Despite the gloom and uncertainty over the global economy, this year's Tokyo Show suggests Japan's shell-shocked carmakers are regaining confidence after a decade of turmoil, writes Angus MacKenzie.

The sprawling Makuhari Messe on Tokyo Bay is awash with fascinating concept cars showcasing new designs and new technologies.  More significantly, however, this Tokyo Show is evidence of a profound paradigm shift occurring within the Japanese industry.

Nissan, Mazda and Mitsubishi are beginning to demonstrate what can be achieved when the technical excellence of Japanese production engineering is overlaid with the emotive input of western designers and product planners.

So while Toyota, determined to make a splash in its home market, where it now enjoys an unprecedented 46 per cent market share, is displaying a remarkable 16 Toyota, Daihatsu and Will-branded concept cars, it is a resurgent Nissan that has stolen the show with the production version of the Z sports car and a surprise concept that previews the next generation Skyline GTR supercar.

Both the Z and the GTR concept, along with the mm concept, which previews the next generation five door Micra, and the elegant new Primera range, confirm Nissan as Japan's new design leader. Under CEO Carlos Ghosn the company has reorganised its entire design operation, bringing studios in Japan, the US and Europe under the direct control of former Isuzu designer Shiro Nakamura, and its new cars display a cohesiveness and character few would have thought possible just three years ago.

Mazda says the new RX-8 will take it back to its 'product innovator' roots

There's a similar transformation underway at Mazda, which has two new production cars on show at Tokyo. The RX-8 coupe is a car that company president Mark Fields says takes Mazda back to its roots as a product innovator (this tightly drawn four door sports car boasts a similar interior package to the BMW 3-series) and, while the Mazda 6 sedan lacks the styling flair of Nissan's Primera, product development chief Phil Martens, who worked on Ford's Mondeo, has given it class leading dynamics.

Mitsubishi's four Tokyo concepts, the CZ2 and 3, the S.U.P and the Space Liner, are the work of new design chief Olivier Boulay, who pulled together all four vehicles in just four months. Each previews elements of an aggressive new design direction for Mitsubishi passenger vehicles and sources say the Space Liner is the basis of a planned production fuel cell car using DaimlerChrysler's NECAR powertrain and scheduled for 2003 or 2004.

Toyota's new Pod gets its 'interactive personality' from electronics

Many of Toyota's concepts are visually disappointing - the Lexus V8 powered FXS roadster, for instance, resembles a badly done TVR - but most are technically impressive. No fewer than five of the concepts feature fully functional hybrid or fuel cell powertrains, for example.

However Toyota's most intriguing concept is perhaps the Pod, which uses electronics to give the car an interactive personality, much like Sony's Aibo robot dog or a Tamagotchi toy.

Toyota says a combination of lights and graphics allows the front of the Pod to express 10 different emotional states, such as happiness when the owner approaches, anger if braked hard, or sadness when it runs out of fuel, and the car's satellite navigation will choose drive routes based on the driver's preferences.

Tiny crossover concept Daihatsu UB4 has electronically controlled four wheel drive

Underneath the Pod's risible styling and toy-like functionality is some serious technology, however , Toyota sources says the drive-by-wire joystick system will be used in production models for disabled drivers within five years and may feature on other Toyota models inside a decade. And the dedicated short range communication system (DSRC) that drives the interactive systems previews technology that will actively link consumers and companies in real time within a decade.

Toyota's small car subsidiary Daihatsu has some of the better pieces of design on the Toyota stand. The UB4 is a tiny crossover concept that combines an electronically controlled four wheel drive system with a cheeky three door hatchback body while the Copen is a production-ready mini-car that cleverly apes Audi's iconic TT roadster and packages a clever folding metal hardtop.

Honda's Dualnote hybrid concept flouts convention by breaking 280bhp barrier

Honda, like Toyota, remains resolutely Japanese. However its Dualnote concept car flouts convention in being the first Japanese car with a stated power output above 280 horsepower. The low-slung, four door, four seat coupe combines a mid-mounted 3.5 litre V6 driving the rear wheels with electric motors driving each of the front wheels to give a drivetrain which Honda says produces 400 horsepower.

The Dualnote's hybrid powertrain is a development of the second generation IMA system used in the new Civic Hybrid, which uses a 1.3 litre lean-burn petrol engine as its prime powerplant. Helped by an ultra-thin DC brushless motor which offers 30 per cent improvement in assistance compared with that used in the Honda Insight, the Civic Hybrid achieves 29.5km/l according to Honda figures, class leading fuel economy for a five seat production vehicle. Based on the new sedan, the Civic Hybrid will be sold in Japan and the US, where it qualifies as a Super Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle (SULEV).

VW's W12 sportscar claimed to sprint from rest to 100km/h in 3.5 seconds and reach 350km/h

For western carmakers this is a relatively low-key show. VW Group board member responsible for R&D, Martin Winterkorn, unveiled a new version of the W12 sports car concept first seen at Tokyo in 1997. The 6.0 litre W12 engine now develops 600bhp at 7000rpm, and 580Nm of torque at 5800 rpm. Claimed top speed is 350km/h and the 0-100km/h sprint takes barely 3.5 seconds.

Almost every panel has been changed compared with the original concept, although the design is still by Giugiaro. While VW has yet to officially confirm this is a production car, it proved the engine's durability in a 24-hour record run just the week before the show, and hinted that the W12 is the fourth vehicle in a W-engine product family that starts with the W8 Passat, and stretches through the W12 powered Audi A8 and a W12 powered version of the forthcoming Colorado SUV.

BMW launched supercharged 163bhp Mini Cooper S

BMW used Tokyo to unveil its most potent Mini yet, the supercharged 163bhp Cooper S. This top of the range Mini, which will spearhead the car's launch into the US next year, is distinguished by an intake scoop on the bonnet, new body coloured bumpers front and rear with integrated air dams, a roof-mounted rear spoiler, chrome fuel filler, dual exhaust and chrome plated side grilles. With a standard six-speed manual transmission, BMW claims the Cooper S will hit 60mph in under 7.4 seconds, and reach 135mph.


DaimlerChrysler's Mercedes-Benz F400 Carving is a far more convincing technical exercise than its overwrought styling suggests. Following on from the F200 Imagination and F300 Life-Jet concepts, the F400 Carving uses drive-by-wire technology to actively varying the camber angle of the wheels by up to 20 degrees to improve the car's cornering capability.

Describing the principle as similar to the 'carving' technique used by skiers, Mercedes-Benz engineers claim the F400 achieves up to 30 percent better lateral stability during cornering. With the outside wheels tilted inwards by 20 degrees the F400 is said to reach a maximum lateral acceleration of 1.28g. One of the key enabling technologies on the car are dual diameter wheels and tyres, the outside diameter of the rims is 19 inches while the inner diameter, which is used during hard cornering, is 17 inches. The unique tyres equate to 255/35 R19 on the outer edge and 255/45 R17 on the inner where a softer compound is used to enhance grip.


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