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I remember the event as if it were yesterday, although in fact it was twenty-six years ago. My relentless, Rommel-esque campaign to get my mother into a 1983 Honda Civic 1500S had very nearly reached a successful conclusion. For months I had worked tirelessly to steer Mom towards a Honda dealership for our new “family car”, always with the ostensible and sensible goal of purchasing the $6,995 1500GL wagon. Once we were inside the doors of the dealership — doors I had personally darkened many a time before then, since it was only a four-mile walk each way from my house — it would be a simple matter of bait-and-switching her away from the wagon and into a bright red 1500S hatchback. I’d walked to the showroom the day before and verified the presence of one, priced at a compelling $6,495.

As fate would have it, however, the red 1500S had sold, leaving just a black one available. (The 1983 Civic 1500S, the only Civic of that generation to carry the “S” tag, was available in just two colors: black and red.) No matter: we’d take it. In just a few nearly tearful moments, I convinced her that the 141-inch long, two-door hatchback was an ideal car for a single mother and two growing boys. The sales manager, displaying the utterly despicable greed that is still a hallmark of Honda dealers today, allowed us to buy the car at sticker. Providing, that is, we would pay an additional $349 for a two-speaker cassette player and $99 for a useless tape stripe.

That Civic was a truly great car. Economical, quick enough, sporty-looking, bulletproof, fun. It certainly would have lasted my mother a decade or more, had she not been struck just two years after the purchase by a drunk driver in Cadillac deVille. The impact put parts of the back seat into the front seats. Hondas were not terribly crash-safe into those days.

Still, the ’83 Civic was the best Civic in history up to that point. The ’84 “breadvan” Civic was better. Much better. The Civic that followed was even better, and so on, until we reached the point of the 1999 Civic Si coupe, widely acclaimed as nearly everyone’s favorite Civic. And then a funny thing happened.


civics
I don’t think my Mom ever drove like this, although she was known to be a little aggressive from the stoplights. But this is that rarest of rare Civics: the one-year-only second-gen 1500S.

The last two generations of Civic haven’t been that well-received among Honda enthusiasts, although the current Si sedan seems to be making some friends. Nor do the newer models appear to be much like the Civics of old. The weight has shot up, from around 1800 pounds to nearly 3000. The current Si has four times the power of the 1983 Civic 1300FE. I’d say that the modern Civic is like the old Accord, but that would be fibbing, since you could park a 1977 Accord behind a 2009 Civic and it would be utterly, completely, invisible. Many of the virtues once prized by Honda owners — simplicity, light weight, low component count — seem to have fallen by the wayside.

If the Civic has lost its way, the entire Acura lineup has lost its mind. The recent introduction of a V6-powered TSX is an unintentionally eloquent statement about the elephantine size and weight increases of Acuras in the past decade. A brand which launched with the nimble Integra and iconoclastic Legend is now stuffed full of monstrous Accord-platform derivatives, each bigger than the last. If the original Legend were to return to Acura showrooms, it would be the smallest and lightest car available from the brand today.

Something’s rotten in Tokyo, and it isn’t limited to Honda. Toyota’s current lineup is a bloated mess of two-ton Camry variants, without a single sporting vehicle in the lineup. Virtually everything Nissan sells is either an “FM” or an Altima derivative, and they are all powered by the unlovable VQ engine. The Maxima, which was a world-class sporting sedan two decades ago, has been reduced to Altima-in-drag status. Subaru has accomplished the unique feat of making every single Impreza it has introduced in the market somewhat less popular than the one before it. Mitsubishi has precisely one decent product — the Evolution — and the new model isn’t as good as its predecessor.

This isn’t the way things are supposed to be. We take it for granted that each new Porsche will be a significant improvement over the previous model, the abysmal 1999 “996” aside. The same is true for Ferrari, Lamborghini, Mercedes-Benz, and even Volkswagen (in the post-MkIII era). Styling quibbles aside, each new BMW is an improvement. Audi has been on a tremendous roll in the past decade. Heck, even Lotus is making a succession of decent cars lately. Nor can you forget about the domestics. Among US-based automakers, there’s been an amazing spiral of desirability lately. Who wouldn’t rather have a new CTS than an old one? Do you like the Charger SRT-8 more than the old Intrepid Sport? Is there anybody out there willing to take a 2002 Taurus over the new 2010?

Talk to any Ford, Chevrolet or Dodge fan about trucks and you’ll hear how great the new ones are. Listen to a Toyota loyalist and he’ll tell you the average 1984 Toyota truck, known simply as “Truck” in this market, will still be on the road when every Tacoma ever made has fallen apart. Nobody’s excited about the current Nissan Titan or Toyota Sequoia. The Land Cruiser “wonks” absolutely hate the new one and are panic-buying the previous-generation V8s at ridiculous prices.

Strange, isn’t it? Ask nearly any Japanese-car enthusiast about his favorite cars or trucks, and chances are that you’ll hear the old list of Japan’s Greatest Hits. The 1989 Civic Si. The hachi-roku Corolla. Toyota’s original LS400 and the follow-up 1992 Camry that made that same build quality affordable for the masses. Mark IV Supras. Twin-turbo Zs. Mitsubishi Evolution 8 and 9. The pignose STi. Celicas of all shapes. Integra Type-R. Fifth-gen Accords. All these truly great, game-changing, world-beating Japanese cars, and almost all of them built between 1985 and 1999. Even the Skyline guys will admit that, yeah, given the choice they’d really rather have an R34 than the new car. In fact, one could argue that there’s only been one truly great, completely iconic new Japanese car built in the past decade, and it’s the friggin’ second-gen Prius.

camry
This was very possibly the finest Japanese sedan in history: a cost-no-object moon shot of a high-quality midsizer. It killed the Taurus stone dead and made Camry a household name. Why isn’t the current one nearly as nice inside, or nearly as well put together?

Something’s changed, but what is it? What’s happened to make Japanese cars less desirable than their predecessors? We could blame it on government regulation, but that hasn’t stopped the 2009 Boxster S being approximately a zillion times better than the 1997 Boxster 2.5. We could talk about a changing market, forgetting that those “changes” took away the Bonneville and gave us the G8.

I would suggest, instead, that the problem is a lack of authenticity and character. Virtually all the great Japanese cars mentioned above were the product of Japanese design teams designing cars for either their home market or a broadly defined “world market”. The 1983 Civic was, in many respects, a simple ripoff of the Mini Cooper, but it was clearly and thoroughly a Honda in execution, from the grinning grille to the dumpy taillights. The Celica and Supra may have been Japanese Mustangs, but they were still recognizably Japanese. Just as importantly, in the Seventies and Eighties there were clear and distinct differences between Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Mitsubishi, and Subaru. (Note that I’m leaving Mazda out of this, since they are really neither “domestic” nor “foreign”.)

With the arrival of “transplant” factories and the development of US-specific models, often with the assistance or interference of American design teams like CALTY, that Japanese magic started to fade away. The current Camry, Accord, and Altima are all very similar cars. They look the same, they drive the same, they’re equipped and priced along similar lines. This is reasonable, because they are all aimed at the same buyer. The 1995 Camry was very different from the 1995 Accord, and they were both way different from a 1995 Altima… but today’s models are almost NASCAR-style “common template” competitors.

In fact, the current “CamAltiCords” resemble nothing so much as the old General Motors A-bodies: big, bland, soft crapwagons designed to drag middle-aged people from home to work and back. Those of you who read Orson Scott Card’s “Speaker For The Dead” or “Wyrms” may remember his concept of a lifeform which mates with arriving aliens, shares their DNA, and takes their shapes. A very similar process has taken place with the Japanese transplant manufacturers. When the Accord arrived in this country, the most popular car sold in America was the Cutlass Supreme. Guess what? The 2009 Accord is closer in size, weight, power, and general appearance to a 1978 Cutlass Supreme than it is to a 1978 Honda Accord.

For your own amusement, go check out the dimensions of the 1978 Ford Fairmont. Now go dig up the dimensions of the 2009 Nissan Altima. Spooky, huh? In replacing the domestic manufacturers as the default bread-and-butter sedans, the Japanese nameplates accidentally became the cars they were replacing. Thirty years after the full-scale “Japanese invasion”, it turns out that the American market has completely co-opted its conquerors. And the same kinds of fat, annoying, self-satisfied, middle-class faces that stared out the windshields of Malibus and Zephyrs back in 1983 now gaze lifelessly from Camrys and Accords.

Meanwhile, the contrarians, free-thinkers, and avant-garde types who bought those 1978 Accords have moved on… and many of them have moved on to the domestics. The same kind of person who loved the original Accord’s low dash and rakish styling might find the new Fusion to have twice the character of any Camcord. The clarity of purpose and execution that marked the original Camry can now be found behind the wheel of a Malibu. Freed from the job of providing a million bland sedans a year to people who hate cars, Ford, GM, and Chrysler are producing truly great vehicles again. That’s what happens when you don’t need to serve the mainstream, and it’s why GM has managed to produce a new Camaro even as Toyota cancels their Supra project. Each new domestic automobile feels more vibrant, more completely realized, more American than the one before it.

The Japanese are now stuck in the same trap that swallowed the domestics thirty years ago. They’ve acquired the mass market and they need to build cars for that market. Until they are freed of that immensely profitable burden, they won’t be able to make great Japanese cars again. Don’t look for them to give up that market willingly, because their massive transplant facilities depend on seven-figure sales. It’s like crack. You can’t quit once you’re hooked on massive volume. Luckily for those of us who love great Japanese cars, however, salvation is just around the corner.

It took Toyota thirty years in the market to build a better, more popular mid-size sedan than GM could, but in just a decade, the Hyundai Sonata has moved up to parity with the Camry. In five more years, Kia and Hyundai could be the new mass-market champions, cranking out a million bland sedans from their own shiny transplant factories. And, if history is any guide, the Chinese, once they hit America in force, will catch the Koreans even more quickly than the Koreans caught the Japanese.

Faced with dwindling sales, loss of profitability, and a declining foothold in the American mass market, what will Toyota, Honda, and Nissan do? I’d like to think that they will forget about trying to make the perfect 3900-pound vanilla sedan. I’d like to think that they will open up their old catalogs and rediscover what made them great. In my dreams, the Celicas and 200SXes will come rushing back out of the factories, the Civics will once again be wide, low sportsters, the Z-car will be a bespoke platform and not a chopped-down Infiniti FX. We’ll see more cars like the Cube and fewer ones like the new Maxima. It will once again become possible to tell a Camry from an Accord. In short, the best Japanese cars will return, just as we are seeing the best American cars make a reappearance now. If that happens, I might just drag my Mom back down to that crummy old Honda dealer for a Civic. Come to think of it, maybe I’d buy one for me, too.

* * *

jackb

This is what inspired today’s column: Last month, I drove the Team Pakistan Express 1989 Civic Si to victory in a 90-minute NASA enduro at Mid-Ohio. I led the race flag to flag, with the exception of my pit stop and having to catch back up to the leader, and set fast lap. Not only did I win the nineteen-car “E1” class, I was fourth overall, beating a variety of Grand-Am Mustangs and faster cars. The little fellow next to me is my son, John, and this was his first race. With any luck, he’ll be taking over for me before you know it.

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Jack Baruth

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