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Japan Puts Mettle to the Pedal

The stylish, environmentally friendly vehicles at the Tokyo Motor Show send U.S. a message: The competition is not letting up.

October 24, 2003|John O'Dell | Times Staff Writer

CHIBA, Japan — The number of scantily clad models draped over new cars is way down at the Tokyo Motor Show. This year, the real fashion statement is from the vehicles, which are packed with sophisticated technology, ecology-minded gear and high design.

Major auto shows are a window on the industry's future. And what visitors will see in Tokyo when the show opens to the public Saturday is a warning to American automakers: Competition from Japan isn't about to slacken. The Japanese companies -- most of whose U.S. operations are based in Southern California -- intend to grab even more of the North American market from the Big Three automakers.

"Expect a lot of new products. Competition is about product," said Carlos Ghosn, Nissan Motor Co.'s chief executive, who led the company back from the brink and is a folk hero in Japan. "And that is great for consumers."

At the show's media preview, reporters gawked at sleek sports cars, a heap of gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles and eye-catching concept cars, such as Suzuki Motor Corp.'s six-passenger Mobile Terrace. The Suzuki is a hydrogen-powered fuel-cell vehicle -- a see-through bubble of a minivan with white shag carpeting, an interior modeled after a well-furnished patio and a profile that looks the same coming or going.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 29, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 1 inches; 63 words Type of Material: Correction
Tokyo Motor Show -- An article in Friday's Business section about the Toyota PM electric vehicle said it had a parallel parking system with wheels that swiveled 180 degrees so the car could move sideways into tight spaces. Although the wheels can turn 180 degrees, they would need to turn only 90 degrees for the vehicle to scoot sideways into a parking space.

The Suzuki uses the same power and guidance platform that General Motors Corp., a 20% stakeholder in the Japanese company, has put into its own hydrogen-fueled, electricity-producing Hy-Wire demonstration vehicle.

Suzuki is one of nearly a dozen automakers to unveil fuel-cell or hybrid gas-electric concept cars at the show. Honda Motor Co. has three and Toyota Motor Corp. four. Nissan is showing two on the floor and announced it would introduce a gas-electric hybrid of its Altima sedan in the United States in 2006.

The first U.S.-made hybrid, a gas-electric version of the Ford Escape sport utility vehicle, isn't scheduled to hit dealerships until next year. Meanwhile, Toyota is ramping up production to meet heavy U.S. demand for its redesigned 2004 model Prius hybrid sedan, which gets 60 miles to the gallon in city driving. By next year, Toyota and Honda will have four hybrids on the streets, with a fifth -- a hybrid version of the Toyota Highlander SUV -- expected by early 2005.

"With all the hybrid technology and electric powertrain development they're showing here, it sure puts the Japanese ahead of the game," said auto marketing guru J. David Power, founder of J.D. Power & Associates, the influential Westlake Village firm. Power shook his head as he surveyed the scene in the show's central hall.

There's a reason for the heavy emphasis on environmentally friendly vehicles: Japanese automakers have set a goal of selling 300,000 hybrid-powered vehicles a year in Japan by 2006 to help reduce air pollution and oil consumption.

And the Japanese auto industry's enthusiasm for hybrids "doesn't bode well for the domestic auto industry in the U.S.," said Ron Cogan, publisher of the San Luis Obispo-based Green Car Journal.

Other "green" concept cars on display include a rotary- engine RX-8 from Mazda Motor Corp. equipped to burn gasoline or liquid hydrogen, a sleek B9 gas-electric roadster from Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd.'s Subaru and GM's Hy-Wire sedan.

There also is an unusual hybrid from DaimlerChrysler's Mercedes-Benz, the F500 research vehicle, that features futuristic engineering and uses a powerful diesel-electric propulsion system. Chrysler Group's Jeep division has a green entry too: a three-seat Jeep called the Treo that uses battery or fuel-cell power to propel its electric motor.

Japanese automakers also have been investing heavily in safety- and communications- related components to give their vehicles an edge with consumers in the United States.

Toyota, Honda and Nissan all have developed active and passive crash-avoidance systems for vehicles sold in Japan and are readying the systems for the U.S. market.

Among them: active cruise control to keep vehicles at a safe buffer distance from others at highway speeds; lane-change warning systems that use tiny cameras and sensors to identify lane markings and warn drivers when their vehicles start to stray; and emergency systems that automatically tighten seat belts and apply the brakes when a car is closing in dangerously fast on the vehicle in front of it.

One of the most startling concept vehicles at the show is Toyota's battery-powered one- person electric "car" that starts out upright -- looking a bit like a phone booth -- for easy access and then tilts back and stretches out into a sleek aerodynamic shape as it gains speed.

The vehicle, called the PM, sports a parallel parking system for tight spaces: All four wheels swivel 180 degrees so the car simply slides sideways into the available space.

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