Rice burner is a slang term used to describe Asian-made (typically Japanese) cars and motorcycles. Many variations of the term have also been used, such as rice rocket for Japanese sport bikes.
More contemporary use of the term rice burner, along with the prefix “rice”, has taken on an alternate pejorative meaning. In the car community, a car is described as “rice” when it has been modified to give impression of high performance, but does not necessarily have any high performance capabilities.
“Rice burner” is used chiefly as a noun. Variations of this usage include ricer (both vehicle and driver), rice car, rice cooker, rice boy (the driver of a car with questionable modifications), rice mobile, and rice rocket.
As an adjective, rice alone is primarily used and can apply to both vehicle and driver. Alternates include riced, riced out, riced up, and ricey. Ricing is the present progressive of modifying a car in the described manner.
The opposite of a “rice burner” is a sleeper or Q-car. A sleeper is a car that has major performance modifications, but does not stand out in ordinary traffic. In a race, it would be easy for the opponent to underestimate the performance of a sleeper.
American and European Cars
In some circles, the term “rice” is used exclusively to describe Asian-made vehicles. Use of the term “rice” is not necessarily restricted to Asian-made vehicles, as German or American cars may also be fitted with similar flashy modifications. The term “American rice”, “domestic rice”, or “wheat burner” has been used to describe American-made cars that have been modified as described, but simply calling them rice is also commonplace.
The word “rice” in rice burner refers to the fact that the vehicles were of Japanese origin, and rice is a staple food in East Asian cuisine. The climate of the East Asian region provides optimal growing conditions for rice.
As such, this word has associated itself with that particular demographic in the same way pasta is associated with Italians (e.g. using the term “pasta rocket” to describe Italian made sports cars such as the Ferrari or the Lamborghini).
The earliest usage of “rice” to describe a vehicle is not clear, but examples include the term referring to Japanese motorcycles in the early to mid 1980s, and muscle car enthusiasts’ jokes that cars from Japan used engines powered by rice alcohol.
Though in the 1970s and 80s, the Japanese did produce many popular performance cars and performance versions of existing cars. Many of them were never exported to North America, and Japanese cars were not thought of as sport performance vehicles in the west.
Not until the late 1980s and early 1990s did imported performance parts began filtering through the west coast, as well as more performance oriented cars, such as the Toyota Supra. Many factors, such as parts being interchangeable, the low cost of obtaining a used import car to start with, and networking and e-commerce via the Internet all allowed the expansion of the practice of modifying a low-cost compact car.
When properly modified, economy cars and compact cars could lay down impressive times on a drag strip. This is because of their light weight and the increasing availability of low-cost parts.
As professional sporting and racing with such vehicles increased, so did more recreational use of these vehicles. Drivers with little or no automotive, mechanical, or racing experience would modify their vehicles to emulate the more impressive versions of racing vehicles with mixed results.
The Universal film “The Fast and the Furious” continued this exposure to modified sport compacts and expanded the visibility of automobile modification to the general public. Soon, everyone wanted to customize their car with overnight parts from Japan.
Ricing a vehicle is meant to emulate the aesthetic work of independent automotive car tuning companies who modify more than just appearance. Ricing is generally looked down upon among car enthusiasts and those who perform engine tuning and other performance racing modifications.
Common aftermarket modifications in this style can include but are not limited to:
- Aerodynamic-seeming or creatively-designed body kits, often with little function
- Wings and spoilers that serve no useful function, possibly increasing drag and decreasing traction
- Carbon fiber hoods (sometimes fiberglass replicas made to look like carbon fiber, or just decorative self adhesive plastic with carbon fiber look)
- Non-functional hood scoops
- Excessively large wheels that often decrease acceleration due to higher rotational inertia. Handling is also often made worse by the extra unsprung weight.
- Improperly lowered suspension, such as stock springs shortened by heating or cutting.
- Excessive negative camber. A little camber helps for performance, but too much will negatively affect handling.
- Stretched tires. This involves putting a tire with a thin diameter on a very wide wheel.
- Bumper canards fitted to the front bumper with no aerodynamic testing.
- Bright paint or interior, frequently in contrasting colors
- Adding decals and stickers for aftermarket parts not actually present on the vehicle
- Upbadging, which involves adding badges from other higher-performance vehicles, trims, or JDM tuning companies like Mugen, Nismo, STI, etc.
- Digital turbo, consisting of speakers installed under the car that emulate the sound of a turbo engine.
- A loud, free-flowing exhaust system with a large cylindrical resonator at the rear of the car, known as a “fart can” or “fart cannon”
- Decorative neon and LED lighting in addition to the regular head/tail lamps and brake/turn signals, such as lighted windshield washer nozzles and tire valve caps, underbody neon lighting (“hover lights”), etc.
- Altezza-style lights or “Altezzas” (equally popular and known as “Lexus” lights in Europe). The term “Altezza” comes from the JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) Toyota Altezza, known in the US as the Lexus IS300 and Europe as the Lexus IS200. Toyota continues to use Altezza style tail lights on various Lexus models, including the RX “crossover SUV” and ES sedan
- Bright headlight bulbs (although most of these bulbs offer better lighting than conventional halogen bulbs), sometimes of illegal specification and poorly aligned; colored bulbs, also often illegal, which are used for turning signals, side-markers, etc.
Some people who perform visual modifications may be more interested in visual appeal than any perceived performance, as there are custom car shows and competitions with focus on innovative design and expression of the driver. Such shows may be used to display artistic paint schemes or even radical structural body modification of the vehicle.
The terms “rice rocket”, “riced-out” and “ricing” are sometimes used to describe computer case modifications which serve to make the computer look fast without actually improving its performance. As with “riced” cars, neon lights and adhesive decals can be installed by the consumer, although some consider this tacky.