Japan is a cutting-edge design powerhouse. For too long, its world-famous auto brands have been stereotyped as super-reliable econoboxes with little personality. We’d say that couldn’t be further from the truth. This is a country that is home to a brand that is not only the best seller on the planet, but also happens to be a multiple Le Mans winner to boot. Flair and panache don’t pack any better than the boxy minimalist electric power of another Japanese great. And then there’s this legendary brand that specializes in rally-inspired flat-four engines. Boring, they are certainly not. Expect our pick of the top 10 Japanese car brands…
The best Japanese car brands in 2022
A long-time proponent of flat-four engines and four-wheel drive, Subaru is also a multiple world rally champion with the Impreza, notably with the great Scottish driver Colin McRae. On-road Impreza WRXs are still darlings of the modified-car crowd, while the company’s longtime Outback and Forester estates are longtime favorites of those who need true off-road capability rather than a Chelsea tractor. Subaru’s offering is off-road capability paired with a rally-winning pedigree and the distinctive exhaust note that only a flat-four engine can deliver. What’s not to like?
The secret truth about Toyota – beyond its stunning international sales numbers, legendary reliability and pioneering hybrid technology – is that it’s a company run by car enthusiasts. Who else would have built the frankly insane GR Yaris, a completely redesigned, carbon-roofed version of Toyota’s everyday sedan that’s essentially a rally car for the road? Then there’s the GR86, a hilarious-to-drive sports car, and the Supra, a svelte continent-crushing coupe developed in conjunction with BMW. Oh, and did we mention the multiple 24 Hours of Le Mans wins?
Boring, right? Great for shopping/dogs/people – the British-produced Qashqai helped define the crossover genre, the Juke adds funk to that mix, the Micra is everyone’s starter car – but nothing… other. The car as a device, then? Bad. Nissan’s so-called Z cars – beginning with the now legendary 240Z in the late 1960s – have long been revered by petrol enthusiasts for their style, speed and ability to be modified. Later 350Z and 370Z machines are brutally fast, the latter, simply called Nissan Z, reminiscent of the 240Z. The sought-after Nissan GT-R takes it to another level.
The Japanese automaker that has always taken a slightly different path: evidenced by its steadfast refusal to give up the often unreliable and gas-guzzling speed of the rotary engine, in the delirious RX-8 with suicide doors for example and even powering a Mazda Le Mans winner. Not only that, but enthusiasts love Mazda’s commitment to the traditional front-engine/rear-wheel open-top sports car with multiple generations of the much-loved MX-5, roughly what British brands like MG could have do, only better and – of course – reliable. Mazda’s design philosophy – known as Kodo – has won numerous awards for its minimalist and immersive approach.
No one thought a new luxury brand invented essentially as a side rip off by Toyota would work. Reliable high-end luxury is what Mercedes does, after all, the cynics said, and who would want that new Lexus badge? It turns out that over 700,000 people worldwide want one every year, and for good reason. Every Lexus is a comfortable, well-appointed place with a reliability that puts even the most established luxury brands to shame. There’s a standout design here, too: the LFA coupe was carbon fiber and capable of 150mph.
Soichiro Honda founded his company with one eye on the road and the other on the track. The bikes enjoyed success at the notoriously demanding Isle of Man TT, while the company’s Formula 1 engines powered Ayrton Senna to world championships. Senna also contributed to the development of the NS-X supercar. A certain afterlife spirit has always accompanied R-designated models: the Civic Type-R, for example, is a winged brute that enjoyed significant success in the British Touring Car series. Innovation is key: the all-electric Honda E is a minimalist statement of contemporary urban design.
The brand that is often – and unfairly – forgotten among the great Japanese car brands. Motorcycles have long been Suzuki’s bread and butter, but on four wheels, a certain left-field approach has always been the company’s hallmark. Witness the current Ignis sedan – beveled design, available four-wheel drive – and the boxy lines – almost as if a child had drawn it – of the current generation of Jimny Jeep-style off-roaders. Suzuki also makes the obligatory SUV, the handsome Vitara, but we’d say an Ignis and a Jimny make a pretty good two-car garage.
Nissan has invested a lot of money in its luxury car brand, confident in the global success that Toyota has achieved with Lexus. At one point there was even sponsorship of the Formula 1 team Red Bull. All of this translated into significant success for its sybaritic highway shredders in the US – with more than 125,000 sold each year – but very little in Europe where Infiniti simply failed to make it. They remain highly desirable second-hand purchases for those looking for a lot of luxury for very little money. Plus, since they’re essentially Nissans, they’re not allowed to break down.
Always good to know what’s behind a name: “Mitsubishi Shokai” translates from Japanese to “three diamonds”, and these make up the logo of a huge industrial multinational that makes cars alongside its banks, its plastics and many more Fortunately, one of those cars was the Mitsubishi Lancer EVO, a spin-off of a hugely successful rally program, and so good it gave a car magazine its name performance. Today, your new Mitsubishi could be an off-roader, like the Outlander PHEV, the world’s best-selling plug-in hybrid.
Are you a farmer who needs to move a flock of sheep from a Lakeland waterfall? Your local Isuzu dealer has what you need. Specializing in diesel-powered off-roaders so tough they’ll see all but the heaviest hillsides, Isuzu is dedicated to providing bulletproof transportation for people who really want to get off the beaten path. The company has spent a quarter of a century perfecting this art, culminating in its most extreme machine to date: the AT35, a brutally engineered monster whose luxury interior belies its formidable capabilities. Guaranteed to intimidate everyone on the road and in the mountains.
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