Tokyo Motor Show to Showcase Latest in Japanese Automotive Technology

Although few foreign automakers will be represented at this year’s Tokyo Motor Show, they will no doubt be watching closely as the Japanese auto industry debuts its latest designs.

Until very recently, Japanese automakers were largely unchallenged in their domination of the small car segment. However, automakers from the United States, Europe, Korea, India and China have begun to close the gap, and Japanese companies now face a new challenge; adding value beyond high fuel efficiency.

Honda Motor Company’s director of domestic operations, Hiroshi Kobayashi, says, ”It’s clear that we have to have fuel efficiency, affordability and compactness,” but Honda realizes that it takes more to compete in today’s competitive marketplace. He says, “We need a product strategy that can match different customer lifestyles.”

Foreign automakers have begun to shift their attention from the shrinking Japanese market to the skyrocketing demand in China, which is poised to overtake the U. S. as the world’s largest automotive marketplace in the near future.

Only two foreign automakers, Britain’s Lotus Motors and Germany’s Alpina Burkward Bovensiepen, will be represented at this year’s Tokyo Motor Show. In 2007, 26 foreign automakers participated in the bi-annual event. The total number of participants has dropped from 241 automakers in 2007, to only 108.

Among the highlights expected at this year’s show will be Toyota Motor Corporation’s FT-EV II, an all-electric compact vehicle that’s smaller than the automaker’s iQ mini-car.

The FT-EV II is a quirky, four-passenger vehicle that features a joystick instead of a steering wheel. Toyota has also done away with foot pedals in the FT-EV II. Toyota claims the vehicle has a top speed of about 62 mph and can travel approximately 56 miles on a single charge.

Nissan Motor Company has also generated a great deal of buzz with its concept electric vehicle, the Land Glider. The Land Glider is a lithium-ion battery-powered, in-line two-seater that corners like a motorcycle and features a sophisticated anti-collision system.

Japan’s No. 2 automaker, Honda, will also unveil its urban-use, all-electric EV-N. The EV-N features a retro body design that harkens back to the automakers designs of the early 1960s. The EV-N offers seating for four and incorporates a solar panel in the roof and a radio frequency communications system that allows the vehicle to “talk” with other vehicles.

Despite their emphasis on Electric Vehicle (EV) concept cars, Toyota and Honda are concentrating their near-term efforts on developing gas-electric hybrid models. Toyota has announced plans to begin leasing plug-in versions of its popular Prius hybrid, and Honda will launch its new CR-Z sports hybrid as early as next February. Both models will be on display at the Tokyo Motor Show.

Toyota’s president Akio Toyoda says, ”The important thing is to emerge from oil dependence as early as possible. I believe it is our mission to spread these hybrid cars.”

Nissan has invested heavily in its “Leaf” EV. The Leaf is a mid-size sedan which is scheduled to go on sale in Japan, the U.S. and Europe in 2010.

Mazda has fallen behind the curve of EV development and will feature its latest advances in gas and diesel engine development which has, from a fuel efficiency standpoint, made their vehicles competitive with many hybrid models.

Mazda will debut its new “Kiyora” concept vehicle at the Tokyo Motor Show. The Kiyora uses a new internal combustion engine and powertrain featuring the “i-stop” idle-stop system to increase fuel efficiency. Mazda claims the Kiyora achieves approximately 75 miles per gallon of gas.

Daihatsu Motor Company will debut a new four-passenger, mini-vehicle dubbed the e:S which employs a traditional combustion engine and achieves fuel efficiency of approximately 70 mpg through the automaker’s use of light-weight materials.

According to Shigeru Matsumura, an auto analyst with the SMBC Friend Research Center, ”Not all cars will be replaced with hybrids and EVs in the near future and there is still demand for gasoline cars centering on emerging countries. So we should also pay attention to these improved technologies.”

As the automotive industry remakes itself to comply with stricter environmental regulations and appeal to changes in consumer behavior, one thing is certain – uncertainty itself.

Akio Toyoda says, ”Today’s winner will become tomorrow’s loser if you lag behind the changes.”

The Tokyo Motor Show runs from October 23 to November 4.

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