they’d run forever. They were simple, they worked, and the mechanically-inclined owner never felt like a maintenance or repair task was impossible without a dealership (well, except the parts counter).

    Where’s Honda’s advanced engine tech now?

    my family has owned at least one Civic from every generation from 1987-2006. And the 99-era car was the probably the last one I had any strong feeling about. And I can definitively say that electronic throttles have ruined that last bit of genuine interaction between you and the car. sure, you can still drive a car with a manual transmission, but your control is now mapped. a throttle cable is a physical link between you and the opening or closing of that blade in the intake. and when you let off, it snapped closed. when you put your foot down, it flipped horizontal. i hated the electronic control in the Mustang, the 2006 Civic, and every other 2000s-era car I’ve driven. there was this lag between your input and the execution of the command that just numbed the process. driving that 1989 Civic Si, with it’s on-the-pavement seating position, manual steering, effortless gearbox and a 106hp four cylinder that never at any point felt slow was pure sensory involvement. But it weighed 1900lbs. And there was zero crash protection, zero electronic aids.. just you and the most basic of operating controls and 4 seats. that kind of car will never be made or sold in this country ever again.

    But i understand that the relentless march towards efficiency and customer retention and crash standards is gonna change things. that’s progress. but progress means change and i think the electrification of the motoring experience seems to be removing the soul. would anyone driving a 2012 Civic EX refer to it as sensory overload? doubtful.

    “Virtually all the great Japanese cars mentioned above were the product of Japanese design teams designing cars for either their home market or a broadly defined “world market”.”

    – and there it is. those were Japanese cars, imported to America. They weren’t built here, and they weren’t intentionally designed for WalMart parking lots or the people that frequented them. They were made for small streets and high fuel prices. They were made FOR JAPAN. Just like original BMWs were made FOR GERMANY. They were made for sustained, relaxed high speed cruising. I’d argue Ze Germans still make cars they way they always have.

    I want the Japanese to find the soul in their products. The FT-86 seems to have that. I’m sure I never to expect to find it again in a camry, but if there’s at least one or two products like that sitting next to the appliances in a Honda or Toyota showroom, it’s about as much as i think we can all expect now.

    [vimeo 28529298 w=640 h=360]
    starting at about 3:55. if there was a 2012 Japanese car sitting in a showroom that sounded like that.. i’d be there tomorrow.

  • avatar

    Good read from 2009.

    For Honda and Subaru, things have only gotten worse three years later.

    Toyota has hit bottom and seems at least to be making better blandmobiles.

    Nissan still churns out 2.5L 4-banger CVT powered everything it seems.

    Ford has hit some sales bumps with the Fiesta and Focus, but is doing a TON right.

    The Malibu didn’t age well from 2009 to 2012, and the 2013 can’t come fast enough. But hard to deny the success of the Cruze, the continued right direction of Cadillac and the rebirth of Buick.

  • avatar

    brilliant. makes me glad I can’t afford new. With all the info in
    this article, used Japanese enthusiast’s cars just got more expensive.

    I stumbled into a Suburu dearler the other day and thought I was at GM. I couldn’t believe how big the car was on the showroom floor.

    They had it right for a while. Never again.

  • avatar

    “I might just drag my Mom back down to that crummy old Honda dealer for a Civic. Come to think of it, maybe I’d buy one for me, too.”

    Not a bad idea, Jack. The current crop of “compacts” – Civic, Elantra, etc. – are all the car anyone needs. They are the modern-day ’88 Accord.

  • avatar

    Great read JB. I agree with 90% of what you say, but there are two manufacturers that I have to disagree about their progression.

    As I commented in your post on Chris Bangle, I still maintain than BMW is getting worse, not just in styling, but in the engineering of their cars. When it comes to the criteria that should matter the most, being the ultimate driving machine, modern bimmers leave me wanting. When I bought my most recent car, I test drove the full e90/e92 and e81 line up (except for the M’s) and found all besides the 35 series cars to leave me wanting. Even then, as entertaining, as those were, I couldn’t see myself paying that much more when the e46 performance package I did purchase gave me more grins for fewer $ and probably better long term reliability and user friendliness. I saw a recent BMW fan blog post talking about how the FR-S is the true heir to the sainted e30 M3’s throne. If Toyota could build a car like that, why not BMW again?

    I’d also argue that Infiniti has been defying the trend of Japanese automakers getting worse. My previous car was an I30, and it was a fantastic car and I loved it. However, a new G or M are absolutely fantastic cars, and each generation is getting better than the one before. Had I decided to go the newer car route, I likely would have gotten a G37 over a 335. The build quality inside is fantastic, the cars look great, the handling is entertaining, I’ll count myself a fan of the VQ37 any day, and the cars just sound and feel like real machines, not just appliances.

    • 0 avatar

      BMW definitely lost its reason for living with coinciding with the Bangle-Butt.

      But the epitome of BMW excellence was the E36 (okay, maybe E39 series, too).

      The formal death of BMW and Porsche was officially announced at the precise time they announced their SUVs/CUVs.

      They never meant to do us wrong, that’s what they’d probably say.

      But because expanding market share was their goal, they didn’t let loyal fans stand in the way.

      So what if they lost their soul?

      Profits talk, and loyal, enthusiast fan base bullshit walks.

      • 0 avatar

        I don’t mind the SUV’s as long as the manufacturer’s do their penance (plus I would enjoy the idea of towing my race car with a tow vehicle of the same brand). I don’t mind Porsche cranking out Cayenne’s and Panamera’s to wannabes if that’s what it takes to fund development of Boxster Spyders, Cayman Rs, 911 GT_RS, Carrera GT’s, 918s, etc. BMW, however has failed to do their fair penance. You can’t even get a 6 cylinder BMW sports car with a clutch pedal anymore(!!!). Also, BMW had something special in their M brand, which did have no business being on an SUV (although the parts bin 1 series M didn’t help things).

  • avatar
    400 N

    To sum up,


    The Fit does not make up for these crimes.

    Definitely lost their soul.

  • avatar

    Who would’ve guessed then that in one generation Hyundai would abandon their Japanese clones and commit to a new styling direction. Love it or hate it you won’t get them mixed up with Honda or Toyota anymore. I would say that their new direction is unabashedly Korean, and it’s a good thing. Hyundai/Kia are actually doing things differently and it’s paying off. Hopefully the Japanese makes will get a clue before they do end up in the same position the Big 3 found themselves in.

  • avatar

    I think the “world” car attitude has helped the domestics. The Fusion and the Mondeo are now merged. The Focus is now the same here and in Europe. Buick has been reinvented with the Opel models. Cadillac is targeting BMW instead of producing lifeless barges. Chrysler has an infusion of character from Fiat and the Daimler relationship at least produced the stellar new Grand Cherokee. But there is also the retro movement for all three, which hearkens back to a time when they did make cars with souls.

    The Japanese brands have been too focused on building cars by focus groups, instead of by engineers and car people. Exactly the same thing the American brands did in the late 70’s-80’s and into the 90’s.

    • 0 avatar

      That’s a great point. The only thing left for the Japanese to do to complete this is allow their quality to slip dramatically. We’ve seen the build quality go down, and the materials have taken a nosedive. I can’t imagine them making 70’s era levels of garbage, but in their own way they are doing exactly what the Big 3 did back then. All of the ‘new’ models show just how complacent they’ve become.

      • 0 avatar

        The only real difference is they’re less bloated with “brother-sister” brands.

        Like Detroit would do in its time of need, Japans trying to revive older cars “NSX, AE86”, but those cars were built in the days of having fun in simple cars.

        As for soul, well I had a ’75 Beetle that was processed by spirit that had a vendetta with my Dad, does that count as “having a soul”?

    • 0 avatar

      “The Japanese brands have been too focused on building cars by focus groups, instead of by engineers and car people.”

      Exactly. I had to scan thru all the comments to see if anyone matched my initial thought after reading the article.

      10 Big Gulp sized cup holders? Got it. Room for a $1000 trip to Costco or Home Depot? Check. Elevated ride height and seating position, so that we can feel safer? Okey dokey…

  • avatar

    I would argue that the Ridgeline is the last real Honda. The Ridgeline is Honda’s take on what a truck should be. Many thoughtful and unique design features. Slightly underpowered like the Hondas of old.

  • avatar

    We need to have a little perspective here…

    Part of the reason the 1983 Honda Civic seemed so great was that so many domestic and European competitors were really crappy.

    Remember, in 1983, GM was still flogging the doddering old Chevrolet Chevette, and Chrysler was still selling the aged Omni/Horizon. Incredibly, the Chevette would remain in production for a few more years beyond 1983! (The first GM J-cars competed with the Accord, not the Civic. And they didn’t do it all that well.)

    The Ford Escort was better, but it took the 85 1/2 revamp to really make the car competitive.

    Probably the best “domestic” competitor from a performance-and-features standpoint was the Renault-AMC Alliance, and that one started to fall apart almost as soon as it left the dealership.

    The Europeans? Well, VW was still selling American-made Rabbits, which distinguished themselves by offering a color-keyed, all-vinyl interior that looked as though it had been lifted straight from a 1978 Chevrolet Malibu. The main difference between the VW and the Malibu was that, while VW’s build quality was better, reliability was ultimately worse.

    Fiat had just withdrawn the Strada, as it left the American subcompact market with its tail between its legs.

    What has happened is that the domestics finally are producing decent cars. Although one can only find more “clarity and purpose” in the current Malibu than in the Camry by looking at it through Detroit-colored glasses. It’s a mild-mannered sedan that is no more exciting than a Camry.

    The 2013 Malibu doesn’t look much better. I’ve seen it twice, now – once at the Harrisburg Auto Show, and again, the next week, at the Philadelphia Auto Show. It’s basically a fatter, curvier take on the current Malibu. It reminded me of those facelifts during the 1960s, when cars were changed so that they looked different, not necessarily better. I’m sure that it won’t be a bad car by any means, but I’m not seeing the car that will rewrite the rules for its segment.

    The Chrysler entries? Sorry, but the recent makeover of the Sebring into the 200 has only made an awful car okay. (Let’s remember that the 300 and Charger sell to a specialized audience, and lots of them go to fleet customers. They aren’t mainstream sedans. Chrysler couldn’t survive on their sales prior to going bankrupt, and nothing has changed in that regard.)

    If any car really has the opportunity to set this segment on its ear, it’s the upcoming Fusion.

  • avatar

    I think VW is doing what Honda has been doing in the last 10 years. Especially with the new ‘especially made for America’ Passat. They are going to acieve some modest sales success, and they are going to do the same across the model line. The ‘McDonaldization’ of import cars go on.

  • avatar

    Perfection is achieved by what you take away, not by what you add. Taken to extremes you get a Lotus Elise (which I adore) but I think all manufacturers would benefit from subtracting from their current offering.

  • avatar

    This is totally true. As a Land Cruiser “wonk” I won’t touch a 200 series (2008+). I have a 2003 and it’s my 5th one; my next will be a 06 or 07 (last years of the 100 series).

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