I was a little kid in the early-mid 1990s when I first started noticing cars. That was truly the golden age of Japanese cars. The Japanese automotive industry had come a long way in a few decades and now offered unprecedented variety – full-size, V8-powered luxury sedans, turbocharged, all-wheel-drive sports cars, comely compacts and tiny-displacement V6 engines. It was also a time where Japanese design had finally found its own coherent identity, the attractively derivative designs of the 1960s and the sometimes vulgar designs of the 1970s a distant memory. And then came the change.
The aftermath of the Japanese bubble economy was a massacre of fascinating Japanese cars. Gone were the Mitsubishi 3000GT, Isuzu Impulse, Mazda MX-3 and Lantis hardtop, Nissan 300ZX, Subaru SVX and Acura/Honda Legend Coupe, among many others. The Japanese automakers had to be more prudent and investing in niche products was the antithesis of that. Perhaps as a reflection of this new-found pragmatism and austerity was the marked change in Japanese design.
Simple, elegant, gently curvaceous designs were out. Instead, everything seemed to get more upright and boxy overnight. It was like a return to the 1980s only with far fewer coupes, no wedges and no digital instrumentation. A more boring 1980s, then.
The most egregious example was the transition the Mazda 929/Sentia undertook. Once the most graceful, Jaguar-like Japanese sedan, it suddenly became a bland, boxy sedan, the bastard child of a Toyota Crown and a Mercury Grand Marquis.
Ditto the Acura/Honda Legend. Not only did it lose its graceful coupe variant, the Legend sedan – renamed RL in North America – became an uninspired copy of the Lexus LS. It wasn’t unattractive but it was a far cry from its predecessor.
This new design era didn’t just leave luxury sedans in its wake. I remember the utter disappointment I felt when I saw the new international Mazda 626, which also lost its optional V6 and four-wheel-steering.
Nissan’s two main compact lines – the North American Sentra and the international Sunny/Pulsar – also lost all their character.
There were some designs that took some getting used to but which I eventually came to admire. The fourth-generation Honda Prelude was always a favorite of mine and so I loathed the fifth-generation model at launch. It’s aged rather well, however, its larger, vertically-oriented headlights presaging various models in the early 2000s.
Though its bigger brother the 626 took a step back, the new 1998 Mazda 323 was relatively attractive.
Just ignore the fact the 323 hatchback retained the Astina and 323F nameplates, previously used on export versions of the dramatic Lantis/323F hatchback and hardtop.
Overall, though, Japanese design largely took a turn for the worse in the mid/late-1990s and they only got their mojo back in the new century.
What era of design took you the longest to get used to? The tailfin arms race of the late 1950s? The Great Brougham Epoch? The aero era of the 1980s? The retro era of the early 2000s?