Double J in Japan: how Japan saw the best and worst of the J-Body

over 2 years ago
Double J in Japan: how Japan saw the best and worst of the J-Body
David Votoupal
Available on
VW Vortex
Sydney, Australia

In the 1970s, GM introduced what would be its first "world car" in the T-Body compact RWD platform. The T was originally the Opel Kadett C but also became the Vauxhall Chevette, Isuzu Gemini, Daewoo Maepsy, Chevrolet Chevette (in both USA and Brazil - the Brazilian ones are closer to the Opel Kadett), and Pontiac T1000 or Acadian. The platform was a success, being built and sold on all six continents and seeing life in most markets into the 80s and in Brazil into the early 90s. However, stark differences existed between the different variations of the platform, as you'll all know.
GM would introduce a second "world" platform that became the only platform to serve corporation wide, on all six continents, and in each passenger car division (Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick, Cadillac, Opel/Vauxhall, Chevrolet in Brazil, Holden, Isuzu and Daewoo). That was the J-Body FWD platform, seen in most of the world as a "medium" car while its dimensions made it more compact by American standards.
In 1983, after the platform had been introduced in most of the world, the J-Body made its debut in Japan in the form of the Isuzu Aska, the second GM platform car built in Japan by Isuzu. Its lines were of course reminiscent of other J-Body cars (the basic shape, roofline and doors look similar on all), but across the J platform there were major differences in both exterior and interior details and the components used, in accordance with the markets they were sold in. Needless to say, it meant that the European (Ascona C/Cavalier Mk 2) and Japanese (Aska) versions were much better cars than their American counterparts.
The Aska replaced the rear-wheel drive Florian, which had been introduced in 1967 and whose platform spawned the Isuzu 117 and Piazza coupes (which took Lotus to make the latter handle well at all). It came with a wide range of trim levels which, typical of the JDM in this era, got pretty plush at the top end. Power came from 1.8 and 2.0-litre petrol engines, and a 2.0-litre diesel which would gain a turbo as the T-Body Gemini also had at the time. There would then be a 2.0-litre turbo motor putting out 150hp and being one of the fastest FWD sedans offered in Japan at the time. This later became an Irmscher model with Recaro seats, while the luxury LG model (replacing the LX pictured as the flagship) would also have plus Recaros.
When the J-Body Aska ceased production in 1989, Isuzu ceased to build its own cars in this segment and instead relied on Subaru and Honda to supply passenger cars (I think it's pretty well known how that came to be). Isuzu gave up building passenger cars altogether in the 90s and no longer builds SUVs for the Japanese or American markets, but in Australia the D-Max pickup and MU-X SUV are offered.
Several years after the J-Body ceased to be built in Europe and Japan, it was resurrected on the Japanese market, not by popular demand, but as a result of the intricacies and nuances of US-Japan trade relations. The J-Body not only lived an extended life in the USA, it also gained a new skin in 1995 which made it look more modern and up-to-date so to conceal its 1981 origins. The experiment of selling a "representative" American GM product in Japan lasted from 1995 to 2000.
Toyota agreed to sell the Cavalier in Japan under its own name, with the prospect of it finding a niche market in a hugely diverse JDM, where otaku-dom means that there's a place for seemingly everything. Besides Toyota badges and being factory RHD, the Toyota Cavalier had a number of differences from the "home market" models. Firstly, the amber turn signals in compliance with Japanese regulations and apparently sought after by J-Body enthusiasts. Secondly, they were sold in Japan with upgraded specifications with the 2.4-litre motor in both sedan and coupe, and more or less fully-equipped. Finally, they had to pass a further inspection so they could have anything remotely resembling acceptable quality control. It was also fairly high priced for what it was, amidst the glut of domestic midsize and upper-midsize cars.
But did it convince anyone? No, neither Toyota or the car-loving section of the Japanese public whose standards were and are set in stone. Back then, Toyota's fastidious quality and over-engineering from top to bottom was legendary and it was self-evident that American GM cars were not going to match Toyota standards (how different it is now remains to be seen). To add insult to injury, the Cavalier was sold exclusively through the "Toyota Store" dealer network which retailed the Carina, Caldina, Crown, Celsior (Lexus LS400) and Century, some of the creme de la creme of Japanese motoring. When a smaller and cheaper car retails off the same floor as your glamour models, you have to have standards.
Of course, like most things, the Cavalier did find its niche in automotive otaku-dom and TRD even made stuff for them. The only thing the Japanese motoring public learned from these cars was exactly how and why Japanese cars were not only able to get a foothold on American shores, but all but rule the waves and roads. This does not mean the Japanese do not appreciate foreign cars, yes even American cars (and the Chevrolet Astro van is even a cult vehicle), but such appreciation is likely more consonant with expectation.
I will also mention that with the Button Car Plan in Australia which led to Holden selling badge-engineered Toyotas (Corolla = Nova, Camry = Apollo), Toyota sold the VN to VS series Commodore as the Lexcen. There was a similarly stormy relationship between Toyota and GM here, with Toyota people cringing at selling a car deemed inferior in standards to Toyota's own (as Holdens clearly were at the time, sadly - though to be fair the Lexcen had better seat fabrics).
And namely that Japan sampled both the best and worst of GM's second "world car" platform, the J-Body.