Last Updated on June 11, 2022 by E. Lindgren
There are a lot of Japanese car brands out there, and while some are obvious, others aren’t. Did you know that Toyota is not only one brand? But consists of several sub-brands? Did you know that Honda was the first Japanese brand to enter the U.S. luxury sedan market? Here are the latest (active) Japanese automobile companies, and some of their history.
Familiar to most, the Toyota brand has been around for more than 80 years by now. Toyota is often considered the largest automobile company, in revenue and cars, produced considered. Toyota is famous for its lean-production, which allows them to produce cheap cars which still retain high quality and durability.
But perhaps what is less known is that Toyota is not only one brand, there are lesser-known sub-brands of Toyota. Here they are in no particular order.
Lexus is Toyota’s luxury brand. Instead of focusing on cheap and reliable commuters’ cars, the Lexus brand’s main goal was to create the most luxurious sedan in the market, and so they did. If you desired the absolute best ride quality, latest technology, and drivability, you wouldn’t purchase a Mercedes S-class or BMW 7-series, you bought a Lexus.
Perhaps the most famous Lexus of all is the LS400. In order to surpass European and American rivals, the Lexus LS400 was developed from scratch with the sole intent of becoming the ultimate world-class luxury sedan, and so it did. The LS400 featured a 4.0L V8 producing 250hp, came available with air suspension and was packed with the latest technology.
Before being purchased by Toyota, Daihatsu was its own brand. Daihatsu was founded in 1907, making it older than the Toyota brand itself. The brand itself focuses on smaller passenger cars, more specifically Kei cars and trucks. Making its vehicles very suitable for the Japanese urban lifestyle.
Daihatsu did start exporting its cars to Europe in the 60s but didn’t really see any success. As the yen grew stronger, Daihatsu had a harder time competing with prices in Europe, and by 2013 they pulled out of the European market entirely, to only focus on the Japanese car market. Thus making Daihatsu a “True JDM brand“.
Likely the least known brand of the Toyota family, Hino produces commercial vehicles, as well as a variety of diesel engines. At one point during the 1940s, Hino was a branch of the Automobile Industry CO., LTD which would eventually become known as Isuzu. In 1942 Hino left the branch to become its own entity, Hino Heavy Industry Co., Ltd.
Hino started producing military personnel carriers and trucks during World War II. But after the second world war, Hino started focusing more on Diesel engines and commercial vehicles, rebranding themselves as the Hino Diesel Industry company. Ever since they grew larger, and are now one of the biggest Japanese contributors to the Nikkei 225 (Tokyo Stock Exchange).
Suzuki was founded by Michio Suzuki in 1909, making it one of the oldest Japanese automobile brands out there. Suzuki does not only produce cars but motorcycles, ATVs, marine engines, as well as wheelchairs (yea, that’s right, wheelchairs).
When it comes to cars, Suzuki’s focus has like many other Japanese car brands been to produce smaller passenger vehicles such as the Subaru Vivio RX-R with small-displacement engines. Suzuki has produced many legendary cars throughout the years, cars like the Suzuki Mighty Boy and Suzuki Jimny come to mind.
Being over 100 years old, it comes as no surprise that Mazda knows how to make a good car. In the late 80s, and early 90s Mazda became a powerhouse in Motorsports. Thanks to its Wankel Rotary engine, Mazda saw an entire decade of class wins from various models, including being the first Japanese car brand to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans with its Mazda 787B. However, the success of the Wankel engine was short-lived as it got banned from motorsport in 1992 following the Mazda 787B win.
Other legendary cars Mazda produced during its “golden years” was: Mazda MX-5, Mazda RX-7, and the Mazda-Speed.
Honda started out manufacturing motorcycles and has been ever since 1959 the largest company to do so. They are also the largest manufacturer by volume of internal combustion engines. In 1963 Honda expanded into cars, and produced its first vehicle, the Honda T360 mini pick-up truck. Today Honda is the second-largest Japanese automobile manufacturer.
Hondas cars have always had a trace of motorcycle within them, as most Honda cars have small displacement and high revving engines. This winning concept was first seen in its hugely successful Honda S800. This vehicle featured an 800cc engine producing 70bhp at 8000 RPM and was the first automobile from Honda to hit 100mph. Following this, cars like the Honda EK9 Type R, Honda S2000, and Honda NSX were produced.
Acura is Honda’s dedicated luxury brand. Acura is more commonly known to be specifically targeted toward the North American market. And thus, being credited as being the first Japanese automobile company to enter a foreign luxury market. The Acura was an immediate hit, as it was advertised as a reliable Honda while having a higher standard of luxury and sportiness.
For the past few years, Mitsubishi has taken a stride out from the age of rallying and fire-breathing monsters into a stale era of boring crossovers and SUVs. One might even say that the word “Exciting” and “Mitsubishi” are complete opposites of each other. But that wasn’t always the case. Go back a few decades and Mitsubishi was perhaps one of, if not the most exciting Japanese car brands.
Cars like the Mitsubishi Lancer 1600GSR dominated almost everything it competed in, even winning the most demanding races such as Africa’s Safari Rally. The Mitsubishi Pajero is credited as being the car with the most Dakar Rally wins counting 12 victories between 1985 and 2007. It is an understatement to say that Mitsubishi was at one point, the king when it came to driving on loose surfaces.
Nissan has been producing cars for a long time. Their first mass-produced vehicle was the Datsun which was created in 1914. It was also the first mass-produced Japanese car and could be equivalent to Ford’s Model A. As time went by, they transitioned into making small pickup trucks and delivery vans.
In 1957 the first-ever Nissan Skyline was manufactured which started Nissan’s long journey into sports sedans and coupes. The Skyline with its RB engine was a direct super hit and is still being produced today over 65 years later.
Like how the Acura is to Honda, the Infinity is to Nissan. The Infinity was Nissan’s move into the luxury vehicle market and entered the U.S. market in 1989, 3 years after Acura’s entrance in 1986. Infiniti entered with two models, the Q45, and became very popular. Acura and Infinity always seemed to keep pace with one another, but in the last few years, Infiniti has outperformed Acura in both qualities, engine choices, and ride quality.
Subaru started out manufacturing cars for the Japanese domestic market (JDM) and quickly became famous for its boxer engine layout. In 1958 they produced the so-called “ladybug” or Subaru 360. It was a 356 cc Inline-2 two-door city car. Thanks to its small size and reasonable price tag, the 360 managed to sell almost 400,000 cars over its 12-year-old production run.
Nowadays Subaru is mostly famous for its racing history. Cars like the Subaru Impreza forever imprinted Subaru on the Rallying wall of fame, as drivers such as Colin McRae won countless WRC rallies behind the wheel of a Subaru between 1993 and 1998.
Isuzu was founded in 1916 and is a Japanese commercial vehicle and diesel engine manufacturing company. And although Isuzu did experiment with passenger cars, teaming up with both Honda and GM, their roots seem to be with trucks and diesel engines as their car sales never really took off. Today their lineup consists mostly of diesel engines, buses, and heavy-duty trucks. But also sells a pick-up truck, SUV, as well as a cab-over lightweight track for passenger use.
Most Japanese automobile brands have been around for a long time, most existing for over a century. Throughout all the Japanese car brands, the concept seems to be mostly the same. The idea of producing, small, cheap, and fuel-efficient vehicles seem to tick off the majority of the demand in the Japanese domestic market. For the few Japanese companies that have tried their luck overseas, only the brands that adopted through manufacturing larger vehicles with bigger displacement engines seemed to have survived (Infinity, Acura). The reason for that is that the demand for smaller vehicles is incredibly slim overseas in comparison to the domestic Japanese markets.