Has Japan Finally Found Its Design Niche?

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CarBuzz editor-in-chief Noah Joseph opines on the styling of Japanese cars.

There are only a handful of countries in the world that produce substantial numbers of cars for export. The United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, France, Sweden, South Korea and Japan rank among them. Sure, there are others, and some major automakers manufacture in other countries, but these are the countries where the world's largest automakers are based. And for the most part, you can tell which cars are produced where.

British cars like Bentleys, Jaguars and Aston Martins have a certain stately elegance to them. Italian cars like Ferraris, Maseratis and Lamborghinis are known for their sumptuous curves and aggressive angles. Even Swedish cars like Volvos and Saabs have their trademark quirkiness. With cars as disparate as the Porsche Cayenne and the BMW Z4, it may be difficult to pinpoint a unifying German design aesthetic, and American cars may be all over the map styling-wise, but you know when you're looking at a Mercedes, an Audi, a Dodge or a Cadillac. Their designers make sure of it. But Japanese cars have, for the most part, been historically derivative in their design approach.

Take most any Toyota, Nissan or Honda from the archives and they could very well have been designed and built anywhere in the world. The island nation's luxury cars - bearing the emblems of brands like Lexus, Infiniti and (shield grilles notwithstanding) Acura - have historically been even more derivative than their mass-market counterparts. But a number of new cars emerging from Japan have distinguished themselves for their unmistakably Japanese styling. The design language spoken by a handful of Japan's latest products has emerged as distinctly Japanese. They're almost comically aggressive, with lines seemingly inspired by anime cartoons.

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Nissan has arguably championed this design approach more than any of its rivals, with cars like the Juke, the 370Z, the Maxima and of course the king of them all, the GT-R, standing as proud examples of distinctly Japanese design. Just look at their headlights and taillamps and you know where they're from. But the company formerly known as Datsun isn't alone in this design revolution. The LFA supercar from Lexus bears aggressive headlights that look like they belong on a cartoon ninja's ride. Mitsubishi's rally-bred Lancer Evo wears a pseudo-junior GT-R grille that looks ready to swallow up swathes of tarmac whole and spit it back out its tailpipes.

Even the latest Suzuki XL7 is dominated by deeply angled headlights that would look at home on a Kiss set if they weren't so emblematically Japanese in their shape. Of course Japan is still building cars that are rather generically styled. With their toned-down shield grilles, the latest Acuras, we would argue, could just as easily be Chevrolets. The Infiniti G37 sedan could be mistaken for a new Hyundai - particularly since the Korean automaker has scaled upwards with the Genesis and Equus models. And at least until its recent spindle-grilled facelift, the Lexus LS looked like it could have been a Mercedes-Benz or even a Buick.

That may be the strategy which Japanese automakers have sought with certain models, much as they did with their predecessors. And time will tell how history will remember their edgier counterparts like the Juke, the LFA and the XL7. For your part, you may like their designs or you may hate them. But one thing you cannot call them is generic.


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