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Japanese cars spawn a customizing craze

By Christine Tierney / The Detroit News

You're 24 years old, you don't earn much money, but you'd rather walk than drive an entry-level compact car that looks as if it came off a rental lot.

There is an alternative. Some enterprising consumers are kitting out mainstream Japanese cars with components normally sold only in Japan but that are now available on distributors' Web sites. For a few hundred dollars more, they're driving a vehicle like no other.

Over the past six years a small industry has mushroomed out of the importation of so-called JDM - Japanese domestic market -- components, ranging from wheels and power mirrors to engines and plastic headlights. The phenomenon originated in California but has spread across the country and into the Midwest.

"Demand is very high for this stuff," says Steve Argueta, the 25-year-old owner of JDM retailer HMotorsOnline in Burbank, Calif.

"People like the look, and they want their cars to be different from everyone else's," Argueta said

The irony is that when Japanese automakers first ventured into the U.S. market in the late 1950s, their oddly-styled compact cars flopped. The Japanese became a force only after returning with bigger vehicles, such as Toyota Motor Co.p.'s Camry, designed to appeal to Americans.

But now, car components for the Japanese domestic market have become popular with U.S. enthusiasts attracted by the off-beat gadgets they see on Web sites, broader engine offerings and the distinctive styling of dashboard gauges sold in Japan.

What's hot on the market now? Any component from Honda and Acura Type R performance cars that are available only in Japan. Demand also runs high for Japanese parts for the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, Subaru WRX STi and Nissan 350Z.

Interest in Japanese components originated as an off-shoot of the muscle-car phenomenon of the '60s, when teenagers souped up Chevrolet Camaros and Ford Mustangs. The Japanese parts created a look that "was different from the traditional muscle-car crowd," says John Naderi, editor in chief of Super Street, a Los Angeles-based magazine that caters to JDM enthusiasts, mostly in their teens and 20s.

Now, people get exposed to the "JDM look" from graphic Japanese manga comics, video games such as Sony's "Gran Turismo" and anime cartoon features, notably TokyoPop Inc.'s street-racing "Initial D."

"JDM is one example where you can successfully market the Japanese-ness of a product," says Paul Williamsen, a training curriculum manager for Toyota in Los Angeles.

Toyota tested the waters with the 2003 launch of the boxy Toyota bB in the United States under the youth-oriented Scion brand. Renamed xB, U.S. sales of the $14,195 vehicle were twice as high as Toyota's forecasts.

"People want to own something that no one else owns," said Jim Farley, head of the Scion brand. Referring to DaimlerChrysler's priciest sedan, Farley says, "It's the same thing that drives the Maybach business -- just different price points."

A few Scion customers knew they were buying a vehicle developed for the Japanese market, but most were struck by the spare, unusual styling.

"The car was different enough that it sparked our curiosity," says Keith Morris, a computer network specialist from Victorville, Calif., who bought a Scion xB last year.

Six months later, he and his wife, Robin, purchased another xB. "We were so happy with the first one that we decided a second one was the way to go."

They have spent another $3,000 to modify the vehicles, adding different wheels and performance springs. "We got involved with an owners' group -- Scion Evolution -- and learned a lot about Japanese cars."

Upscale European brands still set the industry styling trends. "As a designer, I appreciate the purity of Japanese design," says Trevor Creed, the top designer for DaimlerChrysler's Chrysler Group. "But there are aspects the average American would find hard to accept," he says.

But parts designed for the Japanese market appeal to younger car owners precisely because they are outside the U.S. mainstream. The phenomenon also taps into the minimalist, "less is more" thinking prevalent among Gen X and Y customers.

Fueling the trend is a plentiful supply of Japanese used-car parts. Japanese consumers often trade in vehicles after 30,000 or 40,000 miles to avoid higher taxes on older cars.

"The cars and parts basically still have a good life to them," says Argueta, who turned a hobby into a $6million a year business, importing and selling used Honda engines.

Owners of the customized vehicles show off at "tuner bash" get-togethers and car shows, such as the NOPI Nationals in Atlanta.

After the success of the Scion xB, Japanese automakers are reviewing their domestic product lineups to see which models or silhouettes might appeal to young U.S. buyers.

But the acceptance of Japanese automotive style may cool the enthusiasm of hard-core JDM fans.

"If it becomes widely available in the United States," says Toyota's Williamsen, "the cool factor plummets."


Robin Morris and her husband, Keith, of Victorville, Calif., bought two Scion xB vehicles, then spent another $3,000 customizing them.
Okay, those 2 in the pic look a bit too old :lol2. Not the exact demography i had in mind when i thought of modified xB's. Guess the tuner-craze has had a far-reaching affect...even the mid-lifers are taking part it seems.
 

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Okay, those 2 in the pic look a bit too old :lol2. Not the exact demography i had in mind when i thought of modified xB's. Guess the tuner-craze has had a far-reaching affect...even the mid-lifers are taking part it seems.
hahaha same like people buying element
 
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