The Japan Car Experience

Japan On Wheels - The Japanese Car Experience

Harrison Wheeler

Since moving to Japan, cars have become a big infatuation of mine. I never used to pay much attention to cars really - they were handy devices that, as long as they got me from A to B on time, and had a decent stereo of course, I was content.

I guess I'm not your typical 'car-guy.' Japanese cars however, have oodles more character than ours in Canada. I mean, plenty of cars have CARisma (sorry!), but the majority seems to be boring run of the mill sedans or, god save us all, SUVs.

Here in sunny Japan they've got a variety of cars that match the peculiarity of their manga characters: cute and sometimes even ridiculous, but most importantly efficient. The list of Japanese cars is long and colorful - here are a few to give you an idea.

(Please note that although these descriptions may smell of mockery, they're really not. It's a celebration of their oddities!)

Bubble cars

Bubble Car

Somewhere between a Volkswagen beetle and a giant soap bubble. One would half-expect this car to blow off with a good gust of wind and burst into vehicle oblivion.

Tonka-Farm Trucks (e.g. Mitsubishi Mini-Cab)

Unbeknownst to us, Tonka the toy truck factory has taken their toys out of the sandbox and made them road-worthy here in Japan.

These trucks are slow, inefficient and are incredibly frustrating to drive behind. Miraculously they can carry massive amounts of materials, from towers of hay and rice stalk to several tons of metal scrap. No one taller than 150cm or younger than 106 years of age can drive it though.

Mitsubishi Mini Van

Cubes (e.g. The Nissan Cube - go figure)

Resembling a Rubik's Cube gone mobile. No one factored in the aero-dynamics here. As the name suggests, this is just a box on wheels. Funny to the power of three.

Nissan Cube Car

Comic Space Vans

Curiously, these vans only come out on the roads late at night. The space-vans are what one would imagine a mini-van on steroids to look like with HUGE spoilers jutting out over a meter into the air. The one and only mass-produced graffiti-on-wheels, these vehicles sport Japanese pop stars, comic-book and Disney characters airbrushed on with worryingly faithful artistic integrity. Aliens do exist - and they've been tuning into the Disney channel for hundreds of light-years.

Second House
Winnie the Pooh Van

R-2 D-2 the car

Yes, it's actually called R-2. Unconfirmed reports state that the C-3P0 motor-bike has been spotted somewhere outside the Degoba System.


Flying Saucer Mobiles (e.g. The Nissan Toppo)

This car has a lot of space on top, which begs the question as to why Japanese people are driving it. One could imagine this thing taking a corner too fast, spinning out of control, going air-borne and landing in an American corn field, making for another newsworthy UFO sighting.

Nissan El Toppo

Lawnmower K-cars (e.g. The Suzuki Alto)

Maxing out at a breakneck speed of 60km an hour, this one is in a special category of Japanese lightweight cars.

Japanese car manufacturers typically assign a letter to each new model pre-production and this one got a "K". The K-car was specifically designed as a cheap vehicle that simply 'did the job.' If that means cutting the lawn on Saturday mornings, they were right. Believe it or not, some of the K-cars are Turbo Charged. (It cuts AND it mulches.)

Suzuki Alto K Car

The Smarty

Aside from being prime eye-candy, Japanese cars are typically made to be more fuel efficient, eco-friendly vehicles.

The most obvious of these is the new gas-electric hybrid, the Smart Car. Needless to say, the name suits the car perfectly. Sure, you might think it looks like the equivalent of Hotel-Pillow Mint on the road but, in the case of the Smart Car, looks aren't something to be mocked. It not only has stylish lines but takes the prize for the most environmentally sound car on the market. What's more is that it's the first of its kind to sell internationally and succeed at edging into the old-school car economy. The technology for alternative fuel-based cars has been a possibility for years and finally it has come to fruition! Honestly, it's a huge milestone!

Editor's note - The Smart Car was originally developed by DaimlerBenz and the Japan-only variant is called the Smart K.

Smart Car

The Ogre

On the complete opposite end of the spectrum is the Smart Car's older and uglier cousin - the gross, gas-guzzling SUV. Of course, the SUV is available in Japan and enjoys unprecedented popularity, but it really doesn't suit Japan's tiny roads and its similarly tiny people. An entire Japanese village could fit in an SUV, whereas in the West they are typically used as a one-person weekender wagon. Any car that has an acronym as a name has got to be ridiculous: Sports Utility Vehicle? I prefer Sick Unnecessary Vanity.

Toyota SUV

Imagine then the entire range of Japanese wheels lined up next to one another - a veritable menagerie of trippy' characters, engines revving - a Pokemon convoy ready to spread insanity over landscapes unreal. Car owners in Japan see them in the same way - most cars are decorated in detail on the inside as well as on the outside. '100-yen Stores' sell all the trinkets necessary to bring your motorized alter-ego to life - dress it up in leather-print seats, drape feather boas over the console, assemble a team of stuffed animals for the back windshield, a neon light for the gear-shift - and you're not just driving a car anymore. You're driving a veritable charisma 'wonder wagon!' You're piloting a personality capsule! A mood mobile! You're Japan on wheels.

Cute Ride

At first glance, the humor value of Japanese cars cannot be denied, but it has to be said how just how 'smart' Japanese cars really are in comparison to Western designs.

Seeing a K Car next to an SUV in Japan is quite a contradiction. In one lane is an embodiment of Japanese humility; a cutesy decoration on the landscape that also happens to reliably get us to work on time without excessive waste or pollution. In the other lane is North America's massive attitude; the apparent king of the road, ignorant of its over-indulgent consumption of fuel and pollutant output - the true emblem of excess.

I do believe that we in the West could take a page out of Japan's automobile book and go for cute and efficient over attitude and gluttony. Sorry to say that Japan obviously likes the SUV look too, otherwise they wouldn't be on their streets. The majority of SUVs on Japanese streets are produced by Japanese manufacturers after all.

Interesting to note, is that Ford is scheduled to come out with an electric/gas hybrid SUV - an attempt to redeem its anti-eco attitude. I haven't the faintest idea of what this new SUV hybrid will be called, but if it were up to me, I'd name it the Ford Hypocrite.

Cartoon (c) Harrison Wheeler

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