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Green, mean Tokyo Show

2007-10-24 12:19

Chiba, Japan - Zany concept vehicles, fuel efficient hybrids and muscular supercars vie for attention as the Tokyo Motor Show kicks off this week.

From bubble-shaped vehicles of the future to sleek petrol-guzzling sports cars, makers showed off their latest efforts to push the boundaries of automotive technology.

Rivals showed off their green credentials with an array of environmentally friendly vehicles crammed into a convention centre near the capital, as record high oil prices prompt unprecedented interest in fuel-efficient motoring.

But it's not all about saving the planet: Nissan was preparing to take the wraps off its hotly anticipated GT-R supercar, hoping that there is still a market for high-performance muscle machines despite the buzz around hybrids.

And from Mazda comes Taiki, a concept sports car with a striking, wind-swept design.

Toyota and Honda meanwhile tried to soften the image of sports cars as gas guzzlers with concept hybrids running on a mix of petrol and electricity.

"Our mission is to make products that offer excitement," Toyota president Katsuaki Watanabe said on the eve of the show.

With prices at the pump soaring, industry watchers said high-performance cars appear to be more about polishing makers' brand image than giving a direct boost to their bottom line.

"Generally my observations of most sporty cars are: they look great and sales start out great but they decay very rapidly," said Christopher Richter, auto analyst at investment bank CLSA.

"You can imagine why makers put sporty cars into their line-ups rather sparingly," he added.

This year's show is seen as particularly crucial for Japanese car makers as they battle falling sales in their home market amid a shrinking population and signs the younger generation is losing its lust for cars.

"The Japanese market is still ranked third in the world. But the situation is not good for Japanese automakers," said Hirofumi Yokoi, an analyst at auto consultants CSM Worldwide.

"Young Japanese have a different lifestyle. They are not interested in purchasing big-ticket items like cars," he said.

US car makers are also fighting back after their recent slump, with Toyota recently slipping behind General Motors as the world's top selling car maker.

Unsurprisingly given the success of the Prius, hybrids dominate Toyota's stand at the show, which opens to the public from Saturday.

Among its concept cars is the 1/X (pronounced one-Xth) plug-in hybrid, which Toyota says is two-thirds lighter than the Prius and twice as fuel efficient.

There is also a Toyota luxury hybrid sedan and the i-REAL, which looks like a high-tech armchair on wheels.

And there are plenty of even more wacky designs begging for attention, including a vehicle from Suzuki that looks more like a small spacecraft than a car, with two smaller one-person vehicles stored inside.

Nissan meanwhile touted the Pivo 2 egg-shaped electric concept car with a rotating cabin, wheels that can turn 90 degrees for sideways driving and a talking "robot assistant."

Fuel cells, which run on hydrogen and emit only water, also make an appearance as Honda shows off the "PUYO" concept car with a "gel body" to improve safety and "the feel of an adorable pet."

Despite the success of the hybrid, car makers are still hedging their bets on green technology, with electricity, biofuels, clean diesel and fuel cells also seen as potential alternative power sources.

"We don't know yet which will become the mainstream for next generation vehicles -- hybrids, fuel cells, electric cars or (clean) diesel, so companies must prepare for everything," said Fitch Ratings auto analyst Tatsuya Mizuno.


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