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

December 4, 2011

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

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

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

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.

2011 Nissan Leaf

2011 Nissan Leaf

On the heels of disaster, a changing role for the automobile. The earthquake and its aftermath this past March introduced new energy worries to the Japanese, and to the world, as gasoline and natural gas shortages persisted for weeks. Meanwhile, the Japanese are losing interest in the personal automobile, leaving congested highways and parking headaches in favor of mass transit—a trend CEO Akio Toyoda hinted at in his address. Enter what might help restore interest in family cars: The automobile as an auxiliary power source.

Simply put, if your power went out, your smart circuits within your home-charging box would allow your plugged-in electric car to feed power back into your home—enough to provide about two days of power to a typical Japanese household (or more than a day to the typical U.S. one).

It’s an idea that several automakers are already at work on, but with the disaster a recent memory here, the CEOs of both Nissan (‘Leaf to home’) and Mitsubishi mentioned it in their Tokyo Motor Show addresses, and even Denso was showcasing the idea on its stand.

And it makes a lot of sense. After the earthquake, 80 percent of Japanese households had their electricity back within three days, while it took gasoline supplies more than three weeks to get back to 70 percent and natural gas even longer.

It also invites the question, if a Leaf, or Volt, or MiEV could give pinch-hit as an emergency, event, or picnic generator, how many more EVs would be sold?

Japanese travel poster

Japanese travel poster

What’s built in Japan, stays in Japan? Japan has long been one of the world’s largest exporters of automobiles. But as the value of the yen creeps even higher versus the dollar—a trend that’s been even more rapid the past several years—concerns are that even the domestic industry might need to move most of its manufacturing (for vehicles not destined for Japan) elsewhere. Especially for American car buyers, the chances that a Japanese-brand model you see on the lot was actually made in Japan will become slimmer than ever.

In a Q&A session with reporters, Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn was especially vocal about the matter. “I would say the major problem we are facing today is the uncompetitive level of the yen,” said Ghosn, calling the yen a “unique handicap” for exporters from Japan. In keeping the value bolstered at this level, Japan is giving an incentive for companies to move their manufacturing facilities out, added Ghosn, who declared that there’s simply no profitability from cars built in Japan for export, so manufacturing is going to continue to shift to Thailand, China, Mexico, and other countries unless Japan changes the environment.

A lot is at stake for Japan, as more than 50 percent of Nissan’s current global production is in its home country. If manufacturing is moved elsewhere, there’s (valid) concern that research and development dollars eventually will move elsewhere, too.

Mitsubishi Mirage

Mitsubishi Mirage

Honda said that it plans to reduce its exports from Japan, and Mitsubishi will build its all-new, mass-market B-segment model, the Mirage, in Thailand rather than its home Japan. Toyota said otherwise, renewing a commitment to manufacture vehicles in Japan

Will Japan fix its trade woes, and can the Japanese industry gain its momentum back? We have a feeling that we’ll have an answer to that by the time the next Tokyo show rolls around in 2013.

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