3 years on, are the Japanese still lost in the dark?

Back in the Eighties, Toyota was making stuff like this iconic AE86. Thankfully the GT 86 might bring back the glory of yesteryear, but what about the rest of Japan?

Back in 2009, The Truth About Cars editor Jack Baruth wrote an article on how the Japanese auto industry is losing its heritage to the point where its products are a shell of what they used to be. He talked about how Honda had lost its roots as a maker of cars with flair and engineering excellence, and how Nissan and Toyota were becoming too close to one another on retail lots.  He reposted it on their website (thetruthaboutcars.com) and I found it to still be relevant today.  But, in these three years, a few things have changed in the market.  My question is this:  Does Baruth’s argument still hold water, and is there any more evidence to support his side of this debate?  I took a look into what the market is like today, and there are arguments for both sides.

The GT 86 has been roundly praised by those who have driven it.

Toyota, for one, is a interesting case.  Now, Toyota hasn’t had a sporting model in their lineup since about 2006 or so, when the Celica was dropped.  The Camry, while a good car on its own, is downright boring and to some extent is becoming an also-ran in its own market.  Meanwhile, the Corolla, while a solidly made little car, lacks flair and has no real selling points other than its reputation for durability.  But, what scares me the most about Toyota is just how far they’ve strayed from what they did in the 1990s.  Toyota had some cars for regular folks, and still had a selection of tough trucks and sporty cars for those who desired the Toyota reliability with their flavor of automobile.  Now, though, their durability isn’t as high (rusting Tundras, recalls, supply problems) and they have little to offer enthusiasts.  Thankfully, this is 2012, not 2009.  Baruth does make the point that the new Camry may not have the same bulletproof reliability that the ones from 1992 had, but I don’t think we’re going to see 2007-2011 models sitting in a pile of their own excrement on the side of the road anytime soon.  Also, I have driven a few new Camrys, and the new 2012 model is by far and away better (driving-wise) than the previous generation.  Meanwhile, we have the GT86 on its way, a sign that Toyota not only knows they’ve been somewhat shunning enthusiasts, but is actively making steps to rectify the issue, especially when most of the journalists who have driven it describe it as a riotously fun car to drive.  So, on the subject of Toyota, I’m not saying they’re done for, but are in fact making steps towards decent cars.

It is a shame that the Juke, as fun to drive as it is, is the most exciting product that Nissan offers with four doors. It’s probably the only mainstream model they make, in my opinion, that can stand on its own.

Nissan is probably the one that requires the most scrutiny.  Baruth talks about how the Maxima and Altima can’t really be told apart from the Camry and Accord also on the market today.  He’s certainly not wrong–they all have 3.5L V6 engines, a base four-cylinder engine, and somewhat bland styling.  That said, the Altima and Acord are the two who are guilty now (as the new Camry does look much more distinctive), but I digress.  The Sentra, once a cheap, fun little Civic equal, is now a bloated little C-segment box, and the Versa lacks any real flair as well.  Nissans used to have flair, according to Baruth, and I don’t disagree.  But, the Juke displays that they want to bring it back and think outside the box, something Nissan tends to do relatively well.

Undoubtedly the NSX is one of the most storied cars of Honda’s history. But their more recent history has been plagued with boring, run of the mill stuff and a slashing of exciting enthusiast-minded cars.

Baruth starts the entire article about how as a little kid he got his mom to buy a 1984 Civic 1500S hatchback, a car that he describes as a agile little Civic and in some ways the essence of what Honda used to be.  I hate to say it, but I agree.  If there’s one brand that has strayed the furthest from its roots, it’s definitely these guys.  The Accord Crosstour, for example, is just a way to make money, and a bad one at that.  A great example of just how far Honda’s star has fallen is the new Civic, though.  Speaking from personal experience, at Main Street in Motion, I drove a new Honda Civic and a Chevrolet Cruze ECO back-to-back, and even with the Cruze’s “green” tires (which squealed like a scared mouse), it still felt much more tossable and fun to drive than the new Civic at the time, which was equipped similarly.  Rewind 5 years, and the reverse would be true, with the Chevy being the bland one and the Civic being the one with all the fun factor.  What is going on?  We still have the Civic Si, but that’s all there is left.  With that little of their “heritage” remaining, Honda’s credentials are fading very quickly. One can only hope the NSX may begin to fix the problem.

The Kizashi may be good, but the SX4 is Suzuki’s Mitsubishi Galant–outdated, underwhelming, and neglected. If Suzuki or Mitsubishi want to survive they need to find a niche or improve their product.

As for the others, I don’t see Mitsubishi lasting much longer despite the Lancer Evolution’s prowess.  Their other products are simply don’t offer anything that the mainstream does already.  Mazda seems to be doing just fine, despite losing some of its signature touches (such as the rotary engine from the RX8), and has jettisoned some of its less-interesting models in the past few years, so they are certainly moving in the right direction.  Subaru is probably going to be fine over the years so long as it sticks to its own exclusive features (horizontally opposed engines and AWD), but Suzuki should abandon the car market sooner or later, because no matter how good the Kizashi might be, it is plagued by a thin dealer network and a shrinking customer base.  So, in the end, to answer my question, the Japanese industry is definitely not the same that it was 3 years ago, but Baruth’s argument still holds water, as a few companies have not necessarily changed their approach to the American market.

-Albert S. Davis

For the original article, please click here: http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/02/avoidable-contact-the-end-and-the-beginning-of-great-japanese-cars/

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