Donate the Deuce Coupe to an auto museum and put the GTO up for sale: The hippest, hottest hot rod in America is now an Asian import with front-wheel drive and a turbocharged four-banger. Humble Honda Civics with stock unibodies and custom everything else have clocked sub-9-second quarter-mile passes, with top speeds approaching 170 mph, and it's not uncommon to find street-legal econorockets fast enough to humiliate a Corvette Z06. Note to outraged Detroit iron loyalists: Deal with it.
So-called rice burners began infiltrating the Los Angeles underground street-racing culture about 10 years ago. By the mid-1990s, slammed Hondas with stainless-steel exhausts were rasping around both coasts, and by decade's end, import car shows and sanctioned drag races were drawing huge crowds. Hollywood came late to the party, but when The Fast and the Furious was released in 2001, its mix of fast cars, babes on parade and enough nitrous oxide to anesthetize the entire city of Pomona brought the import tuner scene to middle America.
Like their predecessors, the new hot rodders have split into show and go camps. The look-fast crowd flocks to mega-decibel Hot Import Nights car shows; picture a street-rod car show by way of the House of Blues. For these guys, the scene is more than a lifestyle; it's their whole life. "They spend all of their disposable income on their cars," says Michael Meyers, president of NOPI, a giant Atlanta-based parts distributor. "They build their personalities around their cars."
For go-fast types, it's all about straight-line, quarter-mile performance, largely because drag strips -- unlike twisty road-race circuits -- are accessible to all comers. "You can drive up to Palmdale (home of the Los Angeles County Raceway) on a Friday night, pay 15 bucks and you're on the track," says Craig Lieberman, technical advisor to The Fast and the Furious, who also runs one of the four professional import drag racing series inaugurated in recent years.
The import tuner crowd couldn't care less about road racing, but that hasn't stopped them from appropriating its trappings, from superwide wheels to rear wings the size of coffee tables. Many of these components are pricey Japanese-spec imports. Japanese domestic market (JDM) devotees will spend $500 to $1,000 for J-spec headlights. Raymond Fong, general manager of VeilSide USA, had a customer who dropped $14,000 on a body kit. "And to install it," Fong says, "he had to pull out the gas tank and put in a fuel cell."
The ultimate JDM icon is the Nissan Skyline GT-R, a budget supercar that developed a cult following in the States through the Gran Turismo 3 PlayStation 2 game. Under its rather bland bodywork beats a turbocharged engine that can be tweaked to produce nearly 450 hp without
any heavy breathing. "In Japan, it's known as Godzilla," says Ken Takahashi, sales manager of MotoRex, a firm in Los Angeles that imports the right-hand-drive beasts.
Another bit of import tuner exotica is the sport of drifting. Ever power-slide around a snow-covered parking lot? Imagine doing it on a racetrack -- for style points. That's drifting, and there's a professional series devoted to it in Japan. Tommy Chen, whose SpeedTrialUSA organization occasionally runs drifting sessions in Southern California, now calls them "car control" events. "One track owner tried to throw us out when he heard we were drifting," he explains. Then again, it wasn't that long ago that imports weren't welcome at drag strips either.
Nobody's calling Asian hot rods rice burners anymore. Car companies are clawing for a piece of the compact car performance market -- a $2 billion industry served by dozens of magazines, hundreds of speed shops and countless suppliers. Factory hot rods such as the Mazdaspeed Proteg, Dodge SRT-4 and Ford Focus SVT cater to customers who want their quasi-customization to come with a manufacturer's warranty. But as the cars on these pages show, factory hot rods barely scratch the surface of the technological sophistication and obsessive attention to detail that characterize hard-core import tuners.