A day at the Tokyo motor show proves the
Japanese car makers are continuing their comeback. It wobbles sometimes, but
the spirit is there.
Honda and Nissan have showed they've both got
a profound love of sporty cars. It's just that for the past five years of
recession they've been too scared to launch many. In recovery now, they've
finally got the confidence to express the love again.
For Honda, the motor show lineup consisted of
not one but two mid-engined turbocharged sports cars, one with twice the
cylinders of the other. The new NSX (above), with V6-plus-electric power, is already in
position as one of the hottest newcomers of 2015. The three-cylinder S660 will
be on the market sooner than that, but unfortunately, only in Japan. And we've
now driven the prototype Civic Type R.
Nissan's sports lineup was even more diverse,
from the electric Bladeglider to the bat-out-of-hell Nismo GT-R. The
Bladeglider exists because of Nissan is still frantically pushing pure-EVs, and
it realised the format allows the whole shape of the car car to change ('Er, so
why is the Leaf's layout so hidebound by convention?' you ask).
And between those extremes, Nissan's IDx
cars, an exploration of the possibilities for a cheap knockabout fun car for
the young. Nissan wanted to embrace kids who claim they're not petrol-heads.
Other car makers have proposed doing that by building cars that are sort of
non-cars. Nissan has done it the opposite way embodied four decades of deeply
petrol-headed references. We swooned.
Of course Nissan and Honda can only afford to
do the sports cars because they've got their regular money-makers in place now.
Nissan, for instance, has just opened a factory in Mexico to make saloons
mostly for the US. It now makes about the same number of vehicles in Mexico as
it does in Japan.
And Nissan remains big in 4x4s and crossovers
- the new X-Trail and Qashqai will keep the money rolling in. Honda survives in
Europe by the CR-V and Jazz, and at the show unveiled an all-new Jazz and a
crossover based on it (hilariously called the Vezel, which sounds good to
Japanese ears but it'll change name by the time it gets to Britain).
Toyota talks a good game. Its head of R&D
Mitsuhisa Kato said, "It's not a car if it's not fun." But
Toyota's main show-car lineup seemed to have left fun back in the car-park. It
was all about new mobility: a rather nice LPG hybrid taxi for Japan, a
fuel-cell concept which goes on sale in two years, and the production of the
i-Road, a clever electric trike for commuters or short-term city rental duty.
For the time being at least, Toyota's sports
car ambitions are on hold. The GT-86 cabrio has been parked and the co-op
sports car with BMW is still in the phase where the two partners are negotiating
about the basics.
At least Lexus could draw a smile with the
good-looking RC coupe. And since this is my personal take on the show, I'm
going to say that I think the LF-NX will turn into a better-looking production
crossover than most have given it credit for.
Subaru, Mitsubishi, Suzuki and even Daihatsu
(now out of the UK market because the exchange rate turned so difficult) are
all getting more coherent too.
To top it off, a real breakthrough
announcement. Gordon Murray's brave and stunningly imaginative ‘iStream’
experiment in reduction seems to be getting toward production. He always said
bog-scale production of his city-car design – and the low-cost method to build
it – would need to be realised by a partner. And now it's revealed that for the
past several years, his little R&D centre near Guildford, Surrey, has been
working flat out to engineer the vehicle for what looks like a near-perfect
Yamaha makes great motorbikes and quads, it's
a manufacturing expert, and it has dealers. The Motive-e prototype at the Tokyo
show is well on the way to production, using an electric powertrain Murray's
team specced from Midlands-based Zytec. But given Yamaha's expertise with
engines and Murray's with chassis, we're thinking a petrol-powered one would be
an absolute hoot. The vehicle hasn't had the final production go-ahead yet, but
Gordon told me the development is continuing flat-out. His manner didn't give
any cause for concern.
All, it's been a more interesting and globally
relevant Tokyo motor show than we've had for several years. Japan’s back.