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Staff writer

The 33rd Tokyo Motor Show will open next week amid growing hopes that the 12-day event will jump-start consumer demand for vehicles, especially larger cars, to combat the prolonged sales slump in the automotive industry.

During the show, which is open to the public from Oct. 23 through Nov. 3, major automakers from home and abroad will parade passenger cars, motorbikes and concept vehicles. They will also show off the latest automotive technology.

Global concern for the environment will be one of the key issues at the 1999 motor show.

Both domestic and foreign automakers will exhibit environmentally friendly vehicles such as hybrid and fuel-cell cars and electric vehicles, which have become increasingly pragmatic and sophisticated.

“Our theme (for the show) is being ecology-minded while at the same time offering cars comfortable to users,” a spokesman for Mitsubishi Motors Corp. said. “We will try to show cars with compact bodies and improved space utility.”

Although hybrid cars, which combine an engine and an electric motor to lower fuel consumption, have already hit the market, automakers are combining existing green technology with the hybrid system to further improve fuel-efficiency. They are also broadening the types of cars with hybrid systems.

While MMC will exhibit the SUW advance, its first hybrid car combining a motor and a gasoline direct-injection engine, Toyota Motor Corp. will display its HV-M4, a minivan using a new hybrid system.

As concept models, most domestic makers will display fuel-cell cars, hopeful alternatives to gasoline engines because of lower pollution and emission levels. Honda Motor Co. will unveil the FCX, a next-generation sedan, and Daihatsu Motor Co. will exhibit a four-seater minicar.

But although automakers are competing to develop and show off “greener” cars to meet ever-tightening regulations, many in the industry are skeptical that the environment factor will reverse stagnant sales.

New car sales have declined for three years since 1996. In 1997, total domestic sales of new minicars, cars, trucks and buses tallied 6.73 million units, down 5 percent from 1996.

This figure dropped 12.6 percent to about 5.88 million vehicles in 1998, and sales levels were low this year as well.

But what is hurting automakers most is slack sales of larger cars, which traditionally generate greater profits.

In contrast to minicars, which have enjoyed brisk sales for the past year, monthly domestic sales of new vehicles excluding minicars have declined on a year-on-year basis for 30 straight months since the consumption tax increase in April 1997 constricted consumer demand.

Now, as some economic indexes are showing signs of an upturn, automakers are eager to use the momentum of the motor show to improve their sales.

“In general, I have a feeling that the economy is on a recovery track,” Toyota Chairman Hiroshi Okuda said. “But looking at the automotive industry alone, I can’t say we see an upswing.”

The Tokyo Motor Show also takes place at a time of fragmented consumer preferences. The conventional theory that consumers upgrade their cars in accordance with increases in income and age does not explain current consumer behavior.

In response to diverse consumer preferences, automakers are trying to enhance and improve their brand images to attract consumers.

At the show, Toyota will display the WiLL Vi, a smaller car with a retro flavor, targeting single women in their late 20s. The model contrasts with the firm’s image of being a carmaker favored by the older generation.

“We want to demonstrate a future direction in products for the younger generation under an unprecedented marketing scheme, since we are a bit weak in this age bracket,” said a Toyota spokesman. He was referring to a joint marketing project with companies such as Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. and Kao Corp. that will offer products under the same brand name.

Meanwhile, automakers such as Nissan Motor Co. that formed capital tieups with foreign counterparts must build new corporate and product images, said Seiji Sugiura, a senior automotive analyst at Nomura Securities Co.

“Sales conditions are bad at present, so ordinary cars do not sell,” Sugiura said. “Automakers need something extra to attract consumers. With new brand images, they must convince consumers why they should buy a particular car.”

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