Weird-Looking Japanese Cars

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Aug 14, 2018

Japanese car design—once safe and cautious (consider 30 years of Civics and Corollas)– has suddenly taken an avant-garde edge, producing new models that consumers either love or hate.

The Toyota Prius Prime is quite a sight from the front. But, darn, it's a great car. (Toyota photo)

Take the Toyota Prius Prime. Please. No, actually, it’s grown on me. But I thought it looked gawdawful, especially the front end, when I first saw it. My first impression was that I’d like to see one that hadn’t crashed head-on with a UPS truck. Here are a few of my colleagues expressing themselves:

  • Overwrought design language detracts from Prius appealForbes
  •  Unusual stylingAutotrader
  • A wacky design languageCar & Driver
  • The Prius Prime is far uglier than a Tesla Model S…[The styling is a] robot tarantula cybaroque madhouse of lights, concavities, vents, textures, and creases. - Jalopnik

Despite all this, I’d buy a Prius Prime. It’s a great plug-in hybrid, as well as a green car bargain.

Japanese carmakers aren’t working in unison, but they do seem to agree on cars with weird angles, eccentricities, and asymmetricality, if that’s a word. Luckily, form follows function. You sit in them, not outside them. And the BMW i3 is weird looking, too. Here are a couple Japanese cars I’ve driven recently:

2019 Honda Clarity Plug-In Hybrid. This styling debuted on the hydrogen fuel-cell car, which only Californians have laid eyes on. But now it’s gone national with plug-in hybrid and electric variants. This one’s Insight-inspired front end is relatively normal, albeit with weird air scoops and what has been described as an east-west chrome mustache.

Who thought up those asymmetrical wheel openings? (Jim Motavalli photo)

From the side, however, one is hit with asymmetrical rear wheel wells, character lines galore and sharp creases. At the back of the car, the glass tapers to a sharp point. The rear view, despite more ducts, is full of cues to Toyotas past and is the most normal part of the car.

The Clarity sedan is more normal in back, but look--more ducts! (Jim Motavalli photo)

And, again, I’d buy one. It was quite easy to live with for a week, and my wife—who usually derides my test rides as “stupid cars,” actually liked it. And my good friend Don bought one. He's an actor, but I don't think he was acting when he told me he likes his car's styling.They do look good in green.

It's all about the angles with the Clarity, which debuted with fuel-cell power before being joined by a plug-in hybrid and battery car. (Jim Motavalli photo)

2019 Toyota Avalon Touring. It’s the grille that leaps out at you. Massive grilles are fashionable these days, but this blacked-out example—which extends from just under the headlights to the bottom of the car—doesn’t improve the Avalon’s Camry-based looks. You know those beaters driving around with their front bumpers removed? It looks kinda like that. And then there’s those big ducts bookending the open jaws of a largemouth bass. On paper, we’re looking at a “piano black grille with sport mesh insert,” complementing “aerodynamic front tangential venting.”

The somewhat polarizing Toyota Avalon grille. (Jim Motavalli photo)

It’s from the side that you see contemporary, Japanese-design language at work. There’s that same tapering back glass, character lines that could be mistaken for minor collisions, and door creases like those on my ’62 Nova. But those were from arguments with supermarket carts.

The Avalon side view is somewhat more conventional. (Jim Motavalli photo)

But, darn, I like the Avalon, too. I took this windchill pearl sucker on a long trip to Boston, and it was quiet, comfortable and fuel efficient. If 22/32 mpg isn’t good enough, the hybrid version is only $1,000 more, and it delivers an amazing 44 mpg on the highway and 43 in the city. The Touring starts at $43,095.

Look ma, no ducts! (Jim Motavalli photo)

2019 Nissan Maxima. I haven’t driven this one, but I came across an example in Trader Joe’s parking lot. And I was struck by the resemblance to the Avalon and Clarity. Tapering windows? Check, with that whole “floating pillar” thing going on. Creases? Sure. Massive grille? Check. Ducts? Yeah, but they’re part of the light design.

The 2019 Nissan Maxima has all those weird Japanese design cues, and a few more besides. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Some cars, like the latest Civic, sport toned-down versions of this styling. I suspect we’ll look back and hail this trend-setting design language. Nobody liked the Chrysler Airstream and the Cord 810 when they came out, but now they’re style icons. I could compare these Japanese sedans to their rivals from America, but the SUV craze means we're barely seeing them.

I saw this beauty at the Fairfield University car show last week. See how sleek American car design is? (Jim Motavalli photo)

Here's some video so you can see the Avalon's love-it-or-hate-it grille up close:

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