Browse over 9,000 car reviews

The Japanese cars we don't get - but should

Japan has some hidden automotive gems that could totally work in Australia.

As far as automotive ecosystems go, Japan is properly unique.

Hardly surprising, considering it’s a country that’s both highly urbanized yet is heavily mountainous, experiences all climates from heavy snow in the north to tropical heat in the south, and has a strong motoring enthusiast culture and healthy domestic tourism.

On top of that, the physical space constraints of the country’s roads, parking spaces and houses all impact what kinds of cars are offered – as does Japan’s vehicle taxation system – and the result is a sea of vehicles that make a whole lot of sense in Japan, and nowhere else.

There are, however, exceptions. Here’s a list of the Japanese Domestic Market rides that we reckon would find a healthy audience on our shores too.

Toyota Crown

Does Toyota Australia need a sedan bigger than the Camry? Probably not, the buying public seems to have unanimously voted that large sedans are best left in the past – but perhaps that’s simply because they aren’t aware of the existence of the JDM Toyota Crown?

The Crown used to be a part of the Aussie motoring landscape, and a Crown comeback could be handily executed by the handsome Japanese model. With a rear-wheel-drive platform underneath, plenty of room for four adults and their luggage, and the availability of a powerful AND efficient 220kW/356Nm 3.5-litre hybrid V6, the Crown fits the ‘big Aussie sedan’ template rather well.

Plus, with the V6-powered Camry having been deleted from the range from this year onward, the Crown could give Toyota a way to bring a big-cube four-door back into its showroom.

Mitsubishi Delica

Like the Crown, we actually used to get the Delica over here, albeit in the previous generation and badged as the Mitsubishi Express in commercial van form, or the Starwagon as a people mover.

The modern-day Delica is exclusive to Japan and Indonesia, and it’s Japan that gets the version that we think would resonate with Australians most – a jacked-up turbo-diesel all-wheel drive one-box people mover with seven or eight seats.

With Australians increasingly favouring cars that can cart their family on long-distance road trips, the Delica D:5 could be just the ticket. The Delica D:5 (don’t confuse it with the absolutely tiny Delica D:2) melds a capacious three-row interior and carpark-friendly sliding doors with a fuel-sipping diesel, an eight-speed automatic, decent ground clearance, and the ability to drive all four wheels – all great ingredients for a family hauler that isn’t shy of the great outdoors.

It’s a people mover cross-bred with an SUV and it’s a shame we don’t have it, but with the Delica D:5 now in its 15th year of production (!) the odds of it making our way are practically nil at this point.

Suzuki Spacia Gear

Suzuki already has a reputation for being a small car specialist in Australia, but in Japan the company’s bread and butter are cars that are even more diminutive than the Swift, Ignis and Jimny that we currently enjoy.

The Spacia Gear is one such vehicle. Boxy, upright and slab-sided, the cuboid Spacia Gear bears a passing resemblance to a pug thanks to that punched-in nose and wheel-at-each-corner stance. But besides cutesy styling, the Spacia Gear has another drawcard: it is an extremely practical thing for something so small.

And with Australians increasingly shifting over to apartment living and the density of our urban areas increasing, a car that is physically tiny yet brimming with pragmatic features likely has strong appeal with Aussie inner-urbanites. Measuring just 1.48 metres wide and 3.4 metres long, the Spacia Gear is a cinch to park, while rear sliding doors (which can be power operated!) mean your passengers can embark even in the squeeziest of spots. The interior is full of intelligent storage solutions like drawers, shelves, lidded compartments and hooks, and there’s plenty of room for four adults – with enough headroom for all of them to wear their most outrageous top hat.

Downsides? As a member of Japan’s kei car class the Spacia Gear generates just 47kW and 98Nm, and though it weighs less than a tonne, those numbers make for a pretty slow car.

Honda N-Van

Like the Spacia Gear, the diminutive Honda N-Van is a member of Japan’s kei class of microcars. It’s got the same overall dimensions but even less grunt at just 39kW and 64Nm, but its strongest virtue is its ability to cram a massive amount of cargo in something that takes up less floor space than a Yaris.

With the pandemic fuelling a massive increase in parcel deliveries, a compact delivery van that can squeeze into tiny kerbside parking spots and swiftly thread its way through dense traffic sounds like the right kind of product for our times, and the N-Van’s packaging is truly masterful.

The front passenger seat folds down into the floor, its stowed height matching perfectly with that of the rear bench when it too is folded down, leaving you with a dead-flat floor from front to rear that’s perfect for sliding boxed-up cargo across. The roof height is also very tall, and the cabin is long enough and high enough for a full-size motorcycle to be transported within it.

Supreme space efficiency and clever fold-away features? It’s no wonder the N-Van comes from the land of origami and tiny apartments.

Honda Civic manual

Say what you will about the new Civic’s rigid pricing, single-spec model structure and $47K pricetag, it’s objectively a very good car. There’s just one problem: it would be even more enjoyable with a manual.

In Australia we’re saddled with a continuously variable transmission (CVT) that, though it certainly gets the job done and marries well with the 134kW/240Nm turbo 1.5-litre engine, lacks the engagement factor necessary to truly enjoy the Civic’s dynamic capabilities.

In Japan, though, a six-speed three-pedal manual trans is offered at the same price as the CVT-equipped model, with identical fuel consumption figures and no impact on power or torque. We wish we could sample that car, because though it’s unlikely to be the transmission car buyers would actually select, we’ve got the nagging feeling that it’s the transmission the Civic really deserves.