By on October 30, 2017

Mazda Kai Concept

While it’s impossible to imagine you haven’t already noticed, Japanese automakers are entering a new era of style. Disparate from each other and unabashedly novel, vehicles are beginning to crop up at trade shows and on the road that we couldn’t have seen coming a few years earlier.

Right now, the most obvious examples are from Toyota and Honda. But even Mazda, Subaru, and Mitsubishi have recently made a concerted effort to step up their styling game. The reason, according to manufacturers, is new competition.

It wasn’t all that long ago that Japan could offer a fairly dull automobile and bank on its superior quality and value to get prospective buyers to take it home. Things are different now. The quality gap is beginning to close and other manufacturers are getting better at providing most of the things that used to denote something as distinctively Japanese

“For us, it’s very scary,” said Ikuo Maeda, Mazda’s global design chief, in an interview with Automotive News. “So many brands show up from other Asian countries, so being made-in-Japan is very important to us.”

That fear of competition probably isn’t the only reason the company is releasing some of the best-looking cars on the market, but it has certainly helped press the issue. Honda has a new angular geometric language appearing in its production cars, with concept vehicles appearing with a technological bent and corporeal retro charm. Toyota is adding a plethora of curves and aggressive bumpers to practically everything it builds these days; its current design language is so focused, you can actually see it spilling over to theoretical models.

The same is true for Mazda. It’s clearly striving to make its cars more visually appealing but hasn’t strayed too far from what it has built in the past. Adhering to tradition and drawing inspiration from classic Japanese styling, Mazda feels it is providing a feast for the eyes without resorting to visual gimmicks. Maeda said the meticulously sculpted models present at this years’ Tokyo Motor Show were inspired by the slightly curved edges of traditional Japanese swords.

“We have set out a design philosophy which encapsulates a distinctively Japanese kind of beauty,” Maeda said. “Much of Japanese traditional culture is based on the minimalist concept of ‘less is more,’ where the emphasis is on removing or minimizing elements.”

Mazda Vision Coupe Concept

Maeda devised Mazda’s current “Kodo” design language in 2010 as a way to resurrect the brand’s waning image. When combined with a line of ultra-efficient Skyactiv engines and a competent chassis, it appears to have worked a treat. The plan is to continue down this path, perfecting both the Skyactiv motors and gradually evolving the Kodo design.

Toyota has also been striving for more organic-looking vehicles — something that looks alive and evokes a sense of excitement. It calls the practice “Waku Waku Doki Doki,” which translates to “heightened anticipation and excited heart thumping.” It also wants that feeling to apply to all of its models.

Dubious? Take a look at the current Toyota Corolla. Now take a look at one from before 2013. It’s almost unrecognizable as the same car.

“Unless cars are fun, they are not really cars,” Didier Leroy, Toyota’s executive vice president, explained. “There is a big risk that the car will become a commodity, and we don’t want to let the car become a commodity.”

Nissan hasn’t undergone the same visual renaissance as Toyota, mainly because it already had one a few years earlier. In fact, the company could be partially to blame for the sudden shift in the industry. But even it isn’t exempt from stepping up its game. It played both sides with its IMx Concept.

nissan imx concept

“I’ve asked all the studios to look into the Japanese DNA of design and tell me what it is. All of them, even in Brazil. And now it’s starting to show up everywhere,” Albaisa said. “It’s also definitely the moment we’re living in — with the rise of electrification and autonomous vehicles. I want to reach into that Japanese DNA and make sure it imbues what we’re doing.”

On the outside, the IMx appears an ultra-modern, and attractive, mashup of current Japanese styling trends, but it’s all tradition inside. The dashboard includes traditional wood elements from shoji doors while the seat fabric intentionally uses karesansui patterns (in an attempt to invoke thoughts of carefully raked Japanese rock gardens).

“It reflects the Japanese tradition of harmony, or wa,” said Alfonso Albaisa, senior vice president in charge of global design at Nissan.

Honda has gone against the grain while still making a clear effort to improve the visual appeal of its vehicles. However, its recent EV concepts don’t really mesh with the design language of the current Civic and Accord. The concepts have fewer hard edges and resemble the cars of the past while remaining blatantly modern. If they’re adhering to any Japanese tradition, it’s the country’s longstanding ability to manufacture small, inoffensive appliances with a sense of character.

Honda Sports EV Concept

“We have come up with this cute-looking front, as well as simple and soft plane designs. Cars are becoming more high-tech, but they become friendlier to people,” said Sports EV Concept designer Jun Goto. “We want to make these cars simple and easy to understand.”

While advancing design is obligatory in the automotive industry, there is nothing particularly organic about what’s happening in Japan. The only unifying factor appears to be that practically every manufacturer is pressing for a giant leap in terms of styling in the hopes of drawing in business. They’re hoping attractive designs will tip the scales back in their favor. But, with so much of the industry so focused on new technologies, electronic drivetrains, and autonomy, they cannot afford to ignore the bits of a car that go unseen.

[Images: Mazda, Nissan, Honda]

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32 Comments on “Why Are Japanese Cars Starting to Look Different All of the Sudden?...”


  • avatar
    Dilrod

    The first two pictures are pretty cool, but how much headroom do you have in something like that, or are you sitting on the floorboards?

    “Unless cars are fun, they are not really cars…” Uh oh, now what do I call that machine sitting in my driveway???

  • avatar
    JohnTaurus

    Toyota is trying to be the new Pontiac, and Mazda is working on being the Japanese Audi.

    I really like the Honda EV concepts, and aside from the rear bumper on the current Civic, their production cars aren’t bad.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Gag.

    “…all of *a* sudden”

    not

    “…all of *the* sudden”

  • avatar
    MrIcky

    “Unless cars are fun, they are not really cars,” Didier Leroy, Toyota’s executive vice president, explained. “There is a big risk that the car will become a commodity, and we don’t want to let the car become a commodity.”

    That’s an interesting quote because IMHO Toyota basically defined cars as a commodity for years. I’ve heaped some derision on their new commercials where they make camry’s appear exciting, but maybe Toyota really is trying to change. I guess we’ll see in 5 years.

    However out of all the new Japanese design languages, only Mazda’s is really hitting it for me. Part of that is they are looking more and more modernized older British.

  • avatar
    Speed3

    Another factor is that the Japanese are taking into account the Chinese market and taste for their designs.

  • avatar
    makstone

    Sorry, concept cars don’t count, as we will likely get watered down versions of the illustrations we see here.
    Japanese cars haven’t much departed from the bland designs we have been seeing for years, with the possible exception of Mazda. Hondas and Acuras are snooze inducing..with the exception of the homely Civic, and I dont know where Lexus is going with their current design language.

    • 0 avatar
      brn

      Agreed. Concepts generally don’t reflect production all that closely. In recent history, that’s changed a bit. That doesn’t mean Japan isn’t changing it back.

  • avatar
    westside auto

    This article is written like the current crop of Japanese car’s styling is good. Sorry, but nearly every design looks like it was penned by a 12-year old boy on a candy induced sugar high with a heavy dose of Power Ranger/ Gundam/ Transformer viewing. Not pleasant to look at by any means.

  • avatar
    nlinesk8s

    It’s timely. I just saw an article on Reuters about how Japan has seen a drop of 35% in younger drivers license registrations since 2001, even as the pool of drivers has increased 9%.

    The kids say newer cars are dull and uninteresting.

  • avatar
    I_like_stuff

    Then: Man why are Japanese cars all so boring? Come on guys, spice it up a little.

    Now: What the hell is up with these Japanese cars being all non-boring and stuff? You guys need to go back to being boring.

    • 0 avatar
      MrIcky

      I don’t think that’s it at all. We went from Supra’s and S2000s to beige in about 10-15 years. Then people started yawning and so they put winglets, menancing bumpers, and black roof accents and said “see, exciting!”.

  • avatar
    I_like_stuff

    If you believe the media, the yuutes of today don’t really care about a car’s looks or horsepower. They care that the iphone syncs quickly, that it does a lo of stuff on its own (brakes for you, accelerates for you, etc) and that it gets high MPGs (so they can virtue signal how environmentally conscious they are). I don’t know if that’s really the case or not, but if it is, I’m not sure how auto-makers bridge that gap with the older buyer who cares about things like a car’s design, 0-60 time etc, while not even using 1/2 the tech toys available.

    It’s a weird place for auto makers to be in.

  • avatar
    slavuta

    “Much of Japanese traditional culture is based on the minimalist concept of ‘less is more,’ where the emphasis is on removing or minimizing elements.”

    ah, this is why there no door handles

  • avatar
    SlowMyke

    lol at everything Toyota says about styling. Organic? Alive? That’s a lot of marketing speak for “we can’t seem to find a happy medium between bland-as-hell and drawn-by-a-4-year-old-having-a-seizure”. There’s not much out there with a less cohesive or “organic” styling.

    With the minor misstep of the joker-grin 3, Mazda had consistently gotten better styling and usually has the best looking cars in their classes, in my opinion.

  • avatar

    The Japanese needed to do something. Their current cars are mostly pretty damn ugly. Of course, the same can be said for most American and European cars. If their latest concepts end up in real cars, they could pull way ahead of the rest in styling.

    • 0 avatar
      Lorenzo

      That’s because they’re all variations on a theme, and the theme is jellybeans!

      They need to go back to the 3-box: Fins! Slab sides with chrome spears! Big, honking chrome grilles! Pontoon front fenders! Ornate chrome bumpers! Opera windows! Long, low hoods and trunk lids! Padded vinyl roofs! Vertical rear windows that don’t get dirty!

      And for the interiors, tufted seats! Crushed velvet in pastel colors! Fancy medallions and scripts! Real analog gauges and knobs, lots of knobs!

      There’s a whole generation of boomers approaching the time when they’ll be buying their last new car – give ’em the retro look they grew up with. They’re not as spry as they used to be, so they’re ready for cars that are comfortable and easy to get into and out of. They shouldn’t have to settle for a Kia Soul!

  • avatar
    stingray65

    Some pretty wild (for the time) changes in auto styling also took place in the 1930s – Square box Model A at the beginning of the decade to sleekly styled 1940 Ford at the end, with coffin nose Cords, Shark-nose Grahams, and Art-Deco Loewy designed Studebakers in between. Everyone was doing everything in their power to motivate people to buy new cars during the great depression, and many of the designs failed in that purpose, but they certainly took far greater aesthetic chances than anytime before or since.

  • avatar
    slap

    The Japanese companies are trying to differentiate themselves, but they are creating ugly cars – some with terrible visibility. Cars that will look dated in a few years. Companies like Kia are eating their lunch, style wise.

  • avatar
    Fordson

    With the exception of the pretty-good-looking Mazdas (although I wish they would stop littering like, EVERY press release with design language-speak), current Japanese cars are largely overstyled messes.

    Why do manufacturers from every other nation seem to be able to hit a sweet spot between boring and outrageous?

    • 0 avatar
      WheelMcCoy

      Heh… there’s Nagare, Kodo, and Shinari. I don’t mind so much.

      The first gen Mazda3 was handsome but non-descript. The second gen Mazda3 (the smiley one) was curvy, but too playful. The third gen Mazda3 was the proverbial Goldilocks — juust right.

  • avatar
    DavesNotHere

    Nissan makes the joke even better by aping the Mirai for the IMx concept. In the future, ugly is cool!

  • avatar
    True_Blue

    Where the Mazda is heading with Kodo is where the majority of the B&B seem to want to see design heading. Kodo is marked with long, unbroken arcs, taut character lines, and very dramatic proportioning. Look at the headlamp-to-grill ratios, the front overhangs, and the bulging wheelhousings. Organic, clean, and simple.

    Honda’s polarizing “Clean-Dynamic” DL is aiming squarely at aggressive, non-tangential lines, blocky graphics, and more upright proportions. The Accord is quite handsome, wearing this philosophy… the Civic is over-detailed, but it’s speaking to a younger generation and cars for that set typically follow a more striking design language.

  • avatar
    bd2

    Have really liked what Mazda has been doing lately design-wise and absolutely love their most recent concepts (we’ll see how much of that gets translated into production vehicles), but the toned down Kodo design language isn’t different from what a lot of automakers are doing these days and is very European (well, German).

  • avatar
    redrook

    Japanese cars are a mess of lines. Their designs are awful and have been for years. Hondas and Toyotas just look like a horrible mess of committee design and random extra bits like fake vents which take up the whole rear bumper.

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