It's makeover time for the Tokyo Motor Show, the biennial showcase for Japan's auto industry which opens its doors to the media on Wednesday. A new venue, a new time slot and a whole new look are part the revamp designed to put this once-stellar auto show back on the map. Long one of the industry's A-list international auto shows, on a par with Detroit, Geneva and Frankfurt, the Tokyo Show has faced tough times of late. Strong competition from the big China shows in Beijing and Shanghai has cramped its style, as have other "emerging-market" auto shows in New Delhi, Moscow and Bangkok. Coming in the wake of the Lehman Brothers financial crisis in 2009, the last Tokyo show was dramatically downscaled and almost cancelled. Virtually all foreign automakers stayed away. With few interesting vehicles and a funeral atmosphere, what once was Asia's top auto show became a desperately sad and austere spectacle. How the mighty had fallen.
But now, the Tokyo confab is fighting back. The show moves to a new date this year and relocates to Tokyo Big Sight, a vast expo site on Tokyo's waterfront. For the first time since 1987, then, the Tokyo Show is coming back into the city. The organizers hope relocating will help give the Tokyo Motor Show a new edge. After 2009, many thought the Tokyo Show would become smaller to fit the times, but in a show of defiance, perhaps, the opposite has happened. For this 42nd Tokyo Show, floor space is said to be up 61 percent and exhibitor count is 176, versus 129 two years ago. The big-name importers including BMW, Mercedes, VW, Porsche, Jaguar, Land-Rover, Lotus and France's PSA group also are back, while the Detroit automakers — all of which skipped the '09 show — once again are absent, as are all the Italian brands.
It's not surprising, really, that Detroit's Big Three are no-shows for Tokyo. Given the hugely adverse dollar/yen exchange-rate situation at the moment, Japan's slow-go auto market and that huge and profitable arena called China parked right next door, General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and the Chrysler Group LLC surely figure their resources are better spent elsewhere. Nevertheless, the Tokyo Show now is almost back to full strength again — and in a year that's brought many hardships for the nation and the auto industry, the event also is being pitched as a showcase for Japanese resilience and recovery from disaster.
Mobility Can Change The World
The Tokyo show's theme this year is "Mobility Can Change The World." Automobiles are more than just transportation, says the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Assocation: they now offer new solutions to issues such as the environment, safety and energy. To build on that and to give the Tokyo Show its own space and leverage over China, a big slice of the show is devoted to Japanese high technology and in particular, "smart" environmental and information technology to link people, cars and cities in the decades ahead.
This is the cue for a rash of small, tech-laden electric commuter concepts from Toyota, Nissan, Honda and others that point to this new age of urban transportation. One such is the Nissan Pivo3, a tiny 3-seat electric vehicle with four in-wheel motors so it can turn virtually on its own axis. Pivo3 also can park itself and return to the driver when called by smartphone. Another micro-sized EV is Honda's sci-fi shaped Micro Commuter Concept. Toyota in turn will present the web-interactive Fun-Vii, while more rooted in the here-and-now is Toyota's FT-EV III, an electric version of the Scion iQ powered by a lithium-ion battery; the production car is set to see the light of day next year.
For many, however, one big show buzz will be the long-awaited debut of the rear-drive sports coupe jointly developed by Toyota and Subaur. For Toyota, this will be the 86 (Scion FR-S in the United States). Subaru's version is the BRZ. After numerous show teasers and clandestine media drives of disguised prototypes, this at last will be the real thing and it will be fascinating to see the public reaction as the cars roll out. Toyota designed and product-planned the car. Subaru supplies the 2-liter "boxer" horizontally opposed 4-cylinder, developed the chassis and suspension and will build the coupes in Japan, starting in the spring. Subaru's version does not have the brand's signature all-wheel-drive.
Eco Is A Dominant Theme
Environmental friendliness is one major theme of the 2011 Tokyo Motor Show and in the Toyota camp, this brings out the Japan debut of the Prius Plug-in Hybrid and the Aqua, Japan's version of America's Prius C compact car, with 1.5-liter hybrid powertrain. Toyota also has come up with a reply of sorts to Honda's brilliant FC-X fuel cell sedan. This is the FCV-R, which suggests how a mid-size Toyota fuel-cell sedan for 2015 might shape up.
Honda has the AC-X as a pointer towards a next-generation 1.6-liter plug-in hybrid sedan. The company also is showing a range of oddball, motorcycle-based commuters like the E-Canopy and even smaller, fold-up Motor Compo which can be carried inside the Micro Commuter Concept, if need be. But can EVs be fun? Honda thinks so, which is why its Small Sports EV is at the show, a compact, open 2-seater which in some ways is a revival of the Beat, the tiny 660 cc mid-engined open sportster that Honda offered in Japan in the 1990s.
Still on the performance beat, Nissan is giving another showing to the ESFLOW, its sexy rear-drive, 2-seat EV sports coupe (first seen at this year's Geneva show) which perhaps suggests how a future, electric-drive Z sportscar might appear. Cross to Mazda and we have the Takeri concept, a striking designer sedan which fully embodies Mazda's SKYACTIV eco technologies for powertrain, body and chassis and paves the way towards next year's fully-redesigned Mazda6 midsize sedan. Fresh from Frankfurt, Mazda is also giving a Japan debut to the CX-5 crossover, the first from Hiroshima to offer a SKYACTIV clean diesel engine.
Mitsubishi has two world premieres. The PX-MiEV II is a 2-liter plug-in hybrid crossover, previewing the coming Outlander hybrid. Mitsubishi also has been working on a 1-liter econocar for world markets. To be made and sold first in Thailand, it's launching in Japan under the well-established Mirage nameplate. Eventually, a Mirage spin-off should come to North America, Mitsubishi says.
Besides the BRZ sports coupe, Subaru's headliner is the Advanced Tourer Concept, a dynamic 1.6-liter turbo 4WD hybrid crossover, a version of which may well see production in 2013 as Subaru's first hybrid. For Japanese gearheads, the S206 is another Impreza WRX STI go-faster special, marking the last of the current line.
Small-Car Curios: A Tokyo Show Delicacy
No Tokyo Show would be complete without some charming, small-car curios from tiny-vehicle specialists Suzuki and Daihatsu. In this department, we have the Regina, a tiny Suzuki retro sedan tribute to the classic Citroen DS 19 and the Daihatsu D-X, a cool open sportscar concept with next-generation 660-cc 2-cylinder under the hood. The FC shoCASE, an indomitable brick-shaped mini-minvan with Daihatsu's own fuel cell system on board, is another concept born for the Tokyo Show.
Helping to give this relaunched Tokyo Show some teeth is the return of the German premium brands after their collective 2009 no-show. On a big stand, Volkswagen has two world premieres: the new Passat Alltrack and another as yet unnamed show car — plus a few models new to Japan, such as the funky Bulli electric car concept. BMW is giving the ActiveHybrid 5 — a six-cylinder hybrid variant of its midsize 5-Series — its world debut, as well as introducing its world-renowned diesels to Japan for the first time ever. BMW's fascinating i brand electric/hybrid models are on duty, too. Daimler AG also will have a major presence, with stands for its Mercedes-Benz, Smart, AMG and Maybach brands — although as became known late last week, the company plans to abandon Maybach.
A Highly Interactive Show
The Tokyo Show is also highly interactive this year. There are symposiums, talk shows, kids' workshops, even a soap box derby as well a range of different passenger rides of new cars and bikes on offer. To drive home the show's future-tech angle, in one hall you'll find Smart Mobility City 2011. This is a Jetsons-style expo designed to show how future generation cars and systems will interact. Organizations and companies from 28 industries, spanning environment, energy and information communications will take part; mixed in, there will be a glimpse of what our mobility society will be like in 2040-2050, the organizers say. For the first time ever, the CEOs of the major Japanese auto companies will take part in an opening-day parade and later engage in a public talk show. The winner of 2011 Japan Car of the Year will also be announced at the show.
So the Tokyo Motor Show has come of age. For the best part of 20 years, from 1987 to 2007, the Tokyo Show was a vital stop on the auto-show calendar. Auto execs, analysts and media came every time to try to find out what the Japanese were doing, and what might be coming next. In that era, the Tokyo Show was a beguiling mix of fact and fantasy, a glitzy automotive extravaganza with a unique vibe. If the organizers and manufacturers can recapture some that buzz for this new-look 2011 Tokyo Show, then Japan will indeed be back on the map.