Motoring: Japanese cars could yet seduce us Euro snobs

It is a sad truth that, in terms of engineering and construction quality, Toyota and Honda are the world's finest car-makers
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THIS WILL be the year when Japanese car manufacturers start to win over the hearts and heads of Europe's car buyers.

They have won over the rest of the world, of course. Whether it be Dar- es-Salaam, Dubai, Delhi or even Detroit, the majority of the people know and accept that, when it comes to cars, the Japanese do it best.

An American friend of mine, who knows a thing or two about cars, can never quite figure why we crazy Europeans still buy our Rovers and our Renaults and our Fiats (VWs, he can just about fathom) instead of Japanese- built cars.

He puts it down to the same rich vein of eccentricity that has persuaded the French to stick with yellow headlights, the English to drive on the left, and the Italians to drive at all.

I put it down to government protection, national customer bias, badge snobbery (we are much more status-conscious than the Americans, despite what we pretend) and ignorance.

It is a sad and undeniable truth that, in terms of production engineering and construction quality, Toyota and Honda are the world's finest car- makers. Most of the other Japanese manufacturers are not that far behind. The Europeans are catching up, as are the Americans, but the gap is still pretty obvious.

Another major consideration in Europe's successful rearguard action against the Japanese has been their leadership in "emotional" values. European cars are thought to have more "personality".

Literally, of course, tin boxes with engines cannot have personalities, but the Europeans have long been masters of pleasing customer sensibilities by their attractive styling, communicative handling, and promotion of brand values.

It has taken the Japanese much longer to learn these intangible virtues than it did the black-and-white issues such as tidy assembly, value for money and good reliability.

There have certainly been flashes of inspiration (Mazda MX-5, Honda CR- X, Toyota RAV-4, Nissan Skyline GTR). But just when you think - "they've cracked it!" - they launch a Mazda 323, a Honda Accord, a Toyota Carina E or a Nissan Anything-But-A-Skyline. And Europe's makers breathe a collective sigh of relief again.

This year promises to be different. First, there are two cracking new Toyota models on the way, which are as desirable as they are sensible. The first is the new Yaris, the baby hatchback that was previewed at the Paris Motor Show in September and will be assembled in France. It is bound to be as reliable as a Japanese watch. To boot, it has a pleasing streak of individuality about its styling and promises to be brilliantly economical. It is likely to be the star car in Europe's biggest car class, the Fiesta sector.

Also on its way is Toyota's first Lexus model aimed at Europe rather than America. The IS200, previewed at the Birmingham Show a couple of months ago, has a touch of BMW 3-series about its styling, yet has enough design and engineering originality to persuade people finally to part with their BMWs.

Also imminent are road versions of the Subaru Impreza and Mitsubishi Lancer rally cars which Colin McRae and Richard Burns used to such devastating effect in international rallies last year. These super-powerful, brilliant handling machines are all the motoring rage in south-east Asia but have long been denied to UK customers.

They are true "hero" machines, cars which could do to mid-range European sports saloons what the Nintendo 64 did to the bagatelle. They are bound to elevate the images of their manufacturers, and the image of Japanese car-makers.