43rd Tokyo Motor Show 2011

This year's 43rd Tokyo Motor Show was held at Odaiba’s Tokyo Big Sight instead of the larger Makuhari Messe in Chiba.  The first thing you notice about the venue is the 4 upside down pyramid structure, which gives you a very good impression that things will be different once you enter the gates.  Because most foreign OEMs, who traditionally show their new production and concept cars at the Tokyo Motor Show, were absent this year local supplier booths stood right next door to major automotive booths…a bit like at the Geneva Auto Show

The show was definitely geared towards ecology.  Next to the mainstream combustion engine cars each manufacturer showed hybrid, EV and other green oriented products.  Toyota had their Toyota Auto Body division brand showing their new one-seater EV mobility vehicle called COMS.  It is like a cross between a scooter and a golf cart.  Nissan Motors was debuting their 3rd generation Pivo concept -  Pivo 3 is a bit more car-like, rather than its predecessors Pivo, and Pivo2, which were a lot more cartoon oriented designs.  Pivo 3 still featured its striking technology though with 4-wheel steering system that allows it to make U turns within an area of 4 meters; it makes perfect sense in an urban setting.  The design, overseen by Chief Designer Masato Inoue, carried Nissan’s current design language, but lacked the quality finish you would expect from a Nissan concept car. 

However, there was one model hiding underneath the Nissan honeycomb office which caught my eye…Nissan’s version of the Renault’s Twizzy.  I believe we are at an era in automotive history where we will see more and more of these personal EV commuters that are a cross between a bike and a city car and Twizzy's white and matte black parts certainly made it look and feel trendy.

Surprisingly Mazda did not follow its competitors in the eco mobility direction, but rather focused on the now dated Zoom Zoom message.  Mercedes and Smart seemed to be heading towards biotech designs where machine and organic forms exist in harmony.  Subaru was also strutting their sporty driving image with their Advanced Tourer Concept and BRZ(Toyota GT86).  The Subaru Advanced Tourer Concept made a bold statement but was lacking in fresh ideas, the design motifs simply repeated other carmaker’s motifs.  Still, it was a pretty good effort coming from Subaru.

Honda, on the other hand, this year was probably the strongest compared to its Japanese counterparts.  Their vision of EV still flows from their design philosophy of fun to drive attitude.  EV for them doesn’t need to sacrifice sportiness and advanced design signatures.  Honda’s message was consistent and powerfully executed in the form a slew of EV designs including N Concept Range, AC-X, Micro Commuter Concept, EV-Ster, Town Walker, RC-E,and Motor Compo.

Foreign carmakers were represented by European companies including Audi, Porsche, Volkswagen and BMW.  Volkswagen had a good presence with most of their brands gathered in one location showing that even with the economic downturn people still want to dream of owning one of their cars, "Think Blue!".  The very cool concept vehicle by Volkswagen was the tandem seating EV personal commuter, the NILS concept that made its debut at the Frankfurt Motor Show earlier this year.  It is as if the future is already here ready to go, NILS is the perfect package for Tokyo.

For me the BMW i8 was the best representation of moving an EV brand into the future.  The car itself is a lot better in real life than photos; complex sophisticated surfacing runs throughout giving us a feeling for EV cars that is anything but boring, in fact it can be extremely exciting!  BMW i3 is definitely the urban vehicle for the new eco-boomer.  Ease of ingress and egress makes it practical in the city in addition to its very distinct image which fits the customer’s lifestyle.

Finally Toyota came out in numbers pushing their now long history in developing the Hybrid sector of the automotive world, but the designs did not reflect progress far enough.  The Fun-Vii, essentially a smartphone of wheels, was the closest the concepts got to eliciting interest but the rest FT-EV III, FCV-R, AQUA, 86, and GRMN Sports Hybrid Concept II felt all a bit stale.  Jean Reno is ReBORN Toyota - Toyota is working very hard to tell its loyal customers and the world that it is a reborn company with new vision after being hard hit by Japan's natural disasters and recall fiasco this year.  However, when you ask the reps what is Toyota’s new vision, they couldn’t give you an answer.  You would think that they would have been informed, but much like Toyota’s recent design concepts their staff didn’t have a clue!

Smart Mobility City 2011

At this year’s Tokyo Motor Show, there was one hall fully dedicated to clean technology and EVs.  It was filled with start-up companies selling their clean technology as well as established automakers selling their production EV’s and Hybrids.  This part of the show will definitely get bigger as time progresses.

Ecomo Corporation is a new company contributing and creating a smart and clean society by spreading Japan’s most advanced Electric Vehicle technology through networked design.  This year Ecomo sponsored an event for young Japanese University design students as well as children to participate in a Smart Mobility Contest.  Workstations were provided for them to create their vision and guest speakers were on hand to lead the discussion.

It was this makeshift city that attracted all kind of companies in different fields to exhibit the products they have been developing in the area of personal urban mobility.  The unlikely mix between a company that makes pharmaceutical and electro-optronics, Kowa, and a robotics company tmsuk, have developed the Kobots - three environmentally friendly personal mobility bots.  Lixil, one of the largest building and housing equipment company in Japan explored the concept of “House as Home for People and Car” using their eco materials and the help of a few ponies.  A surprise concept was shown by Toray, a chemical manufacturer akin to Dupont, called the TEEWAVE AR1 (Toray Eco Efficient Wave Advanced Roadster 1) designed by UK's very own Gordon Murray, showcasing their green automotive technologies.


Since the rebirth of the EV, we can expect to see more and more of these unique personal mobility units created by big automakers and start-up companies.  With technology improving every year, these personal urban mobile suits maybe something that is not just fantasy, but a reality in the near future.  Stylish and Sporty will still draw in the crowds; people still want to feel and look good when they own a car.  Matt finishes and accented details seem to be the craze.


Accent colours picked from the outside body feed inside with diamond stitching.  Bright floors give the sense of a spacious atmosphere in compact areas.

In summary this year’s 43rd Tokyo Motor Show was quite subdued due to the current Japanese economic and social stress the country has had to face this past year.  The country is trying to recover from the 3.11 earthquake as well as from the Fukushima Nuclear reactor incident and uncertainty.  The show was a good reflection of this, where presenting new products was not about showing off, but instead showing that the companies are surviving and working hard through tough times.

A small glimmer of hope shone from Hall 4 West, where the introduction of Smart Mobility City 2011, showcasing the efforts of new and old companies coming together to create a new industry through the rebirth of the EV.  Japan may be the country to do it, because the Japanese people understand hardship and they know how to overcome it.  Now that China has taken over as the low-cost mass producer of Asia Japan can differentiate itself in the automotive industry through advanced ecological technology and robotics.  It just takes one to start the recovery and soon others follow.

John Anthony Sahs is  Chief Designer at SIM-Drive in Japan and also has a wonderful personal design website.

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