From the weird to the wonderful.
In the 1990s, the automotive world was evolving. The Japanese car invasion onto western roads was in full swing, but Japanese car companies stopped copying mainstream European and American cars and started developing their own styles to work abroad. This has made for some great cars over the decades, some bona fide icons, and some outright weirdness.
Japan is, of course, not the only country that has given us some strange cars and there's a strong argument the ugliest car trophy still belongs to America. This isn't about the bad though. These are the strange ones some of the Japanese automakers have put out into the world both good, bad, and indifferent.
Acura’s response to the BMW X6 was quite the misfire. The ZDX was touted as a "new level of prestige for Acura” and delivered with Acura’s first six-speed automatic transmission along with features such as ventilated seats, a panoramic moonroof and an exceptional tech package. It went into production in 2009 but in 2012 a press release declared that was going to be "the final year on the market for ZDX as the Acura brand sharpens its focus on new models and core products.” The reality is that sales were poor. The ZDX aesthetic was from the pen of a rookie designer that made it to production with few alterations and although it's not really ugly, it just didn't sit well with the public.
A lot of people are going to look at the Baja and think it’s both strange and cool, and they would be right. The Baja was exclusively built in America, in Lafayette, Indiana, to be precise, from 2003 to 2006 and we can tell what Subaru was going for. The car with a truck bed was a big thing in America once and retro designs were quite the thing at the turn of the millennium. Subaru had the rugged passenger vehicle format down with the Outback and doing something fun with it makes sense. The designer says that it was a homage to rally race trucks, and Subaru aimed to sell 20,000 a year. It just didn't know who to, and it flopped.
If someone mated a Hummer and a modern Mini, they would create the engineering wonder that is the Honda Element. A chunky and roomy people mover perfect for the outdoor lover with bi-parting side doors and an interior you could theoretically hose out. It’s the perfect vehicle for a dog owner and in Japan it was very popular with fans of the wagging tail. As well as dog-friendly accessories there was even a Vamos Travel Dog model tailored for those with four paws. The Element was built from 2002 to 2011 and succeeded where the Pontiac Aztec failed by actually selling. Except it wasn’t the youthful snowboarding youngsters that bought them, it was the older generations that appreciated its practical side.
The FJ Cruiser was brilliant and flawed at the same time. It was a rugged offroader that felt like you were driving a Humvee from the inside while the exterior aesthetics had just the right amount of throwback to the classic Toyota FJ40. Poor visibility and awkward interior ergonomics were coupled with a tame on-road driving experience but that doesn’t stop the FJ from still having a cult-like following from people that use it to do what it does best - get off the paved road.
As far as anyone can tell, the X-90 was designed as the MX-5 of off-roaders. A two-seater designed to get around town and go off-road and without the vaguest of nods to practicality. It was based on the Suzuki Sidekick but had a more compliant suspension setup for the road, a Targa top, no rear seat, and a lack of trunk space. It also looked silly, and its only saving grace for sales was that Red Bull figured out they could mount a giant can on the back and use it for promotional work.
The VehiCROSS caught some real attention as a concept back in 1993 at the Tokyo Motor Show and then did something amazing. Isuzu set up a system to cut its way through corporate inconveniences like development clinics and the finance department and reduced its time to get to market by half. For production, Isuzu used inexpensive ceramic stamping dies for the bodywork. Unfortunately, that means the VehiCROSS could only ever have a limited run because ceramic dies don’t last long. However, for those that got one, the VehiCROSS came with a sophisticated Torque on Demand system in a four-wheel drive drivetrain that was slightly ahead of its time. Only 4,153 were made for the US though, so it's unlikely Isuzu intended it to be a hit.
As an example of love it or hate it crossover styling, the FX is very devisive. It was an early crossover to take on the coupe-style roofline but at the expense of rear passenger headroom and useable space. According to Infiniti, the FX is a legend that "climbed to the pinnacle of the luxury SUV market and gave the competition something to chase after for years.” That’s some Grade A, Level 1, hyperbole but there’s some truth to it as it seems every manufacturer for the past few years has been chasing the four-door crossover but with a coupe roofline design with varying levels of success.
The Juke has been beaten to death and it’s about time the Murano got some time in the spotlight. Specifically, the CrossCabriolet version that was available from 2011 to 2014 and came with a Car and Driver review that can be summed up with the quote: "Drivers will hate this car.”
The unholy mashup of an SUV and soft top has been tried elsewhere and failed just as badly. Inside the styling is best described as retirement home chic. Here’s the kicker though… people still want them and the used price hasn’t gone down the chute. If you look at the pictures below and decide you absolutely have to have one, then expect to pay around $26,000 for a solid final-year model.
Here we have some uncut JDM in the form of a Hummer H1 "style" vehicle designed by Toyota for military use covering everything between light troop transport and carrying around mobile surface-to-air missiles. Civilian use was curtailed by heavy taxes but it did find use with police and fire rescue services. The reality was that the Mega Cruiser was a test bed for technology Toyota was developing to end up in things like the relentlessly reliable and all-conquering Land Cruiser. To that end, it was not a financial success for Toyota but definitely served its purpose.
This one gets stranger the more you look at it, and what you’re looking at is, indeed, a Series I Land Rover Discovery with a Honda badge. Unlike the Mega Cruiser, this is JDM cut with baking soda as Honda had purchased the rights to the Discovery to rebadge and sell in Japan. At the time, the Discovery was owned by Rover in the UK, but when BMW bought the company Honda severed ties. The really weird thing is that Honda is known for reliability and the first generation Discovery is well known for its mechanical issues. No doubt Honda would probably like us to forget all about it.
The first generation Crossroad still stands as the only Honda V8 engine in a production car, but Honda did make its own vehicle for Japan with the Crossroad name from 2007 to 2010 as a three-row seven-seater crossover.