The Toyota Cavalier Was America’s Attempt at Conquering the Japanese Auto Market

Captive imports have been a constant feature in the American automotive landscape, resulting in some great cars, like the Chevy SS — and some not so great cars, like the Chevy Aveo. But did you know that the concept goes both ways? The Toyota Cavalier is a great example of that — and it marked a futile attempt by Chevrolet to break into the Japanese market. Believe it or not, it didn’t go well for a variety of reasons.

The Toyota Cavalier was born from an attempt at establishing "bilateral consumerism" with Japan — essentially, trying to get Japanese consumers to buy more American products, including cars, in a time when we were importing far more Japanese goods than we were exporting American goods. It was supposed to usher in a new era of economic success in both countries, but the idea fell flat on its face — especially in the case of the Toyota Cavalier.

The whole thing got started because General Motors and Toyota had a partnership in the 1980s and 1990s — the same one that gave us the Geo Prizm and Toyota Corolla, and the Pontiac Vibe and Toyota Matrix. Since the Prizm was mostly a Toyota underneath, I think the theory was that General Motors would return the favor by giving Toyota a GM model to sell in its home market.

The real problem is that the Cavalier wasn’t built to the economic realities of the Japanese consumer. Japan famously taxes cars based on displacement, leading to the awesome Kei cars like the Autozam AZ-1 or Nissan S-Cargo — but the 2.4-liter 4-cylinder of the Cavalier pushed it into a tax category that made the price way higher than the quality of the car could demand. Not surprisingly, the Japanese hated the Cavalier’s huge panel gaps and found the build quality to be unpalatable, an idea that American consumers had accepted but American companies wouldn’t learn until a global financial crisis drove the point home.

Additionally, GM was apparently so excited to import the Cavalier that they didn’t bother converting them to right-hand drive for the first year. Ad campaigns were heavy-handed and well-marketed, pushing the idea of attaining the American Dream through driving the Cavalier — but when Japanese consumers looked into it, they found the car completely unsuitable for the Japanese market. By the time the Cavalier was imported with the steering wheel on the right side, it was far too late, as the Japanese public had already made up its mind.

Interestingly, Toyota tried to make the Cavalier work for the Japanese market by making some changes to meet regulations and making them more palatable to the Japanese consumer. Touches included a leather-wrapped shift knob and steering wheel, some color accents on the seats and an armrest for the rear. But that simply wasn’t enough. It was putting lipstick on a pig — and consumers saw right through the attempts.

Amazingly, despite all this, GM and Toyota tried things again a few years later: The Pontiac Vibe was rebadged in Japan as the Toyota Voltz, and, once again, sales were sluggish. Now a decade on from that, most American brands still haven’t made many inroads into the Japanese auto market — or even attempted.

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