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May 13, 2011

The demise of the Japanese enthusiast car

by JHW

What do the S2000 and the Dodo Bird have in common?  Neither had any torque.  Jokes aside, high revving NA motors have been a defining trait of so many fantastic Japanese sports cars.  From bi-polar cam profiles in the famous VTEC, to boosted 4 pots – enthusiasts have been gifted some of the lightest, best handling, most ballistic & affordable products aimed at the enthusiast market from the far East.  And yet, the past decade has seen Japanese OEM’s walking, no running away from us and turning their focus exclusively to people movers.

One of the amazing aspects of the Japanese auto craze has been buyers voracious enthusiasm for these cars, and the longevity of their reign through the billion dollar tuning industry that the JDM movement helped spur from infancy.   Whether it be mid-90’s Civic hatches, EVO’s & STI’s, or tuning industry superhero’s like the Supra, FD RX-7 or NSX, a walk through the halls of SEMA 2012 will no doubt still be shaped largely by these now well aged cars.  In an industry based on the latest and greatest, Japanese sports cars stand the test of time.  So why is it that they are disappearing during a time where American and European products are thriving with a seemingly endless new product cadence?

While I stop short of claiming to have a definitive answer, I believe that much of the reason for the stoppage can be traced back to a fundamental lack of caring for anything not related to a P&L sheet.  Essentially, if it doesn’t make dollars, it doesn’t make sense!  Take Honda for example… the NSX , Integra & S2000 lived incredible life spans with very modest changes.  In each case, initially huge numbers dwindled down to irrelevance – and rather than infuse cash into a re-do, each was given the axe.  Why?  These models are the exception, not the rule to Honda’s business model.  Honda is known (currently) for low cost, efficient transportation devices.  Rear wheel drive, high revving, mid-engine product has no place in their product hierarchy, and thus, does little for their marketing or product list.   While never fully embracing the aftermarket community in any meaningful way, Honda’s step away from Formula 1 in 2008 was a telling statement of their renewed focus.

Sure, there are fantastic Japanese made products available in dealerships today; the incredible WRX/STI (I would buy one!), EVO, 370Z as well as premium products such as the GTR and ridiculously priced LF-A.  However, short of the near six figure (and above) offerings, these new iterations have done little to push the game forward.  The turbo powered Subaru and Mitsubishi’s have essentially the same power output as they did upon entering the US market nearly a decade ago, both now heavier, softer and less inspired than earlier offerings.  The 370Z is a fine option, but given it’s price, it does not compete well within it’s segment.  Honda’s latest attempt to capture fun, the CR-Z is a 1.5 liter Hybrid that comes with an optional 6 speed manual (a Hybrid first) and runs to 60 mph in 8.3 seco… wait… 8.3 seconds!?!  It should be illegal to market a 2,670 lb coupe that takes more than 8 seconds to break the speed limit as “sporty”.  And to add insult to injury, you can spec yours with the $6,400 Mugen package – which does not include anything other than cosmetic enhancements (it looks better stock!).  Shouldn’t a Mugen equipped Honda handle better and go faster than the stock version, especially given that the option equates to an additional 1/3rd of the CR-Z’s base price?

Sadly, there are a few products that sold too well to be killed, but were neutered during their stay of execution.  Essentially, weakling offerings dressed as enthusiast models… Take for example the Civic Si, Mitsubishi Eclipse, and (sadly) Mazda RX-8.  I say “sadly” because of the bunch, the RX-8 is the one that should have been special.  As a follow-up to the amazing, powerful, beautiful FD RX-7, I was floored by the lackluster lines of it’s “non-replacement”.   Between it’s quirky rear doors,  fussy unproportional bodywork, odd looking Altezza’esque taillights, and cheesy Rotory shaped interior details, I think the RX-8 to be one of the least attractice cars on the market. When flogged hard, the RENESIS Wankel is phenomenal.  However, if your foot  isn’t through the carpet – it is a gutless, torqueless, emotionally void misery.  Onto the Eclipse… the oh so tragic , neglected step-child of the Mitsubishi family.  Once the crowned Prince of the line-up, this previously tuner-friendly turbo coupe has been demoted to rental car status.  Enough said, as the Eclipse does not merit further keystrokes.  The Civic is perhaps the easiest sell in the automotive industry.  Cheap, bullet-proof, reliable and endlessly familiar.  All of these traits helped in making the Civic the prodigal son of the Japanese enthusiast movement.  In it’s newest form, the hotted-up Si just doesn’t separate itself far enough from the base model to be considered among sporting competitors.  Sure, 200hp and 170lb ft of torque would have been attractive years ago – however, in 2011 speak, it is just not enough.  A 305hp V6 Mustang matches the Si’s price tag, while the VW GTI comes in at a premium of $1,290, but offers 200hp and a turbo boosted 207 lb ft of impressive torque.  Add to this German engineering, premium electronics and an optional DSG tranny, and the upcharge is quickly justified.  The Mini Cooper S is $1,245 jump from the Honda, and a steal for the unbeatable smile per dollar ratio.  One of the hardest arguments against the Civic Si is the option to save $200, and step into a Hyundai Genesis Coupe.  The Korean’s came to play… 210hp, 223 lb ft, a 6 speed box, the best warranty in the industry and Brembo’s for $22,250!

So there are some solid Japanese offerings.   It is my opinion that the best of which, are among it’s longest running .  What is to be learned from this is that focused product, vehicles built with a true understanding of their core competencies, will resonate with their intended audience.  The Mazda Miata and Subaru WRX/STI have weathered the storm to live on as proof.  The wide bodied, butch dirt warrior STI continues in the tradition of Subaru built ballistic AWD turbocharged rally machines.  The Subie comes as a sedan or 5 door hatch – both look, feel and sound purpose built; with little brother (WRX) now following in it’s wide arched shadow.  Both will hit 60mph in under 5 seconds, and blaze on to impressive speeds with a signature boxer rumble.  Yes, they are ugly – but the butch design philosophy has come to define the make, and this adds something to the overall character of the car.  Competition has spurred the STi to be the best it could have been, and came in form of the brilliant, and soon to be dead (or changed for the worse?) Mitsubishi EVO.  It is sad to see the battle end with a white flag, but the victory has been well earned.

The Mazda Miata hit American shores in 1989, and has since sold more than 900,000 examples!  In these 22 years, the Miata has been refined and improved tremendously, gaining less than 400 lbs and adding 52 hp in the process.  What you get for $23,110 is a throwback to the years where car manufacturers valued the experience of driving, along with passive and user initiated safety devices demanded by todays buyer.  On any given weekend, Miata’s can be found at tracks around the globe – and despite their ill-earned reputation as a hairdresser’s car, have a dedicated race series within the SCCA, and a cultish following among serious racers.  Often replicated, never duplicated, the Miata soldiers on.

Surely, the Miata & STI will live on for years to come – but they will not fight alone, as help may be on the way.  Hope is not dead.  There are some promising concepts on the brink, and with them, a chance that the glory days of the JDM movement can return.  Among these candidates, the Toyota FT-86 stands alone as the most promising.  The 86 is a nod to the famous Hachi AE86, made a cult hero among drift fans.  The new cars 2.0 liter boxer motor should allow for endless modification; as somewhat encouraged by a Scion variant (FR-S).  Also rumored, a Subaru issue of the FT-86, packing a more potent turbocharged motor.  Now we’re talking! Also in the rumor mill, the anticipated return of the NSX.  Of course, this would be a vastly different offering, as rumor suggests it would pack a hybrid powerplant for maximum efficiency.  And this is the crux of the issue… sure, Japan will continue to create and sell innovative new products.  They will make them safer, pack them with gizmos and doodad’s, they will be more fuel efficient and cheaper to produce… but will they be fun?  Please, oh please… let them be fun!

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