The Tokyo Motor Show isn’t like a lot of car shows around the world. It’s truly dominated by domestic (i.e., Japanese) brands. There are zero American carmakers here, and the Germans are a token presence. Argue geopolitics all you want; the lack of a foreign stake is probably a net negative for the world “caring” about this car show.
Save that the world does buy a lot of Japanese cars, and the single biggest brand bought is Toyota. So it’s fitting that this show was full up with their designs. Toyota has a long history of major showmanship throughout the history of this event. For instance, in 1969 they showed off the EX-1 Concept, a car that would later become the Celica.
And, no, circa 2017, they didn’t show the next-generation Celica sports car here as many journalists hoped, but they, and several other Japanese brands, did show off a lot of cool cars you may or may not see in some guise on the world’s roads soon—or possibly never.
Car show means it’s as much about dreams and theater as reality. Regardless, here are a few of our favorites and what they might mean to the future of what you drive or are driven in.
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Toyota Tj Cruiser Concept
Toyota continues to tease a successor to the departed FJ Cruiser, which was super-rugged and off-road-worthy, but unfortunately never gained a firm market share and ended sale in the U.S. in 2014.
So, they showed the FT-4X Concept at the New York Auto Show this past spring, but it was a full foot shorter than the RAV4. Height being the same issue that plagued the FJ Cruiser; it’s assumed it’d simply be too small to appeal to most Americans. We think this Tj Cruiser concept makes more sense.
It’s a hybrid, but has AWD. It’s only slightly smaller than the RAV4, but seemingly more functional for hauling gear. Yes, it looks butch, but rather than a true 4X4, the goal of the Tj is like that of a small minivan; carrying your gear—though not necessarily up a mountainside.
Toyota achieves this space efficiency by making the entire second row seats fold totally flat, and also letting you do the same with the front passenger seat, so you could easily haul 10-foot two-by-fours back from the lumber yard. The hatch is also huge, so loading and unloading is easier, and the cavernous bay is slotted with multiple tie-down points throughout. Plus the cargo area is made of a rugged textile, sort of like a pickup-truck bed liner. Speaking of trucks, the Tj’s second-row seats let you flip the seat cushions upward, offering a ready tool box (or grocery bag) cubby.
Toyota’s release language strongly indicates that this is a vehicle they’d like to build; info says both that it could be made on the Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA) platform, that underpins a wide variety of models already, and that the concept could come in both 2WD and AWD editions, and as a hybrid. Best guess for timing would be in 2019 as a 2020 model.
Credit: Image via Toyota
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Toyota GR HV SPORTS concept car
If you thought the Toyota 86 / Scion FR-S/ Subaru BRZ needed a bit of creative rethinking, apparently so does Toyota.
First, it features a targa-style, removable top over the passenger bay. Since basically no carmakers outside the supercar realm really offer this anymore, that alone is reason to think Toyota’s on to something. They’ve also made this a hybrid, but don’t worry; it’s an interesting one.
The battery is mid-mounted, so like the famed, mid-engine MR2 sports cars of Toyota’s past, the car would theoretically rotate easily around its center of mass. And it gets a trick automatic transmission–it looks like a standard gearbox, but it’s actually a shiftable auto with a traditional six-speed pattern. Yes, it still has an internal-combustion up front.
Would there be room to hybrid-ize the 86? Would they actually build this kind of sports car? We have no clue. But it’s a very intriguing idea. And no, we don’t know, either, if this concept is some kind of “tell” for what the future sports car that Toyota is building in partnership with BMW might have for a drivetrain. Still, the GR HV is compelling all on its own.
Credit: Image via Toyota
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Toyota Crown Concept
If you’re a bit of a nerd about cars you know that the Crown is a big, four-door sedan that largely hasn’t been available in North America, but bits of what it stands for have been part of Toyota/Lexus philosophy for a good 40 years. What’s important about the Crown Concept, however, is that it represents another small step toward autonomy.
The Crown Concept features technology that goes beyond merely monitoring the physical space around the vehicle. Instead the concept (and presumably, future Toyotas and cars from other brands) features a DCM, or Data Communication Module. The idea is that the car can ping infrastructure and other vehicles around it to learn about the state of traffic and emergency vehicles coming into the vehicle’s path. Theoretically if you’re using cruise control it could do more than just monitor the speed of the car you’re following because so-called Car-to-X communication could link to hundreds of cars and, eventually, sync all of them so they move as a unit safely.
Once more, infrastructure is similarly “smart,” a car wouldn’t sit at a “dumb” stoplight with no cross traffic, because Car-to-X would allow the lights to “know” the prevailing flow and recalibrate lights accordingly.
We’re not there yet, but the first step is enabling cars that do more than just read the surrounding area with sensors.
Credit: Image via Toyota
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Toyota Fine-Comfort Ride Concept
Here’s a concept that’s less about the package and more about what it contains. The hydrogen powertrain is something Toyota’s leading on, with the Mirai sedan that’s been on sale in the U.S. for a few years. True, there aren’t a lot of them on roads yet, but you could’ve said the same thing about the Prius a few decades ago, and with Mercedes-Benz now pushing hydrogen with its F-Cell that showed in Tokyo (and prior to that, in Frankfurt in September), carmakers are seriously considering the potential of hydrogen at least as part of their future fuels mix.
As with electric cars, the key with hydrogen is all about packaging. So the Fine-Comfort concept is shown as a six-passenger pod with its fuel cells in the floor and the wheels and nose and tail pushed right to the edge of the car, because you don’t need to make as much room for an electric drivetrain powered by hydrogen (here, the motors are incorporated into all four wheels).
Toyota also says a hydrogen drivetrain at this scale would have 600 miles of range and could be refueled in just three minutes. The rub: Hydrogen fueling stations aren’t broadly distributed enough yet, and as we saw with fast electric chargers, creating the infrastructure is very much a chicken-or-egg.
Credit: Image via Toyota
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Subaru VIZIV Performance Concept
At auto shows you look for “tells” rather than facts. Carmakers will repeatedly tell you that their concepts are just that—they do not commit to anything as a preview of a product unless they explicitly say that’s what you’re looking at. Still, because Subaru has said that this “concept” features Subaru’s symmetrical all-wheel-drive system as well as a boxer engine that’s in the current WRX, and tellingly the concept also features a hood scoop for a presumed intercooler located there for the presumed turbocharger, the VIZIV Performance Concept at least appears to be a preview of the next WRX/WRX STi. As such we mostly think the study is cool, because it features bulging fenders and a very broad stance—tips of the hat toward what the WRX has looked like throughout its history, and Subaru says the study uses carbon fiber extensively in the body to lower weight. Subaru would do well to follow through on that promise (even if not by using carbon fiber), as the current WRX drives “heavy,” and has lost a lot of the playfulness of the original.
Presuming our guess is right that this is at least partly indicative of where Subaru will go, that’s good news, since the WRX is waning in influence over younger buyers, leaving a yawning gap between younger and older Subaru customers, who now tend to skew older than 50.
Credit: Image via Subaru
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Lexus LS+ Concept
The LS+ is so close to the actual new LS that recently debuted, it’s difficult to tell from photos what’s so different about it. Mostly, Lexus says, the distinction they’re working toward is communicating autonomous capabilities from the outside of the car. Partly, that’s done by pushing tech even further to the surface, so in this case that means using lasers instead of LEDs for lighting, and officials here say that the lighting might be used to alert people outside the car about the state of the vehicle (i.e., it’s going to stay stopped at a crosswalk). This kind of communication becomes key when, as Lexus says, a car like this arrives in the early 2020s with near autonomous functions. As such, what you can’t see is that Lexus is pushing toward a kind of assistance where the car will ask you via voice if it should pass the car you’re following, if you want to make your usual commute to the office, etc. Then the car will execute such commands, much the way you might as Google to turn on your favorite audio track. Lexus says this tech is possible using both a networked system (i.e., the cloud), as well as offline, artificial intelligence that’s native to the car and will read the driver’s “state” as well as the state of the car in its environment, thousands of times per second.
While we’re not quite there yet, even the latest LS can autonomously brake and assists with cornering, and many carmakers already have assisted passing. The challenge for Lexus and its peers is largely now more down to infrastructure (say, smart stoplights that know a car is in front of it), and increasingly less about computational speed bumps.
Credit: Image via Lexus
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Mitsubishi e-Evolution Concept
Auto shows present a rare opportunity for even small brands to renew themselves. Mitsubishi has a tiny footprint in the U.S. market, but a pretty historic one in off-road circles internationally, with legendary models like the Pajero. What’s cool here is that Mitsubishi is doing something a lot of off-road enthusiasts want to see—taking the idea of a “real” off-roader EV seriously.
To that end the e-Evolution does several things right (even if it’s just a concept). First, check out the greenhouse. It’s massive and drops relatively low, so the driver can see the corners of the vehicle. That’s all thanks to the fact that it’s an EV with three electric motors and AWD, rather than having a single motor mounted under the hood (which would prevent having such a large window-to-sheetmetal ratio). Mitsubishi says the powertrain would be focused on producing torque, obviously ideal for off-roading, and that this sort of system would offer unique advantages over any internal-combustion drivetrain, since instant torque is indeed a unique advantage of EVs over gas-powered vehicles. The other advantage is that Mitsubishi centers the bulk of vehicle mass, the battery, between the front and rear axles, and low, within the floor, so you’d also gain handling that can’t be achieved by high-riding 4x4s.
On the inside Mitsubishi added a full-width flat screen that, they say, would coach the driver on obstacles they might not be able to see both front and rear (shown as 360-degree view).
While much of what Mitsubishi presents here is feasible right now, one aspect, electric brakes with no hydraulics, is unlikely. Electronic brakes are already used for parking, but most carmakers haven’t gone to full brake-by-wire because hydraulic systems have proven so reliable. This tech will come at some point, but our bet is that it will take a larger brand than Mitsubishi to go first.
Credit: Image via Mitsubishi
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Mazda Kai Concept and Mazda Vision Coupe
If Mazda suffers from any challenges in the U.S., it’s simply that they don’t have enough dealers in enough places for buyers to see that their cars are visually distinctive. And by that, lately, we mean gorgeous. The Vision Coupe is an example of where Mazda might go with its larger cars; the current Mazda 6 isn’t nearly this large, so it also potentially signals that Mazda could make bigger sedans, especially now that Toyota has a bigger stake in the company, which should enable the kind of investment that would take. Still, we know Mazda for making smaller cars, and smaller Mazdas have been more cute than pretty.
So the Kai Concept aims at shifting that perception. Mazda officials want to get beyond the prior notion of their cars mimicking the shape of animals, moving toward a swifter, more sculptural form, which is why this Kai Concept (a nakedly obvious next-gen Mazda3 concept), lacks almost any visual cuts or surface interruptions. It looks utterly fluid, and so even this relatively small car looks very long and fast. In a world where small cars mostly don’t look beautiful, it breaks important new design ground.
What you don’t see is that the next Mazda3 also likely heralds the debut of the next generation of Mazda’s gas direct injection engine. While Mazda (and other brands) have done a good job using D.I. to eek more energy out of gasoline cars, the holy grail is to gain the efficiency of a diesel, as well as the excellent low-end torque of diesel, but in a gasoline-powered car. The problem is that getting gasoline to ignite at the same compression ratio (basically, pressure) and fuel-to-air mixture of diesel just hasn’t worked. So Mazda’s SKYACTIV-X gasoline engines don’t just use higher compression—they cleverly use spark plugs to force the ignition to happen. This workaround, Mazda says, would result in 10-30 percent better torque while also delivering 20–30 percent better efficiency vs. their present technology. Mazda says they start selling these engines in 2019, and we certainly hope the sexy shapes will come, too.
Credit: Image via Mazda