Mazda Ibuki ConceptClick to enlarge picture

Mazda said its two-seat Ibuki concept is a "possible design direction" for the long-running Mazda MX-5 Miata. The Ibuki has a front-midship location for its four-cylinder engine and oval styling cues, as seen in the headlights.

Roadsters were plentiful, too, appearing at the displays of Subaru, Nissan, Toyota, and Volkswagen, among others.

As always, fanciful designs from Japan-based automakers pushed the envelope. Toyota's attention-getter was a one-person electric car concept that looked like a huge insect, while Mitsubishi's other-worldly minicar had shiny, aluminum body panels topped by bubble-like glass.

Most of the vehicles shown for the first time at the Tokyo show were studies in styling, design and engineering. A few—notably the Honda HSC, Mazda Ibuki, Nissan Fuga and two Lexus models—also hinted at possible design directions for vehicles that could come to the United States in the years ahead.

Powertrains on Parade
The Tokyo show dismissed any notion that fuel-thrifty, environmentally friendly vehicles have to be boring small cars.

Hybrid powertrains, fuel cells and electric power were wrapped in all manner of body styles at the show.

For example, Mazda's Ibuki roadster features a four-cylinder, internal combustion engine mated to an electric motor, while Suzuki's wildly styled, six-passenger Mobile Terrace concept utilizes the Hy-Wire fuel cell platform created by partner General Motors Corp.

Another Suzuki design study, the Landbreeze compact sport utility vehicle, not only has a fuel-thrifty gasoline-electric hybrid powerplant. The vehicle shows new levels of recyclability as even tires are made from natural elements that are not petroleum-based. "This is a cross-country model that can co-exist with nature," said Suzuki President and Chief Operating Officer Hiroshi Tsuda.

Nissan wraps its fuel cell powertrain in the body of a small commuter car called EFFIS whose interior can be configured for one to three adults or three adults and one child. Subaru's sleek B9 Scrambler is a roadster with a four-cylinder, gasoline engine mated to an electric motor.

Toyota's 2+2 roadster concept, the CS&S—for Compact Sport & Specialty—has a midship hybrid system. The CS&S sat on the same stage as the Toyota Fine-N fuel cell car, the Toyota's PM electric car and the company's SU-HV1 hybrid sport utility that looks a lot like the Lexus RX 330 gas-electric hybrid SUV due in the States in 2004.

Honda showed an eight-seat minivan called the ASM that has a V6 mated to an electric motor. Alongside were the Honda IMAS, a hybrid sports car, and the Kiwami fuel-cell-powered, premium sedan.

None of these vehicles is up and running as a mass production model on Japanese streets. The number of future powertrain displays at the show indicates the continued emphasis that environmental concerns are getting in Japan.

In fact, Toyota's chairman, Fujio Cho, noted in his remarks at the company press conference that the auto industry must address environmental issues in order to survive.

Roadster Fun
Japan-based carmakers seem intent on letting the sun shine in as an unusual number of displays featured open-top cars.

Mazda's Ibuki roadster is seen as the design direction for the successor to the MX-5 Miata roadster and drew praise from an unlikely source—Carlos Ghosn, the head of Nissan Motor Co.

When asked what his favorite of the auto show was, outside of the Nissan display, Ghosn said, "I like the small Mazda ? I congratulated the president of Mazda (on this car)."

Mazda engineers sought "to minimize the yaw inertia moment" for a superior sporty ride, said Isao Tohda, who was on the Ibuki development team. As a result, the engine, radiator and some of the cooling system are positioned at the rear of the engine compartment, behind the front axle for what Mazda calls a "front-midship layout." Another change from the now 14-year-old Miata: the Ibuki has lightweight, reinforced plastic fenders, hood and door panels that don't shine like those of steel.

Nissan's Jikoo concept roadster drew inspiration from the 400th anniversary of Japan's Edo Shogunate and so includes the Edo tortoiseshell application technique for the steering wheel's water buffalo horn material. The wood floor is made in combination with a new material to keep it slip-resistant, and fenders outside use the hammered metal technique of traditional silversmiths. In addition, the Jikoo headlamps are designed to look like the paper-covered lamps often seen in Japan.

Subaru's B9 Scrambler is unique with its mix of shiny sheet metal hood and upper doors and lower body-side plastic panels. The two-tone roadster, with Subaru's all-wheel drive, of course, is designed to be able to go down dusty dirt lanes and other light, off-pavement terrain without a worry that stones will ding the lower body, said Lorenz Bittner, lead designer of Subaru's Tokyo Studio Design Department.

Toyota's CS&S has a novel rear, hard "canopy." It covers two small rear seats when the car is in a roadster configuration. If the rear canopy is pushed rearward, the two small seats in back are visible and ready for use. In addition, the front seatbacks can be pushed forward when the vehicle is parked to provide security against theft.

With its retractable hardtop on, Suzuki's Concept S2 looks similar to a MINI Cooper. The S2's roof is a three-piece, folding operation that's fully automatic and still leaves room for two passengers in the back seat.

Imaginative Designs
The Tokyo show stretches the imagination of top auto designers in Asia who often fret over the crowded conditions of Tokyo roads and living environments.

This was the inspiration for Mitsubishi's SE-RO concept, a narrow minicar with a tall beltline, seating for four and bright, shiny, silver aluminum body panels. With its curved front and rear ends, it looks like nothing on the road today. SE-RO comes from the words "secret room."

Suzuki's Mobile Terrace looks something like a greenhouse, with its green-tinted windows, cheery, yellow seats and bright, airy interior. Seats can be turned around and the white shag-carpeted floor repositioned on each side to extend out of the vehicle when parked.

Toyota's PM—for Personal Mobility—only has one seat, but this electric car can change its stance, depending on whether it's traveling at high speeds, in the city or is helping a passenger enter or exit. Headlights are on antenna-like stalks and emphasize the look of the insect-like form.

Hints at Possible U.S. Designs Lexus, Toyota's luxury brand in the United States since 1999, has never appeared officially at the Tokyo show—until this year. Reason: Toyota intends to launch Lexus in Japan in 2005.

Industry observers noted the LF-S and LF-X concepts at the Lexus display show the design direction of future Lexus vehicles as sleek, bold models.

Meantime, Honda's HSC concept is viewed as a possible design study for the aging Acura NSX sports car. The HSC has a low-slung body that's a bit shorter than the current NSX. Power comes from a more-than-300-horsepower V6. Round tail lamps and the squared-off rear resemble the Chevrolet Corvette.

Nissan's Fuga is a luxury sedan concept seen as the replacement for the Infiniti M45, likely in 2005. This rear-drive car rides on the same platform as the 350Z and is a bit shorter than the current M45.

Interesting to Note
There was scarcely any showbiz-style entertainment at the Tokyo Motor Show press conferences this time around. Scantily dressed show models were few and far between during the press conference activities.

In fact, it was refreshing to see Toyota allowing a female auto designer, dressed in a gray pinstripe pantsuit, to get on stage and talk about her work.

Many vehicles at the Tokyo show continue to be minicars, which are big sellers in Japan but rarely make it to the States. A current minicar trend in Japan is the boxy minicar, such as the strong-selling Nissan Cube and Cube3, which are smaller than the Scion xB that Toyota has started selling in the United States.

Nissan's Ghosn acknowledged the company's 400-horsepower, GT-R super car is taking quite a while to get to market. Noting an engineering bottleneck inside Nissan, Ghosn said the company had looked at partnering for the GT-R development but later decided against it. Now, he said, work is ongoing. Ghosn expects to see a GT-R at the 2007 Tokyo Motor Show, with deliveries to customers following shortly thereafter. "Our intent is to build an extreme sports car at a reasonable price," he said, adding styling changes will make the final GT-R look substantially different from the concept that was out a couple years ago.

Ann Job is a writer for T&A Ink.

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