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While large-scale vehicle recalls continue to plague several major automakers, it's fair to say that Detroit's automakers have made a solid comeback from the grim days of the 2008 financial crisis.

But how have the import brands emerged from the lean years, and how have their products and practices improved to the benefit of car-buying consumers?

Taking a look at two Asian carmakers, one small and one large, we start with Mazda, a company whose sales volumes may not rank with the market leaders, but which has carved out an enviable reputation for emotive design and entertaining driving qualities.

For Derek Jenkins, director of design for Mazda North America, the brand's showroom lineup has a more cohesive look and feel than it has in years. Jenkins kicked off the company's current design language, known as kodo, with the CX-5 crossover three years ago, and it has spread to other Mazda models, most recently the CX-3 subcompact crossover and the latest generation MX-5 sports car, which goes on sale this year.

"Our cars are all fun to drive and whatever we do design wise, the look has to exude that attitude of the car, that passion for driving," says Jenkins. "We started with the face of the car; the grille is more upright and more sophisticated, the eyes more focused."

A combination of beauty and intensity in the designs is particularly evident in the new Mazda6 sedan and the MX-5, feels Jenkins. With the iconic MX-5, his goal was to have the car visually express its capabilities more clearly, hence the more assertive-looking body style.

As for the small CX-3, it is an exciting project, says Jenkins, because the segment is new and undefined. "We want the CX-3 to be seen as defining the segment's sweet spot. It has a utility look, almost like a little rally vehicle, but as has all the sophisticated touch points that will be a welcome surprise to customers in that segment."

Jenkins adds: "This is another golden era for Mazda, as we build on momentum in the market."

While Mazda develops its role as the go-to Japanese brand for fun-to-drive vehicles, rival giant Toyota has found its feet after major quality related challenges in recent years and is embarking on its own image enhancement program.

Driven from on top by Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda, the effort to add more sparkle and customer focus to the brand's public persona is reaching into many areas of Toyota's North American operations, says Bill Fay, group vice president.

"We've learned a lot from what we've been through," says Fay. "It has forced us to get closer to the customers and with their perceptions of our products, what they like and what we need to work on and provide in future products."

Fay says the company goal is to develop cars that look "a little more stylish and sporty and a little more fun to drive," a move that has led to recent special editions of models such as the 2016 Camry and Corolla, plus a refreshed 2016 Avalon sedan, all introduced at the recent Chicago auto show.

"From a marketing standpoint we are pushing past this very rational brand image we have and putting a little more emotion into it, like we did with the recent Super Bowl Camry spot," adds Fay.

The Camry, Toyota's best selling vehicle, has been knocked for its plain vanilla character but changes to the current model have shifted the car toward a younger, sportier image. Fay says that effort will continue and spread to other Toyota vehicles.

So while some might have predicted a more conservative approach from Asian brands that were battered by economic and other pressures, it looks like the trend is to offer consumers more expressive and entertaining vehicles in the coming years.

John McCormick is a columnist for Autos Consumer and can be reached at jmccor@aol.com.

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