Japanese manufacturers are putting on a brave face at the Tokyo Motor Show (Makuhari Messe, Chiba, Tokyo; to November 7) despite rising gloom, says Tony Pugliese. Their products and concepts reflect the need not only to infuse new life and inspiration into a weakening domestic vehicle market.

The 35th Tokyo Motor Show opened last week against a backdrop of considerable economic and market uncertainty. After more than a decade of stagnation, peppered by the occasional false dawn, hopes of a sustainable cyclical recovery in the Japanese vehicle market have receded once again. The Japanese car market last year was little more than three-quarters of its 1990 size, and there is little hope sales will improve in the short-term.

Interviewed by just-auto.com at the show, General Motors' head of Asia-Pacific operations, Rudy Schlais, admitted that at the moment Japan is the main "wild card" when predicting the short-term demand outlook for new vehicles in the region.

The Japanese manufacturers are putting on a brave face at the show despite the rising gloom. Their products and concepts reflect the need not only to infuse new life and inspiration into a weakening domestic vehicle market. For many manufacturers this year's Tokyo Motor Show also represents the start of the long process of redefining and repositioning brand images after two years of very heavy restructuring and new ownership structures in the Japanese industry.

Mitsubishi and Nissan are controlled by Europe's DaimlerChrysler and Renault respectively, while Mazda is overseen by Ford of the US. Isuzu, Subaru and Suzuki are firmly embedded in a strategic global alliance with General Motors that continues to gather strength. Only Toyota and perhaps Honda look likely to remain independent.


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Much of the focus of the show is to sharpen up jaded brand images, and many of the bold designs on pre-production models may well make it to market. Traditional definitions of car segments have been blurred further, with sporty compact wagons moving further into SUV territory. New sports cars, coupes and lifestyle concepts are also well in evidence.

The show itself is dominated by concept cars displaying alternative fuel technology such as hybrid systems and fuel cells, IT and advanced telematics. A large number of pre-production models were unveiled on the press-only days last week, many of which are expected to be launched over the next 12 months. Model life-cycles are being shortened, though admittedly with a higher level of component carry-over, reflecting the increasingly fierce competition for customers worldwide.

One of the central themes among the Japanese manufacturers was technology, with Toyota leading the way with a series of concept vehicles deploying different technologies. Toyota suggested that its FCHV4 hydrogen-based fuel cell hybrid vehicle will be marketed by 2003. The vehicle is claimed to offer acceleration


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performance similar to conventional petrol cars and a range of 250 kilometres (about 160 miles) on a tank of hydrogen pressurised at 250 atmospheres. It has FC polymer electrolyte fuel cells and a nickel-metal hydride battery. Other variations of this technology include a system fitted to the FCHV5 model that uses clean hydrocarbon fuel as an alternative source of hydrogen.

Toyota has been leading the way in applying hybrid technology, with over 70,000 Prius petrol hybrid models on the roads to date. Other manufacturers such as Honda, with its Civic Hybrid, plan to follow Toyota's lead in this direction in the near future.

The strong overall environmental theme of the show is packaged to appeal to a young audience, with manufacturers keen to make the link between enjoying outdoor lifestyles through futuristic recreational vehicle concepts and the need for increased environment responsibility. For the first time light commercial vehicles are displayed at this show, mostly leisure activity concept vehicles, though inevitably reflecting the increasingly blurred demarcation between light commercial vehicles and passenger cars. The mini-car makers were out in force with all sorts of outlandish designs coupled with IT technology in the hope of stirring excitement in the segment. Interestingly, both Suzuki and Daihatsu had mini-convertible concept sports car models on show that may offer clues to their future commercial programmes.


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The application of advanced telematics is another major focus of the show, with concept vehicles making significant use of advanced pro-active IT solutions, GPS, mobile telephony and the internet. The Suzuki Covie, while making use of fuel-cell technology thanks to its alliance with GM, is a telematics showcase with pro-active systems communicating automatically with household appliances such as heating systems and cooking appliances. The Toyota Pod is another key example of the application of intelligent systems.

Importers are pushing hard for prominence, with DaimlerChrysler's flamboyance exceeding even the larger Japanese domestic players. European and US manufacturers alike are keen to catch the public eye mostly by bringing models unveiled a month earlier at the Frankfurt Motor show. Ford's new Thunderbird pre-production model was the centre of attention among the importers. GM has positioned itself in the centre of its Alliance partners in order to underscore its invigorated Asian strategy that is closely linked with Suzuki, Isuzu and Subaru.


Some highlights:



Toyota's
showcase concept model was the van-like Pod, the first visible effort of what may become a more focus technology partnership with electronics giant Sony. The vehicle's unlikely outward image draws attention to the embedded pro-active electronic intelligence. Through exterior and interior lights, it expresses frustration or happiness at the owner's driving habits and its own state of repair, and through mobile communication systems it attempts to help organise the owner's social and working life. The company's entry into Formula One racing was very much emphasised at the front of the stand with two racing car models.

The ES3 four-seater sub-compact petrol-hybrid concept model boasts exceptional fuel consumption of 47km per litre, thanks to its 750kg overall weight achieved thanks to extensive use of plastics. In terms of design concepts, the strongest showing was the Rugged Sports Coupe, or RSC.

In terms of pre-production models Toyota unveiled the iSt compact sports wagon, with a strong hint of SUV. This will probably be launched in Japan in more or less its current late next year, depending on market feedback. The Voltz is another pre-production compact sports wagon that may go into production at the NUMMI joint venture plant in California next year. A third Will model, the VC, was displayed for the first time and is more than likely to be produced next year for the domestic market more or less as it is.

Toyota iST Toyoyta Pod Toyota RSC




Daihatsu Max
Daihatsu's hybrid technology and light-weighting efforts exhibited at the show are fruit of its collaboration with parent company Toyota, though adapted for the small and mini-car segments. A myriad of small and mini-car studies are on display, including the 630kg UFE based on the same technology as the Toyota ES3. Likely pre-production models include the newly styled Lucia and Naked mini-wagons. Hitting the streets next month is the new Max mini-car.




Chevrolet Cruze
Suzuki's efforts are also concentrated in the small car segment, with a mini sports car concept and other mini models such as the Covie featuring advanced telematics that are able to communicate with everything up to the kitchen sink on the driver's behalf. The mini sports car concept does provide a strong hint of Suzuki's product diversification plans for the future. In prominence at its stand is the Chevrolet Cruze, a restyled version of the Suzuki Swift, which the company will sell throughout its Arena dealer network from November on GM's behalf.



Fuji Heavy Industries' Subaru clearly has growth plans for the immediate future, with at least three new mid-sized car designs due to be launched in 2002. The company is freshening up its image with the help of Austria's Porsche Design GmbH, and has come up with some very bold but attractive and likely feasible designs
Subaru Legacy Subaru Impreza

for 2002. Its racing success and its AWD technology is very much in evidence as well, with a new hybrid AWD system fitted to the WX-01 concept car.

A new, sportier Legacy Blitzen has been developed with the collaboration of Porsche Design and is likely to be launched in 2002 with only minor re-touches. A sporty touring Wagon, the Legacy Avignon, has also been developed from this model and is set for launch in 2002. The new Impreza Type Euro is on show, too, also designed with the help of Porsche and set for production in the near future.


Mitsubishi has little other than concept car designs to stir excitement, as it attempts to redefine its strategy within the DaimlerChrysler alliance.

Mitsubishi CZ3 Mitsubishi SUP

The emphasis is very much on the future, as it parades four concept cars that provide veiled design hints for its new compact platform strategy due to be implemented from end of 2002.

The 1.3L CZ2 and the CZ3 1.5L all-wheel-drive compact models offer the strongest future styling hints, as do the four-wheel-drive Sports-Utility Pack - or more simply the SUP model. Reality will undoubtedly be much more subdued. The fourth concept model, the four-wheel-drive Space Liner, is a sleek coupe study for the platform. More imminently, the EK mini-wagon displayed is due to go in to production soon.


Nissan Cima Nissan mm

At the forefront of Nissan's airy stand is the pre-production sub-compact "mm" model, fitted with a newly developed compact four cylinder engine and four-speed automatic transmission. The car is the first model to share a platform with a Renault model (the next Clio). It is expected to go into production in 2002 to replace the March and Micra, and will come in two and four-wheel-drive versions.

Nissan and Renault design teams have also done a great job with the new Fairlady Z prototype, which is likely to go into production more or less as shown from 2003. Nissan appears to be re-inventing itself as a manufacturer of stylish and sporty, well designed cars, something that its range has lacked in the recent past. It has already done a good job with recently launched Cima and Skyline, and if it keeps this up its recovery may well gather significant pace.

Mazda RX-8
Mazda is rolling out its US-style "zoom zoom" advertising tagline in Japan as it attempts to return its brand image back to its sporty, innovative roots. Pre-production roadsters and coupes, dominate the stand, with a pre-production RX-8 sports coupe powered by a new rotary engine at the centre. Few clues are available on the models it plans to source from Ford's plants in Europe, however. One of the main features of the stand is the Hideaway minibus, a leisure activity vehicle study.


Honda NSX-R

Honda is promoting its racing heritage through the Dualnote sports saloon concept car featuring advanced navigation systems and safety features such as advanced road warnings assembled into a space-age console.

Other concepts includes "fun wagons" focused on outdoor activities. More down to earth, and perhaps a little predictable, was the NSX-R prototype, which is likely to be very close to the production model due out in 2002. Racy three-door Civics, built in the UK,are displayed in Japan for the first time.




Isuzu Zen

Isuzu is concentrating on concept designs, with the Zen designed to offer a combination of commuter car convenience and off-road qualities. The new Axiom SUV, launched earlier this year, is on display.





To view related research reports, please follow the links below:-

Light vehicle niche markets 2000

The world's car manufacturers: A financial and operating review (download)

Automotive country report: Japan

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