The Top 10 Americanized JDM Models that Should Have Happened
Over the decades, numerous Japanese automobiles originally developed primarily with the home market in mind have found second homes here on this side of the Pacific. These Americanized JDM models have existed for various and sundry purposes, like rounding out the lineup of their maker’s luxury brand, filling a marketplace niche that was suddenly hot over here, or fulfilling an obligation to an OEM with which their maker was partnered.
Yet for every repurposed domestic delicacy that’s been served over here, there are multiple Nihon-only specialties that we wish had been sent over here. And we can think of quite a few such machines for which, at the very least, a somewhat compelling business case could have been made for selling them in the U.S. Here are 10 of those “quite a few” Americanized JDM models that we think could – and should – have happened.
The year 1999 was pivotal in the evolution of the Honda Odyssey; from that year forward, the North American Odyssey would adhere to our continent’s minivan design orthodoxy, with larger dimensions inside and out, monolithic sliding doors just aft of the conventionally-hinged fronts on either side, and a big, understressed V6 under the hood; by contrast, the Odyssey for Japan and other international markets would stick with the original’s compact, conventionally-hinged rear door (at least until the current-gen JDM model arrived for model year 2014), four-banger recipe. To us, this branching of the family tree created a golden opportunity for Acura to enter the premium wagon/van/crossover chimera space populated by the likes of the Mercedes-Benz R-Class, Lincoln MKT and BMW 5 Series GT that came later. Yes, we’re well aware that all of those vehicles have sold like LaserDisc players made of live gonorrhea cultures over here, but we could see Honda’s luxury division taking a crack at making the idea work with a plush, tech-laden, six- or seven-passenger “VLX.”
When Nissan rolled out its Infiniti luxury brand in 1989, it did so with a brand new V8, rear-drive flagship sedan – the Q45 – at the top of the lineup. But unlike arch nemesis Toyota, who positioned its Lexus LS 400 as a full-on luxo-barge in the mold of the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, the suits at Nissan decided to give their new North American flagship a sportier, more youthful disposition, something that (along with a baffling marketing campaign consisting primarily of Zen garden paraphernalia and no pictures of the actual cars, a visually jarring grille-less front end and a near-total absence of wood and brightwork on the interior) turned off would-be buyers in droves.
But there was an almost ready-made solution that addressed all of the aforementioned issues other than the head-scratcher adverts…and it was even built on the same platform! The 1990-2002 Nissan President used the same basic architecture and 4.5L VH45DE V8 as the Q45, but featured a 6” longer wheelbase (all of which was between the B- and C-pillars for a big bump in rear legroom), a more traditional front fascia treatment with a “waterfall” grille, and a markedly less austere cabin. In 1993 the company even added a President JS, which used the shorter Q45 body but had President exterior styling and trim! Giving old-money luxury sedan buyers more of what they wanted like Lexus did would have been so easy; instead, Infiniti insisted on giving them what they thought they wanted, and the Q45 was pretty much consigned to also-ran status for the remainder of its existence.
Lexus RS 250T
Between the plush front-drive ES and the sporty-ish rear-drive GS, Lexus had pretty much all the mid-size luxury sedan bases covered in the mid- to late-1990s. However, that doesn’t make us want an Americanized version of the Toyota Chaser any less. Roughly the same size as a the concurrent XV10 and XV20 “widebody” Camrys sold outside Japan but with rear-wheel-drive and available naturally-aspirated and turbo members of the company’s famed JZ-series straight-six engines, the final generation of Chaser (which bore the X100 chassis code) would have given the Big L a proper sport sedan, particularly with the turbo 2.5L 1JZ-GTE (rated at the “gentlemen’s agreement” number of 276 horsepower) and 5-speed manual gearbox found in the Chaser Tourer V. Granted, Toyota management didn’t seem terribly interested in using Lexus going after the likes of the BMW M5 or the AMG-tuned Mercedes-Benz E-Class of the moment at that time (and, given the power deficit of the GS F relative to the current crop of German mid-size missiles, it still isn’t), but let’s not limit ourselves to the whims of a cabal of MBAs, okay?
After two tall, van-like, 4WD-optional generations of existence, the Honda Civic Wagon exited the North American market at the close of the 1991 model year (which was the end of regular fourth-gen Civic production). The home market version of the wagon, the Civic Shuttle, would actually remain in production until early 1996, at which time it was replaced by the Orthia, a vehicle based on the sixth generation Civic and featured more conventional station wagon proportions and unique front end styling, while still offering a choice of front- or four-wheel-drive. In Europe, the Orthia was marketed as the Civic Aerodeck, and it used the same front exterior parts as the Civic sedan and five-door sold there.
So why didn’t Honda bring back the Civic wagon over here? Well, by 1996, it was becoming quite clear that station wagons (or at least the term itself) were now the automotive marketing equivalent of farting into a bullhorn in church; SUVs and car based crossovers – which were still in their primordial amoebic form – were, and apparently still are, the way forward. But here’s the thing: Subaru managed to strike showroom gold around that same time by hiking up its Legacy Wagon, throwing on some butch lower body cladding and trim, and calling it the Outback. Surely Honda could have cooked up something similar with the Orthia by installing the USDM Civics’ front sheetmetal, raising the ride height, and giving it a buzzwordy name like CivicCross or Civic Crosstour.
Would such a SUV pretender have smothered the CR-V in its crib? Possibly, yeah…but it would have brought people who wanted cute-ute capability without the SUV social stigma into the Big H fold, as well. Also: Think of all the killer swap possibilities it would have added to the American Civic and Integra tuning scene.
Geo Storm/Chevrolet Nova
Not to be confused with the recent sci-fi flick about climate manipulation, the Geo Storm was sold between 1990 and ‘93 through the Geo sub-brand Chevrolet set up as a clearinghouse for captive imports engineered and, in most instances, manufactured in Japan by Suzuki, Isuzu and Toyota. In the case of the Storm hatchback coupe and shooting brake mini-wagon, it was a rebadged and mildly restyled version of the second generation Isuzu Impulse. However, by 1993 GM was ready to give up on non-SUV two-door models for Chevy’s earthly-named offshoot…
But what if it wasn’t ready at that point in history? What if it looked to Toyota, who was providing modified Sprinter tooling – the Sprinter being a home market Corolla clone sold through a different dealer network – for the Geo Prizm that was assembled alongside Corollas at the NUMMI plant owned and operated by both companies in Fremont, California? The E100-chassis Corolla (sedan and wagon) and Prizm (sedan only) arrived on the North American scene for the 1993 model year but, back in Japan, Toyota was offering handsome notchback coupes (wearing the hallowed Corolla Levin and Sprinter Trueno labels) built atop this same front-drive platform.
Yes, we realize homologating either of the AE101 coupes’ (the Corolla Levin GT-Z version of which, with its functional hood scoop, is shown above) most exotic inline-four engines (the 1.6L 20-valve “Silver Top” 4A-GE with 158 horsepower or the 1.6L 16-valve supercharged 4A-GZE rated at 171 horsepower) to meet U.S. emissions standards without completely castrating them likely would have been an uphill battle, but imagine what a moderately-priced Integra- and Eclipse- (not to mention Toyota’s own Celica…which, come to think of it, was likely another major factor in why this plan was a non-starter) fighter would have done for Geo’s street cred. And when Geo and its remaining models (Metro, Prizm and Tracker) were folded back into Chevy for the 1998 model year, it would have been the perfect opportunity to bring back the Chevrolet Nova (and Nova SS) as a federalized version of the new AE111 Levin/Trueno. After all, they wouldn’t be the first “wrong-wheel-drive” Toyotas to wear the badge…
Mazda Miata GT
Although the two most recent generations of the Mazda MX-5 Miata (codenames NC and ND) have been available with slick folding hardtops, there’s never been a true fixed roof coupe version of the world’s best selling two-seat sports car…unless you live in Japan. For the 2004 model year, the company offered the Roadster Coupé, a semi-fastback hardlid version of the second generation NB-chassis Miata that, while 22 lbs. heavier and not particularly pretty if you ask us, was more aerodynamic and substantially more rigid than the open model, the latter of which made the handling even more amazeballs.
Sadly, just 179 were made, thanks in no small part to nearly every exterior panel above and behind the door skins being different from the roadster. However, we don’t see why Mazda (which, at the time, still had one hell of a sugar daddy in Ford) couldn’t have built and certified a batch for sale over here as an ultra-limited-run farewell of sorts to the NB (other than cost, obviously). Of course, the name would have had to be changed from Roadster Coupé to something less brow-furrowing, like Miata GT (Hey, it worked for the Miata’s main inspiration, the MGB…).
While it’s easy to posit that the Scion brand was destined for failure from the get-go, we don’t necessarily agree. Had the Toyota brass had the foresight to offer something in the nuclear-fusion-hot small crossover SUV segment sooner rather than later (The funky Toyota C-HR was, after all, originally slated to wear the Scion label over here.), maybe we wouldn’t be talking about the youth – or at least aimed-at-youth – nameplate in the past tense. But what Toyota soft roader would have fit the small, affordable and kinda hip Scion ethos? Technically, the answer is none; instead, the answer would have come from Daihatsu, which has been controlled by Toyota since 1998 and a wholly-owned subsidiary since August of last year.
Daihatsu’s second generation Terios (sold in Japan as the Daihatsu Be►go and Toyota Rush up until last spring) , which entered production in 2006, is an itty-bitty (161.2” long, 66.7” wide) cute ute powered by a 1.5L inline-four with either front- or four-wheel-drive, the latter including a locking center diff but no low range gearset. Granted, its styling would have been on the bland side by Scion standards, but we think the low price, jungle (concrete and otherwise) friendly agility and economy of operation while still retaining the truckish profile and relatively high seating position of its bigger brethren would have made the Scion xU (or whatever name the suits gave it) a hit with American buyers of all ages.
The fourth generation Honda Accord (which goes by the chassis code CB) marked the final time that the model would be sold globally (North America, Europe and the Far East) using the same styling and architecture. Beginning with the fifth generation Accord, the nameplate’s evolutionary path diverged: North America, Japan and elsewhere got the all new CD-series, while Europe received a lightly-modified version of the Japanese Ascot Innova, a shapely semi-fastback sedan-only model based on the CB-series Accord’s floorpan.
With that in mind, it would have been entirely possible for Honda North America to offer this stylish 4-door under the Acura label as a fill-in model (in both the size and price senses) between the contemporary Acura Integra and TL. Whether or not such a vehicle would have sold worth a damn is debatable, though Acura did have moderate success selling rest-of-the world Accords under the TSX nameplate later on.
Datsun 810 Maxima Coupe
The last big Nissan sedans and wagons to wear the Datsun nameplate in North America, the 810 Deluxe and upscale 810 Maxima, were by-and-large stretched-ahead-of-the-firewall six-cylinder versions of the four-cylinder 910-series Bluebird offered in much of the rest of the world. The kinship of those rear-drive square-body machines is important, because there was an additional pair of bodystyles that were offered as Bluebirds but not as 810s: A two-door hardtop coupe and a four-door hardtop.
The four-door hardtop, while a cool alternative to the more formal sedan, likely would have been a non-starter in this market due to both next-to-non-existent demand and the herculean task of getting a monocoque with two door openings per side and a B-pillar that doesn’t attach to the roof to pass Uncle Sam’s side impact and rollover safety regs. Its two-door sister, however, could have been fitted with the longer 810 nose (which allowed the gas and diesel straight-sixes to fit) and been adapted to meet NHTSA requirements – after all, rival Mazda was able to get its “pillarless” 626 Coupe approved – and would have created a handsome, somewhat plush grand tourer (We doubt the company would have bothered with a low-spec 810 Deluxe Coupe.) to lock horns with the likes of the Ford Thunderbird, Chevrolet Monte Carlo and other blue collar brand personal luxury coupes.
Upon Chrysler’s taking American Motors off a relieved Renault’s hands in 1987, Lee Iacocca and his subordinates probably spent a good 20 to 30 minutes fawning over the current and future Jeep lineup before thinking, “Oh crap. What do we do with all these passenger car lines?” Their answer to that conundrum, as we now know, was to conjure a new brand – Eagle, whose name was taken from the ahead-of-its-time family of AWD AMC cars that would be built under the Pentastar umbrella for one last year – to sell the AMC/Renault developed products it was contractually obligated to do so (namely the Medallion, which was derived from the Renault 21, and the Premier, which was derived from the Renault 25) and a potpourri of smaller Mitsubishi-made captive imports.
However, American consumers never really connected with the Medallion, and the compact sedan (and its nearly 8” longer and even rarer wagon stablemate) were retired at the end of the 1989 model year. This left a rather yawning size and price gap in Eagle’s lineup between the Summit (a Dodge/Plymouth/Mitsubishi Colt clone) and the Premier, one that we reckon could have been filled by a rebadge of the contemporary Mitsubishi Galant; in fact, Chrysler did exactly that in Canada by offering both an Eagle and a Dodge version of the sixth-gen Galant sedan called the 2000GTX. Yet our hypothetical USDM Eagle-fied Galant (which would have revived the Medallion label because, hey, why not?) would have taken things a couple steps further by offering the two bodystyles that weren’t offered on any North American Galant/2000GTX: The five-door hatchback and the lower-and-sleeker-of-greenhouse four-door “hardtop” (which had frameless door glass but rigid B-pillars going from the floor to the roof) known as the Mitsubishi Eterna Sava back home. And in a move to inject some excitement into the lineup, both styles would have been available in hot rod TSi forms that would have packaged the Galant VR-4’s 2.0L turbo inline-four and AWD system in these alternate bodies.
Come 1993, the Premier was replaced by the swoopy LH-body Vision, and the following year on our alternate timeline would have seen the arrival of the gen-three Medallion, based on the gen-seven Galant hatch and its pseudo-hardtop sister, which was now called the Emeraude and had its own front and rear styling (as shown above, though the former would be changed to whatever the 5-door Medallion was wearing to maintain the familial connection). Mitsu’s tiny 6A-series V6s were never homologated by the EPA, so the TSi label likely would have switched to Medallions with the optional 2.5L 6G-series V6, sport styling and chassis bits, and maybe just front-wheel-drive. Far more boring than its predecessor, we know, but a good bit cheaper, and the two Eagle-only body types still would have given it a leg up on the “all sedans, all the time” American Galant, if you ask us.