2001 Tokyo: Subdued, Surprising

October 28, 2001

2001 Tokyo Motor Show Index by TCC Team (10/29/2001)

Things were a good bit more subdued than normal at this year’s Tokyo Motor Show. Last month’s attacks on Washington and New York were clearly on everyone’s mind and security was tighter than normal at the Makuhari Messe convention complex. In Japanese style, the show is traditionally ablaze with light and awash with sound blaring from the scores of exhibits. The lights were on, the pretty young girls were posing in their skimpy costumes, but the sound systems were largely turned off--apparently to make it easier to maintain security, insiders revealed, as most of the world’s top auto industry executives strolled the vast hall’s floors.

Still, that concession to the current political reality couldn’t steal away from the record number of new product roll-outs at the 2001 Tokyo Motor Show. And with the global economy in uncertain shape, the event at Makuhari Messe carried even more weight than normal as observers struggled to read the mood of the industry—and the consumers touring the show.

In contrast to past year, there were few clear stand-outs among the scores of products making their local and global debuts. But that wasn’t for lack of trying. Automakers spent vast sums of money and manpower trying to garner attention. As always, Tokyo yielded a bumper crop of concept vehicles—13 at the Toyota stand alone.

Toyota’s protoype blitz underscored the automaker’s intent on becoming one of the dominant players in every market. Its show cars covered just about every segment, large and small, entry-level and top-end luxury. Several of the vehicles, including the WiLL VC, were part of Toyota’s new campaign aimed at conquesting young buyers who seem to be turning away from Japan’s dominant brand. WiLL is likely to appear in the U.S., insiders hint, at part of Toyota’s new Genesis youth brand-within-a-brand.

Serious attention

While it had fewer new vehicles on display, Nissan commanded serious attention with its own line-up of production cars and eight prototypes. Nissan’s strong showing was designed to send a very clear message that the automaker has moved beyond turnaround and is now focused on rebuilding market share and profitability, declared CEO Carlos Ghosn.

Nissan i.d.e.o. concept

Nissan i.d.e.o. concept

Nissan used its display to strike out in a bold new direction, putting the emphasis on both styling and technology. The striking Nails gave sports car dimensions to a pickup truck show car. The Ideo was a rolling communications and entertainment center, noted Brazilian-born Ghosn, “a (computer) mouse you control not with your fingertips, but with the steering wheel.”

Like Toyota, Nissan is intent on expanding its market reach, and with the MM, even lifted the covers on its planned entry into the booming micro-car market, which represents a whopping 27 percent of Japanese car sales.

Anyone who has spent time in Tokyo understands why the motorist’s mantra here is “small is better.” Roads are impossibly crowded and finding a parking spot can strain the cool of a Zen master.

Honda Model X concept Tokyo 2001

Honda Model X concept Tokyo 2001

Honda’s show theme emphasized what it called “space magic,” the maximum use of space in a minimum vehicle, such as the Bull Dog. Model X, the quirky prototype first seen at last January’s Detroit Auto Show, reappeared in ready-to-run mode. The edgy SUV/van crossover will hit production early next year.

Concept to production

Indeed, a large number of the prototypes on display were thinly disguised production vehicles. The Mazda RX-8 revealed the final styling for the automaker’s next-generation sports car. Nissan unveiled the final production of the long-awaited Z-car—which will be dubbed the Fair Lady Z in Japan and the 350 Z in the U.S. The latest incarnation of the Volkswagen W-12 supercar is all but certain to go into production, company officials revealed. Look for a price tag of “a half million,” VW’s new CEO, Bernd Pischetsrieder hinted, “currency to be defined.”

Volkswagen staged one of the strongest showings of any foreign marque. It had reason to promote its presence, what with its VW brand the strongest of any import. Combining all its brands, Volkswagen is hoping to hit record sales of 70,000 this year, which would account for better than one in four of the imports sold in Japan—though all told, Japanese-made vehicles still account for better 90 percent of the market.

Chevy Cruze

Chevy Cruze

That’s not for lack of trying. General Motors has tried one campaign after another over the last decade, but has so far met with little success, pulling its Saturn brand off the market last year due to weak sales. GM was back at the Tokyo Motor Show with the new Chevrolet Cruze. Fitting into Japan’s so-called RV market, the tiny four-door is based on the Swift, built by GM’s Asian alliance partner, Suzuki. Cruze is the first Japanese-made GM vehicle sold in the market since 1929. The automaker is playing it cautious, expecting first-year sales of only 15,000 vehicles, and two-thirds of those should be sold though Suzuki showrooms.

Another American marque markedly downplayed its presence in Tokyo this year. Ford Motor Co. has scaled back its bold plans for the Japanese market. In the mid-1990s, it rolled out a series of products built by affiliate Mazda and rebadged as Fords. This year, there was little new from Ford in Tokyo other than Japanese versions of the Thunderbird and Mustang Bullitt. “We’re really acknowledging Ford can’t be a volume brand” in Japan, admitted Asian operations director Henry Wallace. “I don’t know if it is a retreat. I don’t know if the other strategy was sustainable.” At its peak, Ford brand sales approached 90,000 a year. For 2001, the number will slip to barely 12,000.

Ironically, while Western carmakers can’t quite crack the code for the Japanese market, American and European executives were in no short supply as the various Japanese marques’ stands. Ghosn was clearly the most visible, and has been widely accepted into the industry thanks to his success turning things around at Nissan. But there were a number of German and American executives holding court at Mitsubishi, now the struggling junior member of the DaimlerChrysler empire.

Surprise showings

Tokyo is always a show full of surprises. One of the biggest was the unexpected global debut of the Mercedes-Benz F400 Carving. The edgy and highly styled two-seater claims to have race car level and handling and some highly sophisticated technology, including both brake- and steer-by-wire.

Mercedes-Benz F400 Carving

Mercedes-Benz F400 Carving

For outsiders, the Tokyo Motor Show has a quirky charm one can’t find anywhere else. Maybe it’s the presence of the scantily-clad models at virtually every automaker’s booth, something that’s no longer tolerated at Western shows. Or the strange blend of east and west, especially the use of fractured English often referred to as Japlish. And then there are the cars, like the Fuya-jo, which graced the Honda stand in 1999. One of the most improbable prototypes ever seen, it resembled nothing less than a telephone booth on wheels. This year, Honda maintained its quirky quotient with the Unibox, a large RV with transparent body panels. Not to be outdone, Isuzu unveiled its Zen, a massive crossover vehicle with a light wood interior including a rear platform perfect for performing meditation while caught in one of Tokyo’s legendary traffic jams.

All the attention given the Tokyo Motor Show cannot disguise the fact that the Land of the Rising Sun is once again teetering on the edge of recession, while its auto industry continues to struggle with a sharp domestic downturn. Manufacturers are hoping that the show’s innovations will convince worried Japanese consumers to part with their legendary savings. But the reality is that most of these new products will have their biggest impact overseas.

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