Travel | ON THE ROAD

A Golden Age everywhere but at home

More high-profile new cars are hitting the market than have been seen for nearly 20 years, creating buzz everywhere but Japan.

Flick through the Japanese motoring press and you’d be forgiven for thinking that 2007 has been just a ho-hum, normal year for the nation’s car industry. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Not since 1989 have Japanese manufacturers pumped out so many high-profile, globally significant automobiles in such a short space of time. It’s as if the Sony Walkman, Pokemon, iPod, PSP and Nintendo’s Wii all rolled out on top of one other.

But just why Japan itself isn’t getting too excited about this year’s rare concentration of important vehicles is something we’ll look at a little later.

The Japanese have a phrase for memorable periods of great achievement — ougon-jidai, meaning “Golden Age.” The first such year was 1989, when, in the span of just 11 months, cars such as the Lexus LS400, Nissan Skyline GT-R, Mazda MX-5 (which re-ignited a convertible boom), Subaru Legacy and Toyota Celica burst onto world markets, and news of Honda’s upcoming NSX, Japan’s most expensive sports car at that time, caused intense debate from Tokyo to Los Angeles to London and went on to influence a more driver-friendly Ferrari F355.

Some models were not destined for the export market, such as the Skyline GT-R, but this powerful 4WD coupe soared over the cultural divide anyway, etching a name for itself in international cult folklore with handling that almost seems to defy the laws of physics and which just kept getting better with each successive model, laying the foundations for one of the most anticipated global launches ever later this month.

That’s right, when Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn reveals the all-new Nissan GT-R (minus the Skyline prefix) at the Tokyo Motor Show at Makuhari Messe Convention Center, Chiba Prefecture, on Oct. 24, it will be the culmination of Japan’s second Golden Age; yet another star-studded lineup of the very best that Japan has to offer the automotive world.

In addition to high-profile, high-performance machines such as the GT-R, other much-anticipated sports models — including the sleek new Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X, the completely redesigned Subaru Impreza STI and the V8-powered Lexus IS-F — all go on sale in October.

But while these cars excite enthusiasts and computer-simulation gamers, and prove that Japanese 4WD and engine technology is second to none, they pale into insignificance beside the true global cars — the bread-and-butter vehicles used by families around the world.

Already getting great reviews from European and U.S. publications, the all-new Honda Fit (Jazz in Europe) also arrives in showrooms in October, while the stylish new Mazda Demio (Mazda2 elsewhere) and superbly packaged Nissan Dualis (Qashqai in Europe) have both got off to strong starts this year in Japan and Europe.

On the hybrid front, the big news for 2007 was this spring’s launch of the LS460h hybrid from Lexus, which became the first mass-produced luxury sedan to feature a hybrid powertrain. In addition to the LS460h’s environmentally conscious credentials striking a chord with the well-to-do in Tokyo and London, it is destined to become the preferred mode of transport for Hollywood stars arriving at the red carpet for the Oscars.

Each of these new models has generated considerable interest around the world but not so in Japan. So why is the local market so blase about its homegrown crop of internationally renowned performers?

Since the early ’90s, Japan has progressively become a minivan market, with more than 50 percent of buyers seeking some form of people-mover. It all started with the Toyota Estima (Previa/Tarago) back in 1990, and gained further momentum when the sharp- handling Honda Odyssey arrived on the scene in 1994. As these roomy models found a solid customer base, every major manufacturer in Japan, especially Toyota and Honda saw the potential and has launched at least one new minivan every year since. And with the price of gasoline going through the roof in a nation where many families only have space for one car, more and more Japanese want cheaper vehicles priced under ¥2.5 million that offer space for their families and savings at the pump.

The high-performance Evolutions, STIs, GT-Rs and IS-Fs have about as much relevance to the lives of the vast majority of Japan’s motoring public as a swimming pool in their backyard.

To bring these cars into perspective, you’d have to pay the best part of an average 35-year-old man’s ¥4.5 million annual salary to purchase either the STI or the Evolution X, and around twice that amount to buy a GT-R. And to the average Japanese, while these cars are expensive, they also lack practicality for the family, are not cheap to run and lack the comfy ride-quality of a minivan.

No wonder the local media plays down 2007’s global significance. Sure, Japanese car magazines are publishing big color spreads of these cars, but an editor at any one of those magazines will admit that they are not trying to sell any of these sports cars; they are just trying to sell magazines.

So why is Japan making these cars at all? Simple. Europe and North America want cars like these, and Japan can make them at competitive prices. Indeed, Japan’s car-makers are selling more models overseas now than they are at home. This means that the bean counters at the respective manufacturers can source budgets for such sports-car projects from overseas sales and not from inside Japan. This makes a lot of sense, because the biggest market for the GT-R, STI, Evo and IS-F is undoubtedly the United States.

This year might be the biggest year since 1989 for Japanese cars in the overseas market, but at home apathy toward car purchases has seen sales for the 6-month period from April dive by 8.8 percent, the worst result in 33 years. How to inject interest and passion for cars back into the car-buying public is a question that all local makers are asking. One possible approach is to try what one manufacturer will reveal on Oct. 10 (when an embargo on reporting is lifted) and later at the Tokyo Motor Show — a car that combines roominess for a small family but still offers sporty styling and handling. Sounds very much like a five-door hatchback to me. It’s got room, it’s cheap, its emissions are cleaner than that of a minivan and it’s more fuel efficient. There’s the solution to Japan’s industry doldrums in one word. Hatchbacks. Aha!

Peter Lyon is a 20-year veteran motor journalist who covers the Japanese automotive industry for more than a dozen publications overseas. This article launches a weekly section on the world of wheels in Japan.

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