22 October 2009

Post-crunch motor show

A quick round-up of this year's Tokyo motor show

Honda CR-Z

Welcome to Tokyo 2009, the first post-crunch motor show.

We’ve had a whole year now since the financial, and shortly afterward the industrial, world imploded. The motor shows since then – Paris, Detroit, Geneva, Frankfurt – have been strange theatrical farce. Lots of talk of the crisis, yes. But as a visitor all you’d see was gigantic stands creaking under the weight of extravagant new cars.

They had to be like that because decisions to launch the cars had been taken long before the chill hurricane struck.

But here we are at Tokyo and it’s different, because Japanese manufacturers have always reacted more quickly than western ones. So Japanese car makers have been cancelling new cars, launching only what they think will be really important.

They aren’t wasting money on frivolous concept cars either. If it’s here, then, it probably means something.

So there’s less to see from the home teams. And almost nothing at all from abroad: absent were all the Germans, all the Americans, all the Italians, all the Koreans, all the French, and all the Brits (bar Lotus and Caterham). In their place we had huge stands featuring, among other things, a childrens’ drawing exhibition, and the Japanese equivalent of Lego.

A sorry sight if you’d come expecting, y’know, a motor show.

So, what was here for the petrolhead in us? Well, the Lexus LFA got its public launch and you might think such extravagance was unwarranted in these tight times. But actually this thing is strictly an image builder for Lexus. They’ll lose money on every one they make. So it’s better for them to launch it at a time when they won’t sell many, and that way they lose less money in total. Bizarre.

More significant were the affordable coupes: the super-cute Honda CRZ and the Toyota FT-86. The Honda is a hybrid and won’t have much performance, but with those looks and a manual gearbox and the likelihood of superb agility, I’d be inclined to forgive it.

The Toyota won’t go on sale for two years, by which time Toyota will be back in profit and will need to show it’s capable of building more than the dreary appliance cars that fill its range at the moment.

And then there were lots of electric vehicles, especially the ones from Nissan. These managed to hijack the news agenda, which was exactly Nissan’s aim. Unless there’s a high-profile political campaign to get a recharging infrastructure in lots of cities and fast-chargers on the motorways, these cars will be sunk.

But Nissan isn’t daft. It says 10 percent of its output will be electric vehicles by 2020. That sounds like a moon-shot aim, but hang on: it still leaves 90 percent that aren’t. So the company hasn’t actually bet the farm on electrification.

Japanese companies don’t usually slag each other off openly, but they did at this show. Nissan is wrong, opined both Toyota and Honda. In surprisingly blunt terms they claimed that electric vehicles will never be for anything other than short-range commuter use.

To prove it both their electric concepts for the show, the Honda EV-N and the Toyota FT-HV II, are small and super-desirable but both would be absurdly out of place on a motorway.

Instead, Toyota and Honda are putting their long-term faith in fuel cell vehicles. But they had no new ones to show us. We’re still years away from widespread production, they admit.

One thing that the Japanese always do well: big elegant people-carrier concepts. Check the Honda Skydeck and Subaru Hybrid Tourer Concept. Both these are hybrids, and had good theoretical performance and economy.

But never mind that, the crucial question is, why do Japanese people-carriers always look so good as concepts and so ghastly in production? Search me.

So it was a quiet show. You used to count the debuts here by the dozen, but this year you barely needed the fingers of two hands.

Beyond the fact that car manufacturers are temporarily skint, though, there’s another reason we’ll never see a blockbuster Tokyo show again. There are more important shows than ever: China, Korea, Los Angeles. So each show gets diluted: there just aren’t enough new cars to go around.

The Chinese show is the really significant one. It alternates between Shanghai and Beijing, and with the huge recent growth in the Chinese market, and even bigger growth likely still to come, none of the manufacturers feel they can afford to stay away from that one. So Tokyo suffers.

Which is sad, because it always was the place for the most imaginative and cool and charming – and yes, often barmy – concepts. Many of those gave a real impetus to new directions in production car design a few years down the line. And without a good motor show, they’ll never see the light of day.

Paul Horrell

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