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tokyo auto show

From a transformable pod to a sporty electric vehicle, these cars caught our eye

Its importance may be in decline, but the Tokyo Motor Show is still the best place to go to see the weirdest, wildest concepts the auto industry can dream up. It's a place to show off creativity and new ideas. Some work, others don't, but here are the eight concepts that piqued our interest this year.

Toyota TJ Concept

Out of all of Toyota’s concept cars, the TJ Cruiser Concept is the most likely to end up in Canada.

Toyota launched a barrage of new cars at its home show in Tokyo, but only one of them might ever turn a wheel on Canadian roads. The TJ Cruiser Concept is a compact, rugged SUV, pitched right into the heart of the fastest-growing automotive niche in Canada. Other Toyota debuts included an awkward-looking sports car based on the 86 coupe, and a new version of the luxurious Century limousine favoured by the Emperor of Japan. But Stephen Beatty, vice-president of Toyota Canada, said he'd bet on the TJ as the one most likely to end up in Canada. With the Venza crossover and FJ Cruiser – a rugged SUV with a cult-like following – both discontinued, Toyota has room for a new SUV in its lineup. Whether the TJ Concept ends up in production will depend on how well this concept is received.

Subaru Viziv Performance Concept

The Viziv is a look at Subaru’s new styling direction, not a preview of any particular model, the company says.

Is the Viziv concept a preview of the next high-performance WRX from Subaru? Or does it foreshadow a sportier future for the mid-size Legacy sedan? Both and neither. This concept is a look at Subaru's new styling direction, not a preview of any particular new model, according to a company spokesperson. The hood scoop and bulging wheel arches are meant to emphasize the four-wheel-drive architecture and turbocharged boxer engines for which the brand is known. But other details, like the carbon-fibre fenders and roof, are just visual candy that will never make it to production. We've seen great concept cars from Subaru before, though, and they don't ever look as good by the time they get to showrooms. Hopefully it will be different with the Viziv.

Toyoda Gosei Flesby II

The Flesby II uses its headlights to make different expressions.

Strange concepts like this fuzzy, transformable autonomous pod are what make the Tokyo show exciting. These machines are a look into the furthest fringes of automotive world. This year, Toyoda Gosei – a major supplier of rubber and plastics to the auto industry – arrived with a wild concept that has some smart ideas. The Flesby II is covered in soft material to protect pedestrians in the event of a collision. The car even uses its headlights to make different expressions. It can blink one light to make a kind of winky face or flash two exclamation marks across the bumper. Tetsuya Arakawa, the company's design team leader, said such technology could help pedestrians and other drivers interact with an autonomous car and understand its intentions. Is it safe to cross in front of that car? If it winks at you, then yes.

Mazda Kai Concept

The Kai previews the next generation of the compact Mazda3.

At the 2015 Tokyo show, Mazda showed a lovely rotary-engine coupe. We were hoping for a production model this year, but no such luck. Instead, the company unveiled two more concepts: a fastback four-door sedan – confusingly called the Vision Coupe – and the Kai hatchback. Both are beautiful, but the Kai is interesting because it previews the next generation of the compact Mazda3, arriving in 2019 or 2020. As such, it will be the first car to use Mazda's new supercharged homogeneous-charge compression-ignition (HCCI) engine. Long story short, the company says it can deliver the high torque and good fuel economy of a diesel engine with the horsepower and fun-to-drive feel of a gasoline motor. But if the next Mazda3 looks anywhere near as good as this concept, it could have a potato peeler for an engine and we'd still want it.

Nissan Leaf Nismo Concept

The all-electric Leaf is meant to inject some excitement into Nissan’s utilitarian electric-car range.

Nearly every major auto maker is getting ready to go after Tesla in the burgeoning electric-car market, and Nissan is no exception. The all-electric Leaf is all-new for 2018, offering 241 kilometres of range for $36,000, before government rebates. That's roughly $10,000 cheaper than Tesla's Model 3, albeit with less range. In Tokyo, Nissan unveiled a sportier version of the 2018 Leaf, fettled by the company's in-house tuning arm Nismo. It's meant to inject some much-needed excitement into Nissan's utilitarian electric-car range. Since it's just a concept – not yet confirmed for production – there are no meaningful specs to speak of. But, if you were hoping for a supercar-beating, Tesla-rivalling Ludicrous Speed mode for the Leaf, well, don't hold your breath.

Suzuki e-Survivor Concept

The e-Survivor is a successor to the Sidekick.

Remember the Suzuki Sidekick, a miniature Jeep-like thing from the early 1990s? Well, nobody asked for it, but here anyway is the successor to the Sidekick. Dubbed the e-Survivor, it's an all-electric 4x4 with the batteries packed inside the ladder frame chassis and an electric motor at each wheel. Its designer, Taku Fukui, said he took inspiration from the old Sidekick, as well as the tiny Kei cars that dominate the domestic Japanese car market. There are no plans to put this concept into production, Fukui said. The point was to show Suzuki's vision of what we'll be driving in 100 years. It's almost quaint they think we'll still be driving at all by 2117.

Honda Sports EV Concept

Honda doesn’t have any plans of putting the Sports EV coupe into showrooms.

If there's one car from the Tokyo show we'd like to see go into production as is, it's this Honda concept. It's beautiful. The Sports EV (Electric Vehicle) is a follow-up to the Urban EV hatchback concept unveiled in Frankfurt in September. The latter will go into mass production in 2019, but Honda doesn't have any plans to put this coupe in showrooms, at least not yet. Together, these two cars represent a return to its roots for Honda. "We have no intention to go back to retro-type designs," Makoto Iwaki, executive creative director at Honda Automobiles, said "but what we would like to offer, is the joy and the excitement of the original Honda cars." Indeed, the Honda brand has lost some of that joy and excitement in recent years. Its Japanese rivals, for example, offer rear-drive sports cars, but Honda doesn't. Putting this coupe – electric or not – into its lineup would certainly help to restore Honda's sporting credibility.

Yamaha Cross Hub Concept

The Cross Hub draws Yamaha’s diverse expertise, from music to boats.

Yamaha wants to get into the car business, but it's taking its sweet time. The company has been testing the waters for years, showing car concepts in 2013 and 2015 in Tokyo. First was a Smart-like city car, then a small sports car – both developed with Gordon Murray, creator of the legendary McLaren F1. But Yamaha developed this Cross Hub concept all by itself. The company didn't commit to putting any of these models into production, only saying it's still considering the options. The Cross Hub's designer, Satoshi Nakamura, said he was able to draw on Yamaha's diverse expertise. The impressive light-up stereo speakers, for example, come from Yamaha's music division, while the wood decking in the pickup bed comes from the boat division. Because of the Cross Hub's unusual cabin layout with four seats in a diamond shape, the diminutive truck can fit two full-size motorcycles in the bed. As pickup trucks keep getting bigger, a smaller option like this would be a welcome addition to the market.

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