2008 Tokyo Motor Show

Tim Marrs

I had never been to the Tokyo Motor Show, but based on what I've heard, I was excited to see robots, flying cars, pretty ladies, pretty lady robots driving flying cars, wacky names like "Daihatsu Fun Chomper Lightday Happy Place 2.5 pi," not to mention high-tech toilets that flush into another dimension. And the Tokyo show did turn out to be bizarre and exciting - I spotted a Suzuki Every Wagon Joy Pop Turbo on the street - but mostly for different reasons than I expected.

Whereas some auto shows are centrally located, the density of Tokyo precludes a convention-sized venue downtown, so each morning you take a bus to the show. Everyone claps for the bus driver before you depart on a bus trip. As we left the hotel on day one, I noticed a guy in the driveway bowing to the bus. Clearly, bus drivers have much higher stature here than they do in the United States. For example, none of the bus drivers in Japan ever told me to sit down and shut up, even though I was at times rowdy and disruptive. And none of them ever made me ride on the steps, in front of the door, like my grade-school bus driver used to do. As my friend Jason, who lives in Japan, tells me, "The Japanese are always very polite and nice. Even if they hate your guts, you'll never know it." The downside of this extreme decorum is that it's hard to tell when you're rubbing someone the wrong way, but on the upside, you can leave your bike anywhere and nobody will steal it.

When we arrived at the show, I was ready for a cross between Lost In Translation and Gung Ho. If the chairman of Toyota drove past in a nuclear-powered hovercraft festooned with Pokmon vinyls and a flat-black carbon-fiber hood, I wouldn't have been surprised. But as it turns out, Tokyo is pretty much like any other car show, except with more concept cars sized for woodland elves. For instance, there are perennial car show staples such as booth babes, as exemplified by Dodge's car wash girls, who dance around a Charger with feather dusters and bubble guns and seem very popular despite their frankly questionable detailing skills. There are the usual packed press conferences, most notably Nissan's GT-R unveil, which was as crowded as a Japanese subway car, where workers squeeze you in with a human-sized shoehorn. And there are radical concept cars, such as the Suzuki X-HEAD, which looks like an off-road Soviet missile-launch vehicle scaled for a very action-sports-oriented Stuart Little.

But I was in search of extra weirdness, so I avoided the major press conferences and sought out the dark corners of the building, the places where they stash the freaks and the gimps of the car-show universe. It took me about half an hour before I had my first "What the hell?" moment. This came when I walked around a corner and found myself confronted with the Mitsuoka stand. The Mitsuoka Orochi is a Japanese sports car whose literature promises an interior that will make you feel "cradled in the very belly of the great snake that swallowed you." I've never been eaten by a snake, but based on the Mitsuoka Orochi, I can only assume that it's a very rewarding experience until you're suffocated or dissolved by digestive enzymes. It's interesting that Mitsuoka chose the reptile analogy for the interior, because the exterior is so reminiscent of a Billy Bass that I kept expecting the fish-lip grille to come alive with a rousing rendition of "Don't Worry, Be Happy." The Orochi is not sold in America nor, I'm guessing, much of anywhere else.

While the Gran Turismo 5 preview booths upstairs had a constant line, over at the Honda display I found a decidedly less popular driving game. In the Honda Eco-Driving Simulator, you sit at the wheel of a simulated Civic Hybrid and drive on a simulated highway. Your goal? To get good fuel economy. It's like GT5 for Al Gore. I scored 19.3 mpg, which put me in twelfth place among the people who tried this game. This effectively means that only twelve people had tried this game that day, because I had the Civic up to 100 mph before I crashed into the back of a truck. Even in a simulated Civic Hybrid, I was passing everyone and generally demonstrating the catlike reflexes and need for speed for which I'm known. So I can't drive slowly? Tell me something I don't know, Honda.

The BMW stand included the new BMW Concept 1-series tii, the lightweight, track-day version of the 1-series coupe. This drool-inducing two-door was flanked by a winsome blonde wearing an unlikely outfit comprising a short skirt and high boots paired with a racing helmet and goggles. I was more than a little disturbed by this tableau, because it means that BMW now has the technology to actually read my mind.

So I moved along to the Daihatsu stand, where hopefully my brain waves would be secure. The show was just getting started for the Tanto minicar. I don't know much about the Tanto, except that it evidently exhibits qualities that are best expressed through a techno song-and-dance routine led by a Japanese dude dressed like Keanu Reeves from The Matrix. I didn't understand any of the presentation, but I presume that the message is that the Daihatsu Tanto is your reality only if you choose to believe it is. Also, there's a handicapped-accessible version called the Tanto Welcome Seat, a name that definitely tempts me to segue into a paragraph about the toilet in my hotel room.

But I'll resist, because I have to tell you about the Hyundai movie. Over in a hallway near the exit, Hyundai introduced a new bus, and the presentation was, let's say, sparsely attended. That was too bad, because the Hyundai bus propaganda video could win an Academy Award in the category of Korean commercial vehicle promotional materials. In the film, large Hyundai trucks and buses speed across a bleak desert while the orchestral sound track swells dramatically. Because the film is shamelessly sped up, we see buses slaloming at what looks like 150 mph. We see buses running four-wide on a banked oval racetrack and large trucks fording deep water in a very macho manner. The overall theme seems to be, "Hyundai trucks are coming to break your face." If you're ever alone on a dark street and you see a Hyundai bus approaching, just keep walking and don't make eye contact. You don't want to give it a reason to get upset. In fact, maybe it wouldn't hurt to bow.

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