Tokyo Motor Show is one of the world’s most important biennial automotive exhibitions, and I get to see them all. It attracts everyone who’s anyone in the motoring industry, drawing phenomenal crowds — 1,4525,800 people over 17 days from Oct. 26 to Nov. 11. And more than any other car show in the world, with Tokyo’s, it’s “Showtime!” Young girls present the latest creations in the cathedral of the automobile; borderline ridiculous, but in Japan — the home of manga — the overt is preferred to subtlety.
But where were the big non-Japanese international car manufacturers this year? Discrete, so much so that it was disquieting. Only Audi presented a concept with any acuity — the next A1. This minicar is remarkably well-executed, even for Audi, with the exception of the unfortunate Peugeot-style front overhang. BMW and Mercedes didn’t show us anything we haven’t already seen. It was as though they had run out of steam (or used up their budgets) at the Frankfurt Motor Show a few weeks earlier.
Tokyo’s show, usually a formal demonstration of unbridled creativity, took a new direction this year: global warming forcing a new vision with relation to consumption; manga expanding its vocabulary. All manufacturers announced their electric vehicles for 2010, as well as their second-generation rechargeable hybrids. It was a signature Japanese response to the less high-tech, more pragmatic European example. Tokyo, usually carefree and fun, became serious — and, to tell the truth, a little boring. Of course, it was all still dressed up as youth in a miniskirt, but the heart had gone out of it. A certain dull sheen crept over the optimism.
Starting with Nissan’s GTR — a local legend embarking on a world takeover. Nissan had aimed to announce that the car had made a record-setting run around the famous Nurburgring test circuit in Germany, but it is still pursuing that feat. The primary objective of the GTR’s conservative design is to obscure the passionate irrationality that characterizes this vehicle. Grunge is the market audience for the product, but the product isn’t trendy enough for the price, especially when that audience is on the other side of the Pacific.
Nissan had a great lineup at this year’s show, or at least one better than its Japanese competitors. Besides the GTR, the maker astutely released the second edition of the PIVO, the concept car with a cabin that rotates 360 degrees and whose photogenic qualities enchanted the media two years ago. The new model maps previously uncharted terrain in urban mobility, allowing the driver to move in any direction, and comes closer than ever before in looks and behavior to that of the human body. This is evidence of the great range of new possibilities provided by electric technology, the premonition of an ultra-urban tomorrow.
Despite its status as the world’s leading car maker, Toyota seemed a little lost — perhaps symptomatic of GTR envy. It presented a mass of recycled concepts already displayed at the Detroit Auto Show in January: contributions with an environmental slant; minimalist design lacking definition. The 1/X, for example: an extremely light Prius-type hybrid-engine concept car named after a contemporary art movement that aims to reduce artwork to its intention without regard to form. It could be a real “back to basics” in mobility, but it falls way short in design and realization, relying almost entirely on the imagination of a creative audience for its existence. And beside the 1/X, new high-tech wheelchairs guaranteed to please creators of a theme park dedicated to an aging population but not much good for anyone else.
The latest Lexus, the ISF, incorporates a range of “hotting up” accessories in the genre of the BMW M series and Mercedes AMG — a less than convincing attempt to edge in on the GTR market. Pure convention — the opportunity to introduce a new concept missed.
Usually an exuberant participant in Tokyo, Honda this year contributed something more akin to chamber music. Charming and discrete, the Puyo is a tiny, rather cool little number breaking new ground with its supple, elastic shell — reminiscent of Salvador Dali’s clocks; it is a soft and cuddly alternative to the cut-and-dried car exterior to which we are accustomed. Unfortunately, the interior (very visible due to the see-through sides and roof) somehow lacks inspiration; the transparent materials used inside leave one feeling as though they are viewing the interior through a film of frosted cellophane.
Mazda presented the Taiki, a concept vehicle that is the result of a series of pure explorations into style and elegance, and how they can generate emotion. There’s no particular story here, but it’s a possible candidate for the James Bond or Batman car of the future.
Mitsubishi rolled out the lithium ion-battery-driven iMIEV; the intention it would seem was to add a little spark to the range of electric vehicles available. It is well made, if a little conservative, with the proportions if not the advantages of a convertible.
All Japanese automobile manufacturers are concerned by the increasing lack of interest in everything automotive shown by the younger, urban generation. How do they reach a target audience that’s glued to computers and not inclined to visit car showrooms? Prepared to try anything to draw the enthusiasm of this digital generation, the carmakers are altering the aesthetics of their vehicles. But the risk remains that the manufacturers will go for a simple but insufficient Band-Aid solution.
The gap is too wide for that. Toyota’s trucklike Hi-CT and Nissan’s Rd:Bx (Round Box) are relatively convincing attempts to offer new forms and new pleasures. The Rd:Bx evolved from Nissan’s radical Cube, while the Hi-CT has a fun, edgy urban allure — responding to streetwear culture with a utility, trucky style — a response that is more directed at fashion than it is fundamental. The question deserves a more radical answer.
There are limits to taking the pulse of the automotive industry at car shows — where we risk being blinded by the glitter and gloss. A more precise examination of the industry’s vital signs, however, will take up another column.
Phoebe Royce is an art/design expert working with several automakers who has been researching socio-contemporary attitudes and the car for the last 30 years.