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Honda’s Micro Commuter concept vehicle, on display at the Tokyo Motor Show. (TORU YAMANAKA/AFP/Getty Images)
Honda’s Micro Commuter concept vehicle, on display at the Tokyo Motor Show. (TORU YAMANAKA/AFP/Getty Images)

TOKYO MOTOR SHOW

Japan's auto makers battered but unbowed Add to ...

Tokyo Big Sight. That’s the name of the complex of exhibition halls through which I trudged during the start of the 42nd Tokyo Motor Show. Alas, this show is not the big sight it once was and the same can be said of Japan’s auto industry.

Twenty-four years ago, when this show moved to the Makuhari Messe International Convention Complex in Chiba, an hour away from downtown Tokyo if the traffic is light, Honda and Toyota and Nissan – the Big Three Japanese auto makers – truly were a sight to behold. These were fast-moving, innovative creators of fuel-efficient and reliable mass-market vehicles and they were a collective corporate juggernaut, hammering Detroit’s auto makers in particular, but frightening and threatening Europe’s best as well.

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Back then, Toyota and Nissan were shockingly full of themselves. Both were readying all-new luxury brands as a sign of either cockiness or confidence or both. Lexus, Toyota’s then-new premium line, took its cues from Mercedes-Benz, emphasizing sedate luxury – the sedate part reflecting Toyota’s own values as a car company. Nissan based its Infiniti brand on BMW, Germany’s self-proclaimed ultimate driving machine.

So here we are in 2011 and only now is Infiniti putting in place a global plan intended to boost annual sales to 500,000 from about 160,000. Infiniti has wandered through two lost decades and even now Infiniti vehicles are not sold in Japan – perhaps because some of them have been offered as Nissans here. And Lexus, well, the new GS mid-size “sport” sedan – both hybrid and gasoline – was unveiled here and you will find the odd Lexus dealership in Japan, too. But Lexus’s sales have fallen from No. 1 in North America among premium brands to No. 3.

And Honda? The combined sales of Hyundai-Kia will outpace Honda in North America this year by a wide margin; Hyundai alone has out-sold Honda in Canada by some 24,000 units through November. Yes, the mighty have fallen a bit, though only a fool would count them down and out.

That said, this year’s Tokyo show was supposed to trumpet the rebirth of Japan’s once seemingly indomitable car business. The plan was to show a bit of swagger, to boast of the Japanese industry’s technological edge in so-called “green” cars. Japan as a whole has grown obsessed with environmental and safety issues and this ethic seems to have overwhelmed its car companies and not entirely in a good way.

And there was more. Toyota, soon to lose the crown of world’s biggest auto maker to long-time rival General Motors, was a humbled and repentant presence this year. Toyota has been battered by nagging quality issues, millions of recalled vehicles and, as Toyota president Akio Toyoda emotionally noted, the punishing economic aftershocks from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami north of Tokyo. Flooding in Thailand has also whipsawed Toyota’s suppliers, and those of other car makers, too.

Perhaps battered but certainly unbowed, the sprawling Toyota exhibit was festooned with banners touting the company’s renewed interest in stuffing driving pleasure and excitement back into its vehicles. Yet the centrepiece of Toyota’s display was a plug-in version of the Prius hybrid, likely to start around $40,000 in Canada when it hits showrooms early next year. Toyota also banged the drum for the upcoming Prius C subcompact hybrid, expected to sell in the low-$20,000s. These two marvels of hybrid technology are all about low emissions and fuel efficiency, not behind-the-wheel thrills.

But all was not lost for enthusiasts. Toyota showed a sexy rear-drive sports car called the “86” and it will be sold in Canada as the FR-S. Jointly developed with Subaru, whose version is the BRZ, the coming Scion sports car hints at a kind of “gearhead” energy and enthusiasm dating back to pre-Lexus times. Toyota types say this sort of sentiment is smouldering deep within Toyota.

At Nissan, CEO Carlos Ghosn tried hard to steer the conversation to the cars and concepts on stage, but his focus on the products was ambushed by repeated questions about the strong yen, which is truly devastating the car industry here and all other export-driven Japanese businesses.

“The yen is our main problem. When it stands at 77 to the (U.S.) dollar it is uncompetitive,” he said at a press conference intended to discuss Nissan’s push into innovative “green” products. “It is an incentive to move production out of Japan. Our company is profitable, but there is no profitability in cars made in Japan for the export market. It is difficult to make investment in a company with no profitability.”

Ghosn, blunt and always armed with facts, said export production in Japan is at risk of being moved out of the country if the yen remains strong.

“Producing in Japan for the Japanese market is not a problem because we are competing on an equal level,” he added. “What is at risk is that part of our production that is exported when we are neck to neck with the Koreans and some of the Americans and Europeans. For now, we are going to hope for the best, but if we see a risk we are going to shift it.”

The point is, the Tokyo auto show I first visited two-plus decades ago was a thrill-a-minute riot. Odd, fanciful, sometimes bizarre and often amusing concept cars shared the spotlight with high-performance rockets and quirky city cars small enough to tuck into your back pocket. Now, a combination of shifting consumer tastes and incompetent or error-prone product planning and execution have met their match in government regulations apparently bent on reducing the car business to the purveyor of “mobility.” This for an industry that once was a pure celebration of freedom of movement and the independence that comes with it.

Indeed, the official theme of the 42nd Tokyo show is “Mobility Can Change the World.” Into what, you might ask, and based on what kind of mobility? Electric scooters? Motorized sidewalks? Battery-powered walkers? The organizers touted 53 world premiers here, 45 of them of the four- and two-wheeled variety. But only a handful were energetic, stylish vehicles capable of revving one’s engine, so to speak.

“We have to balance fun and the environment” in vehicles, said Toshiyuki Shiga, head of the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association and chief operating officer of Nissan, at an event marking the opening of the show. “As auto makers, it won’t be good if we go for a vehicle that is not fun but is environmentally friendly.”

His counterpart at Mitsubishi Motors, company president Osamu Masuk, had a similar take: “We will create vehicles that people can enjoy, while also considering how to preserve the environment for the next generation.”

Laudable sentiments and no doubt truly and deeply felt. But as I wandered the sweaty Big Sight halls I sensed a narrowing of what was once the grand vision of the automobile. It’s not about freedom and beauty and performance and sexy designs any longer; no, the car business is becoming all about doing no harm, with only small pockets of resistance fighting to preserve the industry’s old values.

Choking the excitement and the magic out of the automobile is a recipe for the industry’s ultimate demise. No one imagined such a radical shift 24 years ago when this motor show moved to Chiba, where the eight halls didn’t seem big enough to contain the Japanese car industry’s massive ambitions. How things have changed.

Grim as that sounds, there were notes of hope to be found in Tokyo, notes about that resistance to hammering all the joy out of the automobile industry. One of them came from Toyota president Ako Toyoda himself. He trumpeted the need for cars designed to give drivers an emotional, inspirational experience.

“I hope that motor vehicles will continue to provide dreams and inspiration to people for all eras,” he said, adding, “I believe that if it is not fun, it is not a car.”

He went on to say, “We are committed to making cars that will evoke this feeling of ‘fun to drive, again’ in as many people as possible. This is Toyota’s declaration.”

And it should be the entire industry’s, too.

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