2017 Tokyo Motor Show Hits, Misses, & Revelations

Going beyond the motor and away from Japanese-speaking CEOs

TOKYO, Japan—If you’re picky about the difference between the word “motor” and “engine,” the Tokyo Motor Show 2017 “Beyond the Motor” theme didn’t make much sense. Electrification is all the range this year and then some, with most of the show’s hottest and most important introductions offering everything from hybrid power to full electric, er, motors.

Meanwhile, Toyota clearly wants to be the lead brand of the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, and showed a new Century limousine with hybrid/5.0-liter V-8 power, a fuel cell city bus and a new-age MPV-style wheelchair-accessible Tokyo taxicab. It’s worth noting here that the original Toyota Century and Crown, which haven’t changed much in 53 years, were designed along with such national treasures as the Shinkansen bullet train, for the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Unlike subsequent Olympic venues, Tokyo used those games to great economic effect.

While European and American automakers are no longer a factor at the Tokyo Motor Show, this year’s event features a number of new and significant unveilings, most with some form of electrified power or in the case of Mazda, the Kai concept with its highly efficient spark controlled compression gasoline engine, all in anticipation of leading the auto industry into a new age of mobility. “Beyond the Motor,” indeed.

HIT: Mazda Vision Coupe Concept

“Vision” is one of those generic concept car monikers that is hard to remember, but this car is impossible to forget. It’s beautiful, and while us auto hacks get cranky about calling a car a “four-door coupe,” it’s apt description of the Vision Coupe. The design is even better than Mazda’s two-door 2015 RX-Vision concept. Both the Vision Coupe and RX-Vision point to Mazda’s refined, “less is more” second-generation kodo design language. Dropping “RX” from the name of this related concept seemed at first Mazda’s hint there would be a more conventional piston engine under the Vision Coupe’s long hood. But now I think Mazda avoided RX just so we would stop talking about an RX-7 or RX-8 revival.

—Todd Lassa

HITS: Mazda Vision Coupe Concept and Subaru Viviz Performance Concept

Mazda’s Vision Coupe inspired love at first sight. With Subaru’s Viziv concept it was something more like lust. In halls crammed with weirdly busy “polarizing” designs aimed to suit Chinese preferences, both stood out for their sheer sculptural beauty.

—John R. Harris

REVELATION: The Mazda Vision Coupe Concept is Japan’s Buick Avista

CEO Masamichi Kogai spoke of a more premium positioning for Mazda, but later in an interview, he said this would have more to do with the brand’s relationship with its customers than actually taking models upmarket. The Vision Coupe’s design language will translate to transverse-engine models he said, and the front-wheel-drive Mazda6 will be the brand’s largest sedan for the foreseeable future. Sigh.

—T.L.

HIT: Subaru Viviz Performance Concept

With its radically flared rear fenders, and a more rakish daylight opening than that of the Impreza on which the WRX/STI is based, the Viviz concept previewing the next generation of Subaru’s roadgoing rally car/sport sedan looks more appealing than ever. Subaru in the past has done a poor job of translating handsome WRX/STI concepts into production, but has had more success with the latest round of models like the Impreza and the Crosstrek. I hope its designers and engineers are on a streak.

—T.L.

MISS: Lexus LS+ Concept

The quest for an aggressive face is taking auto designers into the strangest places. Witness the grille on the Lexus LS+ concept. Lexus calls it “Brave Design.” Does this remind you of a snowplow or what?

—J.R.H.

MISS: Mitsubishi e-Evolution Concept

I’ve grown tired with Porsche Macans and the like claiming virtual sports car handling despite higher centers of gravity, and so this concept named after Mitsubishi’s Evolution series of street legal rally cars to me is at a disadvantage from the get-go. Electrification of the engine doesn’t bother me, but the sheetmetal, which makes Lexus models look restrained by comparison, does. This thing is rather scary looking, and not in a good way.

—T.L.

HIT: Mitsubishi e-Evolution Concept’s door hinges

Prize for most stunning auto part on display in Tokyo goes to Mitsubishi Motors for the shiny and massive single hinges linking doors to frame on their E-evolution concept. But Mitsu has yet to figure out that it’s not polite to call these “suicide doors.” “What are we supposed to call them then?” the Mitsu guy wanted to know. “Ask the Mazda RX-8 people,” we told him.

—J.R.H.

MISS: English & Chinese

As Tokyo gears up for the 2020 Olympics and high-spending Chinese tourists flood the Ginza, the city is going all-out to provide signs in English and Chinese. Seems many motor show exhibitors didn’t get the memo, though. Giving the lie to the Tokyo show’s increasingly shaky claim to global status, companies like Japanese bearing maker NSK didn’t even bother to provide info in English or Chinese, language of the world’s largest auto market. Then again, Toyota gave its first-ever Tokyo speech in English.

—J.R.H.

MISS: English as a second language

Plagued by revelations that unqualified inspectors certified cars rolling off its Japanese assembly lines, Nissan looked like a deer caught in the headlights. Although its presser opened with a grovelling apology, the decision to deliver it in English via executive vice president Daniele Schillaci, an Italian who speaks this language with a strong French accent, didn’t go down well with Japanese media expecting Carlos Ghosn successor Hiroto Saikawa to face the music. Earlier in the morning, Japanese media attending Toyota’s presser anticipating oration by CEO Akio Toyoda were baffled to hear the speech would be in English. Instead of godlike Akio, they got Toyota executive vice president Didier Leroy delivering his vanilla lines with a distinct French flavor: “Zees ees is a game-changeur.” But the day’s prize for best English elocution by a Frenchman goes to Patrice Ratti, managing director of Renault Sport Cars. Très bien, Monsieur Ratti!

—J.R.H.

HIT: Honda EV Coupe Concept

I was expecting an original CRX look for the EV Coupe, which shares its unspecified battery-electric motor powertrain and architecture with the Urban EV concept unveiled at Frankfurt last month. But instead of a CRX, Honda borrowed from its mid-‘60s S600 coupe styling to pen this concept (can an S600-like EV Roadster be far behind?). And it works beautifully, creating the most alluring electric sports car to-date. Honda plans a production Urban EV for Europe, then for Japan by 2020, but I’d be fine if they skipped that hatchback in North America and went straight to the EV Coupe. And, of course, an EV Roadster as well.

—T.L.

HIT: Daihatsu DN Compagno Concept

This attractively funky subcompact four-door “coupe,” powered by a 1,200-cc hybrid, pays homage to Daihatsu’s 1963-70 Vignale-designed Compagno. It would look spectacular parked next to a Honda EV Coupe in a mid-century two-car garage.

—T.L.

MISS: Nissan IMx concept

Nissan recently unveiled the second generation of its workaday, affordable Leaf EV (with somewhat disappointing range), and now its Leaf NISMO concept at Tokyo. Nissan claims the IMx’s twin-motor, four-wheel-drive electric motor makes 430 horsepower and runs for 600-plus miles on a single charge, so the design should have been either a sleek counterpunch to the troubled Tesla Model 3, or perhaps a nicely styled middle-class greenie’s Model X. Instead, the Nissan IMx comes off as a design reject for the next Murano, with the now overused two-tone “floating” roof look.

—T.L.

REVELATION: Waiting for Alfonso

Nissan’s former chief designer Shiro Nakamura was like Leonard Cohen for me, an artist worthy of great respect—just not quite my thing. So where does Nissan go from designs like Shiro-san’s “startled owl” Rogue? I’m eagerly waiting to see where new design chief Alfonso Albaisa (with his classic swept-back designer hair) takes it. Not yet clear at this Tokyo show.

—J.R.H.

HIT: Toyota TJ Cruiser

Serious SUV lovers will scoff, but the packaging of this crossover/minivan mashup makes it a true sport/utility, capable of swallowing a variety of bikes, short one-seat kayaks, and other sporting gear. Downside is it was presented with a 2.0-liter/electric Prius hybrid drivetrain, which means no manual gearbox option.

—T.L.

MISS: Toyota Century, ZIL or Red Flag?

Got the yen for a ride like Stalin or Mao Zedong? Complete with lace curtains, Toyota’s got the limo for you: the all-new Century. Question is whether its styling was inspired by the Soviet ZIL or China’s Red Flag (Hongqi). Then again, Japan has long had a home grown tradition of autocrat autos. Whatever, first sight of the Century provided the best LOL moment of the Tokyo show.

—J.R.H.

The new Toyota Century to me tries to keep the old Toyota Century’s mid-century cool, though with an attempt at a Rolls-Royce nose. Toyota should instead have put some effort into making its new Century as evocative of the 2020 Olympics as the old Century was to the 1964 Olympics.

—T.L.

REVELATION: Toyota loves cars

Often derided as a mere “appliance maker,” Toyota was keen to demonstrate its automotive passion. “Toyota loves cars,” EVP Didier Leroy told the assembled press corps. And, “Unless they are fun, they are not really cars.” Who knew?

—J.R.H.

HIT: Suzuki Survivor

Something odd has happened to scrappy little Suzuki, known here mostly as a kei-car producer for several other brands, since it scooted out of the U.S. market a few years back. It has become endearing and cool in its home market, even with niche-level sales. Suzuki unveiled a handful of new models and concepts including a pint-size Jeep Wrangler. Aptly named coming from this company, the Survivor features a ladder frame, battery electric power, and four-wheel-drive. Oh, and autonomy—Suzuki’s video showed the Jeep traversing an off-road driverless, which congers an image of fleets of modern off-road vehicles driving themselves up and down Moab.

—T.L.

HIT: Suzuki Cutie

Tokyo may no longer be a top-tier global show, but it still leads the world in cute, whimsical concepts. Coming across a fruit & veg stand kei-truck from Suzuki just before lunch made me instantly hungry. It deserves a place next to the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile featured in The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn.

—J.R.H.

 

MISS: Dry ice sends wrong signal

What’s the best way to kneecap your zero emissions message? Lexus hit it spot-on by preceding its presser with a cloud of dry ice that looked for all the world like the exhaust fumes from a 1966 Plymouth Valiant.

—J.R.H.

REVELATION: Halloween hits Japan

Ten years ago when my Canadian kids introduced trick-or-treating to our Japanese street, we had to explain the concept to our neighbors. But as Japanese latch on quick to any holiday involving candy or booze, Halloween suddenly became ubiquitous. Toyota Auto Body deserves special mention for the first-ever Halloween-themed display at the Tokyo show.

—J.R.H.

Photos by John Lancaster