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Clarkson on: Japanese cars
And so the editor collared me as I scuttled through the office this morning, pretending to be busy. I knew what he wanted. He wanted me to name my Car of the Year, and I don’t like making decisions of this nature, or any nature. Hence my scuttling and harassed demeanour.
It didn’t work. “Clarkson,” he said, when he had me cornered at the water fountain. “What is your Car of the Year?” “It’s the Alfa 4C,” I said proudly because I’d made up my mind about something. “No, you idiot,” he replied. “That came out last year.” “But it’s the best car I’ve driven this year as well,” I stammered.
It was no good. You have to vote for the best new car, and that’s a bit cruel, I think. It’s like being told to vote for the world’s best dog, and then not being allowed to select your own because you did that last year.
But those are the rules, so I did what I do every year: a country-by-country breakdown of all that’s new and fresh from the car-producing nations. From Britain, there was the McLaren 650S, which is breathtaking, and from America, the Corvette Stingray, which is certainly the biggest surprise. Italy has given us the Huracán and the 458 Speciale, which is tempting, if only because it makes James’s 458 seem so ‘last week’. Germany? The new Polo is tremendous, and the i8 is a giant leap for humankind, even if it doesn’t do what it says on the tin. 134mpg? Yeah, right.
I then had a quick canter through France, stopping momentarily on the Twingo and whatever fast Clio Renault has come up with this week, and then in my head I popped over to Japan where… there was nothing but a dismal grey fog and a spot of light drizzle.
“Come on, Jeremy,” I said to myself. “This is Japan. The power house of the East. It must make something you like.” But it was no good. Once I’d discounted the Nissan GT-R for not being even remotely new, the inside of my head was a complete blank.
I’ve written about Honda’s woes before. There was a time when its showrooms were full of cars with pop-up headlamps and Thunderbird Two electric roofs, and Rowan Atkinson was bombing about in an NSX making growly noises with his induction system. But now what do they do? Some not very attractive soft-roaders, a hatchback with a name I can’t be bothered to remember and a saloon that looks like I styled it. Where’s the new NSX they’ve been talking about for so long? I’ll tell you where, at the side of the Nürburgring surrounded by firemen taking pictures of the charred wreckage on their mobile phones. And what about the new S2000? That’s even easier to answer. There isn’t one.
Honda is coming back to F1 and, I’m sorry, but what’s the point? Because what F1 fan will say: “Yes, I am much impressed with the power of its engines and the cleverness of its hybrid drive technology, so I will buy a CR-V”?
Toyota is suffering from much the same problem. Yes, it makes the excellent GT86, but where are the Celicas and the Supras? What happened to the days when it made a special rear-wheel-drive version of the Corolla simply so youths could do skidding? And what about that four-wheel-drive coupe that had a nostril? Why do none of its cars have nostrils any more?
Cantering through the cars they do sell these days is like being in a coma. There’s the Areola, or is that the bit around your nipple? Same thing, I suppose. Then there’s the Prius, about which I can say nothing that hasn’t been said before. And the new Land Cruiser, about which I can also say nothing, because there are no words in any language which quite manage to capture its heroic dreadfulness. I’m not even going to mention the RAV4.
Lexus had a spurt a while back. We got the LFA, which remains the finest car I’ve ever driven. Yes, it was riddled with faults and given a price tag that was higher than George Michael, but, my God, to drive, it was sublime. And what’s replaced it? Nothing, so far as I can see.
Subaru used to sell us Imprezas that cornered like asteroids, and the Legacy Outback is the only car on which James, Richard and I agree. It was brilliant. But the new one isn’t brilliant at all. And Mitsubishi used to have all sorts of curiosities like the Pinin and the Evo. And now? Nope. Wait… No, nothing.
Daihatsu used to make a car called the GTti. It was the first road car ever to generate 100 horsepower from one litre, and because it had three cylinders it sounded like it was demented. I loved it so much that, on the press launch in Japan, I did half a lap, crashed and flew home. Does Daihatsu make a car like that today? Something fun? Something for the enthusiast that lives in us all? No. It makes something called the Sirion, which sits in the world of cars like a bunch of wilting petrol station chrysanthemums would sit at the Chelsea Flower Show.
Nissan obviously makes the GT-R, and long may that continue. But apart from this, it makes nothing sporty or interesting or pretty at all. It did the 240 and the 260 and the 280 and the 300 and then… it just stopped.
It’s hard to know why this is so. We know that Japan’s economy has been bumping along in the Mariana Trench for some time, but that’s the great thing about the country’s industry. It’s always had its sights set on the export market, so why isn’t it making exciting, flashy stuff now for all of the new money in China and Russia?
I agree that, elsewhere, demand is down. Kids no longer fix sports air filters and big exhausts to cars. Petrol is now so expensive that teenagers talk mpg rather than mph. But you just have to look at how BMW and McLaren and Ferrari are doing to know that the demand for g forces and searing engine notes is still there.
Unfortunately, it’s niche stuff, and Japan has never been very good at that. Japan was always about the bottom line, and the truth is, there’s more money to be made selling a billion Areolas than there is to be made from selling half a dozen fire-breathing V10 LFAs.
There is, of course, one exception to all of this. Mazda is poised, as I write, to unveil its new and much-hyped MX-5. The only true sports car made today. On its shoulders rests not just the future of the company, but the country that spawned it as an automotive giant.
I pray that it’s a huge success. I pray millions are sold in California and the South of France every five minutes. Because that’s what’s needed to wake up the rest of Japan’s moribund car industry: a pointer, a beacon, a car that shows them there’s still money to be made out of fun stuff.
I want Japan back. I miss it.