Tokyo Auto Show `Scary' for US


DON'T let the funny names fool you. It may be difficult to take seriously a car named the Pink Lady, the Sneaker, S-Cargo, Figaro, or Scrum.

But whatever the Japanese want to call them, the cars on display at the 28th annual Tokyo Auto Show proved one very important point - the Japanese are continuing to make major improvements in their products, both in technology and design.

And that worried many of the United States automotive executives who came to take a look.

``They really had some impressive things to show off,'' says General Motors Executive Vice President William Hoglund, ``particularly in the area of powertrains and suspension.''

Honda, for example, unveiled a new 5-cylinder engine which will give its Accord the muscle of a V-6, but fuel economy closer to that of a 4-cylinder design.

For now, the powerplant will only be offered in the Japanese version of the car, the Inspire, but company insiders hint it may soon show up in the US under the hood of a new Acura, Honda's luxury car division.

Toyota and Subaru displayed unique two-stroke engines, both marked departures from the traditional four-stroke designs that have dominated the auto industry for most of this century.

Though both two-stroke designs were advanced prototypes, they could result in lighter, more powerful yet more fuel-efficient cars. Since they are small - barely the size of a beach ball - they could eventually be packed inside smaller engine compartments, allowing more room for passengers.

When it comes to suspension systems, perhaps the most significant development in decades was found on the new Infiniti Q45. One version offers an ``active suspension'' as an option. In this system, an on-board micro-computer constantly monitors road conditions and adjusts hydraulic actuators which replace shocks and springs and deliver a smoother, better-controlled ride.

Active suspension is available this year in Japan for $5,000. Company officials say it's still a year away from the US market.

Meanwhile, US automakers say they are also working on their own versions of active suspension, but they admit they are still some years away from production.

Styling was the one area in which the Japanese received mixed reviews. ``The Japanese haven't gotten their act together, design-wise,'' says Chuck Jordan, head of design for General Motors Corp. ``There are some ugly, ugly cars here.''

Observers had nothing but praise for some models, such as the new Toyota MR2. The aerodynamic sports car will shortly replace the existing model. At the other extreme: the Nissan Figaro, a ``retro-look'' subcompact that looks like an old Nash Rambler redesigned in art deco.

Though still not officially set for production, the Figaro is expected to be the next in Nissan's series of Pike Cars, limited-volume specialty vehicles aimed at Japanese style-setters.

The show was loaded with concept cars, including the Mitsubishi HSR II. Its movable body panels change air flow to maintain stability at different speeds.

One of the oddest designs was the Daihatsu Sneaker, with room for just one passenger up front and a bag of groceries in back.

As far as auto analyst Tom O'Grady is concerned, the message of the show is clear. Japan is increasingly intent on dominating the world auto industry.

``I'd be very concerned if I were a [US] maker coming here,'' he says. ``It's almost scary.''

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