This is the 50th anniversary of the first Tokyo motor Show, but going into it, the Japanese just didn’t seem in the mood for celebrating. ‘Automakers pin hopes on motor show’ said The Japan Times in guarded tones, pointing out that experts expected domestic car sales to stay flat at about four million units, that car-dealing in Japan barely makes money these days anyway, and that what success there is depends on new cars becoming short-term hits with the public, sometimes for as little as six months.
It was a bit of a surprise, therefore, to arrive with the hordes at Tokyo’s Makuhari Messe (think Birmingham NEC, but better organised and more modern) and fall into the best, most absorbing Tokyo Motor Show in living memory, buzzing in every direction with practical new models and concepts, shorn almost completely of the silliness that has sometimes reduced the Tokyo show in stature.
This show was reminiscent of the fondly remembered 1989 event, at which Nissan and Toyota (among other attractions) both proposed long, low saloon concepts which were so obviously what Jaguar should have been doing.
This year three types of cars stood out: so-called compacts (superminis in our language), because little cars make up most of Japan’s top 10 best-sellers; minivans and SUVs, because those sell well and can be made more profitably; and flagship models like the all-new Lexus LF-Sh luxury car concept, which in about a year’s time will pop out as the new Lexus LS460 flagship.
That’s my star of the show, incidentally, because when Lexus launched its first model, the LS400, back in 1989, it was tilting at the Mercedes-Benz S-class. We all admired its impudence and reckoned it would fail. But the LS460, by my judgement, will surpass the big Merc, which will be a red-letter day.
Great cars were everywhere. Leading away for Honda was a handsome saloon concept called Sports 4, which insiders tip as a very good guide to the next Accord, due in 2008. The same stand had an equally impressive fuel-cell concept called the FCX, first of the breed to minimise the size of the fuel-cell paraphernalia and package it in the centre console, so the seats and the car itself could be low and streamlined. It also proposed a so-called Home Energy System (HES), which used natural gas piped to your house both to produce hydrogen to power your fuel-cell car, and heat to keep you warm.
Toyota had a low-roof people carrier concept called FSC so impressive that it attracted hordes of rival company bosses (including Ford design boss Martin Smith, and Audi chief Martin Winterkorn), and — what was this? — a handsome Subaru! The Fuji company impressed everyone with its brilliant three-door B5-TPH concept, but denied absolutely that this was a hatchback version of the next Impreza, or even a guide to it. The real issue was the TPH hybrid powertrain (the initials stood for Turbo Power Hybrid) which inserted a compact electric motor between turbo flat-four and gearbox, to increase fuel efficiency by 30 percent.
There was some silly stuff, of course. But even the Suzuki ‘Mom’s Personal Wagon’ had practical features and was a believable car, and Honda’s dog-friendly W.O.W concept was actually a roomy, durable van along Fiat Doblo and Citroen Berlingo lines, which you could well imagine making production.
There was practical thinking on all sides, and it made for one of the best motor Japanese shows in living memory.