Tokyo Motor Show: I have seen the future - and it's fun

Now that every marque and his dog are doing hybrid cars, the Japanese showcase for new design has again embraced the weird, the wacky and the wonderful. John Simister reports from Tokyo
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I have just re-read my report on the 2005 Tokyo motor show. Two years on, much of what was predicted then has, indeed, happened. Honda's FCX fuel-cell concept car is about to enter limited production. The Lexus LF-Sh luxury hybrid is now available as the LS600h. Nissan's muscular GT-R design study is a reality, as is Mitsubishi's Evo X, and the Mazda 5 MPV hybrid with a hydrogen-fuelled rotary engine is now being supplied to Norway for use in a fleet.

But some things just take an age. The Lexus LF-A, a V10-engined high-end GT car, is still not ready for production, and the "concept" car is getting a bit old now. And haven't we seen these three-wheeled pods before, and that strange Nissan with the body that can rotate 360 degrees on its chassis?

Yes, but not quite like this. The theme for 2007 was not quite so earnestly green, for all the talk of "sustainable mobility". Hybrids and fuel cells aren't such big news any more, because everyone, everywhere, is doing them. Instead, the focus is back on the wackiness that is the Tokyo show – concept cars weirder and more fun than you'll find anywhere else.

Take those wheeled pods. For the third Tokyo show in succession, the latest variation on the theme was revealed: the i-Real. This is a motorised chair that leans back as it speeds up, and leans into corners. Its name suggests that Toyota is serious about this device. Do you think it could work? No, nor do I.

Suzuki does, though, and takes the notion a stage further with its Pixy + SSC. The Pixy part is, again, a three-wheeled, single-seater pod, this time weatherproof with a windscreen and roof, two of which can dock inside the Suzuki Sharing Coach (SSC) for higher speeds and longer drives. Electricity comes from a hydrogen fuel cell and solar energy, and the SSC recharges the Pixies as it drives along.

This is all very touchy-feely-sharing, and the idea of bonding with your transport mode was a big theme. Take Nissan's cartoon-like Pivo 2, which now turns its wheels sideways to slot into a parking space. Inside, there's the "robotic agent", which recognises your face, senses your mood and "speaks to you to cheer you up or soothe you accordingly".

Honda's Puyo has a gel-filled, squashable body covering as well as ludicrously small wheels at each corner. The "silky feel" interior is similarly flexible, with controls rising up through the stretching membrane when the fuel-cell Puyo starts up.

And there was more mind-bending from Toyota, whose RiN encourages drivers "to re-evaluate themselves and... to turn their attention to society and nature, producing a healthy rhythm for both mind and body". To do this, the RiN has image displays aligned with the driver's psychological state (a grizzly bear for road rage?) and a "mood-training" steering control. And an Astroturf carpet, ghosted-out leaves on the side windows, and rear quarter-windows formed as if from intertwining branches. It gives a whole new meaning to the greenhouse effect. After all this, it's a relief to stumble on cars that might actually become real. The most gazed-at of these was the Audi Metro Project quattro, not a tribute to the Austin but a pointer to the future Audi A1 supermini designed to steal sales from BMW's Mini. This Metro has more normal proportions than the lightweight A2, which was a car before its time, and with its giant, mesh-filled front grille and curvaceous roofline, it's quite the sporty coupé. It's a quattro, too, but not as we know it. The 1.4-litre engine is borrowed from the VW Golf and has 150bhp, but there's also a 41bhp electric motor to drive the rear wheels and, at low speeds, the entire car. So it's a hybrid, and CO2 emissions are calculated at an average 112g/km by the (flattering) EC official test method.

The crush around the Audi was almost frightening; the crush around the Nissan GT-R was even greater, but then this is the latest incarnation of Japan's most cult-sustaining supercar. This version has a 480bhp, twin-turbo, 3.8-litre V6 and is designed to be able to maintain more than 180mph, whatever the outside temperature may be.

That's an engineer's conceit, but the four-wheel-drive system is designed to make it easy for anyone to drive fast safely. The gearbox is mounted at the back, so the GT-R, possibly uniquely, has a second propeller shaft running forwards to drive the front wheels.

Slightly more useful in the real world is Honda's Fit, the car we'll know here as the Jazz towards the end of 2008. It's a sharper, more modern version of the current car, and available as an RS version. Honda also revealed its new super-clean diesels, which will ultimately match the best petrol engines for particulate and nitrous oxide emissions. They're destined for, among other things, next year's new Accord.

And then there was the CR-Z, a wedgy little coupé based on Civic mechanicals (including the Civic Hybrid's drive system), which hints strongly at the next CR-X. It even has a separate rear window in the vertical tail panel, like the first two CR-Xs from the Eighties. There was more than simple motor-show conformity in making the CR-Z a hybrid, because it also hints at Honda's new "world hybrid" small car, which will be smaller than a Civic and made for many world markets.

What else? Mitsubishi presented an electric coupé version of the i-car, called MiEV, plus Concept ZT, a handsome, if conventional, saloon surely destined for production as a new Sigma. Here, again, was a "clean" diesel engine, showing that the formerly diesel-hating Japanese car market is slowly coming to terms with the diesel engine's advantages, provided it doesn't pollute.

Mazda's Taiki joined the three other concept cars in the company's Nagare – it means "embodiment of movement" – series. More than any of the others, this latest interpretation, with its rear wheels remote from the body in separate pods, looks as if its body was moulded by the passage of wind or water. Whether future production Mazdas will be able to use this idea will be interesting to observe.

The Takai was altogether more serene-looking than Suzuki's highly assertive Kizashi 2, a kind of crossover version of the Kizashi concept car shown at Frankfurt. We think of Suzuki as a maker of small cars, but the sleek Kizashi hatchbacks point to production cars the size of a Mondeo or an Audi A4. The real things will have Suzuki's own new V6 engines, one petrol, one diesel, despite the company's (loose) connection with General Motors.

Suzuki's X-Head showed what a small, square future 4x4 could look like if kitted out with rescue or leisure gear. Nissan's European-designed NV200 did the same thing for a van, except that here the equipment and a workspace (for a marine photographer, and why not?) are contained in a giant pull-out rear pod. And then we're back in wacky-land with the Nissan R.D/B.X (a tortuous abbreviation for Round Box) – a convertible in which you can be with your friends "sharing a blissful moment to feel thrilled together". There are panels in the lower doors so that you can see the road speeding past.

Toyota fought back with the Hi-CT (High Ride City Truck), tall and square, "edgy and urban", a plug-in hybrid with a load deck between the exposed rear wheels. And with the 1/X, Prius-sized but based on such a skeletal carbonfibre structure that it weighs just 420kg and manages with a 500cc, petrol/ethanol-fuelled engine and, again, a plug-in hybrid drive system. A roomy hybrid that weighs a third as much as a Prius – now that's what I call the future.

I thanked the extremely pretty Japanese girl who gave me the Toyota information pack. "Wonderful!" she replied. She's probably right.

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