2009 Tokyo Motor Show

By Guy Bird for Blueprint, Jan 2010

Despite the recession decimating exhibitor numbers, the 41st Tokyo motor show still played host to some of the most creative new concept cars of the year...

A zero-emission city car with an electric unicycle strapped inside its door, a tiny pick-up truck that manages to be both ‘rugged’ and ‘cute’ and a huge but shapely box on wheels that doubles as a mobile office or outdoor pursuits back-up vehicle could only be concept cars at one very special biennial motor show: Tokyo.

Although stand space was virtually halved compared to the 2007 event – almost all non-Japanese carmakers stayed away to cut costs – the domestic makers that did exhibit really pulled out the stops to show that Japanese carmakers are still at the cutting edge of automotive concept design and technology and that Tokyo still justifies its importance as one of the top six global motor shows.

This year’s expo theme and slogan: “Fun Driving for Us, Eco Driving for Earth,” was backed up by nearly 20 global vehicle unveils, almost all of which showcased eco-focused ideas, using either very efficient small internal combustion engines or some form of electric power from hybrid to ‘plug-in’ full-electric. Many of these concepts were also very small and compact, not only because smaller cars logically tend to make better eco cars as they weigh less and thus need less energy to propel them, but also because Japan has a particularly strong history of small car manufacture due to long-standing tax breaks given to vehicles limited by physical size and engine capacity.

Daihatsu was also behind one of the most unlikely concept vehicles of 2009, let alone Tokyo, with its diminutive smiley-faced pick-up/roadster called the Basket

Called ‘kei’ cars (short for keijidōsha) this mini car class was born post-World War II to help stimulate the nascent Japanese car industry when most of its population could not afford bigger cars and has always played well in its domestic market, but as the world seeks more frugal and less-polluting modes of transportation, such lightweight and space-conscious cars look increasingly appealing beyond Japan’s shores too. 

One of the best mini cars on display at Tokyo was the Honda EV-N. The cute four-seater was created by young female designer Kanna Sumiyoshi after gaining influence from one of Honda’s iconic old models, the N360. But while there is a definite family resemblance in the front face of the new car this is no lazy exercise in retro. Less than three metres long and powered by an electric motor, the compact package produces zero emissions at source and its exterior detailing is very modern. Inside the clean interior is bright, airy and large with slim interchangeable mesh seats and features a high-tech ‘personal mobility device’ – called the U3-X – strapped to the interior doors.

Once the U3-X has been unplugged, Mickey Mouse-style ears fold out to create the seat and two foot rests flip up to transform it into a 21st century unicycle for individual transportation after the car can go no further. The device – which allows 360-degree movement via lithium-ion battery power and upper human body movement alone – was developed using lessons learned from Honda’s renowned Asimo robot project and displayed at the show as a working prototype alongside other Honda individual mobility technologies – including a device to assist walking for older people suffering from arthritis.

The best of the bigger car exhibits at Tokyo – although still technically a ‘kei’ car – was the Daihatsu Deca Deca. Its basic shape is based on the boxcar vehicle segment already well established in Japan for many years – and which is now starting to make its presence felt in Europe and the US with cars like the third generation Nissan Cube and Kia Soul – but the Deca Deca is a particularly large and innovative one. Indeed Daihatsu calls it a ‘super box’.

Its completely flat floor and barn door-style twin doors on one side open out 135 degrees to allow fantastic access to a massive interior cabin measuring 1400mm high. Due to cleverly folding, swiveling and tilting seats the space can also transform from a conventional passenger cabin to a place where a businessman might conduct meetings – complete with a fold-down 35-inch LCD monitor – or where sportsmen can store their mountain bike or surfboard before and after far-flung exertions. Topped off with a high horizontal slit window on the car’s non-opening side – reminiscent of a bank security van to give some privacy for occupants if required – the Deca Deca is a great interpretation of the boxcar genre.

Daihatsu was also behind one of the most unlikely concept vehicles of 2009  – let alone Tokyo – with its diminutive smiley-faced pick-up/roadster called the Basket. The car’s marketing, aimed at allotment-leaning types trying to regain some work-life balance might be a bit cheesy, but the concept behind the four-seater ‘kei car’ concept is much cleverer. It can be an open-top roadster one minute, or with canvas roof attached a latter-day fastback Mini Moke another, while with rear seats folded it transforms into what must be the cutest – but still rugged, wipe-clean and practical – all-wheel drive pick-up in the world. Factor in hemp-style rough-hewn upholstery covering the seats and instrument panel, button-style wheel trims plus a fuel-efficient 0.66-litre petrol engine and the Basket’s simplicity, fun and frugality are a refreshing counterpoint to the usual oversized macho pick-up truck design clichés. Like the Deca Deca, with its simple engine and construction, the Basket looks production-feasible too – though no plans have been announced thus far.

The Nissan Land Glider is a tandem-style vehicle a world away from current car packaging and many times removed from the ill-fated, no roof, one-seater electric Sinclair C5 slowcoach 

But perhaps the most future-facing concept revealed at Tokyo was the Nissan Land Glider. The tandem-style vehicle – a world away from current conventional car packaging and many times removed from the ill-fated, no roof, one-seater electric Sinclair C5 slowcoach – proposes a one-plus-one seating arrangement where a single passenger sits behind the driver in a narrow-bodied pod able to tilt through corners like a motorbike.

At only 3.1 metres long and just over one metre wide – most modern cars are between 1.8-2m in width – devices like the Land Glider would enable much more efficient use of crowded urban streets and parking spaces and a built-in crash avoidance system utilising body-mounted sensors able to detect other vehicles would allow the car to move in traffic in the same way as fish swim in schools without colliding. 

Complex body panels move independently of the wheel arches to angle the cabin for better stability during cornering, which when in motion, give the Land Glider a pleasing hermit crab-like gait, while power comes from two electric motors in the rear tapping into lithium-ion batteries mounted beneath the floor to ensure zero-emission motoring. Recharging is designed to be made wirelessly at induction ‘refueling’ spots where the car simply drives over a designated plate in a garage or parking bay floor. 
Despite its futuristic look and technology Nissan already has a working prototype and is deadly serious about putting the Land Glider into production within five years. Given Nissan sister brand Renault and VW have also presented similar concepts in recent months don’t bet against such tandem vehicles becoming a future automotive trend.
The Tokyo motor show may have shrunk in 2009 – in exhibition size and vehicular outlook – but conceptually it’s as big and important as ever. 

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