It seems like every other day we have a conversation about Japanese vs American cars. Both markets are hot, and they make up the vast majority of cars you’ll see on the road. This begs the question, which is better?
In this piece, we’ll take a closer look at these two manufacturing titans. By the end, you’ll know if Japanese cars are better than American cars.
Defining a Japanese Car
If you take your Chevy truck over to Japan, it doesn’t become a Japanese car. Japanese cars are manufactured in Japan.
Within the category of “Japanese cars”, there is a section called Japanese Domestic Market (JDM). JDM cars are specifically made in Japan and intended to be sold in Japan. If someone in any other part of the world is driving a JDM, it’s an import that was initially bought by someone in Japan.
It’s also worth noting that American or Japanese cars don’t need to source their materials from their own country. As long as a majority of the manufacturing is done on their home turf, that is considered the country of origin.
A rule of thumb is that a lot of these car manufacturers do their own designing, prototyping, and building in-house. The only non-domestic piece of the puzzle is the source of the materials and some subassembly work on the car.
Big Car Brands in Japanese and American Manufacturing
If you know a handful of car manufacturers, you’ll probably recognize most of the names on this list. Japanese and American car brands are among the largest sellers in the US. Throw in a handful of German and Italian brands and you’ll basically complete the collection that you might see on the highway.
Today, some of the biggest Japanese car brands are:
Top American car manufacturers are places like:
- Ford Motor Company
Best Selling Cars in the US
As a fun exercise, we look at the top-selling cars in the US in 2020. Looking at the top 25 spots, all of them are either Japanese or American-made. 14 of them are Japanese, and 11 are American.
Interestingly enough, the top 10 spots were split — 5 are Japanese and 5 are American.
Notable Modern Japanese Cars
Here are some fun Japanese cars to know:
- Toyota Supra
- Mazda MX-5
- Nissan GT-R
- Subaru Impreza WRX
- Honda Civic Type R
Notable Modern American Cars
America makes their fair share of fun-to-drive rides as well:
- Ford Shelby GT500
- Chevy Corvette Stingray
- Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat
- Cadillac CTS-V
- Tesla Model X
Japanese Cars vs American Cars: Everything You Need to Know
The best way to find out if Japanese cars are better than American cars is with some direct comparisons. In this section, we’ll look at a number of different factors and see which country takes the prize for each.
Safety is a hugely important part of Japanese cars. Brands like Subaru built their entire model around safety.
In general, you’ll see that Japanese cars test really well when it comes to the safety of their vehicles. A lot of Americans can’t live up to the same standards.
General Style and Design
There are a lot of Japanese cars that look incredible. The notable models we mentioned earlier are all drool-worthy. The problem is when you zoom out a little and look at all the cars in production.
Cars like the Nissan Cube and Nissan Juke are pretty tough to look at. A lot of Japanese cars that fall in the middle either require a certain taste, or they’re downright ugly.
Comparatively, it’s hard to find an American car that’s bad-looking. At worst, they just look normal.
Interiors are another place where you’ll see huge oversights. Japanese designers will keep things very minimal on average, and you’re left with a cabin that doesn’t say much. Americans love throwing tech in every nook and adding comfortable accessories across the board.
The engineering and build quality of Japanese cars is awe-worthy. You can tell that they take a lot of pride in their work, and they want their customers to have the best possible driving experience.
Their teams might be poor at styling a car, but they’re incredible at engineering one.
If you’ve heard the jokes about American-made cars breaking down often and not lasting past 100,000 — they’re largely true. There are plenty of exceptions, but the general consensus is that Japanese engineering is better than American engineering when it comes to automobiles.
If you decide to buy your car, reliability might be the biggest selling factor. Reliability refers to how long the car will live, how often it will break down, and how much luck is required to keep the car alive.
The overwhelming champion here is the Japanese car. Cars like Civics and Camrys refuse to stop working. Both of those examples come from Japan.
Plenty of Japanese cars can make it past 250,000 miles without a second thought. American cars typically start falling apart around the 100,000 mark.
General Cost to Own and Operate
Here’s where it gets a little interesting. We mentioned that Japanese cars are better engineered, safer, and longer-lasting. It’s weird that at the same time, these cars are less expensive.
Not only are they cheaper to buy, but the maintenance costs are surprisingly low. There’s no cringing in the lobby of an auto shop when you take your Japanese car in for an inspection. If a part breaks, it’s usually a cheap and easy fix.
The decisions made by the bigwigs will trickle down across the car company. When someone like Elon Musk says they want to change the car world and provide the best luxury electric car, it happens. When a CEO wants to focus on profits, then you’ll notice a decline in the build quality.
Without generalizing too much, you’ll see that there’s a stark contrast between the corporate strategy of a Japanese and American car company.
Japanese companies focus on reliability and quality. American companies focus on making money and putting together a fast, attractive car.
In our opinion, Japan takes this category. We’d much rather buy a product that’s being pushed to be the best possible vehicle it can be, rather than one just trying to make money.
The Truth About Trucks
If you want to look at the different trucks on the market, America does an incredible job. Between Dodge, Ford, Chevy, and GMC, you have a massive majority of the truck sales in the US.
The truth about trucks is that American companies simply do it better. They’re faster, stronger, and more fun to drive than their Japanese counterparts.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with a Nissan pickup, it just makes more sense to go American.
Looking at Supercars
In today’s age, a Japanese supercar does more than an American. Looking at a list of supercars side-by-side, the Japanese cars look better, drive faster, and are more exciting.
If you’re in the market for a supercar, you already know that Japan puts together a more impressive brochure.
Americans like to spread out and have plenty of space around them. The average Japanese man is 5’6” and 140 pounds. The average American man is 5’9” and 200 pounds. Those three inches and 60 pounds make a lot of difference when you’re trying to squeeze into a Japanese car.
It’s true that Japanese cars offer less space than American ones do. It’s like a real-life version of “Honey, I Shrunk the Sedan” when you get behind the wheel of a Toyota.
If you’re someone who wants some elbow room, then American is the way to go.
Next up is the size of the engine you can expect to see when you pop the hood. In the US, we like load, massive, rumbling V8s under our hoods. In Japan, they want fuel-efficient, reliable, and smaller engines.
You’ll often have a better driving experience when you’re in an American car. Again, this comes down to what the manufacturers are focusing on — speed, looks, and the thrill of the ride.
This means faster 0-60s, better track times, and more tire-squealing fun with an American-made car.
Since Japanese cars are smaller and more efficient, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they’re more fuel-efficient. It’s the main focus for a lot of manufacturers, and the results prove that.
It’s not rare to get over 40 mpg in a Japanese car. That’s one way to save money on gas.
Some Imports are Illegal
Buyer beware: some Japanese imports are illegal to take on the open roads in America. Every country has specific laws when it comes to cars that can be driven on the road.
For us, safety and EPA regulations will limit our ability to take an import down the highway. Double-check online to make sure your JDM import is street legal before writing the check.
American cars are built to US regulations, so there’s no worry there.
First and foremost, cars aren’t an investment. Even so, you would hate to see the value of your car plummet for no good reason while you own it.
Resale value is a big deal to people who plan on getting a new car in a few years. It means you can get a little cash in your pocket as you go to your next car.
For people who eventually sell the car they’re buying, we suggest Japanese cars. American cars don’t tend to retain their value for as long as a Japanese one does.
Are Japanese Cars Better than American Cars?
As you can see, it’s not so easy to definitively say if Japanese cars are better than American ones. In the previous 14 sections of this piece, Japan won eight and America won six.
If the question changes to, “are Japanese cars more reliable, fuel-efficient, cost-effective, better-engineered, and have better resale value?”. The answer is a resounding “yes”. These are the qualities that made the Japanese car market boom in the first place.
If, however, you want a good-looking, fast, performance car, then American is the way to go. Alternatively, if you want a truck or want to have some extra space, shop in the US market.
Are Japanese cars better than American cars? It depends on who’s asking.
Now you have better insight into how Japan and America compare when it comes to cars. Different people will prefer one over the other for their own personal reasons. Regardless, we have a lot of respect for both countries when it comes to cars. If you want more car insights, check out the rest of our blog. Make sure you have the right tools and accessories to keep your American or Japanese car running forever.