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East Beats West

As with so many fads, fashions and technologies, the Japanese – more precisely, the Japanese youth ®€“ are credited with starting the now-burgeoning sport compact tuner business. It started first on Left Coast with Japanese sport compact models, and moved slowly east. Across the continent, European sport compacts were the rides of choice as the East Coast tuner influence headed west.

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East Beats West

Japanese Consumers, Manufacturers Taking Tuning to Another Level

As with so many fads, fashions and technologies, the Japanese – more precisely, the Japanese youth ®“ are credited with starting the now-burgeoning sport compact tuner business. It started first on Left Coast with Japanese sport compact models, and moved slowly east. Across the continent, European sport compacts were the rides of choice as the East Coast tuner influence headed west.

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So it was right and proper to visit the ancestral home of compact car modification and attend the annual Tokyo Auto Salon to see first hand how that market segment has grown, and what may be in store for North American tuners.

Trying to understand the whole tuning phenomenon can be frustratingly difficult. Tuning is far more than a 21st century version of hot rodding; thanks to technology and a ready supply of knowledgeable installers, one need not be a gearhead to participate.

With most tuners, modifying their rides is a lifestyle thing, a physical statement of one’s taste, sensibilities and socioeconomic position. For a 16- to 25-year-old, the suggested range of tuners, who has not yet started a family or is far along in his chosen career, the stature gained in car modification is his badge of success.

To take a plain Jane base model Honda Civic, for example, and convert it into a head-turning high performance showpiece is certainly gratifying. But it is the recognition of the effort – even if the owner had others do the physical work ®“ that they crave most.

For a select few, the real hardcore enthusiasts, sport compact tuning does extend to on- or off-track competition. Sometimes, illegal and often dangerous street drag racing, or more organized autocrossing or road course runs, and now in the new "sport" of drifting, an automotive version of figure skating.

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The Tokyo Auto Salon, held at the Makuhari Messe in Chiba, west of Tokyo, in January, drew well over 250,000 enthusiastic attendees over three days. Even the media/VIP day, held prior to the formal opening, was crowded. Thousands of still and video cameras were trained on not only the vast collection of modified cars and concept vehicles, but also on the hundreds of hostesses who inhabited nearly every booth in the vast convention center.

Some of these young women – sexily, but not scantily, clad ®“ have become celebrities in their own right, attending numerous automotive shows across Japan, and commanding the attention of cameras with every appearance.

Also in the media/VIP crowd were a number of Japanese celebrities. One VIP who stood out was WWE wrestler Hulk Hogan. Of course, it’s hard to miss a well-tanned 6-foot, 8-inch man with shocking white hair.

Highly focused on the sport compact tuner market in every way imaginable, the Salon should not at all be confused with the annual SEMA Show in Las Vegas, which, by its nature, tries to address all levels of "specialty equipment." And while the SEMA Show does attract displays by automakers, OEM participation in the Tokyo Auto Salon was considerably different.

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Japanese automakers, from Honda to Mitsubishi to stoic Toyota, are all active tuner participants. And not just with show cars, as their American counterparts favor. Each has established its own "tuner division," offering factory-developed components such as custom wheels, exhaust systems, racing seats, suspension upgrades, brake calipers and rotors, wings and skirts, audio and video systems, steering wheels, engines and computer chips – nearly everything an enthusiast would want. Oh, and complete lines of sporty clothing.

Such does not exist stateside, where Ford, GM, DaimlerChrysler and the transplants muster little more than a display of other people’s show cars. None has a dedicated performance operation. One has to wonder when Honda or Mitsubishi, the clear frontrunners in Japan, will bring their Mugen (Honda) and Rally Art (Mitsubishi) divisions across the ocean.

Every Japanese OEM had huge booths, each showcasing both concept and tuner show cars, as well as modified minivans. Few of the models, obviously, will ever reach the U.S., one exception being Mitsubishi’s Lancer Evolution. But some of the technology displayed would be most welcome here.

Dozens of remanufacturers also displayed their wares, with a wide selection of well-modified Lexus, Mercedes-Benz and BMW models attracting interest. There was even a Chrysler PT Cruiser, sporting a home theatre-quality DVD and surround sound system. Minicars, drift cars, street drags, mini-SUVs, even mini-minivans were everywhere.

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Tuner component manufacturers and suppliers were equally prevalent, as were wheel makers and marketers. Unlike SEMA Show, shiny chrome wheels were few and far between and trick wheels, like Spinners, were non-existent.

On the tire side, Yokohama Rubber Co., our hosts for the visit, celebrated its 25th anniversary of its entrée into the high performance tire market with a massive multi-dimensioned display that took nearly all of the convention center’s main arena. One display showed Yokohama’s entire performance lineage, while other sections were devoted to race and rally cars, and specialty fitments like the Aston Martin from the most recent James Bond film.

Dunlop, Toyo, Bridgestone and a few other tiremakers also had displays.

Unlike Japanese culture, which discourages individualism, there was little conformity to be found on the floor of the Makuhari Messe, at least not among the tricked out sleds and high tech toys. And certainly not among the thousands of interested attendees who relished every square inch of the show.

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