Raw Japan

Slices of Japanese business, politics and life

Yes, there is a difference between American and Japanese cars

By Bob Lutz
The opinions expressed are his own.

A lot of words have been written in the past few post-tsunami weeks about the negative impact of the disastrous tragedy on the short-term future of Japanese cars in the U.S. market. In parallel, many articles proclaim this to be a “historical window of opportunity” for the “Detroit Three,” now able to deliver to waiting customers an abundant supply of new vehicles while, at Toyota, Honda and Nissan, the cupboard is bare.

It’s telling that we’re *not* hearing the Japanese-brands inspired propaganda offensive of a few years back, when the media duly repeated that “there is no longer such a thing as an American car or a Japanese car.” The Japanese, it was stated, now all have plants in the U.S., whereas most U..S companies import components from the Far East, or Latin America,  thus compromising the promise of saving U.S. jobs. For buyers with a patriotic streak, it was all-American-apple-pie-OK to buy a Japanese brand, these being “just as American” as a Ford, Chevrolet, Dodge or Jeep. The (then) World’s Smartest and Finest Car Company, Toyota, even placed ads asking who’s more American? Toyota USA, adding manufacturing jobs and plants in the U.S., or the Detroit Three, busily, at that time, laying off workers and shuttering plants?

Fast-forward to the earthquake and tidal wave of 2011: the allegedly red-white-and blue Japanese brands suddenly find their supply lines dried up, while the supposedly import-component laden domestic cars, (albeit with some minor work-around shortages) continue to deliver a river of new vehicles, unabated. And, thus, another popular myth bites the dust.

In the past months the Detroit Three have, in fact, come roaring back. The Chevrolet Malibu, the 2007 “Car of the Year,” has shouldered past the Japanese brands and is now the number one car in the mid-size segment. Even more astonishing is the Chevrolet “Cruze,” a best seller around the world, and now America’s number one compact car, relegating the perennial favorites, Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, to the runner-up spots.

Car Wars: Hyundai climbs with Toyota’s model

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As a child in the early ’80s, I remember spending a summer in Seoul and taking a trip with relatives to the countryside in a Hyundai Pony, South Korea’s first homegrown car. I spoke no Korean, but learned one word quickly enough: “lemon”.

Hyundai Motor has certainly come a long way since then.

Thirty-four years after introducing the Pony hatchback at the Turin Motor Show, Hyundai is the world’s fourth-largest carmaker, surpassing Ford Motor in the first half of this year. With the rest of the industry reeling from slumping sales, Hyundai’s charge has been especially conspicuous this year as it grabbed market share across the world and even made record profits in the latest quarter.

Where did all the cool cars go?

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It was like a dream come true. I’d always wanted a Ford Mustang and there I was, cruising around Tokyo in the latest version of the iconic sports car with the 4.0 litre, V6 engine producing a powerful roar every time I accelerated.

I was able to adjust pretty quickly to the left-side steering wheel — Japanese steering wheels are always on the right — though I had a few embarrassing mix-ups between the directionals and the windshield wipers.

from Summit Notebook:

Gassing about electric cars

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Would you buy a car that only goes 100 miles (160 km) on a tank of fuel?

That's the range of Nissan's 5-seater electric car planned for sale in the U.S. and Japan in 2010 -- a similar size to Nissan's Primera or VW's Golf.

A full tank in a petrol-driven car will take you around twice that distance so the new technology that Nissan hopes will leapfrog current hybrids won't be for those who disappear up the mountains each weekend.

Mercedes? No thanks, I’ll take a hybrid

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VOLKSWAGEN-LAW/“I hope the next three months will be better for you than the last three,” Czech ambassador Jaromir Novotny told a gathering of Japanese car importers last month.

The way things are going, he’ll be hoping against hope.

In April, Japan introduced an “eco-car” tax incentive that has left all foreign car brands such as Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz and BMW, neatly outside the fence of eligibility.

Cars, stars, and TV commercials

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In these hard times, you know a car is important when the maker hires Robert de Niro to promote it.

That honour goes to Subaru’s new flagship Legacy touring wagon, which went on sale in Japan today. Fuji Heavy Industries (which owns the Subaru brand) even put out a press release last week just to say the two-time Oscar winner would appear in its TV commercials in Japan.

Wanted: a hit Nissan product

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Toyota is drowning in losses. Fiat is desperately seeking partners. Chrysler is bankrupt, and General Motors looks like it might be next.

In this environment, Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn can’t be blamed for warning today of a second straight year of loss. Still, there’s no denying that Japan’s third-biggest automaker could be doing better if it weren’t missing one key ingredient: home-run products.

Toyota’s losses a cautionary tale for Fiat?

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Sergio Marchionne, prick up your ears.

Toyota Motor, the once-mighty money machine that grabbed the crown of world’s biggest automaker from General Motors last year, gave a shocking loss forecast today for a staggering $8.6 billion for this year. Culprits are aplenty, but one of them is the company’s mammoth size.

Until the economic crisis slammed the brakes on car sales last year, Toyota couldn’t build them fast enough. To catch up with demand, Toyota put up more factories, from China to the Czech Republic. Reaching annual sales of 10 million vehicles – a feat never achieved by any automaker to date – looked imminent for the 70-year-old carmaker.

Nissan and Renault: 10 years to celebrate?

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Ten years ago today, French carmaker Renault bought a 37 percent stake in Nissan Motor for $5 billion, making a big bet in the debt-riddled Japanese company with the goal of one day becoming a major player in the global auto industry.

Ever since Nissan staged a spectacular turnaround in just two years, the Franco-Japanese union has been lauded as the only alliance that worked after many failed attempts by other automakers. The success story turned Carlos Ghosn, who has served as CEO of both companies since 2005, into one of the most celebrated and visible auto executives.

Toyota Prius: Will it live up to its name?

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When Honda‘s new Insight hybrid debuted in Japan last month, many journalists referred to it as the “Prius fighter”. Less than two months later, we’re talking about Toyota’s battle to come up with the “Insight fighter”. What gives?

In a word, it’s because Toyota has suddenly begun behaving like a follower — not a leader –in the hybrid field that it has owned for the last 12 years.AUTOSHOW/

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