If you've been following the site, you're probably aware that content has been rather thin over the last few months. I've been running the site for just about two years now, so this seems as good a time as any to take stock of what's happened thus far and what to do with the site in the future.
Truthfully, the blog hasn't been terribly successful. It's been a bit daunting to try and run it alone, and it takes a lot of enthusiasm and persistence to make enough content of sufficient quality to sustain any sort of readership. When I look at the blog today, I still feel like it's never really developed much of an audience. Friends and family have been very kind in their support of it, but for a variety of reasons it hasn't done much to draw new readers on its own merits.
Writing and doing everything myself has given me the benefit of complete independence, but it also means that my own weaknesses are present with little to mitigate them. I'm not skilled in the least at self-promotion, graphic design, networking, or formal journalistic investigation. I don't doubt that I could seek to improve in any of those categories, but a lack of feedback has kept me from going to the effort. I know that there are myriad ways that professionals do this better than I do, but not being acquainted with any, I'm laboring in ignorance with little conception of how to improve.
Since this has always been a completely unpaid thing I do in my free time, I feel that if I don't have the desire to work on the blog, it isn't likely to benefit anyone if I half-heartedly try to maintain it. I don't feel like I want to halt it entirely, but I think I'll need to substantially re-tool it to make it into something that's genuinely unique and interesting to read amidst the endless ocean of content on the internet. It might mean taking a new angle with it, or teaming up with other people, or perhaps something I haven't thought of yet. So I've decided that I'll wheel the ol' girl into the shed and hope that once I have a better idea, I'll dust it off and bring it out again when it can serve a better purpose.
In the meantime, here are a few posts I've enjoyed writing which should hopefully act as a good representation of what this incarnation of the blog has been about:
- A day with a Daihatsu Move
- Crowdsourcing brings the Aqua's fuel economy numbers down to Earth
- Iga and Koga reveal their ninja license plate
- On the trail of Nissan GT-R testing at the Nurburgring
- Can you hear me now? The Mimi-car
- Of Hippo Cars and True Love
- Tires for Madame
Until we meet again!
[image: Ian Muttoo @ flickr]
When we left off last time, our most intrepid of writers (myself) had just bombed his first attempt at earning a Japanese driver's license. Try hitting up one of Japan's many driving schools, the proctor suggested. Later that weekend I did just that, and armed with the knowledge gained, took the driving test a second time. How did I fare? Read on!
Is it that time of year again?! I'd forgot to even check the contenders this time around, but the consortium of Japanese auto journalists and other industry insiders have gotten together once more and crowned their favorite new car this year. Coming in first with 363 votes was Mazda's new crossover/CUV/whatever-you-want-to-call-it, the CX-5, clad in Mazda's latest Kodo design language and sporting the company's suite of fuel efficiency technology dubbed SkyActiv.
The consortium's English press release states that the CX-5's efficient diesel powertrain and sharp handling cinched it the top spot. Running a close second, though, was the Toyota 86/Subaru BRZ, with 318 votes. Its become quite a darling in the automotive press with an emphasis on low curb weight and maneuverability, but I suppose you can't quite toss the family in it for a weekend out on the lake, unless the kids feel like riding in the trunk or hitch-hiking. The import car of the year, which earned the third highest votes overall, was the new F30 generation of the BMW 3-series. Last year's award went to the Nissan Leaf, with the Mazda2 earning special mention for its earlier use of SkyActiv technologies.
As your bog standard "enthusiast," seeing a crossover beat out a sports coupe in any sort of competition was nothing less than the iciest of daggers plunged straight into my heart, I'll have you know. But perhaps it's not too much of an affront that the crossover in question is in fact handsome, relatively compact, fuel-efficient for its class, and prioritizes good handling. It's without a doubt a car more suited to practical everyday driving than the 86, so it's not too surprising that it might have a greater effect on the industry as a whole. Who do you think will snag the honors next year?
If you wish to reside in Japan for longer than a year and would like to legally operate motor cars on its many streets, you'll need to obtain a Japanese driver's license. I've been here for about 8 or 9 months, so now seemed as good a time as any to get this particular bit of bureaucratic business resolved. This may be a very banal series of anecdotes I'm about to launch into here, but if you're curious about how the driver's license process differs between Japan and my home country of the United States, perhaps you'll find this interesting. Let us begin!
Sadly, despite having one of the more unique promotional gimmicks seen in motorsport on its side, the Hatsune Miku racing team was unable to defend its SuperGT championship title this year in the GT300 class. Hopes were pinned on the team's primary #0 car, while the team's #4 car was treated more like the kid brother of the pair.
The 8-race season started promisingly enough, with the #0 car finishing third place in the first round and first in the second round. Disaster struck in the third round at Sepang International Circuit in Malaysia, however, as the #0 car ran out of gas on the very last lap of the race. Saddled with a weight penalty from being the points leader in the season thus far, the team decided on a strategy of minimizing pit stop time. Fuel fill-ups and tire changes were kept to a minimum, but the team apparently played it too thrifty and the engine stalled on the last lap, knocking the car down from second to last place.
Round 4, held at Sportsland SUGO, was comparatively uneventful, with cars #0 and #4 finishing in 7th and 11th places respectively. But in Round 5, at Japan's legendary Suzuka Circuit, ill fortune befell #0 once more and another apparent fuel miscalculation stalled the car and disqualified it a mere 34 laps into the race. #4 was able to rally and get up to 7th place with 157 laps, but having finished far back in the pack for most of the season, this didn't help the team point totals much.
Rounds 6 and 7 saw some penalty-earning bumps and typhoon conditions, respectively, but while results weren't catastrophic, they weren't great, either. Both cars had middling positions, which prevented the team from catching up on badly-needed points for the season. In fact, Round 7 was the final nail in the coffin for #0, as it was now impossible for the car to earn enough points to win the season. The final regular-season race, Round 8, was held at Twin Ring Motegi in October, and saw #0 finish a respectable 4th place to close the year out. This mirrors their overall season result at present, with the team finishing 4th out of 29 teams in total.
The team's race reports (which are translated into English as well) are written in typical self-effacing Japanese style, with a genuine sense of heartbreak as the team realizes that they won't be able to defend the previous year's championship. Unsurprisingly, they thank the fans for their support and plan to come back strong next year.
Yours truly is toying with the idea of buying into one of the sponsorship programs next season just to see what sort of stuff they send out. Is it just some cheap tchotchkes? Does one get inducted into some sort of secret order of Hatsune Miku fans? Will the critical JCarBlog sponsorship make all the difference next year? Whaddya think?
[image: CUBIX -SIDE BY SIDE- @ flickr]
You can't fault Mitsuoka Motors for marching to the beat of a different drum. When they're not taking Japanese compacts and turning them into miniature Rolls-Royces, they're striking out on their own with truly unique models like the Orochi (I think I'm the only one who loves its terror-from-the-deep styling). So perhaps you might be suspicious to hear that their latest model is a two-seater open-top front-engined rear-drive EV. What's the catch?
Well, take what you're thinking, lop off one of the wheels, and do away with most of the body and what you're left with is the Like T-3. Due to how it's classed, you can avoid Japan's strict biannual vehicle inspections and you don't have to prove that you have a place to park it, but you still need a driver's license to operate it.
Want some specs? The Like T-3 weighs between 306 to 328 kg (675-723 lbs), depending on trim. It's 2485 mm long (98 inches) and 1170 mm wide (46 inches). The electric motor runs on Lithium Ion batteries and its peak output is 5.6 kW and 36 Nm of torque (7.5 hp and 27 ft/lbs). If you just spent $500k on the Mercedes Benz SLS AMG E-Cell, you can rest easy that this puppy won't be beating you at the stop light. Sticker price ranges from 1.3 to 1.44 million yen, or $16,230 to $17,990 US. But Car Watch points out that buyers may be eligible for a 300,000 yen ($3760 US) subsidy from the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry. It comes with either a 2.9 kWh battery pack (which takes 4 hours to recharge) or a 4.3 kWh pack (6 hours).
So what, it's a golf cart, you might be thinking? Well, much is made in Mitsuoka's advertising about how the Like-T3 has a 100 kg (220 lb) cargo capacity. What it seems to me to be aiming at is the Kei Truck market. For a customer who wants something small and simple to carry light cargo loads, it could be an intriguing prospect. It never needs gas, it doesn't pollute, and with the subsidy, it's not too far off from Kei car prices. It could be a pretty handy little runabout for uses like grounds maintenance or light agricultural work. It's a bit of an unusual move from Mitsuoka, but really, isn't just about everything they make unusual?
Slowly but surely, fans of sports cars have had to come to terms with the notion that fuel economy is a serious issue. Whether it's because of CAFE regulations or greenhouse emissions or the political problems surrounding the sale of oil, car manufacturers are taking note and are trying to make sports cars that are more efficient than ever before. To name a few: Tesla Roadster, the Porsche 918, the Ferrari FF, or the Mercedes SLS AMG Electric Drive. What does Japan have, then, in terms of street-legal eco-friendly sports cars?
One potential contender may be the Tommy Kaira ZZ. You may have already heard the name Tommy Kaira before, as it's a fairly well-known Japanese tuning company headquartered in Kyoto. The original ZZ was a somewhat obscure sports car which appears to have been the company's attempt to build its own car rather than tune a model from another manufacturer. Featuring a 4-cylinder Nissan SR20DE engine mounted amidships, it was a lightweight two-seater made in the late 90s. Curiously enough, it was built in England but apparently largely sold in Japan. According to Response.jp, only 206 cars were sold in total. A second generation model, the ZZII, was announced in 2001 featuring a far mightier modified RB26DETT engine taken from the Nissan Skyline GT-R as well as dramatic supercar styling.
The story grows more complicated here, as Japanese auto parts manufacturer Autobacs purchased Tommy Kaira soon after the announcement decided to halt production of the ZZII, citing its development expense. Changing its name to the ASL RS-01 to incorporate the model into its new Autobacs Sports Car Laboratories branding, Autobacs shelved what was going to be the ZZII and eventually put a modified version of the ZZ called the ASL Garaiya into production in 2002. Apparently sales weren't great (it retailed at 6.5 million yen, which was likely around $50-60,000 US at the time) and it was quietly killed off in 2005. Autobacs later entered the car in Japan's Super GT league, where it continues to race today.
Instead of letting the car become a historical footnote, though, a new venture called Green Lord Motors is resurrecting the original ZZ with an electric powertrain. The new company is made up of students (both graduate and undergrad) from Kyoto University, and it's a point of pride with them to collaborate with another Kyoto business, Tommy Kaira. Even the interior cloth patterns will have a Kyoto theme, and one of the representatives explains that they hope this new car will help promote Kyoto's culture around the world:
In a longer look at the venture, the employees emphasize that it's a student-driven project and they hope this will help them think outside the box as far as automotive companies are concerned. But it's not simply a gaggle of 20-year-olds, as you might imagine. Also on board to help with the venture are Tommy Kaira founder Yoshikazu Tomita and former Sony Chairman Nobuyuki Ide. Other investors include the Mitsubishi UFJ financial group and (in rather stark contrast) Yoshiki, the leader of the Japanese heavy metal band X Japan.
If you're checking the dates, a lot of this was announced in early 2011. What's brought it back into the news, though, is that Response is now reporting that the car has been certified as street-legal in Japan. Production is set to begin this year, and at the time of writing, the model is apparently on display for a weekend event in Tokyo, the "Cool Kyoto 2012" festival.
Given the tone of the promotion and marketing so far, the car's unlikely to be any sort of performance monster. But with the strong welcome extended to any sort of green auto technology in Japan, it will probably have a solid niche market carved out for it. There's no word yet on pricing or the size of the production run, but it seems likely that we'll hear more about the car in the coming months.
Among the more significant news coming out of Lexus in recent months has been its LF-LC concept car, which debuted last January at the Detroit Auto Show. Plenty of concepts never make it to production, especially concepts with such exaggerated focus on the company's design language. It almost seemed to be little more than a platform to introduce the brand's new spindle grille, which has made its way into the refreshed GS, LS, and RS models. But Lexus has been giving hints that it really wants to actually build the LF-LC, and this latest announcement seems to support that idea even further.
Unsurprisingly, what we see in Lexus' latest redesign of the car is a far less stylized body in preparation for actual production. The swoop around the headlights is much less exaggerated and the actual lights are pulled down to where you'd see them on current Lexuses. The car appears bulkier, especially in the vertical direction, and the window line bears more resemblance to modern production cars. You'd be forgiven for thinking of it as a couple model of the Lexus IS or GS. The grille is still dramatic and the car is quite far from hideous, but it's probably not what anyone would call ground-breaking.
In Lexus' press release, much to-do is made about how the car will have a refined interior separated into a "display zone" and "operation zone" that clearly delineate different tasks like navigation and car control. Power is going to come from a 2.5L hybrid gas-electric engine, although the press release doesn't say if it will be an inline-4 or V6. It'll be rear-drive and likely make the same stab at the "sporty" market that recent models like the GS and LS F-Sport are aiming at. The idea of a hybrid Lexus coupe is probably something the company can make a solid business case for, and I imagine it'll move plenty of units. I used to work at a big, well-heeled software company and I can see a lot of these in the parking lots over the next few years. But given how tamed down it is from the rather un-Lexus outrageousness of the concept car, it seems doubtful that this will generate much of an "enthusiast" following in the same vein as, say, the Toyota 86. We'll see what Lexus has to say in Paris at the end of the month.
Pop in to about 2:06 in the above video to see legendary "Drift King" himself, Keiichi Tsuchiya, give yet another set of driving impressions of Toyota's new sports car, the 86. As you may expect, (especially given that this is for Gazoo, a Toyota-owned publication) he enjoys it quite a bit. He makes several points you've probably heard if you've been keeping up on reviews of the car: It's a lot better in stock form than the original 86 was. He goes so far as to say that it took a lot of tuning to get the old 86 up to where the new 86's standard. The suspension isn't the least bit squishy or floppy, which lets the driver play around with the car whenever they like. "It's a fun car. You can enjoy its front-engine rear-drive nature without the slightest sense of fear. That's what the new 86 is," he says.
As you may expect, he thinks the manual version is a lot better than the automatic. He also praises the tires, the same tires you'd find on a Prius, as part of what makes the car floggable and satisfying for any driver, regardless of their skill level. The other hosts have similar praise for the car's accessibility, although the second host would like to see a little more grip from the rear tires.
I should probably take this time to acknowledge any regular readers who are waiting for new posts and finding them rather sparse recently. I do apologize, and I wish I had more content to offer up, but time hasn't been on my side recently. I've been focusing rather intently on Japanese language study in these last few months, and I hope that it will pay off more in the long run as it makes it easier for me to identify and analyze Japanese car news and translate it more accurately.
This ties into an earlier video I posted of Tsuchiya giving his opinion about the car prior to its release. I've since removed the post, since I found that my shaky and likely inaccurate translation of his off-the-cuff remarks were creating a minor stir where there didn't need to be any. Listening is a much more challenging part of language learning than reading, and the flap shows that I still have a long way to go. In any case, I hope you find my perspective to have some value, and I'll keep trying to bring what I find interesting.
When a company has a presence as massive as Toyota does in its home market, (as we've seen, they outsell their domestic competition by a wide margin) they can offer a wider variety of product to appeal to tinier slices of the market. The sheer variety of sedans that Toyota sells in the Japanese market is staggering. Remind me some day to write the article I've had kicking around in my head for ages: "A Field Guide to Japanese Toyota Sedans." You'd be amazed at how many ways Toyota thinks of to sell cars with four doors, and how many different badges it puts on those cars' noses.
One of those permutations, if you're interested, is a model called the Mark X. Based on the same platform as the Lexus IS, Lexus GS, and the Toyota Crown family, (which is an upscale sedan marque with a zillion variants of its own) the Mark X is a sleek rear-wheel-drive four-door with a unique X on the grille. The current second-generation model has been on the market since 2009, so now's as good a time as any for the mid-cycle refresh!
The biggest visual change in the refresh is the elimination of the triple headlights which, up until now, gave the car sort of a "monster from the deep sea" look. Or at least that's the image that always sprung to mind when I gazed upon the car's ample flanks. As is the way of things nowadays, the headlights get a sleeker LED-lined treatment, surrounding a revised, more stylized grille. The nose is certainly more modern-looking than the pre-refresh model, and tellingly, the press shots appear to be mostly from the front. The car comes with two flavors of V6 motivation, 2.5 or 3.5-liter. There's all manner of interior trim packages and you can get it with all-wheel-drive if you prefer. MSRP ranges from 2.44 million yen ($31k US) to 3.9 million yen ($49,640 US) depending on your specified combination of ponies, interior accoutrements, and driven wheels. Similar to other recent Toyota domestic models, there will be a G's model with a revised front fascia and copious suspension tweaks developed by Toyota's Gazoo Racing team.
Whether it's simply a triumph of Toyota's marketing division or reflective of genuine public interest in the car, this refresh has been quite the hot news item in Japan. It's been mentioned in the newspaper along with other world news, and it's even one of the headlines that flashed by in my mobile phone's news ticker, which generally carries the largest stories of the day. If you wanna schlep the family in style but don't want to pony up the coin for a Lexus, this may be your ride!