We find it fascinating how Japanese cars went from being a cheap, laughable alternative to full-size American automobile ownership to the preferred daily driving option of millions of Americans. Over the years, Japan’s automakers have become staples of everyday life, transporting us to and from work and school, down muddy country roads, on spirited Saturday drives, and on family road trips.
Thanks to the success of franchises, such as the Fast & Furious films, tuner culture also would be a lot different if the first installment had not come loaded with neon-lit Civics, turbocharged Supras, and RX-7 drift machines racing through the streets.
Japanese automobiles began to catch on with buyers in the oil crisis of the 1970s. Over the course of the next few decades, sales grew exponentially. Younger generations started to favor Japanese cars due to their affordability, reliability, and sharp handling characteristics. Once the oil crisis came around, Asian automobiles began snagging sales left and right, jump-starting a buying frenzy that has not slowed down.
1. Pickup trucks that rock
The attitude toward trucks long has been “buy American, and make sure it’s the size of a small locomotive.” But sometime in the 1970s, there was a sudden divergence from this motto. That made the 1980s a hot decade for smaller truck sales. Many Americans realized they didn’t need four-wheel drive, massive payload capacities, or a bed with the square footage of a football field. Trucks, such as the Datsun 620 and the pint-sized Tacoma, showed utility didn’t directly translate to size.
Nowadays, pickups, such as the Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro, tackle terrain with the best on the market. Big boys, such as the Nissan Titan PRO-4X, come equipped with turbo-diesel engines and cabs that have all the features a work crew requires. Honda continues to take its own approach to truck engineering by giving the redesigned Ridgeline car-like suspension, extra clever storage ideas, and traction modes for almost any environment.
2. History paints a really pretty picture
Paul Newman’s commitment to Nissan played a big role the future of the Japanese automaker in America. Seeing an Academy Award-winning actor choose to set his acting career aside for automotive racing was somewhat unexpected. What was truly surprising was he skipped over American and European sports cars in favor of an underpowered Datsun.
Decades later, the iconic 510 continues to be a favorite collector car. This also proves true for vehicles, such as the coveted FJ Land Cruiser, CRX, and extremely rare Toyota 2000GT, which was the first Japanese car to surpass $1 million at auction.
3. Sexy supercars and track monsters
Back in the day, if you wanted raw power, it had to come courtesy of a big-block out of Detroit. If a seductive sports car was your speed, then Porsche or Ferrari had to be tossed in the mix. But somewhere along the way, the Japanese pulled a fast one. Automakers slipped in a few iconic creations, such as the Toyota 2000GT, the fun little Honda S600, and the sharp-handling Supra. Accompanying them were a long line of Datsuns and Nissans that carried a Fairlady Z badge, as well as myriad other high-revving micro machines.
By the time the 1990s rolled around, people were buying everything, including Mazda’s RX-7 and Mitsubishi’s 3000GT VR4. America adored Acura’s game-changing NSX for the better part of a decade and a half. More recently, Americans found an obsession with all things STI, Evo, Si, GT-R, 86/BRZ, Miata, and more. With cars, such as the new NSX and both a Civic Type-R and resurrected Supra on the way, Japanese performance has never looked better.
4. Practicality and efficiency rule
One of the more common features in a Japanese car is the use of all-wheel-drive systems on everything from hatchbacks to minivans. Although Subaru was one of the first to put an AWD badge on most of its models, it certainly isn’t the only one pushing power to all four wheels. What once was just an option now is considered mandatory. And with smaller, more fuel-efficient engines finding their way into crossovers, traction and improved fuel economy finally can be had on the same platform.
As for practicality, look how Honda designs its center console storage spaces, how Nissan reconfigured the rear cab space of the Titan, or how Toyota folds its seats in the Sienna. These are automakers that spent their early years making the most out of the limited space in subcompact commuter cars. By retaining this mindset, Japanese automakers have been able to keep their cars on the cutting edge when it comes to space.
5. Hybrid ingenuity meets futuristic functionality
Honda might have started this craze with its Insight back in 1999, but Toyota was the one to really ride the “green wave” with its Prius. Now it seems like everyone and their mother offers a hybrid. Although the Insight is gone, the Prius Prime is on track and way ahead of the curve. Meanwhile, the hydrogen-powered Toyota Mirai and plug-in Nissan Leaf continue to show promise for future green designs.
6. Plenty of fun family minivan and SUV options
As America’s love for the station wagon waned, it was replaced with two kinds of baby-haulers, which offered way more than just an area for additional cargo space. Although neither the minivan nor the SUV are a Japanese-exclusive product, the family vehicles coming out of Japan have been a huge hit for its automakers. And they’re getting better as time goes on.
Vans, such as Toyota’s Sienna, Nissan’s Quest, and Honda’s Odyssey, continue to offer outstanding innovation and versatility. They feature sportier and tech-filled versions, drawing interest like never before. In the SUV game, vehicles, such as the Highlander, Pilot, Armada, and CX-9, win big with buyers. Connected, capable, and affordable, larger family cars are a major reason why Japanese automakers have seen so much success in the States.
7. American born and built
In order to ingrain themselves in American culture, Japanese automakers found it prudent to start manufacturing cars on American soil. Nothing says commitment like investing heavily in a country’s infrastructure and offering its laborers thousands of jobs.
With plants in every corner of America and billions invested in keeping them, Japanese automakers are cutting shipping costs and winning buyers with signs that proudly proclaim, “Made in America.” Every year, Cars.com looks at which automobiles are made in the U.S. and evaluates whether the parts put on these vehicles are American-made. Of all automakers, Japanese firms held the top five spots in 2016, with the Toyota Camry being No. 1, followed by the Honda Accord, Toyota Sienna, Honda Odyssey, and the Honda Pilot.
8. Classic styling creates collector interest
Over the course of the past decade or so, American interest in the procurement, restoration, and collection of classic Japanese cars has seen a big increase. Some of these people are wealthy with nostalgic penchants for the machines they owned back in the 1970s. But a growing number of Japanese vintage automobile enthusiasts are young and in it for a different reason.
Many cars long labeled unobtainable by the government are now over 25 years and can be imported without the fear of getting crushed. There still might be hoops to jump through in order to get a Japanese Domestic Market automobile. But that doesn’t seem to stop many young enthusiasts from buying all kinds of cool classic cars. What are they doing with all of these vintage automobiles? Restoring them and then dropping modern brakes, suspension, and drivetrains in them in order to make amazing Japanese “restomods.”
9. Turbo smarts and diesel alternatives
Take a look at the best engines to own in 2017. WardsAuto.com has listed the Honda Accord Hybrid, the Mazda CX-9, and the rowdy, refined twin-turbo V6 of the Infiniti Q50. All three of these motors offer an ideal balance between horsepower, torque, comparative specs, noise attenuation, observed fuel economy, and new technologies. And there are some awesome new entries on the horizon.
Honda keeps cranking out one killer four-banger after another. This year we will get to see what a turbocharged Civic Si can do, as well as the anticipated Type-R model. Mazda also has a turbo-diesel motor it plans on putting in the overhauled CX-5. And Nissan still seems confident its variable compression engines will replace V6 engines in the future.
10. What’s next looks sensational
Political uncertainties aside, the future looks bright for most Japanese automakers. Sales are up, new models and updated classics continue to resonate, and both technological and mechanical advancements paint a very exciting picture.
A renewed interest in performance means the return of Toyota’s Supra. Honda’s redesigned Odyssey looks outstanding. And Nissan has twin-turbos and fresh engine options galore on the way. Meanwhile, Mazda continues to win awards for quality and design. Subaru just made the American-made Impreza the basis for its next global platform. And even though Mitsubishi is folded into the Renault-Nissan Alliance, it has seen strong SUV sales.
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