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.

Small is beautiful


It’s been over two weeks since the final puck was walloped and the last skin-tight lycra suit was hung up at the Vancouver Olympics. 

And while Japan’s poor performance still rankles, the passage of time has given me the chance to find some bright spots in the country’s measly haul of three silver and two bronze medals.

Car Wars: Hyundai climbs with Toyota’s model



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.

Tokyo’s shrinking motor show


Before the Tokyo Motor Show kicked off this week, I wrote about how subdued the biennial event was likely to be this year, in the absence of any foreign automakers or even domestic truck makers.

But I’m not sure I was quite prepared for what I witnessed here on the second day of the media preview days.

Electric dreams


The Tokyo Motor Show later this month is expected to be a very understated event, with foreign carmaker participation almost nil and outlays by Japanese firms reflecting hard times in the industry.

But Electric Vehicles, or EVs, and hybrids will be on display in force, with Toyota, Honda and Nissan giving previews ahead of the late October show.

Nissan’s hybrid conundrum


NISSAN/ELECTRIC CARIf Carlos Ghosn were a politician, pundits might be accusing him of flip-flopping right about now.

After spending the last few years playing up the merits of zero-emission electric vehicles and knocking down the hybrid hype, the CEO of Nissan Motor appears to be back-pedalling, ever so slightly, on that stance.

from Summit Notebook:

Gassing about electric cars


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.

Wanted: a hit Nissan product



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.

Nissan and Renault: 10 years to celebrate?



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.

Carmaker to reporters: “Sorry, no water; we’re cutting costs”


If only Extreme Cost-Cutting were a sport.

Japan’s Mitsubishi Motors today joined a growing string of automakers pulling out of cash-draining motorsports activities with an exit from the Dakar Rally. It’s part of the company’s attempt to squeeze out any cost savings it can, and it seems no effort is too small for consideration.


At today’s news conference to announce third-quarter financial results, the master of ceremonies opened with the following remark: “You may have noticed there are no refreshments at your seats today. This is part of our effort to reduce spending.”