For decades, the automobile industry has been one of the driving forces behind the Japanese economy. But for every Camry, Civic, or Miata that went on to international success, Japan’s carmakers have produced a model that came and went so quickly that you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who’s even seen one on the street, let alone actually driven one.
Today, we present a field guide to Japan’s rarest, most frequently forgotten rides.
1. Toyota Sera
Leading off is Toyota’s Sera, which given its design cues had a surprisingly long four-year run. Not only did this coupe feature a glass roof, it also came with Lamborghini-esque scissor doors, ensuring that the driver would always attract the attention of birds flying overheard and anyone in the parking lot. Unfortunately, the Sera also featured lackluster performance and handling, and the disharmony of its “look-at-me” styling and absence of driving fun has resulted in it largely fading from memory.
2. Daihatsu Leeza Spider
The engineers at Daihatsu who decided to tinker with the company’s Leeza Spider thankfully had the common sense not to give it a glass roof like the Sera. Unfortunately, their wisdom didn’t extend to picking a better car to chop the top off of than the dry as a piece of week-old white bread Leeza hatchback.
Needless to say, the open-top version was even more short-lived than the standard Leeza, which only stuck around for seven years.
3. Suzuki X-90
Daihatsu isn’t alone in the club of poor convertible decisions, as Suzuki’s corporate history carries the stain of the X-90. With proportions so awkward your first instinct when looking at a picture is to assume the image is warped, the X-90 sought to combine the unentertaining ride height of an SUV with the lack of practicality and luggage space of a compact roadster. The result was a two-seater with one seat more than it needed, as finding anyone willing to ride in the passenger seat of the X-90 was a difficult task.
4. Mazda AZ-1 / Suzuki Cara
Mazda went all out with the AZ-1. Despite falling into Japan’s lightweight kei jidousha class of cars, the AZ-1, with its gull-wing doors and engine mounted behind the pilot, was built to squeeze every last drop of fun and excitement out of a car in the compact category. Unfortunately, the AZ-1 hit showrooms just about the time the bottom fell out of Japan’s Bubble Economy of the ‘80s and ‘90s, and the car was a sales disaster.
The Cara, a rebadged version of the car from Suzuki (which supplied the engine for the AZ-1), didn’t fare any better. The only apparent justification for the Cara’s higher sticket price versus its Mazda cousin was a switch to manually turn its fog lights on and off, and the Cara bowed out after just three years and a paltry 533 units sold.
5. Mazda Eunos Cosmo
The AZ-1 wasn’t the only time the exuberance of Mazda’s designers won out against its accountants’ restraint. Its Cosmo luxury coupe, powered by the first, and only, triple-rotor engine the company has offered in one of its road-going cars, was initially hoped to be the flagship of its planned overseas luxury brand Amati. Instead, the Cosmo, with gas mileage similar to that of a Lamborghini but without the performance or panache to justify it, sold so poorly in Japan that the financial damage contributed to Mazda’s decision to scrap the Amati project entirely.
6. Mitsubishi Debonair V Limousine
Mitsubishi got similarly overambitious with its Debonair V Limousine, which was offered in both “European Style” and “American Style,” with the latter featuring a faux convertible top and blacked-out windows.
Despite the clear effort and thought put into pleasing both metallic-roof loving Europeans and visibility-hating Americans, designers overlooked one critical item: the whole point of a limousine is to show others you have enough money that you don’t have to ride around in a Mitsubishi.
7. Toyota Origin
Not even Japan’s largest automaker is immune to occasionally overestimating the appeal of its nameplate. The Origin, offered for only the 2000 model year, was designed to look almost exactly like Toyota’s Crown sedan of the 1950s, the first model the company exported.
A closer look at history would have revealed this was an inauspicious model to ape, though, as the 1950s Crown was a colossal failure in the international market, with performance well below what overseas buyers demanded. The Origin’s 7,000,000 yen (US $70,000) price tag was also a bold choice for a car powered by a measly 220 horsepower, and the limited edition Origin’s production run ended after Toyota found roughly a thousand drivers willing to bite on the initial batch.
8. Toyota Comfort GTZ Supercharger
Toyota didn’t skimp at all on content with this model, though, as it tossed a supercharger, lightweight wheels, new front fascia, and lip spoiler on its Comfort sedan. Unfortunately, even all this wasn’t enough to overcome the Comfort’s image as a car for taxi companies and driving schools. Despite the potential for a great sleeper performance car, the public’s response was simply sleepy, making this tuned variant a rare sight.
9. Toyota Sprinter Trueno Convertible
Another sporty Toyota that failed to catch on was this open-topped conversion of the fabled AE86 “Hachi Roku” Corolla fastback. Offered only through Toyota Tama dealers and with a price tag approaching double that of the hardtop it was based on, we can see why it never sold in big numbers. Nonetheless, excuse us as we shed a tear at all the open-air drifting we aren’t doing.
10. Toyota Mega Cruiser
It’s pretty easy to make the analogy that Toyota is the General Motors of Japan, what with the long history and broad appeal to domestic buyers the companies share. Something else the two have in common is that much like GM offered the Hummer, a civilian version of the military Humvee, Toyota took the all-terrain vehicle it built for the Japanese Self Defense Force and produced a street-legal version called the Mega Cruiser. Given Japan’s narrow roads, tiny parking spaces, and expensive gas, you’re as likely to see a tank on the road as a 2,850-kilogram (6,270 lb.) Mega Cruiser.
11. Mitsuoka Orochi
Finally, how about not just a car model that’s rare, but an entire manufacturer many people don’t know exists? While Mitsuoka’s started off as a boutique automaker that re-skinned Nissans in more eye-catching sheet metal, in 2007 the company released its own original creation, the Orochi. Despite its exotic looks, the Orochi is outfitted with the same engine that powers Toyota’s Land Cruiser SUV, which at just 220 horsepower produces far less thrust than that of the Italian exotics it’s clearly gunning for in the styling department. Still, for road presence and uniqueness it’s hard to top the Orochi, which appears on public roads only slightly more often than the mythical eight-headed serpent for which it’s named.
Sources: Naver Matome, Car Sensor
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Japan’s rarest cars, from exotic sports coupes to Toyota’s answer to the Hummer