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What a concept: Fantasy cars come to life at a Tokyo show

Times Staff Writer

On the half-hour train ride out to suburban Chiba, one of the first stops is for Tokyo Disneyland.

A visitor bound for the Tokyo Motor Show could be forgiven for confusing the two.

Like Disneyland, an auto show is often more about fantasy than reality. Entertainment, including the juvenile kind, tends to take a front seat to the prosaic business of selling four-wheeled transportation.

Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than at the Tokyo extravaganza, which runs through Nov. 11. It’s a sprawling automotive amusement park where carmakers’ dueling passions for hucksterism and high technology meld seamlessly with Japan’s national love for kawaii, or “cute.”

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The mix of fact and fiction is embodied in the concept car, which auto designers dream up to enchant enthusiasts, promote their brands and demonstrate advanced technologies that may actually be available someday at your local dealership.

Or maybe not.

Consider the Nissan PIVO2 on display here. It’s an electric three-seat “city commute” vehicle (as opposed to a “Hollywood Freeway commute” vehicle) that is essentially a glass-and-metal bubble atop four small wheels.

Among the features: When you need to back up, rather than shifting into reverse, looking over your shoulder and inching into oncoming traffic, you wait while the cabin rotates 180 degrees and then drive straight ahead.

Hate to parallel park? Pull up next to that choice-but-tight space, rotate the cabin and all four wheels 90 degrees and proceed just as if you were pulling into your garage.

The PIVO2 also has a charming dashboard-mounted “robotic agent” that, according to Nissan’s promotional brochure, “infers the driver’s condition. It not only gives necessary information for the operation, but also speaks to you to cheer you up or to soothe you accordingly.”

Pretty cool, right? And given that it’s the PIVO2, there must already be PIVO1s running around somewhere, just waiting to be replaced by this new model.

Except that the original PIVO never made it into production.

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In other words, the PIVO2 is a concept of a concept. It would fit right in at Disneyland.

Honda’s kawaii entry is the Puyo, a boxy greenhouse coated in a light-emitting gel that feels spongy. Honda executives told show goers that “the pet-like appearance makes people want to touch it” -- which explains the name, puyo being a word the Japanese use when poking something soft, like a chubby baby.

Like the PIVO2, the Puyo features a vehicle rotation capability that is illustrated in the brochure with a picture of what appears to be -- yes -- the Disneyland teacup ride.

On a more serious note, as at most recent auto shows around the warming globe, many of the concept cars here are intended to promote the automakers’ efforts to produce vehicles that get better mileage and are less destructive to the environment.

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Honda, for instance, is exhibiting the CR-Z, a truly hot-looking gasoline-electric sports car concept that the company apparently hopes will do for its hybrid offerings what Al Gore III did for the Toyota Prius: give it a bit of bad-boy mystique.

Honda said it fully intended to build the CR-Z. Someday.

The automaker announced that it would unveil its next-generation hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle at the Los Angeles Auto Show next month. That car will go on sale in the U.S. next year, although finding a place to fill ‘er up could prove challenging.

Several automakers are rolling out vehicles -- some conceptual, some real -- that could be described as “elderly mobility.”

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This is a big issue in Japan, where the population is not only shrinking but also aging rapidly. Tokyo, famous for its trendy fashions and futuristic neon building-scapes, is expected to have one of the oldest populations among the world’s metropolises within 15 years.

Those demographic changes, in addition to falling auto sales here, are spurring car companies to introduce features that appeal to older folks. One popular option is the rotating seat, which makes it easier to get in and out of a car. Nissan, in its Intima sedan, added reverse-opening “suicide doors,” making entry and exit even smoother.

Daihatsu is going further with its Tanto Welcome Seat, a van-like vehicle with seats that rotate and then slide out from the car. And Daihatsu joined the suicide doors trend, designing them into its HSC economy car.

For the somewhat younger at heart, Mitsuoka unveiled the latest version of its Orochi super car, a hand-built beast that costs about 12 million yen, or about $105,000.

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Reminiscent in spirit of the small-batch super car makers in Southern California such as Saleen, Mitsuoka describes itself as “a small factory with a big dream.”

Orochi loosely translates as “big snake,” and the car is named after Yamata-no-orochi, a legendary dragon-like serpent.

Onboard electronics cap the speed at 180 kilometers per hour, or about 112 mph, to keep the Japanese highway authorities happy. The cap can be hacked to allow the Orochi to go faster, but project manager Tokuchika Shimono said he was certain that none of his customers had ever done that.

Now how’s that for a fantasy?

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martin.zimmerman@latimes.com

Times staff writer Hisako Ueno contributed to this report.


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