There are fewer compelling reasons to buy a Japanese car than at any point since the early 1970s.
March’s devastating earthquake, ensuing tsnumai, and surreal nuclear meltdown in Japan are all beginning to have real and lasting impact on the automotive industry there and here. Parts are becoming scarce. We just heard from one customer that certain paint colors on Ford products are backordered because the supplier is Japanese, but that’s third party hearsay, and I wouldn’t bank on it as fact.
But even before then, the Japanese auto industry was in dire straits. Toyota had major issues thanks to what was once considered its halo car, the Prius hybrid. The Tacoma – a vehicle that was once synonymous with quality and longevity – was being crushed at a rate of thousands a week with frame rust that rendered running trucks with low mileage completely unusable.
Even more shocking, in a way, was the December 6, 2010 cover story in Automotive News: “The Threat to Honda’s Mojo: Year of opportunity goes in reverse for brand.” It was a scathing indictment. After decades of grand slams, home runs and standup doubles, Honda found itself whiffing at the plate. The Crosstour, for example, is a fine automobile, but its styling is nearly as reviled as that of the Pontiac Aztec. Just under 26,000 had found owners by the end of 2010, a dismal failure in comparison to Toyota’s Venza which had sold 43,000 units. The hybrid Insight found itself subjected to rebates and special offers. The Odyssey minivan was plagued with transmission and steering rack issues. The CR-Z hybrid — which was billed as the return of the car that built Honda’s reputation for beating Europe at its own game, the CRX – was stillborn, with just 4,300 sold, and over 3,000 in inventory, a wide gulf from the expected 15,000 units a year.
This last two years should be a reality check for the Japanese auto industry. For the better part of 20 years, Japan was an automotive Field of Dreams, with customers coming simply because they were building it. For customers like my 80 year old mother, there wasn’t even a consideration. When it was time to turn the old car in, only a Japanese car would do.
That mentality completely ignored that throughout the late 1990s and 2000s, American car companies were building better and better cars all the time. By mid-decade, Ford and GM, at least, were building cars that not only competed with Japan, but in many cases, beat it soundly. Japan had fallen for the same lure of the full-size truck that America did, only Toyota and Nissan weren’t building trucks as good as the Americans could. And while pundits were still pointing and laughing at GM and Ford for building full-size trucks and SUVs, a lot of the refinement and engineering that went into those trucks was beginning to filter down into the passenger car line. Look no further than the 2008 Chevy Malibu to see the improvement in design, quality and engineering inside, that came directly from the truck division.
Nevertheless, American car companies still had a bad reputation. Every time I mention that I drive a Buick (I have two now, actually, a 1996 Roadmaster and a 1968 Riviera. I’m probably one of six families in America with two Buicks in the driveway), the standard response is “I don’t buy American cars because in 1980, my aunt Sally bought a Citation and it was a shitbox.”
American car companies built lousy cars in 1980. But guess what: So did everybody else. Only I see a lot more 1980 Olds Omegas still running around than I do 1980 CVCCs, because the Honda products couldn’t make it through half a New England winter. The Honda might have had a more refined engine, but rust quickly took hold, to the point that I haven’t laid eyes on a daily driven Japanese product from the early 1980s in New England in at least 15 years.
Korea built shittier cars 25 years ago, but for some reason, we’re willing to give Hyundai and Kia a pass. The early Excels literally fell apart on the showroom floor in the late 1980s, but in recent years, American consumers have bought into the brand, at first because they offered a great warranty, and now because they actually build a compelling product.
Now is the time to shake off the blinders and look at American brands. The products are great, offering innovative features, excellent fuel economy and outstanding quality, nearly across the board. No matter what the stooge from the Detroit News had to say, Chrysler’s products have come a long way from just a few years ago. The 200 is a nice car, the 300’s even better, the Charger (which I hated) is truly an awesome vehicle, and the Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango will completely change your opinion not only of Chrysler, but of the American car industry in general.
My challenge stands, as it did a half-dozen years ago when I started noticing how good American products had become: Drive one. Then tell me how much better the Japanese counterpart is.