2009 Tokyo Motor Show Opens With Focus on Electric Cars

With no high-profile foreign players present and even domestic truck makers pulling out on the back of the severe economic downturn, visitors will likely miss the glitz and glamour customary at most of the world’s biggest auto shows.

But as in the past, Japanese carmakers showcase a variety of quirky, futuristic vehicles with even more emphasis on electric vehicles as the global economic crisis accelerates the shift away from gasoline-powered vehicles.

The 41st Tokyo Motor Show, which will officially open to the wider public from Saturday, features 39 world premiers, compared with 71 in the previous auto show in 2007, with less than half the floor space.

A record-low 108 companies take part, including just three foreign exhibitors—Alpina Burkard Bovensiepen GmbH of Germany, and Group Lotus plc and Caterham Cars of Britain.

While gas-electric hybrids are the current buzzword in the flagging Japanese auto market, the key focus of this year’s show is on zero-emission EVs, which have repeatedly failed in the past to become mainstream amid lingering high manufacturing costs and lack of infrastructure.

Nissan Motor Co is unveiling its fully-electric, medium-sized family sedan—the ‘‘Leaf’‘—to the public for the first time.

Japan’s third-largest automaker is also revealing a two-seater electric vehicle concept—the Land Glider—with a cocoon-like body that can tilt up to 17 degrees as it goes around corners like a motorcycle.

Rivals like Toyota Motor Corp and Honda Motor Co, both enjoying booming demand for the Prius and Insight hybrids, are also preparing to enter the EV market while broadening their lineup of hybrid models.

Toyota, which plans to launch an EV in 2012, is displaying its full-electric 2.7-meter-long vehicle—FT-EV II—which is more compact than its ultra-mini iQ car.

Honda, long a skeptic in EVs and a proponent of fuel-cell cars, is also shifting course with President Takanobu Ito saying the company will launch fully electric cars not only in the United States, but also in Japan and Europe.

Japan’s second-largest automaker is taking the wraps off an urban-use, small electric car—the EV-N—donning a retro, square look.

In addition to EVs, Honda is showing a near-ready version of its two-seater CR-Z sports car hybrid and a six-seater hybrid—the Honda Skydeck—with scissor-like front doors and sliding rear doors.

Meanwhile, Mitsubishi Motors Corp, the manufacturer of the ‘‘i-MiEV’’ electric vehicle now on sale to corporate users, is taking the wraps off a sport utility vehicle plug-in hybrid concept, the PX-MiEV and the i-MiEV Cargo, which provides greater luggage space than the egg-shaped hatchback EV.

Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd, the maker of the Subaru brand and the Subaru Plug-in Stella, is exhibiting the Subaru Hybrid Tourer Concept with a power train combining both its signature boxer engine and a hybrid system.

Other automakers are opting to stay with brushed-up conventional technology, like Mazda Motor Corp, which is displaying a ‘‘Kiyora’’ concept compact car using its world premier next-generation gasoline engine and automatic transmission to achieve fuel efficiency of 32 kilometers per liter.

Daihatsu Motor Co is also exhibiting a concept model of its four-seater minivehicle—the e:S—with fuel economy of 30 km per liter using an existing platform and lighter materials.

As domestic automakers struggle to keep the paling Japanese market relevant amid a declining population and dwindling interest in cars among the young generation, Toyota is also hoping to breathe life into the market by going back to the roots of fun and exciting-to-drive cars.

The world’s largest automaker is unveiling a lighter and environmentally-friendly compact sports car concept—the FT-86—which draws its inspiration from the carmaker’s 1980s Corolla Levin sports coupe, the AE86. It is also taking the wraps off the concept model of its two-seat Lexus sports car.

The biannual show, which runs through Nov 4 at the Makuhari Messe convention center on the outskirts of Tokyo, aims to attract 1 million visitors, with new programs like test rides of latest vehicles and motorcycles, but the target falls far short of the 1.43 million visitors in the previous event.