Slouching Toward Tokyo

Honda unveiled what it called "Super Ultra Daydreams" in its press conference, Nissan kept a true surprise under wraps until the show with its iDX Freeflow and iDX Nismo, and Daihatsu revealed that it's trying the old changeable body panels ploy with its new Copen kei roadster. Aside from such highlights, the 43rd edition of the Tokyo Motor Show took one more step toward becoming a local event and away from international status.

Sharing its press preview week with the Los Angeles Auto Show doesn't help. Both venues have the new Porsche Macan, the BMW 4-series cabriolet, and the new Mini Cooper, but L.A. got top billing on each. Toyota president Akio Toyoda showed up to the Tokyo Big Sight to have photos taken in front of the new Lexus RC, but he's also chairman of the show, so he had to be here. After Lexus unveiled the RC, the Toyota brand revealed three uninspiring concepts in a drawn-out press conference, plus a repainted FT-86 convertible concept, irrelevant by any measure. Toyota's accompanying video tried to describe something called the Toyota Heart Project without adequately describing it. As far as I can tell, it's part of Toyota's effort to redefine its automotive image. The company's auto show brochure bags bear the words, "Fun to Drive, Again."

Honda's presser made things a bit worse by dredging up the glorious past. Its presentation recalled some of its over-the-top "concepts" of the past twenty years, including the Spocket, EV-N, Remix, and, especially, the Fuya-Jo of 1999, the 18-mph rolling discotheque in which its driver and passengers stand on a lit dance floor. Much of the charm of these reveals of yore was the outlandish musical numbers that began them. None of that survives the current day.

Those shows were at the Makumari Messe, a good 60-plus-minute bus ride from the downtown Tokyo hotels where most foreign journalists stay. The Tokyo Big Sight venue is in a better location, but it's a normal convention center, with automakers contrasting their cars and trucks against bland white walls.

The Tokyo show is held every odd-numbered year, and this is my first since 2009. After the global recession caused the show at Makumari that year to be drastically downsized, the Japan Auto Manufacturers Association moved to Tokyo Big Sight in '11. This is what I saw:

Best in Show

Nissan IDx Freeflow/IDx Nismo -- The compact rear-wheel-drive coupe modernizes '69 Datsun 510 cues without being offensively retro. The design is clean and distinctive, and the Nismo has a kind of modern Pete Brock/BRE SCCA look to it. The problem, I'm told, is that Nissan now must find or develop an affordable RWD platform for the car. The Z-car/Infiniti Q50 platform the concept uses is too expensive for a coupe intended to compete at V-6 Ford Mustang/Chevrolet Camaro prices. Notably, Nissan chief Carlos Ghosn attended the Tokyo press day to lead the press conference.

Best Concept

Honda S660 -- I'm splitting hairs here, but the mid-engine kei-car roadster is very close to a production car, and Honda confirms it will build it, beginning in 2015. It doesn't snag Best in Show because we've seen a more conceptual version before. We won't get this car in North America, unfortunately, because it's considered too small, so it's not being "protected" to meet U.S. safety regulations. The problem is that the S660's 660-cc engine is too small for us, and even if Honda's new 1.0L turbo VTEC three fits, there may be thermal problems under the tight hood. Honda also showed its Vezel, a Fit-based crossover/utility that goes on sale in Japan on December 20 and then in the U.S. with Mexican production next spring. A North American version of the Vezel is what Honda needs in our market; some version of the S660 is what our market needs to rekindle Honda enthusiasm.

Best Use of a Failed Gimmick

Daihatsu Copen -- The Smart ForTwo and the Saturn Ion both were supposed to attract buyers with removable, changeable plastic body or trim panels that would allow the personalization of a couple of boring cars. The new, second-generation front-wheel-drive kei-roadster now offers removable plastic body panels. In the Copen's case, the panels have a couple of different designs, including one that features black accents that look like they belong on a sport-utility vehicle and obviously are designed to make the car more attractive to male buyers. Daihatsu also showed a kei-car-sized semi tractor concept named "FC Deck" and a new kei-sized van named "Deca Deca."

Best Toyota FT-86 Convertible Counter-Punch

Subaru Cross Sport Design Concept -- Emphasis on "design concept." A cross between a BRZ and a Volvo V60, the Cross Sport seems like a way to extend demand for the RWD sports car, but the inevitably niche sales would never justify its production cost. At least it doesn't have the added weight of bracing up a convertible from a lightweight car designed to be a coupe, like the recycled FT-86 droptop at Toyota's stand. Subaru also showed the wonderfully named Levorg, which goes on sale in Japan next year and hints at the next Outback wagon, and the Viziv Evolution Concept, a plug-in hybrid with a 1.6L engine that, if produced, would be yet another tall sport-crossover from the brand that's already dicing up that segment into little pieces.

Best New Model Name

Suzuki Hustler -- Too easy and too obvious. Suzuki's home-market kei-car crossover utility has some style, including a retro nose and a slanted four-door roofline. Throw in some bright paint colors and a rear hatch tent option, and you've got a multi-use econocar worthy of the Mini playbook. This type of design thinking would have gone a long way when Suzuki was struggling to sell 30,000 units per year in the U.S. Larry Flint might have something to say about the name, though.

They Still Make Cars, Don't They?

Mitsubishi -- A nearly all-CUV lineup, and I'd like to find someone who has time to sort them out. There was a big, red concept CUV and, I think, some sort of plug-in hybrid, but I had trouble slowing down to see them on my way to the Honda stand next door.

Meh

Porsche Macan -- Yes, I know that like the Cayenne, it will have superb performance and it'll handle well for an SUV. For an SUV. Sorry, but I don't get it.

Bad News for Toyota Crown Enthusiasts

Toyota JPN Taxi Concept -- Enthusiasts of the venerable mid-century Crown taxicab (and I can testify there are people who match this description) first built, like the Shinkasen, for Tokyo's 1964 Olympics, will be disturbed by the fact that its maker obviously plans to take them off Tokyo streets in favor of this post-modern London black cab design. Toyota also showed the FV2 -- a modern kabineroller-like podcar -- and the FCV concept, a fuel-cell vehicle outdone by Honda's Los Angeles show effort.

And that pretty much sums up the show.

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