A poor show for Tokyo

by Andrew Frankel on 30th November 2011

It’s been a long time, six years I think, since I last attended a Tokyo Motorshow. I regretted it almost as soon as I was off the aeroplane and heading back into this crazy and complex city.

Twenty years ago when work first brought me here I thought I hated the place. I think now I simply didn’t understand it and was afraid, not conventionally for there must be few safer cities on earth, but culturally, for what I perceived to be its ‘us and them’ attitude. But over time I have grown more accustomed to its ways, and as it appears to have substantially chilled out too, we have reached an accommodation: if I could afford it, I would spend far more time there than I do.

But not at the motor show. For more than a generation the Tokyo show has stood alongside those at Geneva, Frankfurt, Detroit and, latterly, Paris in the front rank of automotive expositions. No longer. This year’s show was a curious and uncertain affair; full of everything other than interesting new cars we’d never seen before.

The best way to judge a show’s importance on the global stage is not to see what’s there, but who is not. And in Tokyo the list was shockingly long. Ford and General Motors stayed away, as did every Italian marque from Lamborghini and Ferrari to Fiat and Alfa Romeo. Porsche and Lotus took small stands but Aston Martin, Bentley, Rolls-Royce and McLaren took none. All the Korean and Chinese gave Tokyo a wide berth too.

Naturally the domestics turned up in force, but once you’d waded through the concepts, many of which just looked like what happens when car designers disappear into fantasy land, actual honest-to-goodness product was hard to find. Perhaps the most telling omission was Honda’s new supercar, which I’m told I must not refer to as the new NSX. It’s ready apparently, but thought more suitable to a Detroit audience in early January than one in Tokyo six weeks earlier.

Toyota did show its GT86 sports car and Subaru its BRZ twin (above), but both had already been displayed in 99 per cent completed form in Los Angeles a fortnight ago. It was left to Mazda to show the way, which it did with its beautiful Takeri saloon (below). Billed as a concept, it’s actually the next Mazda6 in all but detail. It’s so strikingly attractive it would need to be an absolute disgrace under the skin not to succeed, which I think rather unlikely. I’ll say this now: Mazda is fast looking like the Japanese manufacturer to be watching over the next two to three years.

Otherwise the pickings were thin indeed. Volkswagen produced something called a Cross Coupe and demonstrated that, visually at least, it can’t do an Evoque half as well as Land-Rover, while Audi offered an A1 with five doors, a subject about which I find myself unable to get excited.

Where has everyone gone? In a word, China. To give you some idea of the exponential potential of this market, last year Jaguar sold 400 XJ saloons there; this year it will be nearer 4000. They have exhumed an aged 3-litre V6 petrol engine which ducks under China’s savage taxing of higher displacement engines, has halved the price of the car and the buoyant market has done the rest.

If the once-crucial Tokyo show is not to become a mere regional event, irrelevant on the global stage and reduced to a poor third place behind Beijing and Shanghai in terms of Oriental motor show importance, it needs to act now. I hope it does, because I for one would like to come back.

 

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