There is one model that looks more like a phone booth than a car, another that dispenses its driver like candy from a vending machine. There are party concepts, complete with disco lights, and other concept vehicles that could have been a case study for a film like Transformers. One thing you always know about the Tokyo Motor Show was that you will get to see some of the wildest, weirdest and wackiest concept cars ever created – and occasionally some, like the snail-shaped Nissan S-Cargo, might actually go into production.
There is a serious side, as well. And that is really what has made the biennial Tokyo Motor Show one of the automotive world's most important events, journalists and industry executives jostling for space as each new car was unveiled. And there are plenty of unveilings, sometimes two, even three simultaneous news conferences stretching out over the two-days allotted for the gathered media.
But something went wrong two years ago, the 2009 Tokyo Motor Show was largely ignored by industry and media alike. Indeed, many suspected there wouldn't even be a 2011 show. But in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami that struck the island nation last March, organizers redoubled their efforts to save the show. And how things turn out later this week could determine whether the Tokyo Motor Show thrives, survives in downsized form or simply vanishes, Japan ceding to the twin shows in Beijing and Shanghai that are rapidly becoming the must-attend industry gatherings.
The decline and possible fall of the Tokyo Motor Show should come as no surprise if you consider several facts. For one thing, the Japanese market, as a whole, is all but closed to foreign brands. True, government officials will go on – to the point of distraction – explaining how they've opened up the market over the years. Okay, maybe they're right. But even if it's just a matter of preference, and Japanese motorists simply won't buy foreign products in any significant numbers, the country is, for all intents, a closed market.
That's led a number of foreign companies to pull out of Japan. Considering the high cost of doing business here – a single showroom in a good Tokyo neighborhood can cost tens of millions of dollars just to set up – what's the point if you're selling only a few thousand cars annually in the entire country?
The situation is compounded by Japan's post-bubble economy. While this is certainly not Greece or Spain, Japan's economy has been relatively moribund for years and car sales are a modest fraction of what they were before that bubble burst. Complicating matters, young Japanese are showing a surprising disdain for automobiles. Perhaps they're looking out and seeing a highway system that is operating at gridlock most of the time.
In the middle of the past decade, Japan could at least boast about building more vehicles than the U.S., but no longer. And with the yen continuing to gain value, makers like Toyota, Honda and Nissan are rapidly moving their manufacturing to friendlier climes like China and – yes, even the U.S.
China, as you're likely aware, is now the world's largest national automotive market. It is a vibrant, Wild West sort of industry where virtually every serious global manufacturer has established a presence and scores of local makers, like Chery, Geely and BYD, are intent on staring down the foreign devils.
Just five years ago, it was rare to see a significant introduction at either the Beijing or Shanghai motor shows. These days, those events are beginning to rival traditional industry confabs like those in Detroit, Geneva, Frankfurt – and Tokyo. Or, at least, what the Tokyo Motor Show used to be. Only a relative handful of foreign makers have a presence at this year's event and even fewer actually unveiled anything of merit.
That's not to dismiss the 2011 show entirely. There have been some significant unveilings, including the Toyota GT86, which will come to the U.S. wearing a Scion badge, and its near-twin, the new Subaru BRZ. Honda previewed what it's describing as an electric sports car and Nissan's PIVO 3 hints at a future urban EV. Among the foreign brands that have maintained a presence at the new, downsized show hall, BMW revealed its new 5-Series Hybrid while also challenging conventional wisdom by unveiling plans to bring its high-mileage diesels to Japan.
There are some notable names not on the news conference roster, including Detroit's Big Three and even Mercedes-Benz.
But there are some notable names not on the news conference roster, including Detroit's Big Three and even Mercedes-Benz.
So it remains to be seen whether the 2011 Tokyo Motor Show will be able to muster the sort of energy and excitement it needs to remain on the calendar as a must-see show. It won't be for lack of trying by its organizers. But the world may simply be passing Tokyo by – at least when it comes to venues for a serious world-class auto show. And you can be sure the folks in China will be glad to take its place.