Japan politely reminds us why it’s a powerhouse at Tokyo 2015
Carlos Ghosn commands a presence as mesmerising as you’d expect from one of the automotive industry’s most powerful players. His round table (rather, big and packed square room) was a 45-minute virtuoso performance where every question fired at him was answered with detail, nous and high-level thought. It was spellbinding.
And then, right on cue, the session was over and he walked out as briskly as he’d walked in. Go, answer questions, dodge nothing, depart. Leaving us to soak up what he’d told us: Renault and Nissan may row from time to time (such as now?), but they’ll be fine. Hiccups in the slowing car industry will lead to more mergers and consolidations in the next few years. If the UK leave the EU, Nissan will have to review its future investments.
All headline stuff. There was more. All car firms are, right now, losing money in Russia: all of them. Car makers do not measure emissions the way they want to. The VW scandal will not make diesel more popular in Japan and the US. Brazil is down 40% and will remain unstable until the political situation clears. Nissan won’t make a luxury EV because Tesla is already doing a good job. The success of autonomous cars will depend on trust from customers and ultra-precise, real-time maps – car makers have already sorted the actual self-driving part.
Spellbinding. And a complete contrast to at Volkswagen, where I watched Herbert Diess being mercilessly grilled by (and apologising to) the press corps about the emissions scandal. The scrum was 10-deep: I took the opportunity to photograph the deserted show cars instead. I returned 10 minutes later – still he was being grilled, still he was apologising. Yet another one for Team VW he’d taken: it’ll be far from the last.
There were similar contrasts on the show floor. This being Japan, the home makers ruled. Doing so in a very polite, considered, respectfully Japanese way – their stands were thoroughly packed with a huge array of their varied products, but absolutely not overblown, bombastic or lavish. The contrast with how the German brands do it on home turf could not be more stark.
Indeed, Honda, Daihatsu, Suzuki, Nissan, Mitsubishi, Mazda et al were all perfectly happy to mix it up with the rest of the world – again, unlike in Frankfurt, where you have the Mercedes-Benz hall, Volkswagen Group hall, BMW hall, Audi pop-up money pit. And it’s here were they way Japan does it becomes clear.
Ghosn is right: diesel doesn’t figure in Japan. The showcases here were mainly powered by petrol, but extensively also powered by the fuels of the future. And the far-sighted star of the concepts was the Nissan IDS, an autonomous EV that introduces us to Nissan Piloted Drive, high-power batteries, carbon composite bodyshells – oh, and the likely design features of the next-gen Nissan LEAF. It’s a looker.
Toyota is ready today with the latest generation of its millions-selling eco car: it’s a sign of how globally significant the Prius is that it got its global debut elsewhere, but it featured prominently in Tokyo for its Japanese launch, ‘generation 4’ branding underlining how far ahead of the rest Toyota is here. Painting it in S-FR green was genius too: I can’t wait to see if the world’s biggest car company also puts one of the world’s smallest rear-drive sports cars into production.
I desperately hope Yamaha puts its mid-engined, rear-drive sports car into production, because the Sports Ride concept is a masterpiece. Using a carbon fibre version of the ultra-clever iStream production method created by McLaren F1 designer Gordon Murray, it promises to be ultralight, simple and low cost – some are putting it at £30,000, suggesting it could be a near-sensational modern-day Lotus Elise rival.
It’s the fact this beguiling, beautiful car could become a showroom reality that has me so excited, though. Particularly as the likely 1.0-litre three-cylinder powertrain could make it an eco-friendly, futureproofed sports car I wouldn’t have to feel guilty about owning. A McLaren I could afford, that would keep my conscience clear – now that’s clever.
There was a lot of clever future mobility stuff on the Honda stand, with the Unicub in real-world use by the stand assistants who zoomed about handing out brochures while sitting on them. If you didn’t get why Honda was making all this weird stuff before, you did after you enviously spoke to a lady looking quite relaxed as your legs and feet screamed blue murder. Many other brands couldn’t give a stuff about stuff like this. Honda’s insight may be potent when people start to reconsider how to get about megacities.
Eschewing German logic, BMW chose not to make a big fuss about the M4 GTS it was debuting in Tokyo, leaving it tucked up one corner of the stand, easily missed, where its massive jutting front splitter was perfectly positioned to trip befuddled journalists over. No wonder they’ve painted it bright safety orange.
Mercedes-Benz, instead, did shout about its Tokyo debut, even calling its new Vision concept the Tokyo. It’s still not entirely clear what it is, mind: many of us looked on, hoping the future of car design isn’t as monodimensional and formless as this. Driverless car and futuristic drivetrains mean cars don’t have to look like they do today, says Mercedes-Benz: yes, but they still should look appealing and enviable, surely?
This is something that, praise be, Subaru has at last discovered. The new Impreza is going to be a corker if the concept it showed off at Tokyo is anything to go by: its future Viziv-inspired crossover should also be pretty decent. Even the dumpy XV and gawky Forester have gained a bit of style with the facelifts that debuted here: will we soon be able to justifiably desire Subaru again?
Former UK Subaru sister company Daihatsu is sadly out of bounds for us in Britain, and Tokyo reminded me what a pity this is. It’s 20 years of the Daihatsu Move this year, for example, a car that’s been absent here for years but which has evolved into quite the high-tech, sophisticated-looking mini MPV these days. Bedecked with LED lights, a lovely front bench seat and hi-fi-style dash, I wondered how successful such a car could have been here today. So smart-looking is it, I’d happily have one.
Japan’s biggest small car manufacturer, Suzuki, also provided plenty of likes. Again, for those of us who’ve driven the likeable but surprisingly already dated Celerio will be fascinated to discover the contemporary, stylish machinery being sold in the brand’s home market. The new Alto looks great (dig the retro Whizzkid-inspired rear), for instance, and has a super-for-the-money interior. There’s loads of other stuff potentially waiting in the wings too, judging by the concepts on show from the firm.
Everything, from all the home brands, was produced meticulously well, with precision and integrity. A lean production masterclass, as always from the Japanese brands. This may be automotive-nerdy, but it’s something that delighted me during the Tokyo show: walking round and being able to enjoy so many precision-built, tight-shutline, clean-doorslamming cars. Those imperceptible nts of degrees of accuracy were in abundance in Tokyo. It’s almost head-clearing, the feeling of right-first-time wasteless integrity.
Japan is building groundbreaking electric cars, hybrid cars, fuel cells, sports cars and multiple conventional cars. But everything that it builds seems to be built more cleanly than the rest of the world. It’s this that’s rubbed off on Ghosn, I reckon. Like his adopted carmaker, he knows what he’s doing, he does it well, he doesn’t waste any words, doesn’t need to shout or create firework fanfares and is already both quite aware of his views on the future and also how he’s going to respond.
We were electrified into thinking Germany had all the answers to the future of motoring at Frankfurt, then the Volkswagen scandal shattered our confidence in the integrity of German engineering. Just a month later, Japan has, in its oh-so polite and respectful way, suggested there might be another way. And I for one am now listening far more closely than I was to it.