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Japan’s carmakers target young buyers with “cute” cars

Automatic car seats, bubble-shaped electric cars and top-class sports cars; despite being all serious about environmental protection, Japanese car manufacturers haven’t lost their sense for the fun at driving.

Japanese cars of the future are “kawaii,” the Japanese word for “cute.” They are also brightly colored, playful, fast and, of course, environmentally friendly. Toyota Co., for example, is trying during the current Tokyo Motor Show to conquer the hearts and wallets of primarily young customers with a mixture of high-performance sports car exhibits and eccentric new passenger car prototypes. As if to remind potential buyers that amid the entire discussion about petrol-saving vehicles the fun of driving shouldn’t be forgotten, Renault partner Nissan displayed to visitors on huge LCD TV screens footage of a test drive on Germany’s Nuerburg Circuit of its fully revamped sports car GT-R.

Then, Renault-Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn rolled out on to the stage in the real thing. The 480-hp car can easily reach a speed of up to 300 kmph with its four-wheel-drive regardless of the fact that the maximum speed on Japan’s highways is limited to 100 kmph. Nissan’s latest passenger car prototype, the bubble-shaped battery-powered PIVO-2, is equipped with a cabin that can be rotated a full 360 degrees while the driver can enjoy the company of “Pivo- kun,” a little robot with a funny face mounted on the dashboard that is programmed to either issue driving tips in an artificial voice or even address and cheer up the driver. Nissan primarily targets young women in urban areas with this “kawaii” little vehicle. Almost as cute as the PIVO-2 is Honda’s Puyo whose carriage instead of regular paint is coated with a silicon gel-based material that is soft to the touch “like a beloved pet,” as the Japanese media put it.

Concern for the environment also is increasingly playing an important, almost matter-of-course, role, particularly in Tokyo. Hybrids, cars that are interchangeably powered by batteries or a regular petrol engine, are only regarded as an interim solution; instead cars solely propelled by batteries, which can be recharged by plugging into a normal power outlet, are the latest fashion statement in the capital. In this respect, Toyota has already made headway with the introduction of its fully electricity-powered concept car, the 1/X.

But also German carmakers, who are presenting their own environmentally friendly models at the Tokyo show, are all smiles. “Clean diesels” have good marketing potential in Japan because hybrid cars are not only very expensive in the country but currently also only hold some 5% total market share. Only a single car model deploying a modern diesel engine is currently plying Japan’s roads: the Mercedes E class. Although almost all of Japan’s large carmakers are currently developing their own diesel engines, other German manufacturers like BMW and Audi also said they would be interested to enter the market with their respective low-emission diesel cars. But they are still awaiting a clearer definition of the country’s emission legislation for street vehicles before deciding. Meanwhile, a study has estimated that up to 12% of all passenger cars in Japan, the world’s third-largest car market, could be diesel-powered by 2015. (digitaljournal)