Tokyo motor show 2011 – a walkaround review

Published: 02 December 2011

Two years ago, in the midst of the worldwide financial crash, the 2009 Tokyo motor show felt like a tiny regional event as Western manufacturers abandoned ship. Not this year.

The 2011 Tokyo motor show was different, with Audi (A1 Sportback), BMW (ActiveHybrid 5) and VW (Cross Coupe concept and Passat Alltrack) all unveiling new metal. But much more important was what was on offer from the domestic brands. The Japanese delivered in spades at Tokyo 2011, and two themes stood out: a spate of clever commuter vehicles and a rash of affordable sports cars designed to mix performance with purity.

Tokyo motor show 2011: the downsizing trend

Daihatsu, Suzuki and Honda all displayed tiny Renault Twizy-alike urban runabouts, while Nissan revealed its third and final Pivo concept. ‘It will complete the series,’ Nissan’s chief creative office Shiro Nakamura told CAR. ‘The next model should be mass produced.’

Nakamura plans to have the Pivo on sale within five years, as the public starts to accept that EVs can be both different to drive and to look at.

Pivo 3 will grow a little in size to meet crash regulations, but it – and the plethora of other little city specific cars in Tokyo – shows just how serious manufacturers are taking urban mobility. Between now and 2016 Nissan, Infiniti and partner Renault hope to sell 1.5m electric vehicles, a huge leap from the 20,000 Leafs it’s sold in the past 12 months. Nissan-Renault boss Carlos Ghosn knows they’re not the solution, but one of many. I only hope the public are prepared to accept and embrace them.

Sports cars at Tokyo too

The array of sports cars at Tokyo weren’t just about big power outputs and high levels of grip. Honda will unveil a next-gen NSX concept at the Detroit motor show in January 2012, but in Tokyo it revealed the EV-STER, a tiny electric roadster (hence the name) that will go into production with the next couple of years.

According to designer Ryo Sugiura it’ll get even smaller in size, to meet Japan’s tax saving ‘kei car’ regulations, and at that point it’ll be very reminiscent of the 1990s Honda Beat. This wasn’t intentional, Sugiura told CAR, but Honda’s attempts to build a lightweight sports car of the future have led them back to an iconic model from its past; Sugiura said he’d feel immensely proud if the little EV was given the Beat badge.

The longest gestation ever: Toyota GT 86 and Subaru BRZ

If Toyota was looking back over the past couple of decades, I bet it would change history and not abandon the Supra, Celica and MR2 segments. All three cars did so much for the brand, but it’s been without a sports car (irrelevant but amazing Lexus LFA notwithstanding) for too long.

Company boss Akio Toyoda is now adamant that all Toyota’s offerings must be exciting, and the GT 86 is the headline act. It looks great, Ben Barry’s drive confirmed the handling is up to scratch too, and it’ll cost about £28k when UK sales kick off in 2012.

And if you don’t want a Toyota badge on the bonnet then there’s a Scooby version too, which abandons the company’s turbocharged and all-wheel drive heritage. Purists might protest, but Subaru’s range appears to be in such a mess that the BRZ can only help. Unfortunately the strength of the Japanese yen means few are expected to be sold in the UK each year, and worldwide predictions from both companies aren’t stellar either.

Yes, you can get a Nissan 370Z with 129bhp more for just a few grand extra, but I only hope Subaru and Toyota are being excessively pessimistic and the motoring press isn’t overexcited, because if these two are commercial failures it’ll be decades before we again see affordable sports cars from Japan again. And that would be a crying shame.

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By Ben Pulman

CAR's editor-at-large, co-ordinator, tallboy