Tokyo Motor Show 2011
After a bad year, the Japanese car industry is once again relying on what has always made it great - ingenuity and innovation - and the 42nd Tokyo Motor Show was a pure celebration of this.
Besides the effects of the earthquake and tsunami, the high yen has been hampering competitiveness on the international market. 'The yen is a huge handicap for exporters from Japan,' said Renault-Nissan chief executive Carlos Ghosn, further revealing that Nissan, the country's second largest carmaker, will have to gradually shift production to Thailand, China and Mexico to ease the effect of the strong currency.
Japan's largest car manufacturer Toyota only built 43 percent of its vehicles here last year, with Nissan and Honda under 30 percent. Worst still, according to the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association, is the forecast that domestic car sales are to drop 14 percent to 4.25 million this year, compared with 7.77 million at its peak back in 1990.
Yet in complete contrast to the 2009 Tokyo show, this year's exhibition - at its new central city home in the Tokyo Big Sight - felt very optimistic with a number of products pointing confidently towards the future of mobility.
With the exception of a few cars unveiled by non-domestic brands, two general themes dominated the show - pod size urban commuters and pure sports cars - mostly with a focus on sustainability.
On the green front, Toyota is pushing ahead with hybrid technology, Nissan and Honda with electricity. Said Honda's chief executive Takanobu Ito at the show: 'Honda will set a goal to reduce CO2 emissions from our motorcycles, automobiles and power products around the world by 30 percent compared to 2000, and we will strive to attain this goal by 2020.'
The display on the stand reflected this commitment with seven new concept cars each covering one form of mobility - an electric super sports motorbike, a range of electric urban runabouts, a small electric sports car and one designed for long distance travel.
This being Tokyo - a compact megacity housing around 30 million - the venue felt apt for its display of small electric cars designed for urban commutes. Here, Nissan stole the show - the marque having initiated this trend back in 2005 with the first Pivo.
The good news is that the third and final Pivo, unveiled here, will go into production. Francois Bancon, head of their advanced design studio, told us that the design will remain almost the same when it is mass-produced in the next five years. The group, which includes the Renault and Infiniti brands, hopes to sell around 1.5 million electric vehicles by 2016, so cars like the Pivo are pivotal to this plan.
Kei car concepts were also featured at the show. Only sold domestically, these tax-saving small, boxy cars are perfect for city driving and, as with Honda's N-Concept, can also be timeless in their design. Sadly the commercial failure of the Nissan Cube in Europe has deterred others to risk a similar venture.
On the sports car front, Toyota's GT 86, designed to bring some much-needed sex appeal to the marque, was one of the stars of the show. Revealing a more contemporary design though, was the Honda EV-STER - an affordable electric sports car that harks back to the 1990s Beat. The firm confirmed the EV-STER would go into production in the next couple of years.
Much like Tokyo's exhibition pavilion stands, car design here is not polished and perfected - in many ways it sits completely on the opposite side of German car design. Instead it is a wonderful fusion of a thoroughly modern Japanese minimalist aesthetic and inventive concepts.
Where else would you have a child-size humanoid robot - Honda's new ASIMO - equipped with the world's first autonomous behaviour control technologies, as the star of a motor show?