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Japan’s Design And Tech Prowess Remerge At Tokyo, As Trade Woes Worsen

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2011 Tokyo Motor Show

2011 Tokyo Motor Show

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By all accounts, 2011 has been a very hard year for the Japanese auto industry. With the natural disaster of the March 11 earthquake and resulting tsunami, as well as the Fukushima catastrophe and energy crisis that followed, muddled later in the year by supplier issues related to flooding in Thailand, assembly plants were shut down for weeks. And all that came during a time when Japanese automakers were already losing market share (in the U.S. and elsewhere) to Hyundai and Kia.

Held biennially, the Tokyo Motor Show has also long been the international show where fresh (and offbeat) urban-vehicle designs are introduced, as well as where the Japanese auto industry makes technology announcements; but the past couple of Tokyo shows have seen a little of the weirdness fade away.

Synchronized with a move to a new venue, called Big Sight, the show reclaimed some of that status within the mainstream auto-show circuit. The show, which was literally on shaky ground earlier this year, even before considering the scope of the catastrophe, remains somewhat different than other major world auto shows as top-tier suppliers—as well as some more obscure ones—are shuffled right in on the main floor between global automakers. It’s clear, as in our Detroit show, that the big domestics like Toyota, Honda, and Nissan are given preference, but big U.S. players (GM and Ford) were missing. Whether the show will shrink in size as China’s Beijing and Shanghai shows surge in stature remains to be seen.

That said, there was a lot at Tokyo to consider—about what the Japanese automakers can produce, how they might bounce back, and what they still face. Here are three themes we saw live at the Tokyo show this past week:

2011 Nissan Pivo3 concept

2011 Nissan Pivo3 concept

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The reemergence of quirky city-car designs, and signs of an engineering-and-innovation comeback. Japanese design is—to paraphrase what one respected designer told us—having a “crisis of confidence” at the moment. But we think that’s based more on what’s hitting the market now; you wouldn’t know it based on the fresh concepts hitting the floor at Tokyo.

With the likes of the Nissan Pivo3 and the Honda Micro Commuter concept, Japanese minicar design is back—with influences that verge away from the tired toylike and Hello Kitty influences, looking instead like extras from the set of TRON, dressed up with a dash of pop-art swagger and kabuki boldness. But there were a few duds in the bunch; the all-new, Thailand-built Mitsubishi Mirage shown at Tokyo was one of the blandest-looking models on the floor. And to us, the far-out Suzuki Q urban concept looked too much like a CD spindle turned on its side.

2011 Suzuki Q Electric Car Concept

2011 Suzuki Q Electric Car Concept

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Compact, environmentally conscious sports cars were another theme that each of the Japanese automakers struck. Honda showed a rear-wheel-drive electric sports car, called the EV-STER, which looks set to follow in tracks of the S2000, while Toyota showed a potential MR2-successor, the mid-engine GRMN Sports Hybrid Concept. Nissan also brought back out its ESFlow concept from Geneva, reiterating that it shares components with the Nissan Leaf and sharing the stage with a NISMO Leaf.

2011 Suzuki Regina Concept

2011 Suzuki Regina Concept

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The Suzuki Regina—my personal favorite from the show—is a charismatic little Mini Cooper– or Fiat 500–sized subcompact that, the automaker hinted, could potentially be sold in any world market, the U.S. included. With influences from old Citroen and Renault models, a lightweight, high-strength steel structure, and gas mileage of more than 70 mpg, this—and not the too-late Swift hatchback—is what Suzuki needs to get its image back (or actually, to get any image) in the States.

Meanwhile, Honda, which has caught some flack for its conservative adoption for advanced technologies like direct injection and six-speed transmissions, finally announced a major technology initiative at the Tokyo show. A new two-motor hybrid system, new EV powertrain, and a plug-in model (likely the 2013 Accord) were all included as part of the so-called Earth Dreams Technology plan, and the automaker revealed new direct-injection engines that will be phased into the line beginning next year. And Toyota looks to gain from a new green-tech agreement with BMW that brings them diesels for Europe in exchange for their hybrid tech.


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