1999 Tokyo Motor Show: Big Japan Page 2

October 18, 1999

At Honda, two new products are securing its reputation for impressive technology and sporting flair. The new S2000 convertible is already a hit, and the upcoming Acura CL coupes are said to take a much sportier line than the luxury coupes they replace. (One suggestion is that the Honda Prelude’s days are numbered, and that the CL coupe will replace it in a way, within the Acura lineup).

But perhaps the most important developments at Honda are yet to come. The Insight hybrid vehicles, about to go on sale in the U.S., will be the first vehicle sold here that uses a gas engine alongside electric-vehicle technology to reduce emissions, increase fuel economy, and possibly, avert the zero-emissions rules California has mandated. Beyond Insight, in June, the groundbreaking for the next Honda production facility in the U.S. takes place in rural Lincoln, Alabama, where Honda will build a new vehicle. The plant is scheduled to build an Acura sport-activity vehicle based on the Honda Odyssey minivan, giving the brand a more competitive entry in the compact SUV wars – and further blurring its status as a Japanese-American company.

At Toyota, it’s much the same success story. The company is coming off its most successful launch ever – its new Tundra full-size pickup is expected to easily outpace its planned 100,000 sales per year. The company recently introduced a new Celica and Avalon to shore up its model range, and has added the ECHO compact to give it a new face in the entry-level market.

1999  Lexus Sport coupe concept rear

1999 Lexus Sport coupe concept rear

The Lexus Sport Coupe has V-8 power, an aluminum retractable hard top, and a likely date with an assembly line.

Again, though, the big story is "wait and see." Toyota is preparing an entry in the large SUV range – the Highlander, based on the Tundra platform. To be built in the U.S., perhaps alongside the Tundra at its Gibson, Indiana, plant, the Highlander will give Toyota another profitable entry in the SUV market. For its Lexus brand, Toyota has penned a new Sport Coupe Concept with V-8 power, a retractable hard top, and a mod new shape to push it back into the territory now occupied by SLKs, Boxsters, and Z3s. And on the environmental front, Toyota’s hybrid Prius will go on sale early next year, with a 4WD-capable version of its hybrid powertrain set to debut at Tokyo.

The wallflower waltz

Finally, the subtext running beneath the fervor of the Tokyo show will be "the rest" – or, whatever happened to Mitsubishi, Subaru, Suzuki, and Isuzu. Mitsubishi, after joining Volvo last week in a partnership on heavy trucks, is still courting other automakers to join it in a global alliance – and DaimlerChrysler and Fiat are said to be interested. Subaru is mentioned in the same breath as Ford and GM, but the General’s attention may be devoted to Suzuki and Isuzu these days – since Suzuki will build a GM-branded car to be sold in Asia beginning next year, and since Isuzu has been charged with GM’s future small-truck development and diesel plans.

Who will these wallflowers finally end up dancing with? Will Nissan’s cuts be deep enough? And will Toyota and Honda be the sole soloists on the Japanese scene? Behind all the clutter of concept and production cars, the Tokyo show just may have some of the answers. Stay tuned for the fireworks

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