Only in Japan: Pop star speeds in a Chevy (No, not a Corvette)

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A pop star is caught speeding -- doing 75 mph in a 50 mph zone -- in a Chevrolet. In most countries, this would be a story about a Corvette.

But this happened in Japan. So the vehicle in question was a Chevy Astro van.

Huh? Click here for the story.

The Astro has an iconic status in Japan, complete with its own fan magazine, that's sometimes hard for Americans to understand. As best I could figure when I lived there, the boxy van's appeal rests on three primary traits.

First, it's really big, at least by Japanese standards. A lot of its fans are surfers and outdoors enthusiasts who like to throw their tents (for sleeping on the beach or in the mountains) and other gear inside or on top. It's not that much fun strapping your surfboard to the top of a Honda Fit.

Second, it's fairly affordable for an import, thanks to a little tax sleight of hand. Most Astros sold in Japan are gray-market imports. An enterprising importer brings in a bunch of Astros, all equipped with a camper package. As such, they are subject to lower import duties than standard cars or trucks. Once they clear customs, the importer rips out the sink and other camper gear inside and voila!, an import that doesn't cost an arm and a leg.

Third, nothing quite says "I didn't buy a Japanese car like everybody else" as well as an Astro. Oh, maybe a Hummer, which also sold surprisingly well in Japan. But the Astro was affordable to the average Jiro, and a statement of nonconformity. Japan is often seen as a nation of conformists, but those who want to be different really want to be different.

Back to the speeding pop-star story. The other twist in this case is that the star is a spokesman for Toyota in some of their ads. But no pop star was going to be caught driving a Corolla. Even a Lexus in Japan doesn't set you apart as someone different as well as a Chevy Astro.

Still. Dude, who does 75 mph in an Astro?

Industry Editor James B. Treece was Automotive News' Asia Editor, based in Tokyo, from 1995 to 2007.

You can reach James B. Treece at jtreece@crain.com.

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