It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these polls. The previous ones are at these links – Great Britain, Germany, France, America. The main reason for the delay is that I’ve been dreading the final two – Sweden and Italy. They’re going to be soooooo tough.
Thankfully, we have a safety valve: Japan!
This is no pushover, though. How do you define a Japanese icon? Is it one that interests you, or one that best represents the typical traits of the Japanese automotive industry? It’s an important question because the winner of these polls is important, to me at least.
That brings me to the first car that’s NOT in my nominated 5 vehicles: the Toyota Camry.
Toyota is the biggest car company in the world and the Camry has been the company’s biggest seller in most markets for years now. The Camry would have a rightful argument as a Japanese icon, but I’m not going there. Why? Firstly because it’s boring and icons aren’t supposed to be boring, even if they’re supposed to be typical (which the Camry certainly is). And secondly, because you could argue that the Camry is no longer just a Japanese car. It’s an American car, an Australian car, and multiple other nationalities. OK, maybe you can’t argue that, but it’s not being nominated anyway.
To the 5 cars that ARE being nominated…….
Datsun’s Z Car series began with the 240Z but it’s always been the 260Z and the later 280ZX that caught my eye (there was a 280Z in between, though to my knowledge it wasn’t sold here in Australia). The 280ZX has fallen out of favour with many for being a bit too styled, but the 240 and 260 retain their original charms and in good condition, sell for decent-yet-very-attainable dollars ($10K to $45K here).
The 260Z had a 2.6 litre straight six putting out 160hp driven by a 4-speed manual gearbox. The car was on the market for four years here in Australia so we got the 2+2 seating setup. This was amongst the early Japanese sports cars, the ones that used modern classic sports car interior styling with plenty of gauges to look at, if not quite a lovely, sweeping dashboard.
It was exciting then and a good one is still very exciting to look at now.
If I asked you to pick an iconic Japanese supercar you’d be forgiven for choosing the new Lexus LFA. You’d also be wrong. The LFA is, by all reports, a superb piece of engineering value and might be an icon one day, but the NSX is still the car that put steam in everyone’s strides. The Wolf drove one – ’nuff said (BIG language warning).
With the NSX, Honda aimed to do what Japanese companies have been doing for years – capture the best characteristics of legendary cars, make them just as exciting, but more reliable. They reputedly targeted Ferrari’s magnum opus, the 328, as the benchmark and they won themselves a massive following as a result.
This is the time when Honda went from sleepy hollow to the fast and the furious. The main reason for that was VTEC – Honda’s variable valve timing system that used high and low rpm cam profiles to vary the valve opening times. The result was a smart engine that knew how and when to kick it.
The NSX wasn’t the first Honda to use VTEC, though it was the debut vehicle in the all-important US market. It was the flagship, though. Honda grew exponentially thanks to the sporty vehicles inspired by the NSX and VTEC technology.
If only they had a similarly influential moment of inspiration today.
Subaru Impreza WRX
It caused an absolute sensation when it debuted here in Australia back in the mid 1990s. They were small, fast, they handled like a go-kart and the value equation was without peer. Three successive WRC titles, including one driver’s championship to the legendary Colin McRae helped the WRX get the world’s attention, too.
Drive one of those first WRX’s today and it’ll probably feel as rough as guts, but that was part of the charm. I had a 2008 model for three months a few years ago and it was rightly panned for being too smooth, having got rid of that seat-of-the-pants excitement of the previous generations.
Subaru would have landed on the global map anyway. It was inevitable. The WRX made sure it got there in a hurry.
The two-seat roadster has been a favourite motoring configuration since cars began. Just you and your favourite him/her, ambling through the countryside with the wind in your hair. The trouble was that too often, the car stayed in the countryside until a lorry came and picked it up to take it home.
The MX-5 changed all that. The NA MX-5 captured hearts everywhere with its smily face and simple formula – light weight, incredibly agile handling and just enough power to make it superb fun. The original NA had a 1.6 litre twin-cam four that was pretty-much bullet proof and fun to work on and that model is still highly regarded today for it’s no-fuss, no-gadgets driving experience.
I had one myself, though not for a long time. I made the mistake of selling a car that I truly loved in order to buy it (an Alfa 33 16V) and I missed the old car too much to fully appreciate it.
I had to get a Toyota here somewhere and whilst the Corolla and the Camry provided the foundations for Toyota’s global domination over a number of decades, it’s the Prius that cements them as innovators, something the Japanese are renowned for.
Drive-by stalker, Hollywood do-gooder, sanctimonious tree-hugger or simple, quiet environmentalist. The Prius has been driven by all of them and it set the standard that other car companies are still trying to catch up with. When we eventually talk about the mass electrification of the modern car, the Prius will occupy a big, early chapter.
So there they are – my five nominations.
Please feel free to add yours after the jump and I’ll add the most convincing ones into the poll in a few days from now.
And a quick post-script – I had to think long and hard about not nominating the Toyota 86 and Subaru BRZ. I think they’d be certainties if I was doing this poll in a few years from now, but in 2012 they’re just way too fresh to be icons – maybe. I’m willing to put them in if they get enough support, but being so new I had a hard time pushing one of these five established favourites out of the way.