1999 Tokyo Motor Show: Final Word

October 20, 1999

The halls at Makuhari Messe are nearly as crowded as a Tokyo subway car this week, now that the doors have opened on Japan’s biennial auto show.

The Tokyo Motor Show is one of the automotive world’s biggest events, with more than 1.5 million people expected to make the trek out to the suburban exhibition center where hundreds of vehicles are serving to showcase Japanese automotive prowess. This year’s exhibit includes more than 35 new production cars and concept vehicles, products that offer a glimpse not only at what’s coming next year but what may well be on the road in 2005.

As in past years, Japan’s automakers are putting a high emphasis on the environment. There are plenty of pint-sized sedans and coupes, like the Daihatsu Micros-3l, which sips only 3 liters of fuel per 100 kilometers (about 79 miles per gallon).

A tech-happy crowd

But new technology promises to let Japanese motorists boost mileage and protect the environment without having to squeeze into the automotive equivalent of a shoebox. Toyota introduced the first gasoline/electric hybrid, the Prius, nearly two years ago, and the prototype HV-M4 suggests the automaker is ready to roll out a second-generation hybrid in minivan form. Nissan will fight back with the Tino Hybrid, due to roll into dealerships next year. Tino combines an electric motor and a gasoline engine under the hood, then mates the pair to a sophisticated Continuously Variable Transmission.

Officially, Suzuki’s EV-Sport is being billed as an electric vehicle, but let the batteries run down, and you can still get home, thanks to a small, gasoline-powered "emergency engine."

Though Honda is working on a variety of ultraclean alternative powertrains — such as a virtually pollution-free fuel cell — it’s betting there’s a future for the internal-combustion engine. "By 2005, Honda aims to replace its current engine lineup with a line of clean, fuel-efficient engines," declared the automaker’s diminutive CEO, Hiroyuki Yoshino.

1999 Honda Fuya-Jo concept

1999 Honda Fuya-Jo concept

Honda’s exceedingly weird Fuya-Jo.

What Honda’s Fuya-Jo says about the future is a little harder to determine. It bears an uncanny resemblance to a phone booth on wheels.

"Be smart, have fun," declares the sign over the Honda display. And indeed, the Fuya-Jo is just one of a variety of wild and wacky vehicles scattered across the Makuhari show floor. The boxy Daihatsu Naked underscores the trend towards sport-ute-like designs, even among vehicles designed primarily for use on city streets. This so-called "urban assault vehicle" could double as an oversized picnic basket, with a foldout table and all sorts of other creature comforts built into its body and interior.

A somber occasion at Nissan

Despite the seemingly ubiquitous exhortations to "smile" and "have fun" pasted all over the walls and booths of Makuhari Messe, there’s a serious, even somber note underlying the biennial auto show. And for good reason, when you consider the dire situation facing Japan’s automakers. In 1998, Japanese new-car sales plunged to 4.3 million, barely half the record levels set during the country’s "bubble" economy. And the numbers continue to slip this year, meaning volume is all but certain to hit a 12-year low.

As crowded as the motor show is this year, even the attendance figures reflect the industry’s problems. Attendance is expected to dip by 25 percent compared to the 2 million visitors who turned out for the 1991 Tokyo Motor Show.

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