By now you have seen plenty of car magazine and social media channels declare the 2017 Tokyo Motor Show as being a disappointment. Leading up to the show, there were whispers of some tasty production cars being revealed: a Fairlady Z concept from Nissan, the next-gen Supra and a turbocharged F version of the Lexus LC coupe from Toyota. After a rousing speech from Akio Toyoda the JDM sports car renaissance would burst onto the stage amid cheers, hugs, and confetti.
What actually happened was the opposite of that.
The Tokyo Motor Show typically opens with the biggest news from a domestic automaker. The last time around it was Mazda and the breathtaking RX-Vision staking staking a claim as the torchbearer of not-boring cars. This year Toyota was the headliner, so the very first item of business was to attend the Toyota press conference. Toyota and its Daihatsu subsidiary had an entire hall at the Tokyo Big Sight convention center occupied, and anticipation was thick in the air.
When the covers were pulled off, however, they revealed two white ovoid shapes with leaves down their sides, barely recognizable as cars. The VP of Toyota went on to explain that Toyota is reinventing the car; that in the future cars will be more like an AI-powered friend, a smartphone on wheels that will take you to where you need to go, while you amuse yourself in its “data connected” cabin.
The next major automaker was Nissan, which in the wake of its certification scandal, was understandably humble and focused on the eco credentials of the new Leaf EV (now available in NISMO format, yay), the IMx autonomous crossover, and some giant rectangle projecting scenes of nature. Honda revealed the Sports EV concept, but we were told that neither it nor the Urban EV were coming to America.
It was only the smaller companies that offered the enthusiast a glimmer of hope for a next-generation of cars that you might actually want to buy. Mazda revealed two stunningly sexy concepts and its SkyActiv-X sparkless ignition engine, said to offer the economy of a diesel but also — as the Mazda CEO was careful to point out —the high revving fun of a petrol engine. Subaru unveiled the Viziv Performance Concept, a hint at the next-generation of WRX.
But in the week since the show, I’ve been thinking about the various corporate messages at TMS and they all speak volumes about the state of the car industry in Japan.
New-car sales in Japan have been static in the past few decades as the population growth flatlines. But if you delve into the statistics, you’ll see that in the past ten years there has been a seismic shift in the way that Japanese folks buy their cars.
Since the 70s the biggest segment of the market has been the 660-2000cc (i.e., the Corolla and Civic) class. But since about five years ago the kei-car class has overtaken it, and the biggest segment of the market from 2012-2016 has been the diminutive 660cc minicars.
This is perhaps not that surprising, as the latest generation of kei cars like the Daihatsu Wake and Suzuki Spacia are unbelievably spacious boxes on wheels, tall enough to take mountain bikes standing up and with enough legroom to match a large Lexus sedan. They’re purely practical transport though, driven by wheezing engines with CVT transmissions that drone over the quarter-mile in 24 seconds or so. The Japanese are so extraordinarily eco-aware that the idea of a fuel-sipping microcar has a great deal of appeal, and with all that interior room, they really do everything you need.
They’re cheap and hyper-practical, but their success is a problem. It’s never good for business when your customers start to abandon your expensive products for your cheapest ones, and it’s also a growing disconnect between the domestic and overseas markets, where kei cars have absolutely no relevance whatsoever.
In Japan it’s a challenge to justify the time, money, or space to own a vehicle. In the big cities it’s very common for your home to not have any parking for a car. If you want to own a car, you often have to rent a spot in a community parking lot, which is both inconvenient and expensive.
An autonomous kei box that will drop you and your shopping at your house, before whirring quietly around the block to park itself until summoned, would be a combination that many of the Japanese buying public might not be able to resist. Many western outlets scoffed at Toyota’s egg-shaped concepts at TMS, but if the car needs to be totally reinvented for Japan, then it’s the Big T that has the deep pockets to make it happen.
This may seem bleak, but everywhere we looked was evidence that the love for cars is alive and well in Japan. Just look at the insane queue of people to get into the public days of the Tokyo Motor Show at 8am in the morning.
Wherever you go, Japan is more than happy to feed your car addiction with toys and hobbies. In the two weeks we were in Japan, we saw no shortage of kids and adults alike poring over the plethora of Tomicas, plastic models, diecasts and RC cars everywhere we went.
Race vehicles were also on prominent display, from the Team Sugawara Dakar Rally Hino truck to the Calsonic SuperGT R35. People enjoy seeing these competition machines in person, and scale models of them sell for $150 a pop, sometimes more, at almost any large department store in Tokyo.
There is no shortage of love for the car, but for the average person in Japan it’s just really hard to own one. So instead, the love is expressed through plastic model kits and diecast toys. The question for Japan’s automakers right now is, how can they reconcile the enthusiasm for the car with the financial and physical impracticality of owning a car in Japan.
All the manufacturers revealed different strategies for making cars relevant again, and it will be interesting to see which recipe reignites the Japanese car market and whether it will have any relevance at all to the European, American or other Asian markets. There was another time in Japan’s history in which such a diverse lineup of strategies vied for dominance amid seemingly insurmountable odds. That was 1965, and it led to the golden age we remember so fondly today. Behind all the shiny concepts at Japan’s most important automotive event there’s quite a lot going on, and that’s why JNC found the TMS so utterly fascinating.