LEXUS

If American car-manufacturer heads had been warned about a Japanese take-over in the mid 80’s, they would have almost certainly laughed at the prospect. Humorous or not, the Japanese did conquer US, not through mecha led wars but rather through anime and cars. However, before the mild-assault began, there were a series of weird meetings held in secrecy in chairman chambers.

Such a meeting was held in 1983 between Toyota chairman Eiji Toyoda and his company executives. Toyoda had not invited his enforcers over for cookies and tea but to question them about the possibility of developing a luxury-car line that could successfully compete with American brands. The project was labeled as F1 -Flahship 1- and proved to be a most lucrative endeavor. The result was a vehicle that later became known as the Lexus LS 400 prior to its US premier.

The LS 400 was not just a car that took time and resources to built. In researching American luxury-product consumer habits and lifestyles, the Japanese went as far as renting a house in Laguna beach in order to observe their “subjects” closely. Offspring of long-gestating consumer research and cutting-edge engineering, the LX 400 was a hit.

Endorsed by insightful advertising, the LS 400 made its entrance at the North American Auto Show in Detroit, 1989 where it was one of the main attractions. And how could it not have been after 24 engineering teams and a few thousands employees worked on 450 prototypes at the cost of a paltry $1 billion investment?

The main advantage Lexus had over Acura, that had reached US markets 3 years before, was its uniqueness. Unlike the first Acura models which were sold as rebadged Hondas, the Lexus held little connections to Toyota design patterns.

Silent, ergonomic, powerful and reliable, the LS became a fierce competitor for European imports such as Mercedes Benz and BMW, whose sales drastically dropped following Lexus’ trumpeting market entrance.

Models like the ES 250 followed which along the LS registered enough sales to allow the brand expanding through an 81-dealership network. During those first years of sales, Lexus became the top-selling luxury car in the U.S. Things were going smoothly for the Japanese manufacturer, just like its cars, and in 1991, two new models were released: the SC400 coupe and the ES 300 sedan. The latter was marketed as a replacement for the ES 250 and quickly became the company’s best selling sedan.

Following the release of a heir to the LS 400 and the Toyota Aristo-based series of the GS, Lexus entered the sport utility vehicle segment in 1996 with the launch of the LX 450, a large car based on the Toyota Land Cruiser 100. By 1998, Lexus would release the RX, a top-selling crossover based on Toyota’s Camry model as well as a new series of the GS. During the following years, further technological improvements such as the introduction of the Lexus Hybrid Drive system on the 2005 RX 400h, resulted in an even greater sales increase.

Things were so good for Lexus that it has constantly grown since its inception. The brand has been introduced to the Japanese home-market in 2005 as well as it has in other regions of Asia and South America as well as Australia and Europe. By 2007, Lexus had spread in over 50 countries and it continues to grow. The company’s “pursuit of perfection” is fronted by its current line-up, comprised of the IS, LS and RX series among others as well as the avant-garde LF-A concepts.

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TOYOTA

Toyota Jidosha Kabushiki-gaisha or Toyota for short is actually the largest car maker in the entire world, bigger than Ford, GM and anyone else. Their history, like many other car producers, starts with some other product, in this case automatic looms. At some point, in 1933, Kiichiro Toyoda, son to Toyota’s founder, decided he wanted to build cars and so he took a trip to Europe to get an idea about gas-powered engines.
The government encouraged such a bold decision mostly because making their own cars would be cheaper and they also needed vehicles for the war with China. Just a year after its foundation in 1933, the Toyota Motor Company created its first engine, the Type A, placed in the Model A1 passenger car and the G1 truck.

During WWII, Toyota was committed to making trucks for the army and only the premature ending of the conflict saved the company’s factories in Aichi from a scheduled Allied bomb raid. After the war, Toyota resumed car making but found more success in building trucks and buses than with cars. Still, it didn’t give up on cars for good and in 1947 it came up with the Model SA, also known as the Toyopet, a name which later was applied to other models as well.

A little more successful was the Model SF which also had a taxi version but the same 27 horsepower engine as its predecessor. A more powerful model, the RH, which had 48 HP came out shortly after. Production went up rather fast and by 1955, Toyota was turning out 8400 cars a year. That year, Toyota diversified their production, adding the Jeep-like Land Cruiser and the luxury sedan, the Crown.

With numbers growing and with several models under their belt, Toyota now had its eyes set on the international market. The first dealership outside Japan was in America in 1957 an the first plant in Brazil in 1959. An interesting strategy from Toyota ensured that all models were somehow unique to the region where they were produced (they were adapted to the respective market).

The big break for Toyota on the American market came with the 70s when rising gas prices forced local producers to make smaller cars. These were thought of as entry-level and as a consequence lacked in quality of finishings. In contrast, Toyota already had several fuel-efficient models that were also of better quality. The Corolla is the best example in this sense, soon becoming America’s favorite compact car.

But as far as the luxury market went, Toyota still had trouble with selling the Crown and the Cressida. At the dawn of the 80s, the entire luxury market in America was entering a downwards slope, with all the other manufacturers finding it difficult to keep up sales, and that’s when Toyota came up with Lexus, a new company that would make luxury cars.

By the beginning of the 90s, Toyota vehicles became synonymous with reliability and low-cost maintenance which made them very popular all over the world. A bid for winning over the younger audience was made with the launch of models like the MR2 and the Celica.

Presently, Toyota is at the forefront of the environmental battle, with its successful hybrid model, the Toyota Prius and now announcing a plug-in electric car that will be called Toyota Plug-in HV, which will run on standard electricity powered by a lithium-ion battery pack.

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HONDA

The circumstances under which Honda came to be are at least manga worthy. Torn by the second world war, the country was yet far from making a full recovery. Focusing all the resources that were left to rebuild what had been destroyed, Japan could hardly fill at once all the voids that had been created. The Japanese auto industry was dazed, many factories having had to convert to cater for demands in military vehicles and aircraft.

The open spots that war had created had to be occupied fast and Honda was quick enough to settle on grounds that would later witness its growth as the 5th largest automobile manufacturer in the world. Soichiro Honda founded the company in 1948. The timing was perfect as many car or bike plants were destroyed during the war.

Focusing on developing a cheap indispensable vehicle, Honda strapped an engine to a bike, delivering a very efficient means of locomotion. Cheap and versatile, it set the cornerstone in Honda’s incredible expansion. Ten years later, Honda would reach American land and establish the American Honda Co. World domination would naturally follow, made easy through clever subsidiary locations and dealership settlements.

The bloodhound-nosed company leader, Soichiro could sense that Honda would be big and committed to setting a new standard in car-production quality. This combined with his almost Napolean market take-overs proved to be a powerful concoction that allowed Honda to developed unabated by competition.

The brand became synonymous with usefulness and innovative engineering. The company’s motorcycle division registered a tremendous sales increase, pushing Honda on the motorcycle manufacturer’s podium. During the 1970’s, Honda became the world’s largest motorbike maker.

Its production of cars however, that had started during the 60’s was slow at sparking as much attention as its 2-wheeled drives did. Although it had entered motor sport competitions, Honda cars failed to impress the average American driver. Having been designed for the Japanese market, the small-sized cars had little close to nothing to do against the large vehicles favored by the Americans.

In an effort driven by market-conquest desires, Honda launched the American-oriented civic, a larger model than any other previously released. Although still small compared to the US-made cars, the Civic became the first to attract the American buyer. The 70’s energy crisis and subsequent emissions laws opened a second row of gates for Honda. Through their later Civic models such as the CVCC which was a variation on the stratified engine, the Japanese car maker managed to meet emissions regulations without having to equip their cars with catalytic converters that besides reducing pollution also raised automobile price tags.

In mid 70’s, Honda would release another American-friendly vehicle, the Accord that quickly became Mr. Popular due to its fuel economy and easy drive. By 1982, Honda had reached heights that no other Japanese car manufacturers had before: opening a plant on American soil. There first assembly line was built in Maysville, Ohio. Three other plants later followed as well as the construction of one in Lincoln, Alabama and another in Timmonsville, South Carolina. The latest Honda factory opened in 2006 in Tallapoosa, Georgia.

After building the brand in the States, Honda found it hard to compete in the luxury car segments against the veteran American producers and European imports so it introduced its on line of luxury vehicles in 1986. Known as Acura, the range comprises variations of successful Honda models such as the Legend or Integra. Honda was the first Japanese car maker to do so, follow by fellow Nissan and Toyota which have launched their own separate luxury lines, Infiniti and Lexus.

The quest for a better engine was completed in 1989 when Honda announced the introduction of the V-Tec. Capable of variable valve control, the V-TEC syncs valve open/close times to increase power at high revs and reduce fuel consumption at low ones. Presently, Honda is involved in smart engine research, safety improvements and pre-crash warning and avoidance systems.

As far as their involvement in motor sports goes, Honda has been constantly striving to hold its position with one foot on the podium and the other one caught in menacing holdbacks and loses against other Japanese producers like Yamaha, Suzuki and Kawasaki.

The company’s latest car-engineering improvements are primarily fuel and safety oriented, the latter having become one of the major criteria in car buying choices especially in the United States. The company’s involvement in developing new cleaner vehicles has finally paid off with the recent release of the FCX Clarity. Powered by hydrogen cells, the car does not emit any pollutants, the only by products being water and oxygen. When its not developing new fuel technology, Honda is busy with being the largest engine producer on Earth, with over 14 million engines manufactured per year.

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NISSAN

Known by many names, this major Asian conglomerate has been making cars since 1914. Today, Nissan is the third largest automaker in Japan. The Nissan Motor Company took over the Datsun company in 1933 and in 1934 it would take on the name we all know today.

The first Datsun passenger car came off the assembly line in 1935 and pretty soon Nissan started exporting to Australia. In 1937 the Datsun Type 15 becomes the first mass-produced vehicle in Japan, which also comes in mini-pickup and delivery van form.

Ever expanding the production, Nissan decides to expand into the United States. This move from 1958 was made due to the American influence Nissan had thanks to its designer, William R. Gorham. The models exported to the US were 1200 Sedans with a 48 hp engine, a compact pickup with 37 hp which later became a top seller during the 50s.

By the time the 60s rolled in Nissan had already made a name for itself on both sides of the Pacific. Now, the company moves into another part of the market, starting to sell sport cars. At first, it would be the SPL 210, a narrow, high roadster had a folding soft top and a 48hp engine, soon upgraded to a 85hp version.

Catering for the American market, Nissan introduces the Bluebird, with synchronized 3-speed transmission in 1962. In the off-road sector, the Patrol is debuted, with a generous amount of horsepower, that was marketed as being able “to climb trees”. In 1967 the 2000 Roadster is let loose upon the unsuspecting public and onto the racing world which it takes by storm.

The sporty line is continued in the 70s with the “Z” line, one still continued today. The 1970 240Z becomes the best selling sports car in the world by offering quality and comfort at an affordable price. Sales in America start taking off until eventually, in 1975, Datsun becomes the number 1 importer in the States.

Nissan starts expanding during the 80s in order to keep up with demand and opens up new factories. And just when everyone thought that Nissan couldn’t get any bigger, along comes a whole new brand of Nissan, one aimed at a more luxurious segment of the market, Infiniti. In 1989, as the Infiniti project getting off the ground, parent company Nissan was celebrating its millionth car built in the US.

As new plants get built throughout the 90s, new models are added to the line up to corner the market. The Altima sedan and the Sentra become front-runners as the best sold models in the Nissan line-up. Next, in 1999, it was time for the European market, Nissan signs an agreement with French manufacturer Renault to use each other’s expertise and strengths.

In 2002, the Z concept is resurrected with the 350Z, a sporty car that quickly wins over car enthusiasts but specialists as well. The ewly-formed SUV market will also be represented in the Nissan line-up with the Murano. Now, the boys over at Nissan seem to have a real hard point to make as they’ve released the GTR, a super-sporty car, the crowning jewel of Nissan motoring and engineering.

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mazda

Born as the Toyo Cork Kogyo Co. in 1920, Mazda started out as a machine-tool manufacturing plant but quickly turned to making vehicles. The first Mazda car, called the Mazda-Go, a three-wheeled truck appeared in 1931, which a year later began exporting to China. This was the only car that was in production until the Second World War broke out when Mazda factories began making rifles.

After the war, part of the Mazda plant served as the Hiroshima prefecture for a short while. Production and export resumed in 1949 with the same 3-wheeled truck. The first 4-wheel truck was the Mazda Romper, introduced in 1958.

The first pasenger car came in 1960, the Mazda R360 Coupe. Mazda’s first partnership with a foreign company was the one in 1961 with NSU/Wankel with which it produced and developed rotary engines. This was done in order to differentiate Mazda from the other Japanese companies. To this day, Mazda is the only manufacturer of Wankel rotary engines as the other companies (NSU and Citroen) gave up on the design sometime during the 70s.

Mazda’s paid off because its models quickly gained a name as being powerful yet light vehicles. The most successful series for Mazda were going to be the R100 and the RX models which eventually led to the company’s development.

Starting with 1970 Mazda began eyeing the biggest market for its cars, the United States. It opened up a North American branch under the name Mazda North American Operations and it proved to have the winning recipe. In fact, Mazda models were so successful that the company even produced a pick up truck based on the rotary engine.

With 1973 and the oil crisis, the thirsty rotary engines that Mazda used caused a drop in sales but the Japanese company hadn’t really given up on piston engines so it was able to use a 4 cylinder model on its cars. The smaller Familia series and Capella were born.

But Mazda wasn’t about to give up on its sporty cars and it decided to develop a parallel plant that would produce cars outside the mainstream. In 1978, they came up with the very sporty RX7 and later with the RX8. The piston engine also showed up on Mazda’s line up with the MX-5 or Miata.

In 1979 Ford Motor Company became an investor in Mazda with a 27% share after the financial decline of the company. Later on, in the 80s, Ford acquired 20% more of the company after a few joint ventures like using the Familia series platform for the Laser and Escort models as well as building the new Probe and the Mazda plant in Flat Rock, Michigan.

The 90s started off with another joint venture with Ford on the 1991 Explorer which turned out to be a bad investment for the Japanese while the Americans reaped all the benefits. Following its fascination with alternative engine designs, Mazda started developing the Miller cycle engine in 1995.

The latter part of the 90s proved to be not so profitable for the Japanese as the financial crisis hit in 1997, during which Ford acquired 39.9% of the company. From that point on, the collaboration between the two marques intensified, sharing engine design and even some platforms (Ford Escape with Mazda Tribute and the new generation Ford Focus with the Mazda Axela).

For the future, Mazda intends to maintain its forward thinking and experimental technology, by developing a hydrogen-powered car. The prototype has so far reached a 200 kilometers autonomy.

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MITSUBISHI

Part of the Mitsubishi business conglomerate, Mitsubishi Motors has earned its place on the Japanese and international car market. The company’s history starts sometime in 1917, when the first Mitsubishi model, a seven-seater sedan based on the Fiat Tipo 3, rolls off the assembly line. Not very successful, production was discontinued after just 22 models were built.

True production begins after the merger of Mitsubishi Shipbuilding and Mitsubishi Aircraft Co. in 1934. Concentrated on building aircraft, ships, and railroad cars, the company found time to make a prototype sedan in 1937 which it called the PX33. Sadly, it was mainly for military use as the war approached.

Only after the war did the company really got into car production with a small three-vehicle vehicle, the Mizushima and a scooter with a funny name, the Silver Pigeon. Then came the split of the former conglomerate, because the conquering Allies did not see with favorable eyes Japan’s industrial development.

A decade later, things in Japan were looking up and personal transportation became an issue again as more and more families afforded cars. Enter the Mitsubishi 500, a sedan for the masses, and later the Minica small car and the Colt 1000 in 1963. With sales rising, the remnants of the Mitsubishi conglomerate were united once again in 1970.

The next step for the company was to ally itself with a foreign company, Chrysler in this case, which bought 15% of the Mitsubishi, which afforded the Japanese manufacturer the license to sell rebadged Galants as Dodge Colts in the States and as Chrysler Scorpions in Australia.

In this way, Mitsubishi was able to raise numbers in production and set up a series of dealerships around Europe. But if for Mitsubishi things were looking up, the same could not be said about its American partner which was forced to sell the Australian manufacturing division in 1980.

Two years later, Mitsubishi would enter the American market under its own name with the Tredia sedan, the Cordia and the Starion coupe. The car quota was established at 30,000 vehicles but the Japanese were keen to increase that number and they began a campaign of active advertising. By the end of the 80s, Mitsubishi had achieved 1,5 million units produced worldwide.

In order to bypass the strict import regulations and to ease the tensions between the two companies, Mitsubishi and Chrysler founded a new vehicle manufacturing company in Normal, Illinois under the name Diamond-Star Motors which started production in 1987. The models that came out of this plant include the Mitsubishi Eagle, the Eagle Talon and the Plymouth Laser.

In 1988 the company changed its status from being privately owned to public. Mitsubishi industries remained the largest stockholder with 25% of the company, while Chrysler upped its share to 20 %. Later, in 1992, it reduced the equity to just 3% and even sold its interest in Diamond-Star Motors, leaving Mitsubishi as the sole owner.

In 1995, Mitsubishi Motors changed its name to the current on from DSM as it was previously known on the American market. Also, it opened up a new North American Manufacturing Division in 2002.

In 2000, Mitsubishi sought a new partnership with the newly formed Daimler-Chrysler concern which cost the German-American group $1.9 billion, $200 million less than the original price once the defect cover-up scandal came out. It seems that Mitsubishi had systematically covered up defects in its production cars as far back as 1977, involving anything from failing brakes to faulty clutch systems. When the news was disclosed, the company was forced to recall 163,707 vehicles for free repairs.

That, coupled with a economic crisis in the Asian region caused Mitsubishi a loss in profit and even the need to downsize in order to cope with falling demand. A new breed of cars, revitalized models and forward thinking was what brought Mitsubishi back on track. The Mitsubishi i, a small car perfect for the Asian market and the new Lancer and Outlander were enough to put the company back on the market. This lead to the first profitable quarter at Mitsubishi in four year to be declared in 2006.

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