We in the American car enthusiast community have it pretty good right now. We have affordable sports cars and fantastically expensive hybrid hypercars, and in an era where most family sedans are pushing 300 horsepower, we really don’t have a lot to complain about. There should theoretically be something for everyone. However, the enthusiast community is widely known for clamoring for automakers to make available certain models here that are only available elsewhere, regardless of whether or not said model will actually sell. So for every average “non-enthusiast” model released in America, there is a group of enthusiasts calling for every automaker to release a manual, brown, diesel station wagon, despite the fact that such a vehicle would appeal only to an extremely limited audience.Nissan Skyline GT-R R34
Cars produced specifically for the Japanese Domestic Market often command the most respect from the enthusiast community. JDM enthusiasts are often the most passionate car lovers out there. The JDM scene ranges from the heavily customized parking lot exhibitions of “pimped-out” cars, often with thousands of dollars dedicated solely to the aesthetics of the car, to the modified drifters, a race where speed is not the determinant of victory. Despite all the efforts people go to to make their cars as customized as possible, there are some people in the community, myself included, who focus more on the appreciation of those cars that never made it out of Japan. My story starts in 1998, the year that Gran Turismo was released on the PlayStation in North America. I had always loved cars before then, but having this game chock full of Japanese cars that I had never even known existed really kicked off my passion for the JDM. Some cars featured were already cult classics in Japan, like the Toyota Sprinter Trueno AE86 and the Nissan Skyline GT-R. Since then, these cars have attained worldwide popularity. In this blog, I’m going to tell you about some of my favorite JDM cars, some of which certainly don’t have the same level of love in the community.
Let’s start our journey at the bottom of the pyramid, with the Kei car. The Kei car is a special Japan-only designation based on Japanese tax regulations. Kei car sales make up a large percentage of Japanese sales, but because of their diminutive size and lack of power relative to larger cars, they remain Japan-only phenomenon. Kei cars are limited in size to 11.2 ft. long and 4.9 ft. wide, with a maximum engine displacement of 660 cc. This segment brings strong competition in Japan. At that size it is difficult to differentiate in style, so most keis tend to be simple tall box designs, with sales driven by features and technology. Many of them are available with four wheel drive, and tend to be at the forefront of technological advancements.
One of my favorite kei cars is the Autozam AZ-1. Manufactured by Suzuki and sold by Mazda from 1993-1995, the AZ-1 was the most radical of the bubble economy’s kei creations. It was part of a growing trend in kei sports in the early 1990s, joined by the Honda Beat and Suzuki Cappuccino. I like the AZ-1 because it looks vaguely like a 1/10th scale Ferrari. The AZ-1 was the most sporty looking of the trio, while it was of course limited to the same standards as other kei cars. Unfortunately, the bottom fell out of the Japanese economy around the time it entered production in September 1992. This, coupled with the fact that it was more expensive than both the Beat and the Cappuccino, meant that sales did not reach expectations and production was stopped in the next year. Because of this, the AZ-1 is significantly rarer than the other kei sports. The AZ-1 is patently adorable. The gullwing doors just top off the whole package, seeming to scream “Look at me I’m sporty!” even though it isn’t all that fast. Its cute in a diminutive sort of way.
Another of my favorite kei sub-segments are kei cars that are less than the maximum dimensions for the tax bracket. The Subaru R1 is tiny even by kei car standards. Its short length, which is shorter than the maximum allowed, and rounded styling make it extremely space inefficient for a kei car. With only two doors and a miniscule back seat, it was marketed as a sort of kei personal luxury coupe, with leather and alcantara available on all trim levels. The R1 is also a good example of some of the lengths kei producers go to to differentiate their cars. All trims could be equipped with all wheel drive (which makes sense, seeing as its a Subaru) and it even had an STi version with the maximum allowable 63 horsepower.
The Subaru R1 is also a good example of the Japanese obsession with features. Japanese cars, especially in the 1980s during the bubble economy were loaded with advanced technology and fetched some truly astronomical prices, as Japanese automakers competed to outdo each other in the race upmarket. It was during this time that Acura, Infiniti, and Lexus were conceived. Mazda took the idea of a luxury brand a step further, because while Acura, Infiniti, and Lexus were all intended solely for export markets, Mazda had its sights set on Japan too. In the late 1980s Mazda created no less than four additional brands. Selling the same car under different sales channels was nothing new in Japan at the time, but Mazda’s introduction of several unrelated brands was something never before seen. Autozam was the bottom rung, selling kei and other small cars. Eunos was meant to be a mainstream sports brand of fun to drive cars. At the top was ɛ̃fini, a top of the line luxury brand. Also present was M2, a boutique brand that made limited runs of uniquely styled cars. Meanwhile abroad, Mazda planned the launch of two additional luxury brands for the export market. In Europe it launched Xedos, both of which were rebadged Eunoses from Japan, and in America it planned to launch Amati. Amati was supposed to receive the car that became the Mazda Millenia, in addition to a rear-drive V12-powered luxury sedan, and an American version of the Eunos Cosmo.
The Eunos Cosmo was the flagship of the Eunos brand, and one of the most technologically advanced cars of its time. In typical Mazda fashion, both engines were rotary; the top engine was a 2.0 liter twin turbo triple rotor making 300 horsepower, the only such engine ever fitted to a Mazda. In accordance with its luxury positioning, the Cosmo was loaded with electronic gadgets, including the first ever in-car GPS, climate control, NTSC TV, a mobile phone, and CD Player. All this was controlled by a color touch screen, in 1990! However, because of all this fancy new technology, the Cosmo remains today the most expensive car Mazda ever built. The Cosmo is one of my absolute favorite cars on this list, and I wish it had been imported to the US. Based on the level of technology and handsome look, I think it had the chance to be really successful here. The one thing it didn’t have going for it was the level of mechanical complexity. Mazda rotary engines are not known for being the most reliable, and even more recent designs have shown high fuel consumption to be an issue. Add that to the number of electronic gizmos it had, and there’s a recipe for disaster. Compared to the rock solid reliability of the first Lexus LS, this might have been a significant obstacle for Amati sales to overcome. Despite all this I do love the car and would buy it in a heartbeat, just so I could say I owned this pinnacle of 90s tech excess.
Another trend among Japanese cars is the idea of cars as a fashion accessory. As we in America lament the ever-shrinking number of paint options here, Japan still has a plethora of unique exterior colors. Pastels are a popular option, especially on kei cars, and are generally used to appeal to female buyers. In the late 1980s/1990s there was even a trend combining these pastel colors with neutral two-tone lower body panels. In addition to this, retro cars are also extremely popular in Japan. There was a time when all of the major automakers had retro versions of their leading kei cars. The immense popularity of retro cars in Japan is what allows one small automaker to manufacture retro rebodies almost exclusively.
Mitsuoka Motors, based in Toyama City, is Japan’s youngest automaker. Founded in 1989, Mitsuoka’s models are nearly all retro styled redesigns of mainstream cars. They add a bit of fancy wood to the interior, upgrade the leather, and add retro design touches like round headlights and chrome grilles. The Mitsuoka Himiko is a Mazda Miata underneath. The front wheelbase is extended to give the long hood appearance of a 1950s British roadster. Nothing about the car gives any indication of its relatively plebeian origins. Another Mitsuoka, the Viewt, based on the Nissan March, is reminiscent of a pint-sized Jaguar Mark II. The Viewt was extremely popular, and it was that which pushed the larger manufacturers to release retro versions of their own models, like the Suzuki Alto Lapin, Nissan March Bolero, and Daihatsu Mira Opti. It might seem funny that such old-looking cars are so popular in Japan. However, with the lack of individualism in Japanese society, retro cars allow the consumer the opportunity to purchase something unique and striking, that the neighbors won’t necessarily have too. In America, where enthusiasts went ballistic when it was announced that the new Corvette was no longer going to have round taillights, maybe the idea of additional retro models isn’t such a strange idea after all.
Stay tuned for part two of my list, coming soon!