National Automotive Icons – Japan

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 260Z

Datsun260Z-2+2Datsun’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.


Honda NSX

Honda NSXIf 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

Subaru-WRX-STiWho doesn’t love the Rex?

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.


Mazda MX-5

MazdaMX5You know that bit about the NSX where the Japanese managed to take a loved formula and make it reliable? The MX-5 is the poster child for Japanese success in this field.

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.


Toyota Prius

ToyotaPriusI 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.

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  1. I would have the Evo instead of the WRX.

    Also no mention of Lexus? Probably the LS400 as the pick.

    Also what about the Land Cruiser and the Nissan Patrol (the patrol was the first 4wd to cross the Simpson Desert.

    1. That’s what the people’s nominations are for, Brendan. These are my five and admittedly, Lexus has never appealed to me at all.

  2. IMHO Lexus have done nothing original, so they don’t get even close to iconic status.

    There will always be an Evo/Imprezza debate, I’m with the Imprezza though. You might argue about the Toyota Supra in twin turbo guise with it’s Fast & Furious hangers on, but to me it’s not as iconic as, say the NSX.

    However there are two really significant cars I think are missing from the list.

    First up is the Nissan GTR in all its forms, but particularly the current product. The GTR is a technical masterpiece. It might not have the soul of the British, Italian, and Swedish exotica, but it makes up for it in sheer ability.

    Second – I need to ask you what vehicle do you see all over Africa, Asia and South America, in far flung places where dealers are non existent and fuel resembling much more than lamp oil is equally rare? The TG crew knew the answer – Toyota Hilux. OK, not really a “car”, but…

    1. Superb nominations, Al.

      I guess I’m a bit more old school (I’ve come to learn that about myself more and more this year), hence my thinking first of the 260Z. The GTR is more than worthy, however, and will make the poll.

      The HiLux? A more difficult sale. Tougher than a three-legged dog, as you suggest, but I might struggle to lift it above Brendan’s nomination of the LandCruiser. I’m not sure it’s appropriate to put both in when they’re so similar in heritage and toughness. Grist for my mill.

  3. I vote for the RX-7 over the MX-5, based on the fact that the RX-7 exemplifies Japan’s engineering prowess. It’s not just an Alfa-like engine in a well-made Lotus-like body. It’s 30 years of building an engine that no one else managed to get right, not even close.

    As others have mentioned, the Land Cruiser has got to be in the running. That truck was “Japan” to most inhabitants of this planet for the second half of the twentieth century. As an African friend explained to me in the 1980s, the 60 series wagon is the real-life equivalent of a Ferrari myth: the fastest way to get from point A to point B on four wheels.

    My last suggestion will seem random to North Americans: the Toyota Crown Comfort, aka “almost every taxi in Japan and Hong Kong, Singapore, etc.” It really is iconic.

    1. Got to concur with you on all three points.

      That said, for those that haven’t spent time in East Asia, the Crown will be a head scratcher.

  4. My first contact with Honda cars was an orange Honda Z600 which my colleague at work had. This was the first interesting Japanese car in the UK.

    The rest were unremarkable – Datsun Sunny/Bluebird – and the more noticeable (for it’s OTT chrome and rust) the Toyota Crown.

    1. I swear they were all orange, weren’t they? I saw a white one once, but it looked like it had come out of a rattle can.

  5. The chosen five are hard to beat, however, one car that ought to be in the consideration set is the Honda Civic. Big seller, yes, but over the years the Civic has (more often than not) set the bar for innovation and cheap fun in the small car set. Not all Civics were created equal, though the original and several subsequent models deserved their popularity. The Civic was designed to embody the company founder’s philosophy and it showed.

    1. I agree on the Civic being a Japanese icon. I may be biased because I have one, but I don’t feel like the Civic suffers from the Camry’s lack of interestingness, despite its ubiquity and the fact that many of them aren’t the most exciting.

      As you’ve said, the Civic is the benchmark for compact, with a measure of fun thrown in.

  6. What about Toyota 2000GT? There is a special convertible version of it in the Bond movie “You Only Live Twice”.

    1. ctm, you took the words out of my mouth! The 2000GT is in my opinion the most iconic and desireable Japanese sportscar ever! It was, and still is, one of the most beautiful motors on the planet.

      You Only Live Twice is perhaps not among the best movies, but the song wit Nancy Sinatrais a perfect soundtrack for this car. Toyota made the convertible in two weeks because Connery was too big for the standard car, according to Hammond.

  7. I’d offer up any of these as options for the open position:

    1- Toyota Corolla – Yes, it is the car that, like it’s big brother the Camry, tells the world you’ve given up, but it’s still the single nameplate that introduced Japan Inc. to most of the world.

    2- Honda Civic – Like the Corolla, it’s become an icon of boredom and mediocrity, but, again like the Corolla, it transformed most peoples’ idea of what a car ought to deliver, day in and day out.

    3- Nissan Skyline (specifically R32 GT-R) – This is the JDM car that really focused worldwide attention on the fact that Japan was making incredibly cool cars (as well as boring cars).

    4- Nissan Be-1, S-Cargo, Figaro and Pao – Collectively, these four limited edition cars based on the March/Micra platform acted to show that the Japanese auto industry had a, previously unknown, sense of humor.

    5- Toyota Land Cruiser – I dare you to find a war or disaster (outside of the parochial USA) where the first responders aren’t driving Land Cruisers. Come on, I dare you.

    1. Agree, I totally forgot the Land Cruiser. I many parts of the world, the Land Cruiser is almost synonymous with a 4×4.

  8. Here is a list for your kind consideration. Being from the said land of the rising sun, I have a few to offer, that haven’t been listed above.

    Toyota Celica (evolved into XX then to the Supra, branched off to Scion)
    Toyota Crown (Flagship JDM)
    Toyota MarkII/Corona/Chaser/Cresta (Borderline Camry-ish)
    Toyota Corolla (AE86 – need I explain?)
    Nissan Skyline GT-R KPC10 (3rd Gen Skyline “Hako-Suka”)
    Mazda Cosmo (First Rotary Engine consumer car in the world)
    Subaru 360
    Honda Civic (meh.)

    Granted, these are rather nostalgic models, but with the mention of the Datsun, I thought I’d thrown in some oldies – knowing well that some have never made it out of the country, but icons nonetheless.

    1. I had one of the few Celica XX’s here in Australia. Saw me through three years of university, though not without trouble along the way. It was a grey import here so parts were hard to get. When the ECU broke the mechanic got one out of a wrecked Mitsubishi and it worked perfectly!

  9. I got the following from David W, who for some reason is unable to access the commenting facility:


    The only Toyota’s that should be on your list are the MR2, the early 80’s Supra or The Granddaddy GT 2000!

    I still have a soft spot for the Subaru SVX.

    There is also the Miata of the 60’s the Datsun 2000 –Fairlady Roadster…

  10. Great nominations all. The committee (i.e. me) is going to have a hard time but we have some definite additions to the field here. It won’t be the German mega-poll (I don’t think we’ll ever have one like that again), but it’ll definitely be a good field.

  11. FWIW,


    There are many, many other worthy contenders. Honda S2000, Civic or Prelude (or anything with a V-Tec engine), Toyota Supra, Hilux, or Gt2000, Mitsubishi Evo, mazda MX5, Nissan Cedric.

  12. Civic: +1

    Mazda Xedos 6. Not a big success, but at its time, the only good looking Japanese car. Actually, it was the first time that I found a car from japan attractive.

  13. I definitely miss the Suzuki Escudo Pikes Peak. An all-time favorite, not in the least thanks to Gran Turismo 2.

    That, and the mid-1980s model of the Toyota MR2.

  14. The only thing I can come up with are the LandCruiser and a Wankel-Mazda. Which Wankel is up to you, but since Mazda now are the only company making those wonderful machines, I think you *must* have one on your list. Perhaps the Rx-8 with its weird four-door arrangement. 🙂

  15. Another vote for the Toyota 2000GT and Nissan Z series, as well as the RX-7 and the MX-5. My fifth would be the Land Cruiser or the Hilux.

  16. Nissan Skyline/GTR – Godzila, massive impact on circuit racers and boy racers alike.

    Nissan/Datsun Z series – Never done huge amounts for me but good performance, handling with slightly more style than expected from a japanese car.

    Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution
    Subaru Impreza wrx Sti
    – Rex vs Evo. Exciting relatively simply and great bang for your buck. iconic and target their make perfectly! (The last few are turning a bit blaaahh)

    Toyota Landcruiser/Hilux – Related enough to be joined i think. These two are what they are. Anywhere, any time. Made to do a job and they do it well.

    Toyota Corolla – Must like the Civic below, can do it all (Inclusive of the cult followed AE86).

    Toyota 2000GT – Massive respect but never been high on my list

    Mazda MX5/Miata – Modern recreation of the Lotus Elan. a formula that will always be appealing to a wide range of drivers.

    Mazda RX models – rotary experiment… Experiment that seemed to work? (787B = WOW!!!)

    Honda Civic – want sporty? want reliability? Economical? or just a to b? A civic is always an option.

    Honda NSX – When you Ayrton Senna Helping with your car you know it’s going to be good.