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Tokyo’s Wonder Cars

5 minute read
Charles L. Martin

They have names like FX-1, NX-21, MX-02 and TAC3, and features that make them sound like K.I.T.T., the computerized car that is a star of the TV show Knight Rider. They warn a driver when he is too close to the car in front of him or on the verge of falling asleep at the wheel. They understand a command to go faster, and computers under their dashboards plot the car’s exact location. They can move sideways, crablike, to park and have memories to recall seating and mirror positions.

The wonder cars were on display last week at the biennial Tokyo Motor Show, which has become an international showplace for the auto of the future. Said James Murphy, American Motors’ manager of advance planning and electronics, who traveled from Detroit to see what Japan had to offer: “This is the best auto show in the world.”

In addition to incorporating the latest in high-tech gadgetry, the products shown by eleven Japanese auto companies placed great emphasis on fuel economy and efficient design. Engines remain small, and reinforced plastic is replacing metal. Minicar Maker Daihatsu displayed a runabout with a 60-cu.-in. diesel that boasts 87 m.p.g. at 37 m.p.h. An Isuzu engine had ceramic parts, a first step toward the full ceramic engine, which promises up to 50% more fuel economy, 30% more power, and requires no radiator:

Nissan introduced an NX-21 model, which it calls the car for the “1990s and the beginning of the 21st century.” The sleek sedan has a ceramic gas-turbine engine that is controlled by optical fibers rather than wiring. Nissan’s Research Vehicle II, whose wheels, windshield and windows are all made of plastic, runs on methanol fuel that is stored in a plastic tank. The car’s automatic cruise control measures the distance to the vehicle in front by radar and microwave, warns the driver if the car gets too close and decelerates if the person fails to slow down. The drowsiness monitor checks the person’s driving pattern. If he appears inattentive or reaction time is slow, a female voice gently says, “You are getting drowsy, please rest!”

With Nissan’s voice system, the driver can tell the car to go faster, slower, turn on the lights or radio or adjust the seat and mirrors. The car will respond to as many as 26 commands preregistered, in any language, on its voice recognizer.

Toyota showed several new models, including the SV-3, its first sports car since the 2000 GT in 1967. The company’s FX1 car has glassed-in roof pillars and windshield wipers hidden under a sliding shutter. The doors tilt and glide out. It also has a voice-command system similar to Nissan’s. At low speeds, half the engine shuts down to conserve fuel. Toyota was also showing off the TAC3, a sporty, four-wheel-drive car in which the driver sits in the middle, with passengers behind him.

Perhaps the most intriguing car at the show was the MX-02, Mazda’s prototype family car of the 1990s. When the driver punches in the right combination, the door opens, and the seat, mirrors and steering wheel automatically adjust to his preprogrammed requirements. The car also has a four-wheel steering system that will move the computer-controlled rear wheels sideways for easy parking and allow for more comfort in cornering.

Some of the other technological wizardry shown last week:

> Runflat tires that enable someone to drive for up to two hours on a flat tire.

> A transmission that changes from automatic to manual at the flip of a switch.

> Stereo speakers built into molded head restraints.

> Wipers that sense rain on the windshield and also adjust their speed automatically to heavier or lighter rain.

Detroit has been skeptical of the kind of Japanese gadgetry shown last week. Charles L. Knighton, Ford vice president of small-car engineering and planning, calls many of the devices “dust catchers.” Ford has received mixed reaction to its on-board computer, which provides information like projected gas mileage and estimated time of arrival for a trip. Chrysler offered the talking feature on its 1983 models, but consumer response has been so poor that the company may abandon it. Said AMC’s Murphy: “The pure gimmickry won’t sell if people think it cheapens the car.” Nonetheless, all four U.S. automakers made the pilgrimage to the Tokyo show to see what the competition would be offering.

While the Tokyo auto show was going on, the Japanese government announced that it had agreed to a fourth year of restraint on the number of cars exported to the U.S. The new ceiling: 1.85 million, up from 1.68 million. Ford, Chrysler and American Motors protested that the increase was unjustified in view of the trade unbalance between the two countries, the undervalued yen, and tax advantages they claim the Japanese enjoy. General Motors’ reaction was more muted, since it has its own Japanese strategy. GM next year plans to begin importing small Japanese cars, and last week it unveiled a model of a subcompact to compete with Japanese imports in the late 1980s. —By Charles L. Martin. Reported by Edwin M. Reingold/Tokyo

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