Tokyo's quirky car show struggles to stay relevant as China rises

A model sits on Suzuki's concept car the 'Q-Concept' during the 2011 Tokyo Motor Show
With its bright orange paint and scissor doors, the Suzuki Q-Concept is clearly not something you’d expect to see on the road anytime soon — if ever.

Described as “ideal for everyday journeys within a radius of about 10 kilometers,” it’s the sort of wild, weird and wacky prototype that has traditionally been part of the fun of going to the biennial Tokyo Motor Show.

Once one of the automotive world’s most important events, it wasn’t even clear there’d be a Tokyo Motor Show this year. It began losing steam in 2009 when most foreign automakers decided not to display their cars at the event. Complicating matters was the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that led to months of production cuts across the Japanese car industry.

Tokyo Motor Show organizers fanned out across the globe trying to convince both automakers and automotive journalists to return for this year’s show. A handful of foreign manufacturers agreed, but the 2011 show was forced to move to a decidedly smaller exhibition space — perhaps symbolic of the problems the Japanese industry as a whole is facing.

“This is a very important show and it was important for us to be here,” said Martin Winterkorn, CEO of Volkswagen AG, one of the few foreign brands to have a serious presence at this year’s Tokyo show, where it showed off a new VW production model, the Passat Alltrack, as well as the Cross Coupe Concept.

But others car manufacturers were less impressed.

“It’s hardly worth being here,” said an executive from one of the Detroit automakers, asking not to be identified by name. He was at the show only to observe, he said, his company not seeing the need to mount a full display.

The reason for Detroit’s restraint is obvious: While Japanese officials have long insisted their market is open, it has seldom welcomed foreign brands, which, all in, accounted for less than 20 percent of total Japanese sales this year.

The largest foreign brand in Japan, VW, barely controls 5 percent of the market. And that market is a fraction of its former self.

Car sales in Japan’s home market have hovered at barely half their pre-bubble economy peak for much of the last decade. They’ve slowly been recovering some momentum, but few analysts expect sales to ever fully rebound. In part, that reflects a broader shift in the Japanese mindset.

“It frustrates me,” admitted Toyota’s CEO Akio Toyoda, expressing the dismay he feels when he looks at research results suggesting that young Japanese buyers are now far less interested in owning an automobile than in past generations.

To rebuild enthusiasm, manufacturers have been exploring a variety of options, such as the Suzuki Q-Concept and the slightly more conventional Nissan Pivo 3.

These cars are the latest in a series of micro-sized vehicles that can navigate the crowded streets of Tokyo as well as other major cities such as Beijing, London, and perhaps even New York.

The cars are designed to leave a small environmental footprint. They’re also challenging the limits of design. The original Pivo featured a passenger compartment that rode atop a separate platform — looking a little like a Sixties-era sci-fi flying saucer. To make a U-turn, the motorist would simply spin the platform around and head in another direction.

The latest Pivo is slightly more conventional, with the body and platform combined, but its wheels can steer independently, making it easy to scoot into even the smallest urban parking spot or turn around in barely seven feet.

Nissan’s CEO Carlos Ghosn says the Pivo is “not just a show car,” adding that it’s what Nissan envisions to be “a more ‘realistic’ EV of the near future.”

So-called microcars have already become one of the dominant niches in the Japanese home market and, as this year’s show illustrates, carmakers will be putting even more emphasis on them going forward. That’s critical if they hope to maintain anywhere near their current car production levels.

With production largely back to normal after the March natural disaster “the biggest problem we face” is the continuing run-up in the value of the yen, lamented Honda’s CEO Takanobu Ito. At barely 75 yen to the dollar, it’s almost impossible for Japanese automakers to earn a profit exporting vehicles from their home plants.

As a result, Honda and Toyota, among others, plan to continue shifting more production abroad. Just this week, Toyota revealed it will start producing Camry sedans for export to South Korea at a factory in Kentucky.

Toyota’s CEO has repeatedly promised not to hollow out his Japanese production base, so that means the carmaker — like Honda and others — will have to find a way to boost sales at home to pick up the slack.

But whether that will give anyone reason to come to Tokyo for future motor shows is uncertain.

Add the fact that the relatively open Chinese market has now become the largest national market in the world for automobiles. As a result, the alternating Beijing and Shanghai Motor Shows are increasingly drawing the sort of manufacturer presence — and product debuts — that Tokyo used to be known for.

So, barring some surprise, this could be the last time the Tokyo Motor Show even registers on the world stage.