Tokyo Motor Show: Where bizarre meets beautiful

Japan's automaker Daihatsu Motor displays the company's mini sports car "Kopen" at the press preview of the Tokyo Motor Show on Nov. 20, 2013. YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images

TOKYO - Desperate to grab the attention of a car-apathetic younger generation, this year's Tokyo Motor Show is less about sports cars than cars for sports and hobbies.

One-fifth of all cars produced here in the first half of 2013 fell into the cheap and gas-miserly "kei" (lightweight) category of micro cars, with an engine capacity of 660 cc, and some offerings pushed the kei envelope to the limit, cramming the tiny vehicles with youth-centric details.

Daihatsu's "DecaDeca" micro van seems to take its inspiration from a cardboard box: The seats, including the driver's, fold flat, and all four doors open out, converting the vehicle into a base camp workspace, storage for mountain bikes, or a platform for sleeping bags. The ceiling has slots for stashing surfboards and a honeycombed wall rack for hanging wetsuits. Instead of a glove compartment, a large well in the dashboard is roomy enough to stash a video camera.

Suzuki Motor's "Hustler" -- choice of hot pink, orange or sky blue -- crossbreeds the kei with a car category not normally associated with a small chassis and low horsepower -- the SUV. The SUV-micro crossover aims to lure sports fishermen, snowboarders and wilderness aficionados.

But not all companies offered up flash, eye-catching colors and cool accessories.

A Nissan concept car seemed to channel its distant past, with boxy lines in an unhip beige and retro dashboard elements more reminiscent of a 1970s Datsun than 21st century transport. The IDx Freeflow was "co-created" with the help of 20-somethings recruited to help laser in on young consumers' automotive object of desire. "We thought (youth preference) was more about futuristic cars, " said Kenji izumi, with Nissan's exploratory product planning division. "It wasn't. It was more, 'give me something I can relate to. ' It was about simplicity and authenticity."

But simplicity can be complicated. Dressing a car in jeans at the behest of Nissan's target demographic may sound easy, but designers sweated over the stitching, hue (black or indigo?) and how to distress the denim-covered upholstery. (No, there are no holes.)

The playfulness that ruled past shows wasn't completely absent, though. Daihatsu showcased its Kopen, a micro two-seat convertible. It features a removable plastic skin that can be pulled off in 12 sections and switched out in minutes. "For example, you and I could trade parts -- increasing the value of our cars," said Takuya Uchida, of Daihatsu's motor show group. So far, there are only a few optional body colors. The Kopen is set to go on sale next year in Japan.

Taxis don't usually figure prominently at the Tokyo show, but this year Toyota unveiled a concept model with Japan's fast-aging society in mind. "Sedans are hard for the elderly to ride," said designer Tatsuya Hotta. "This car is geared expressly for the passengers in the back seat." The black taxi features a low, flat floor (without that pesky bump in the middle), big picture windows and a sleek, easy-to-read taxi sign built into the roof -- a departure for a country where taxis normally sprout kitschy fixtures from their roofs like feathers.

Toyota debuted another concept vehicle that might be the modern equivalent of a chariot -- a one-person transport device ridden in a standing position. The four-wheeled FV2 (for "fun vehicle") is controlled, Segway-like, by leaning forward or side to side, and has a heads-up, information-flashing windshield that folds down when not in use. "One of the things Toyota is trying to do is work out the relationship between a person and their vehicle. How can vehicles and people actually grow closer together?" said Dion Corbett, of Toyota's press department.

Toyota is exploring equipping the FV-2 with cameras that unlock the door when it "sees" the owner approaching, and helpfully offer restaurant suggestions in the vicinity.

If the vehicle ever goes into production, bumper stickers, vanity license plates and car graffiti will become obsolete. The car body can be programmed to play animated designs -- hinting at the day when highways become a visual cacophony of dueling personal billboards.

  • Lucy Craft

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