For the better part of the past four decades, the Tokyo Motor Show, held each autumn in Chiba (east of Tokyo), has ranked among the foremost auto-industry events in the world. Then came the financial crisis of late 2008, threatening the future of American automakers and prompting the others to cut back sharply on costs.
"Fun Driving for Us, Eco Driving for Earth"
By the time the 2009 Tokyo show opened in October for its 13-day run, nearly all foreign manufacturers had dropped out. Only the Japanese automakers remained, turning the once-global extravaganza into almost a local auto show. Almost, but not quite.
This scaled-down Tokyo Motor Show clearly demonstrated a dramatic revision in attitude about the near future of the automobile-at least by Japanese automakers. Electric cars, joined by other battery-powered vehicles, from trucks to scooters and wheelchairs, struck the loudest chord at this year's event.
Not that performance was ignored at Makuhari Messe, the sprawling convention center near the shore of Tokyo Bay. After all, this year's theme was "Fun Driving for Us, Eco Driving for Earth." Thrifty and environmentally-focused vehicles didn't account for all of the 20 world premieres of passenger cars.
Lexus LFA Supercar
Lexus, for one, introduced its 552-horsepower LFA supercar, ready to square off against the likes of Ferrari and Lamborghini. The only European manufacturers to bring exhibits to Japan were performance-oriented niche brands: Lotus, Caterham, and BMW Alpina.
To the first-time visitor, the show is still delightfully fascinating. Japanese vehicles often are more imaginative and colorfully quirky, in both appearance and operation, than North American and European creations.
Overall, though, performance took second place to environmental concerns. "A new era is beginning in the automotive industry," said Nissan president/CEO Carlos Ghosn at his company's news conference. "The time is now for zero emissions," and "Nissan is leading the way to mass-market zero-emission mobility."
Mitsubishi i-MiEV Cargo Van
Presenting the first press conference of the Tokyo show, Mitsubishi set a pattern by focusing squarely on electric power: specifically, on the i-MiEV electric car and its offshoots. Driven onstage in an i-MiEV car, president Osamu Masuko noted that 600 of them have been delivered to Japanese corporations and municipalities since the announcement on World Environment Day (June 5). During 2010, the company wants individuals to start getting i-MiEVs, and plans export of right-hand-drive versions to England, Hong Kong, and New Zealand. Starting around year's end, they plan full-scale availability in 11 European countries.
Mitsubishi debuted an i-MiEV Cargo van at the show, along with a concept PX-MiEV plug-in hybrid model that's planned for 2013. A new EV compact vehicle also is said to be under development.
"We believe that EVs are the 'ultimate eco-cars,' Masuko said, "emitting zero CO2 while being driven." Electrics "have the potential to greatly change society and our daily lives." Mitsubishi even exhibited its vision of a MiEV House "for an environmentally-friendly lifestyle made possible by the electric vehicle."
Nissan Land Glider
Nissan is pushing hard with its new Leaf five-passenger electric everyday car. Sales begin in 2010 in Japan, Europe, and the U.S., though mass marketing won't start until 2012. Nissan calls Leaf the world's first mass-produced electric vehicle, hoping for sales of 150,000 per year.
To attract the futuristic-minded, Nissan also exhibited an electric-powered, motorcycle-like Land Glider that holds two persons in tandem. Though a production version is rumored, actual sale of the narrow-track Land Glider, which can lean like a motorcycle, seems a bit far-fetched. On a more practical note, Nissan plans to build electric commercial vans in Mississippi.
A dozen years have passed since the first Toyota Prius hybrid, which was named Japan's Car of the Year for 2009. Just before the Tokyo show, Lexus launched a cousin to the Prius. A plug-in hybrid version of the Prius took center stage at the show, with a mandate to place "automobile society in harmony with nature." Also revealed was an FT-EV II compact electric model.
Honda CR-Z Six-Speed Transmission Hybrid
Honda also has led the way into hybrid-powertrain cars and, more recently, fuel-cell models. The FCX Clarity fuel-cell sedan has been available for lease in the U.S. and Japan since 2008, and experiments are underway in Europe. So it was no surprise that Honda's booth was packed with environmentally-friendly models.
Leading the way was the CR-Z concept 2009, a sporty hybrid coupe that's expected to reach American dealerships next spring. Honda says it's the first hybrid with a six-speed manual transmission. Honda also displayed new U3-X mobility devices, with technologies developed through the ASIMO bipedal humanoid program, to provide what president/CEO Takanobu Ito called "harmonious coexistence with people." Also exhibited: an EV-N compact city commuter car, built around design simplicity; an EV-Cub electric motorcycle; and an EV-Monpal electric personal mobility vehicle. Honda's Skydeck hybrid design study featured scissors-style front doors and a sliding rear door.
"We believe that the fuel cell electric vehicle will be the ultimate form for automobiles in the future," Ito has advised. But at the show, he noted that "Honda should prioritize hybrids." According to Automotive News, Ito had told Reuters news service that "there are folks who like that 'vroom' of the engine out of nostalgia. But those people are stuck in the past."
Subaru All-Wheel-Drive Hybrid Tourer
Subaru has trailed other Japanese automakers in hybrid/electric propulsion, but the company revealed an all-wheel-drive Hybrid Tourer concept, with a separate motor for each axle, at the Tokyo event. Production hybrids aren't expected until 2012, and probably won't look much like this concept, which flaunted huge gullwing doors.
Mazda aims to improve fuel economy 30 percent by 2015, said president/CEO Takashi Yamanouchi. Two new Sky engines appeared at the show: a next-generation Sky-G gasoline engine that promises the fuel economy of a Mazda2 in a Mazda3-size car, and a Sky D that will get 20 percent greater mileage than Mazda's current 2.0-liter diesel. The Sky-G will launch in Japan in 2011, and later reach global markets.
Onstage to entice the eye was Mazda's Kiyora concept, created as a design exercise. Mazda also is developing a Sky Drive automatic transmission that promises a 5-percent mileage boost. Hydrogen-fueled rotary-engine vehicles were displayed, but their future is uncertain.
Suzuki SX4 FCV
Suzuki's theme, as stated by Takashi Nakayama, executive general manager of automobile engineering, is "Small cars for a big future." Nakayama advised that both hybrids and FCVs are "under development."
Environmental vehicles included a Burgman Fuel Cell scooter with a hydrogen tank. The Swift plug-in hybrid was developed for "short day-to-day drives." When its battery runs low, a 660-cc engine turns on to charge it. Suzuki's SX4 FCV is a compact fuel-cell car that runs on hydrogen. Suzuki also is working on a hybrid version of the flagship Kizashi sedan, which goes on sale in the U.S. this winter.
Suzuki even exhibited a fuel-cell electric wheelchair, with a "methanol solution in a replaceable bottle." One wonders if Grandma would be more at ease sitting atop a tank of hydrogen or one that contains methanol. Then again, motorcyclists have been straddling gasoline tanks for more than a century.
Daihatsu made only a brief entry into the American marketplace, years ago, and doesn't appear likely to return. Too bad, because this Japanese automaker had an especially delightful exhibit at the Tokyo show, featuring such vehicles as the utilitarian removable-roof "basket," promoted by two young ladies in rustic attire. Also on the show floor, lesser-known companies displayed everything from unbelievably cute micro-sized roadsters and bubble cars to electric-powered bicycles and high-energy motorcycles.
Of course, we've heard appeals and claims about environmental concerns before. Nearly every auto company, including producers of some of the worst guzzlers and polluters, has tossed out gentle and hopeful words about sustainability, reduced emissions, and greater fuel economy. Plenty of auto-industry executives and journalists continue to scoff at concerns over CO2 emissions, global warming, and potential fuel shortages. Still, they're a small and shrinking minority, overshadowed by leaders who would rather help save the world than save the V-8 engine.
Will upcoming auto shows continue to shrink in scope-or even disappear? Early this year, Tokyo organizers considered dropping the show. Over in Europe, Barcelona held no auto show in 2009. Evidence of shrinkage was obvious in Detroit, Chicago, and New York. Still, a couple of companies that omitted the Detroit show this past January are planning to return in 2010. Even if cars go seriously electric, potential customers benefit from gazing upon 21st-century makers' wares in such stimulating settings.