For November 1986, Car and Driver served up another round of new 1987 model year updates, this time focusing on Japanese brands. Note, they did not cover all the imported brands, like the Europeans and the newly emerging Hyundai. Nope, this was all about Japan: the inroads being made into the U.S. market from the Land of the Rising Sun were that significant in the 1980s. With good reason too; there was plenty of news, for this was a period when the Japanese brands were operating with aggressive product refresh timelines and ardently practicing continuous improvement across the range.
The point of Rich Ceppos’s introduction was spot on: due to exchange rate changes and the rapid rise in the value of the Yen, the automotive playing field was getting more level from a pricing standpoint, and for 1987 “neither side would have any excuses left.” The companies would earn their success based on merit and the ability to offer the right products at the right price to American buyers. Unfortunately for Detroit, “Japan Inc.” came loaded for bear, and barreled right across that level playing field and right into American driveways.
First up was Acura, Honda’s opening volley into the luxury category. Entering its second year in the U.S. market, Acura was an audacious move to take Honda buyers upmarket and attract new generations of premium buyers who weren’t interested in “traditional” luxury. Yes, the products were very Honda-like, but that was a virtue at the time, given Honda’s stellar reputation. After a busy 1986, 1987 was a relatively quiet year for Honda, with the biggest news being full-time 4-wheel-drive on the Civic Wagon.
Isuzu was a second-tier player from Japan, and its car were not typically found at the top of the rankings. But, they all featured contemporary styling, good build quality and aggressive pricing. Weak compared to the Japanese market leaders, but unquestionably one of the best products available in Chevrolet showrooms (as the Spectrum).
1987 was a fairly slow year for Mazda, with no big news. Even so, continuous improvement was evident, with a new 4-speed automatic for the compact 626 (hello, GM???), available ABS for the RX-7 and a new wagon body style for the 323.
Like Chevy dealers with Isuzu, Suzuki and Toyota models on sale, Chrysler/Plymouth and Dodge dealers continued to offer rebadged Mitsubishi products in a quest to grab import-oriented buyers. Mitsubishi also wanted to get those shoppers directly and were working aggressively to build out their dealer network in the 1980s. There wasn’t much news for 1987, but tweaks were made here and there to a very competent line-up of products.
There was quite a lot of news at Nissan for 1987. Fully redesigned Sentra, all-new Pulsar NX (with sleek designed-in-California styling and the innovative, though unloved, interchangeable hatch/wagon back) and fully redesigned Stanza. Facelifts for the 200SX (which also offered a newly optional 3.0L V6), Maxima and 300ZX. Plus a new-to-the-U.S. small van. All the redesigns and refreshes in one year were reminiscent of GM in the 1960s (sadly The General could no longer properly execute such a comprehensive makeover in one year during the 1980s).
Over at Subaru, a new minicar, the Justy, was sent stateside, along with engine enhancements and broader full time 4WD availability on the core DL/GL product line. Suzuki was offering a new turbo 3-cylinder for the Sprint. So even the smaller Japanese companies were busy…
Behemoth Toyota was on a tear for 1987. Newly redesigned models arrived to attract entry-level buyers (Tercel) and conquer the heart of the compact family sedan market (Camry). The new FX-16 “hot hatch” came to do battle with VW’s Rabbit/GTI, while Celica added a convertible to please sun seekers. A powerful Turbo took the Supra to another level, and even the nearly new MR2 got significant enhancements.
Remember the 1987 tech highlights for the domestics we just saw on Monday? Well, no one would blame you if you didn’t–there was absolutely nothing exciting to spark your synapses. In contrast, Japanese makes served up impressive turbos, more multi-valve engines, improved 4-wheel-drive systems, transmissions and wider availability of ABS. These cars–even the cheapest ones–offered a lot of very contemporary technology. Minor tweaks on carryover engines from the Sixties and Seventies like the U.S. makes? Fuggedaboudit!
The Camry juggernaut took on steam with the 1987 revamp. While not quite as edgy as the Honda Accord, the new Camry was a sweet car nonetheless. While Car and Driver blasts the styling as boring, I personally find it quite handsome. When these came out, I remember thinking the look was upscale and well done, a significant improvement from the slightly-dumpy first generation Camry. Plus, with Toyota being Toyota, the new Camry was better in every way compared to its predecessor, deservedly earning a spot as one of the best compact car choices for 1987.
Here was Nissan’s take on the Jeep Cherokee, Ford Bronco II and Chevrolet S10 Blazer. The Pathfinder was tough looking, but tuned to appeal to buyers seeking on-road refinement. However, unlike the many car categories (subcompact, compact–ultimately mid size and luxury) that Japan conquered easily due to weak U.S. offerings, the compact SUV field was filled with proven winners from domestic brands. Good as the Pathfinder was, it actually had to tackle a tougher path in the U.S. market than other cars Nissan made at the time.
Toyota was aggressive in keeping its product range fresh and full of up-to-date technology, and entry level cars were no exception. A new 3-valve OHC 1.5 Liter 4-cylinder, improved suspension and fresh aerodynamic styling were standard fare, as was Toyota’s stellar build quality. All for a starting price of $6,000 ($13,185 adjusted). Sure, a Chevette or a Yugo cost less, but you got what you pid for…
That value for the money was certainly key to the success of the Japanese brands in the U.S. for 1987. Yes, prices were up due to the exchange rates, but the product offerings were fresh and build quality was typically top notch. Little wonder that the Japanese brands continued to gain share in 1987.
Total car sales in the U.S. declined 11% from 1986, dropping from 11,404,239 to 10,191,877. Car sales of the combined Japanese brands, by contrast, rose 1% to 2,734,963 (27% of the U.S. car market), ahead of all of Chrysler Corporation, all of Ford Motor Company and the Chevrolet Division. Let’s take a look at how each of the brands performed (sadly, I am unable to find data that lists U.S. sales by model for the Japanese brands):
The Japanese “Big Three” were each down slightly, though they still outperformed the market. Mazda had the toughest time, though much of that was probably due to the fact that the 626 was in the last year of its design cycle and facing the newer Accord and all new Camry. Subaru did just fine in their niche, while Isuzu and Suzuki helped themselves and helped GM. Mitsubishi did quite well, as its dealer network expanded. But the real star of the Japanese show was the one-year-old Acura division, which saw sales climb an amazing 107%. Acura was a “hot” brand in 1987, and other key Japanese makes wouldn’t be far behind in reaching upmarket to attract more affluent Americans. Japan was proving that small cars could indeed be big business, even on a level playing field.