Needed: the return of old-fashioned enthusiasm

Posted on Oct 26, 2009 by


Not surprisingly, the emphasis at the is on electric cars, hybrids and vehicles.

Nissan chief executive Carlos Ghosn set the tone: “The race for zero emissions has begun. This is a new era for the automobile industry.”

Nissan predicts that electric vehicles will take 10 percent of the global market by 2020. The other Japanese manufacturers think that is a serious over-estimate but Toyota does expect hybrids to account for 30 per cent of its sales in the same time frame.

Honda believes that, for Japanese buyers, protection of the environment is now the most important factor in choosing a new car. But that may tell more about Japanese buyers than indicating a world-wide trend.

The domestic car market is estimated at 4.3 million this year, 8.5 percent down on 2008, and although a ‘new for old’ scrappage scheme and tax incentives have improved the situation in recent months there seems to be no prospect of a return to the 6 million annual sales of 10 years ago.

One reason is the economy. In more prosperous times the Japanese changed their cars every three years, just before the first mandatory safety checks. Now the average age of cars on Japan’s roads is nine years.

2010 Lexus LFA

More worrying for the manufacturers is a lack of enthusiasm for cars and motoring among the younger generation. That, in part, may be childrens’ natural aversion to anything liked by their parents – and the older generation was very keen on cars. But it also reflects changing social patterns. Young Japanese, it seems, are more interested in staying at home, communicating remotely, on line and through mobile phones, than meeting in person. Going for a drive is a chore, no longer a novelty.

Honda president Takanubo Ito reflects that his company’s ethos of providing personal mobility is threatened when the general public increasingly prefers the public transport system. Toyota’s new president Akio Toyoda – grandson of the company’s founder – thinks that the manufacturers bear some responsibility for the lack of enthusiasm. Toyota, he reminded, dropped all of its more affordable sports models.

2009 Toyota FT-86 ConceptToyoda has made it part of his mission to bring back cars that appeal to driving enthusiasts. The $532,630 limited edition Lexus LFA (above right) is part of that – though it has been under development for five years – but it is the FT86 (left), the 21st century version of the Celica sports coupe, that is really significant.

The FT86 will go on sale in 2011 and share its rear-wheel drive platform and 2.0-litre ‘boxer’ four-cylinder engine with a similar sports model from Subaru, a marque in which Toyota has a 16.7 percent interest. In fact, the engineering and development was carried out by Subaru, which will also build both cars.

There is also a drive to inject some excitement into the clever iQ minicar, which can (just) accommodate four people in a 3m long package. There will be a sporty version with the name Gazoo (from the enthusiast website started by Mr Toyoda) and lots of ways of personalizing the car, rather as the MINI and the Fiat 500.

2009 Honda CR-Z conceptDuring his participation in the Nurburgring 24 Hour race (he has done it three times), Toyoda cooked up an idea with follow competitor Ulrich Bez, the chief executive of Aston Martin. Toyota agreed to supply iQs to be converted in Britain into a luxury mini-car called the Aston Martin Cygnet. Of that deal, Toyoda said, ‘It’s an honour for us. After all, Aston Martin created the first James Bond car!’

Honda’s Ito is also keen to show that it has not lost the spirit that created the NS-X supercar and won Formula 1 World Championships. The NS-X successor, a V8 engine, and its Formula 1 team were all victims of what the Japanese call ‘the Lehman shock’ but Honda positions the new CR-Z (right) as a sports coupe as well as an environment-friendly hybrid. It will be on sale early next year.

And whilst it is currently busy promoting its electric cars – which, so far, are not remotely sporty – Nissan has been careful to update its Z-car and to make a slightly more comfortable, less focused version of the sensational GT-R which is one the fastest cars in the real world. The 370Z was given a prize for ‘the most fun’ in the 2009/10 Japanese Car of the Year award, of which the overall winner was the new Toyota Prius hybrid.

Mazda, maker of the world’s best-selling sports car (the MX-5) is the only major manufacturer not to have a pure electric or plug-in hybrid at the Tokyo Motor Show. There is a reason for that. Mazda was part of the Ford engineering and product development process until Ford sold most of its shares last year. It is currently raising money to fund its own future programmes, but in the meantime can present only a Mazda 5 MPV hybrid which uses a hydrogen–fuelled rotary engine as a generator.

So, since it is not ready to be part of the electric revolution, Mazda has concentrated on improving the efficiency of its combustion engines and continuing to give its mainstream cars a sporty character. Its Kiyora concept predicts an ultra-economical small car with the style and spirit of a sports coupe.

Inevitably, Mazda’s marketeers call this ‘sustainable zoom-zoom’. That’s not a bad expression for the cars that are needed to re-kindle enthusiasm in the new environmental era.

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