Tokyo Motor Show: The death of the Japanese sports car has been greatly exaggerated

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Much ink has been spilled writing about the demise of the Japanese auto industry, especially for enthusiasts. Some of it here at JNC. However, if there was one thing to take away from this year’s Tokyo Motor Show, it’s that Japanese automakers are practically undergoing a sports car renaissance. 

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The show is held at the Tokyo Big Sight, a convention center located in Odaiba but that would look just at home in the background of a Star Trek establishing shot.

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With Mazda kicking off the first press conference of the show, we knew the day was off to a good start. The first slot is generally given to the most important automaker of the show. Typically, that’s Toyota or Nissan in Japan, Ford or GM in Detroit. This year, however, it was tiny little Mazda who traveled all the way Hiroshima to reveal one of the most stunning concept cars ever made.

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Technically, I should’ve received my press credentials back in California but many foreign journalists’ badges were lost in the mail, including mine. As a result, I was still waiting in line to get that sorted and missed out on the most exciting unveil of the day. I would’ve been better off at home watching the live stream. Luckily, Skorj had his press credentials sent to him in Japan and was there to capture the action. Here’s more on the wonderful Mazda RX-Vision, and we will have more thoughts in an upcoming story.

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The next Japanese automaker on the press conference rotation was Nissan, who used the opportunity to introduce an autonomous driving electric car. Well, at least they had a fleet of NISMO cars at the booth, including the GT-R, Fairlady Z and (for Japan only) the Note.

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Nissan also showed the Nissan Concept 2020 Vision Gran Turismo, a radical interpretation of the GT-R designed for the Gran Turismo video game franchise.

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For the latest release of the popular Playstation racing simulator, the producers reached out to all the major automakers to create a car. Amazingly, nearly every company contributed to the project, using their actual designers in their actual design studios.

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While most of the Vision Gran Turismo projects exist only in pixels, a few companies, like Nissan, actually created life-size versions of the digital cars. Created in its London studio, Nissan revealed it last year at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in classic GT-R gray. For its Tokyo debut, they repainted in a matte reddish color called Fire Knight.

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Clearly the design is based on the GT-R, even though those three letters are technically not in its name. Its long headlights, quad afterburner taillights, and cantilevered roof are a dead giveaway. In the game, the car has a turbo 3.8-liter hybrid powertrain capable of 784 horsepower. Technically, a more extreme GT-R should be cooler than cool, right?

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Somehow, however, the 2020 falls flat on its face. Look at its proportions, with a tiny pimple of a canopy overlooking a long, arching hood jagged with pointy bits at the front that are sure to be taken clean off the minute you try to pull out of a parking lot.

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Compare it to the RX-Vision — which is easier than ever to do thanks to its shiny new red paint job — and it’s just a jumble of angles, vents, and weird surfacing. New manufacturing technologies and computer-aided design make it easier than ever to form body panels that would’ve been unthinkable a decade ago. Just because you can, however, doesn’t mean you should.

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Whereas the Mazda is beautiful, the Nissan is just brutal. sometimes there’s something to be said for impact, but will it be timeless? The best angle is probably the rear, where we admit its floating taillights are cool. Perhaps that’s where the creators spent most time, since it’s what you’ll be looking at the most when you’re on your Playstation anyway.

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The other car everyone was excited about before the show was the yotahachi-inspired  Toyota S-FR. If you’re wondering why we didn’t have a follow-up story about the S-FR, it’e because Toyota revealed absolutely nothing new about it at the press conference. Instead, Ichiro Suzuki was flown in from Miami to banter with Akio Toyoda about baseball. What?

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Ichiro is a major star in Japan, and the crowd gasped audibly when he walked out on stage. A nearby woman sounded like she was going to faint. The crowd swarmed to get a shot of the player and we don’t know jack about baseball, so instead we’ll just provide more shots of the S-FR.

During Toyoda-san’s speech, images of Toyota owners around the world flashed on the massive screens behind him. Land Cruisers, AE86s, even a bright orange TE27 flickered by. Toyoda-san re-iterated the fact that Toyota wants to create cars that “wow” you. They’ve been using the “Fun to Drive” and “wakudoki” phrases for a while now, and we know Toyoda is a die hard car guy (he even showed up to a cars and coffee), but the conference lacked the impact of Mazda’s.

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However, the good news is that we can tell you, after seeing the S-FR in person, it looks really close to production ready. It’s about the size of an ND Miata (3,990mm long, 1,695mm wide, 1,320mm tall) and has MacPherson struts in front, double wishbones out back. The engine may or may not be a 1.5-liter Toyota mill, but it is definitely mated to a 6-speed manual.

Tetsuya Tada, Toyota’s chief of product planning for Toyota’s sports division has said he envisions a three-tiered lineup of sports cars with the GT86/Scion FR-S/Subaru BRZ in the middle. the Supra above, and the S-FR below.

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It’s a 2+2, so theoretically four Japanese hipsters can fit in the car, but it doesn’t look like they’d all be entirely comfortable. Most interestingly, the the center console is sparse, as in no infotainment unit or touchscreen. The idea is to focus the driver on the act of driving. Now that’s a novel concept that does indeed makes us say, “Wow!”

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Live, the car has the same presence as that of the Sports 800 — the design just says fun without all the overly aggro anger that seems to be a requirement of modern sports cars. It’s clearly meant for hustling through the winding alleys of Tokyo and perhaps tossing around the touge, not for stoplight showoffs. With the 50th anniversary of the Sports 800 taking place this year, it’s great to see Toyota with a successor to its first sports car.

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The Honda booth was a powerhouse of performance, headlined by the new NSX. With a combined 573 horsepower from its twin-turbo V6 and no less than three electric motors, the world is waiting to see if it will retake the world by storm like its forefather. What is it with this shade of red, though?

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If the mighty NSX is Honda’s new flagship, the Honda S660 is the torpedo boat. The roadster was launched earlier this year, a fine return to form for Honda. The packaging of a mid-engined sports car within the confines of strict kei jidosha dimensions and engine specifications hearkens back to the days when Soichiro Honda ran things.

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This show also marked the Tokyo debut of the Project 2&4, a motorcycle engine with a seat. Seeing this in person for the first time, we got a sense of just how close your butt is to the ground in this offset monoposto Frankenstein of bike and car.

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With a red hinomaru roundel on the hood and exhaust pipes pointed up like battleship armaments, the design took inspiration inspiration from Honda’s RA272 Formula One racers, which recently celebrated their 50th anniversary of their first F1 win.

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Speaking of melding sports cars and motorcycles, Yamaha debuted its own take on the notion. The Sports Ride is similar enough in size to the Toyota MR2 to be a spiritual successor and would likely utilize a similar mid-engine configuration if put into production. With a carbon fiber frame and a weight of only 1,653 pounds, it’s a compelling alternative to the 2&4 in which you don’t end up with bugs in your teeth.

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Ken Okuyama is a world-famous designer that penned, among other things, the original NSX, the Ferrari Enzo, and Maserati Birdcage 75. After retiring as the first non-Italian head of Pininfarina, he’s launched his own firm to create cars of his own design. The firm also designs such disparate objects as the tractor seen in the background, and eyeglasses.

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His car, called the Kode9, is a sports car that makes 370 horsepower and weighs just 1,960 pounds. The exact engine wasn’t specified, but Okuyama says it is a 2.0-liter four-cylinder of Japanese origin and has an HKS supercharger bolted to it. Honda S2000 F20C, perhaps?

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Though the Kode9 coupe was debuted last time around, Okuyama took the occasion this year to debut the Kode9 Spyder. Wearing Gulf livery, a ducktail spoiler and four round taillights, the Spyder has a more traditional look. It reminds of the Bubble Era days when Tommykaira, Autobacs, and other Japanese builders were churning out all manner of independent sports cars. From the cars displayed at the rest of the show, it certainly looks like we’re poised to return to those days again.

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23 Responses to Tokyo Motor Show: The death of the Japanese sports car has been greatly exaggerated

  1. Dankan says:

    “Just because you can, however, doesn’t mean you should.”

    Too true, about current cars and the Gran Turismo series. If I wanted wacky concepts, I’d have bought Ridge Racer in the first place.

    And too many cars are about speed and technology rather than fun. Sadly, it seems that the new NSX is very much in that category according to reports from those who have driven it. The S660 seems to be better, but between the legions of keyboard warriors complaining about the Toyobaru not having “enough power” and the companies themselves feeding that mentality with the bloat of gizmos and oversized tires, it’s a losing battle for drivers interested in fun cars.

    • Ant says:

      Yeah, the internet dirge is getting me down too. Car manufacturers seem more willing than they have in a long time to give us lightweight, low-powered sports cars that focus on fun above performance… but the internet drowns them out with calls for everything to have 300 horsepower. I sincerely hope Toyota goes through with the S-FR, and changes very little – including the rumours of it running a modestly-powered 1.5-litre unit.

  2. Ryan Senensky says:

    I honestly think the SF-R is the best car I’ve ever seen on paper…

  3. Word is bond says:

    “Ken Okyuama is a world-famous designer that penned, among other things, the original NSX, the Ferrari Enzo, and Maserati Birdcage 75.”

    *Okuyama (there’s the same typo a little later too)

    And it might be more accurate to say that the Brirdcage was done by Jason Castriota, who Okuyama brought with him to Pininfarina before he finished school at Art Center College of Design, where Ken was the Chair of the Transportation Design department, at the time. Then again – many designers were working on all of those cars…

  4. MikeRL411 says:

    In my opinion, the S-FR front end looks like an Algae Eater in a fish tank.

  5. MikeRL411 says:

    The Honda 2&4 was featured on a recent Samurai Wheels program. It handled well!

  6. Ant says:

    This year was my first visit to the Tokyo show. Hugely enjoyed it. The S-FR looks even better in the metal than it does in photos, and I was instantly smitten by the S660 after having a sit inside it. Both are exactly the sort of car I’d love to try here in the UK; both could potentially be suitable replacements for my old Eunos Roadster – maintaining the fun factor, but throwing in a few more modern comforts.

  7. Censport says:

    “The death of the Japanese sports car has been greatly exaggerated.”

    And thank goodness for that!

  8. Serg says:

    I think there’s a lot of Le Mans in that GT concept from Nissan, I can’t imagine it on the street because it was never intended to be more than a digital dream so the exaggerated proportions and hypercar lines make perfect sense.

    I hope the SFR goes ahead, much like the 86 on initial launch it has a classic feel to it already.

  9. ahja says:

    The yam looks dope, and the SFR has promise. Hopefully Mazda has some other designs in another binder for the RX, because I hate to say it (I’ve been waiting a decade+ for the unveiling of a new 2-door RX) but the proportions are just dreadful. It looks like a Cheetah, except less athletic. I don’t find Cheetahs attractive. Also, unless its like a 9 rotor it is just wayyy too long. And are those wheels like 24s?

    Before Mazda settled on the gorgeous FD, they went through all manner of concepts, some ok looking, some pretty ugly. One of the ok designs became the MX3. But the FD that emerged was orders of magnitude better than any of the competing/earlier concepts. I can only pray that process happens again.

    • Steve says:

      I agree. I think every car on this page are way better looking and much more interesting than the Maxda RX-Vision. They call it groundbreaking styling but it just looks like a flattened XKE with input from Chip Foose (ugh I hate those oversized wheels). I especially like the S-FR but if it Is FWD then the Yamaha gets my vote…

  10. Clay says:

    Love that Gulf-liveried 1963 Corvette!

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