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.