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RUMBLE SEAT DAN NEIL

A feast form the East

A bounty of hip, clean-burning cars and concepts at the Tokyo Motor Show highlights the synergy between Japan's technological prowess and its progressive spirit

October 29, 2003|DAN NEIL

TOKYO — Sofia Coppola's film "Lost in Translation" with Bill Murray -- a tender tone poem of alienation set in Tokyo -- gets it just about right. Americans visiting the city the first time experience a peculiar kind of isolation. Unable to speak the language and so unmoored from the familiar, they tend to mentally disengage. If you walk by the Park Hyatt, the triptych skyscraper in Shinjuku district featured in the film, you can see them in silhouette, staring down from their hotel windows as if looking through a glass-bottom boat.

The story, I understand, belongs to the characters Bob and Charlotte and their gilded ennui. But the film feels a little ungenerous toward Japan and its people, who are flattened to neon-lighted cutouts, zany, overly solicitous, faintly ridiculous. Lost in cinematic translation is the deep decency of this country and its people, their tolerance and sense of communal responsibility.

It's no wonder Americans feel like strangers in a strange land.

This year's Tokyo Motor Show showcased the synergy between Japan's technological prowess and its progressive spirit. Since the signing of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, the Japanese have assumed leadership on the issue of global warming. In 2001, the Japanese government announced a plan to put more than 10 million low-emission vehicles on the road and 50,000 fuel-cell vehicles by 2010. About 106,000 clean-energy vehicles have been sold in Japan since 1995.

These imperatives have required an enormous investment by Japanese automakers. But it isn't quite altruism. With China's automotive market demand about to explode -- potentially 20 million vehicles per year -- most everyone understands that clean-car technology will be essential. The Japanese automakers are poised to dominate this crucial battleground and make a lot of money in the process.

Clean-car technologies dominated the Makuhari Messe convention center, both hybrid powertrains, which blend electrical and internal-combustion power, and fuel cells, devices that catalyze hydrogen to create electricity with no toxic emissions.

Somewhere on the developmental continuum between them is Mazda Motor Corp.'s RX-8 Hydrogen RE, powered by a rotary engine that runs on gasoline or gaseous hydrogen. Analogous to BMW's hydrogen-burning V-8 engines, the hydrogen rotary -- if it could be made more efficient -- would mark an admirable interim solution on the way to fuel-cell electric power.

The show took place only weeks after Honda Motor Co. announced a breakthrough in fuel-cell design. Honda's new fuel-cell stack is smaller, easier and cheaper to manufacture, and tolerant of temperatures down to minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit. (Ordinary fuel cells lose power in the cold.) Honda President and Chief Executive Takeo Fukui said at a news conference here that the new design had the potential to reduce fuel-cell production costs by 90%. Test vehicles with the new stack will undergo real-world testing in the Northeastern United States this fall.

To underscore the packaging advantages of the new, more compact fuel cell, Honda unveiled the minimalist Kiwami, a flatiron-shaped concept car whose fuel-cell powertrain is built into a narrow section under the floor of the ultra-low luxury sedan. Though primarily a showcase for powertrain advancements, this handsome and masculine car would not look out of place in a collection of Bertone- designed Maseratis of the early 1970s.

Another packaging exercise based on the fungible components of fuel cells was Toyota Motor Corp.'s Fine-N, a "Minority Report"-styled earth-ship sedan driven by four 35-horsepower in-wheel electric motors.

Suzuki Motor Corp., meanwhile, unveiled one of the show's oddest concept cars, the Mobile Terrace, a kind of Plexiglas dirigible on wheels, based on General Motors Corp.'s Hy-Wire fuel-cell "skate" platform. The steering wheel and instrument panel in the Mobile Terrace can be moved around the vehicle and even converted to a centrally mounted card table.

The plausibility of many of these concepts hinged on the use of "by-wire" technology, which replaces the conventional mechanical linkages of accelerators, brakes and even steering with electronic controls that can be put almost anywhere in the car.

This is a potent technology that promises to open up valuable real estate in car design once occupied by immovable hardware.

By-wire makes possible -- though not plausible -- Toyota's zany pod-people mover, the PM, a kind of composite coffin on four outrigger wheels equipped with in-wheel motors. The one-passenger fuselage reclines as the vehicle attains speed.

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