Join Steve Cropley for a tour of the best of this year's Japanese motor show
25 October 2007

From Steve Cropley in Tokyo

Not so long ago, the Tokyo Motor Show was one of the scariest places a European car industry boss could go. In its impressively modern and logical surroundings, the boss of Jaguar was apt to discover that Nissan could build a better XJ6, or the bosses of Peugeot and Ford that Toyota and Nissan had ready-engineered mainstream models they had barely thought of, poised for export to Europe.

Now, it’s a bit different, and the 40th Tokyo Show shows how. Of course, the Japanese show still puts Europe’s car industry on its mettle and always will, but there are fewer chinks in Europe’s armour these days. The Japanese have shown us how to compete harder and it shows. In Tokyo this year, models from Audi, VW and BMW are among the stars, and they gleam and glisten against a saturated Japanese domestic car market (no meaningful expansion for three years) and in the light of a morning headline in The Japan Times: “Toyota Loses Sales Race To GM In Third Quarter”. There is still no serious doubt that Toyota will become the world’s biggest car maker very soon, ending GM’s 76-year run, but the job isn’t proving as easy as billed.

You only had to see the way hordes of investigators from Japan’s industry fought one another to be first to examine, measure and photograph every inch of Audi’s new Metroproject quattro (the basis of a new Polo-based A1 baby car to you and me) to see the enduring importance of Europe’s car makers, especially Audi, which is on a roll. The new small car, with its confusing pillarless shape, and awkward combination of conventional transverse front-wheel-drive with electric back axle - which Audi says adds up to four-wheel-drive - looks a bit dowdy to me, but it certainly drew eyes.

BMW’s carbon-bonneted tii concept seems a welcome return to form for the 1-series designers (and was treated as such by the crowds) but the biggest deal was Space Up!, a five-door version of VW’s new baby car family, which boldly ditches the entire Alec Issigonis/Mini notion of a transverse engine driving the front wheels, in favour of a miniaturised three-cylinder engine driving the rear wheels from a tiny compartment under the rear seat. It’s nothing less than a revolution for small cars, devised in Europe, displayed in Japan. An all-electric Up! saloon with the same mechanical layout is coming in Los Angeles in a few weeks’ time, and there will be more iterations. “This is supposed to be a family of cars,” said VW Group’s technical chief, Ulrich Hackenberg. A family of three would be a rather small family.

GT-R to STI

The brightest Japanese star was undoubtedly the Nissan GT-R, which looks fabulous and is won plenty of approval, though “techies” did expend quite a bit of hot air wondering why drive to the front wheels needed to be carried, apparently inefficiently, from front engine to rear gearbox along one tailshaft, then back to a front-mounted differential via another. To give the whole system optimal weight distribution while it delivers Porsche-busting performance seems to be the answer.

Subaru’s WRX STI version of the new Impreza saloon looked better than standard versions, because it ticked all the hot-car boxes: spoiler, diffuser, wide wheels, fat arches, quad pips, bonnet scoop, big wheels, low-profile tyres. Company men are rather resentful about the generally poor European reaction to their new car’s looks (“Just get over it,” I heard a US video pundit telling his enthusiast audience) but they don’t seem to realise that to make the extra sales of mid-range models they badly need, they must make said models look decent, too.

Mazda showed the latest in a line of aerodynamic and futuristic sports cars, begun with the Nagare in LA last year, all proposed with rotary engines. The new design boss agreed that this latest Taiki was the most sporty of all, with its long nose, radically raked screen and semi-exposed rear wheels, but that it was indeed a reliable guide to Mazda’s thinking for its next RX-8.

There had been presumptions that the three-rotor Mazda Wankel would die, killed by difficulties with clean-air laws, but the company showed a 25 per cent bigger engine, with cleaner combustion and more torque, and reckons it will go “on and on”. There’ an RX-8 facelift coming next March, and an all-new car around 2010, and I understand there’s a groundswell within Mazda that, despite all the fuss made of the current car’s four-door versatility, that it is likely to return to the two-door spots car format of the old RX-7.

Sustainability

Toyota’s show was all about “sustainability,” a word I counted 37 times in presentations throughout the first press day. They showed car a plug-in hybrid called 1/X with Prius cockpit room that weighed only 420kg (a third of the Pruis’s weight) and needed only a 500cc engine to make it go. They didn’t actually claim the car could crash as safely as a Prius, but the inference seemed to be that careful design of its carbonfibre-reinforced plastic structure could protect occupants very well.

The engaging little iQ concept (20cm longer than a Smart but smaller than VW’s Up!) bobbed up again, not least because it’s about two years away from production, powered by a new super-efficient 1.3-litre four-cylinder engine with standard stop-start system.

There were other things from the world’s biggest car company-elect : the latest version of its single-seat mobility pod called i-Real, and a weird, same-back-and-front concoction calld RiN, a car for serene, healthy living which has healthy air inside, seats that maintain good back posture, harmonious interiors colours and an uninterrupted view outside. Also a weird, gorilla-like car for car-hating young people, called Hi-CT.

Group performance car news was scarce, though both the Lexus LF-A (mid-engined, 5.0-litre V10 coupe) and the FT-HS (which we have dubbed Supra) were on display, unaltered. It is when the Japanese go quiet about such models, soneome pointed out, that you know productionising is in full swing.

Suzuki showed yet more styling confidence and expertise with a big, rakish cross-over estate called Kizashi 2 (Kizashi 1 was a saloon at Frankfurt) and continued to talk of a move into the Mondeo-Passat sector without saying when, and Honda’s best effort was the neat, desirable and plausible CR-Z coupe hybrid, deservedly earmarked for sale, and quite soon.

They also had Puyo, a nutty little proposal similar to others from Toyota and Nissan, which was supposed to be able to judge your mood and adapt its colours and behaviour to suit. For a nation known for the inscrutability of its people, the concentration on cars like this seemed odd. Still, as a type they provided a metaphor for the whole of this year’s Tokyo Show. It was as absorbing as ever, but this year not so threatening.

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