It’s hard to remember now, but a generation ago, Japanese cars transformed from being a cheap, laughable alternative to full-size American cars to the preferred daily drivers for millions of Americans. Since then (say, the early 1980s), Japanese cars have been staples of everyday life, transporting us to and from work and school, down muddy country roads, on spirited Saturday drives, and on family road trips.
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Chances are your mom or dad was the first member of your family to make the leap from American to Japanese cars. But to younger buyers, the influence of films like the Fast & Furious franchise and the rise of tuner culture in the early 2000s helped ensure their popularity. Those early movies would be a lot different if they weren’t loaded with neon Civics, turbocharged Supras, and wild RX-7s racing through the streets. And with millions of teenage gearheads taking it all in, it created a new wave of enthusiasts.
Most have outgrown that modded Civic they had in high school, but surprise! Today’s Camry, CR-V, or Rogue are the perfect cars to navigate adulthood. So after an explosive few decades, Japanese cars are generally thought of as the gold standard for affordability, reliability, and value. So how did they do it? The answer is complex, but luckily we’ve been able to boil it down into 10 simple reasons.
1. Practicality and efficiency rule
Japanese automakers have built some real beauties over the years, but for the most part, they have prized function where others got lost in form. Back in the ’70s and ’80s, they pioneered compact, front-wheel drive cars that were roomier, better on gas, more reliable, and generally more cheaper than their American counterparts. In the ’90s, brands like Subaru and Toyota even pioneered affordable all-wheel drive systems, offering it in everything from hatchbacks to minivans.
This quest for innovation continues to interiors too. Look how Honda designs its center console storage spaces, how Nissan reconfigured the rear cab space of the Titan, or how Toyota folds its seats in the Sienna. These automakers that spent their early years making the most out of the limited space in commuter cars still follow the mantra of maximum interior space and minimal mechanical drama.
2. Hybrid ingenuity meets futuristic functionality
Pop quiz: Who offered the first two hybrids in the U.S. market in the late 1990s? If you said Honda and Toyota, you’d be correct. Today, most automakers offer hybrids or EVs, but in reality, most are still taking their cues from Japan. The Toyota Prius is a juggernaut in the green car segment, the Nissan Leaf is the most popular EV this side of a Tesla, and both Honda and Toyota are exploring hydrogen power. While Detroit is famously resistant to change, Japanese automakers have always embraced it. Don’t expect that to change anytime soon.
3. Plenty of fun family minivan and SUV options
The word “fun” doesn’t usually come to mind when you think of minivans or SUVs. But Japanese automakers are trying to change that, and for the past few years it seems like they’re getting better with each generation.
Vans, such as the Toyota Sienna, Nissan Quest, and Honda Odyssey continue to offer outstanding innovation and versatility, but they actually look good doing it. Each offers sportier and tech-filled versions too, drawing interest like never before. In the SUV game, the Mazda CX-9 is loaded with amenities that could shame models at twice its price, and is downright gorgeous. Believe it or not, it likes to be driven in anger too. Connected, capable, and affordable, larger family cars are a major reason why Japanese automakers have seen so much continued success in the States.
4. American born and built
We know, the idea of an American Japanese car sounds like an oxymoron, but they’re more common than you may think. In order to ingrain themselves in American culture, Japanese automakers found it prudent to start manufacturing cars on American soil, with Honda leading the charge and opening its first U.S. plant back in 1982. Nothing says commitment like investing heavily in a country’s infrastructure and creating thousands of jobs.
Today, with plants across America and billions invested in keeping them up to date, Japanese automakers are cutting shipping costs and winning over buyers who make “Made in America” a priority. Every year, Cars.com looks at U.S.-built cars and evaluates whether the parts put on these vehicles are American-made. Of all automakers, Japanese firms held the top five spots in 2016, with the Toyota Camry being No. 1, followed by the Honda Accord, Toyota Sienna, Honda Odyssey, and Honda Pilot.
5. Pickup trucks that rock
For most truck buyers, the cardinal rule has long been “Buy American.” But in the 1970s, Japanese companies introduced a number of popular small trucks that managed to change some minds. Many Americans realized they didn’t need four-wheel drive, massive payload capacities, or a bed with the square footage of a football field. Trucks, such as the Datsun 620 and the pint-sized Toyota Truck (yes, that was the official model name), showed that utility didn’t always translate to size.
Flash forward to today, and full-size trucks — full size American trucks — rule the roost again. But that could change eventually. The Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro, tackle terrain with the best on the market. Big boys, such as the Nissan Titan PRO-4X, come equipped with turbo-diesel engines and cabs that have all the features a work crew requires. Honda continues to take its own approach to truck engineering by giving the redesigned Ridgeline car-like suspension, extra clever storage ideas, and traction modes for almost any environment.
6. History paints a really pretty picture
In the 1970s, Paul Newman’s commitment to Nissan played a big role in legitimizing it in America. Seeing an Academy Award-winning actor setting his acting career aside for automotive racing was somewhat unexpected; what was truly surprising was he skipped over American and European sports cars in favor of an underpowered Datsun.
Decades later, models from the first few decades of Japanese cars in America (like the the iconic 510) are fast becoming favorite collector cars. Examples include the Toyota FJ Land Cruiser, Honda CRX, and extremely rare Toyota 2000GT, which was the first Japanese car to surpass $1 million at auction.
7. Sexy supercars and track monsters
Before they were widely acceptable, Japanese cars were thought of as cheap, disposable econoboxes. Sure, automakers slipped in a few iconic creations, such as the Toyota 2000GT, the fun little Honda S600, and a handful of fun-to-drive Datsuns and Mazdas. But in 1989, Honda/Acura dropped a bombshell: The NSX. A mid-engined Ferrari competitor, the NSX was fast, beautiful, (relatively) affordable, and as reliable as the Accord in your garage. Italian supercar builders were sent scrambling to improve reliability and quality control, and the automotive world has been reaping the benefits ever since. More recently, Americans have found an obsession with all things STI, Evo, Si, GT-R, 86/BRZ, Miata, and more. With cars, such as the all-new NSX and both a Civic Type-R and resurrected Supra on the way, Japanese performance has never looked better.
8. A classic car boom
Over the course of the past decade or so, American interest in the restoration and collecting of of classic Japanese cars has exploded. Some of these people are wealthy speculators looking for the next big collector car. But the majority of Japanese vintage automobile enthusiasts are young and in it for a different reason: To drive them.
Many iconic cars that were never sold in the U.S. are now over 25 years old and can be imported without fear of their cars getting impounded and crushed by the government. There still might be hoops to jump through in order to get a Japanese Domestic Market car, but that doesn’t seem to stop many enthusiasts from snapping up all kinds of cool classics from across the Pacific.
9. Turbo smarts and diesel alternatives
Take a look at the best engines to own in 2016. WardsAuto.com has listed the Honda Accord Hybrid, the Mazda CX-9, and the rowdy, refined twin-turbo V6 of the Infiniti Q50. All three of these mills offer an ideal balance between horsepower, torque, comparative specs, noise attenuation, observed fuel economy, and new technologies. And there are some awesome new entries on the horizon.
Honda keeps cranking out one killer four-banger after another. This year we will get to see what a turbocharged Civic Si can do, as well as the anticipated Type-R model. Mazda also has a turbo-diesel motor in the works for the overhauled CX-5. And Nissan still seems confident its variable compression engines will replace V6 engines in the future.
10. What’s next looks sensational
Political uncertainties aside, the future looks bright for most Japanese automakers. Sales are up, new models and updated classics continue to resonate, and both technological and mechanical advancements paint a very exciting picture.
A renewed interest in performance means the return of Toyota’s Supra. Honda’s redesigned Odyssey looks outstanding. And Nissan has twin-turbos and fresh engine options galore on the way. Meanwhile, Mazda continues to win awards for quality and design. Subaru just made the American-built Impreza the basis for its next global platform. And even though Mitsubishi is folded into the Renault-Nissan Alliance, its Rogue is one of the best-selling vehicles in America.