The Coolest Cars At The 2023 Japan Mobility Show
It’s been four long years since the last Tokyo Motor Show, but the event is back with a bang for 2023 and a new name: the Japan Mobility Show. The new identity reflects the organizers’ decision to widen the show’s appeal (and boost attendance) by including automotive suppliers, tech companies and transportation devices other than cars (drones, e-bikes, etc.). The actual event, however, seems to be one of the most exciting conventional auto shows in years, chock full of daring concepts and enthusiast cars, some of which are bound for production.
Indeed, the huge number of sports cars on display has drawn comparisons to the 1989 show, where the Acura NSX, Mitsubishi 3000GT and Nissan Figaro bowed, among many now-beloved classics. 1989, buoyed by Japan’s white-hot economy and the 30-year ascendence of its auto industry, is remembered as a vivid splash of creativity and technology. Japan’s automakers are in a different position in 2023, as highlighted by the prominent presence of Chinese automaker BYD at the show, but the vibe recalls those good old days.
As with previous Tokyo shows, the emphasis is on concepts, but after years of Japanese manufacturers lagging on EVs, almost everything on display was at least partially electrified. While some of these vehicles won’t ever show up at U.S. dealers (Daihatsu sadly hasn’t sold any of its whimsical cars here since 1992) a few telegraph models buyers can expect to see as early as 2025.
Infiniti and Lexus both showcased long-overdue electric sedans, while Honda, Mazda and Toyota showcased sportsters that help answer the question of how electrification might work in light, small and affordable enthusiast cars. Toyota also showed a fully electric pickup that might rival the Ford Maverick, while Mitsubishi teased a futuristic off-road van directly inspired by the popularity of its classic Delica. Without further ado, here are the coolest concepts from the 2023 Toyko Mobility Show. The event runs through Sunday, Nov. 5 at Tokyo Big Sight exhibition center.
Daihatsu Vision Copen
One of Japan’s tiny Kei cars (the name stems from a combination of “Kei” and “open”), the original 2002 Daihatsu Copen was a teeny-tiny front-drive sportster partly inspired by the Audi TT and topped by the world’s smallest retractable hardtop. A more angular successor followed in 2014 but never had quite the same charm. For Americans who’ve never seen them, Kei cars are really tiny, no more than 11.2 feet long and with 660-cc engine displacement limit. The very production-ready-looking Vision Copen ditches this formula and aims straight for the Mazda MX-5 Miata.
At 150.9 inches long, the Vision Copen is more than a foot longer than its predecessors and just three inches shy of the current Miata. A 1.3-liter E-fuel compatible engine drives its rear wheels, clearly signifying that this new Copen aims for enthusiasts, not style buyers. But it has plenty of that too, with a stretched, modernized take on the original Copen’s cute but sporty looks. In a world where affordable sports cars are a dwindling breed, a bigger, sportier Copen would be welcome in many markets outside Japan.
Daihatsu Uniform, Me:Mo and Osanpo
A longtime collaborator with Toyota and a wholly owned subsidiary of that company since 2016, Daihatsu develops the combine’s smallest vehicles, usually Keis, and it has a long history of getting creative with them. In 1997, it showed off a micro-SUV named the Naked, which wore its hinges, bolts and structural elements on the outside, and its concepts have long been zanily creative. This year, separate from the Vision Copen, a quartet of Keis showcase a modular electric platform: the Uniform Truck, Uniform Cargo, Me:Mo and Osanpo. Each is filled with cool design flourishes.
The “Uniforms,” aggressively square commercial trucks, may hint at the future of the company’s very popular HiJet van. The Me:Mo is the most “mobility” oriented of these concepts. It’s a modular one-box car with sliding doors and a big interior. It’s meant to be, the company says, “a sustainable car that can be used for a long time in response to changes in the customer’s stage of life and usage.” The Osanpo is an open-topped sports car, but one with a tall profile and ground clearance of an SUV. It’s meant for outdoor recreation.
Honda Prelude Concept
It’s been 22 years since the Honda Prelude last graced showrooms, but now it’s back as a concept, and one that looks like it might actually get built. Mechanical details are still unknown, but Honda CEO Toshihiro Mibe told the crowd at the show that it would be hybrid-powered. As its proportions look like its underpinnings could be shared with the current Civic or that car’s potential next generation, it seems like a good bet that Honda could build this car if it feels there’s sufficient demand.
The old Preludes, which were hugely popular in the 1980s only to fade towards the millennium, tended to look like dedicated sports cars, with long hoods and short decks, but they were always front-wheel drive and shared at least some pieces with the Civic. This car looks more like the dropped-in-2017 Civic Coupe than the Preludes of old but with more pleasing lines and muscular haunches. Style differences or no, the current Civic is a joy to drive, and enthusiasts wouldn’t be sad at the addition of a sporty coupe on that platform.
Honda Sustania-C & Pocket
In another nod to the 1980s, Honda also showed off the Sustania-C city car and Pocket minibike. This combo is a stylized riff on the 1982 Honda City and its accompanying optional Motocompo folding minibike. In those days, the idea was that you could park your car and then use the bike as a “last mile” commuting solution. The Sustania-C repeats this idea and some of the visual themes of the tall-and-small City (and the 1990s European Ford Ka), only it’s fully electrified and made from sustainable materials, with recycled acrylic-resin body panels.
The happy looks of the car are described by Honda as aimed at being expressive, playful and sustainable, “A combination of Ego and Eco,” the company says. The Sustania-C’s size and BEV platform could hint at the next generation of the Honda e, a cool-looking but slow-selling electric small car offered in Europe and Japan since 2020, but it probably won’t ever come stateside. You can, however, buy something like the Pocket right now, as Honda recently revitalized the Motocompo idea with its new Motocompacto e-bike, on sale at Honda and Acura dealers next month.
Infiniti Vision Qe
Nissan gave the world the first practical modern electric car in 2010 with the Leaf, but it didn’t properly follow-up the Leaf until last year’s Ariya. The company’s luxury division, Infiniti, has curiously never built an EV, and also hasn’t launched a new sedan in a decade. That changed just a couple of days before the Tokyo Mobility Show, when the company took the wraps off of the Vision Qe, a sleek electric midsize sedan with wild “piano key” lighting signatures and a smooth, contoured fastback shape that looks a little like some of Bentley’s electric concepts.
The Vision Qe’s shape is wild enough that it will almost certainly have to be toned down for any production version, but Nissan and Infiniti both have a knack for preserving the essence of concepts in production cars. Two new EV sedans are slated for production at Nissan’s Canton, Mississippi factory in 2025, and the Qe is likely to be one of them, perhaps accompanied by an electric Nissan Maxima. The Qe will be the first of four new electrics in what Infiniti deems a “product renaissance,” and it can’t arrive soon enough.
Lexus aims to become a fully electric brand by 2035, but its first all-electric vehicle, the RZ crossover, only debuted this year. It’s also been slow to replace some of its aging gas-powered cars, like the IS. The LF-ZC, which stands for “Lexus Future Zero-emission Catalyst,” is the first glimpse into the Lexus’ first BEV car, which might replace the IS. A fastback compact electric sedan, the LF-ZC’s distinctive Origami shapes look angular but have a wind-cheating 0.2 drag coefficient, fractionally shy of the Lucid Air, and it could have over 600 miles of range.
The luxury brand also displayed a larger electric SUV at the show, the LF-ZL, which may become its flagship crossover, and both could use parent-company Toyota’s next-generation prismatic battery packs. The company claims the packs will offer “twice the range of conventional BEVs,” which currently average about 280 miles of range. The drive-by-wire steering and available yoke soon to come to the RZ will also be available. Acres of screens, complete with gaming capability and other whiz-bang ideas, will come standard, as will Lexus’ AI-enabled next-generation Arene OS. The car should arrive in 2026.
Mazda Iconic SP
If there’s a single car that stole the show in Tokyo, it’s the Mazda Iconic SP. The name fits because this slinky sports car directly references an iconic past Mazda, the 1992 FD RX-7. Sinuous and smooth, with pop-up headlights, the Iconic SP is a little larger (and considerably heavier) than today’s MX-5 Miata, but it could be shrunk to form the basis of a new Miata, chief designer Masashi Nakayama told Automotive News in Tokyo. Mazda CEO Masahiro Moro also told AN that the rotary hybrid “is a concept for the future iconic model.”
Another key word here is, “rotary.” Shrinking down the Iconic SP would mean finding room for the two-rotor engine, the electric motor that drives the wheels and the PHEV battery pack. Unlike the current Miata, the gas engine here would act purely as an onboard generator to charge the battery, enabling short-range electric operation and gas power for long trips, without the weight of a large EV battery. Supposedly, the Iconic SP’s hybrid system is good for 365 horsepower and can run on a variety of biofuels. Will they build it? We can only hope.
You can now find classic Mitsubishi Delicas all over the U.S. These vans were sold here in the late 1980s, but only as gas-powered minivan wannabes. The all-conquering diesel-powered four-wheel drive versions, beloved of overlanders, are the ones people want and classic Delicas imported from Japan now far outnumber the actual U.S.-spec ones. But even though Mitsubishi has continued to build the boxy, off-road van for decades, it’s never been sold here. Could it happen in the future? If it does, that future Delica will probably look like the D:X concept.
The D:X shows off what is likely to become the sixth-generation Delica, a plug-in hybrid van with obvious off-road capability. Although the shape suggests a forward-control van, crash regs won’t allow that, so the front seats are set well back from the windshield and there are various cameras to help with the view. Mitsubishi wouldn’t say when such a van might be released, but the current 16-year-old Delica D:5 needs replacing. Will this come stateside? If it did, Mitsubishi would have a high-profile, desirable off-road vehicle in a niche all by itself.
Automakers have recently taken some flack for investing big sums in very pricey electric pickups like the Hummer EV, but an affordable, small EV pickup could be a winner, and Toyota may have one cooking. The Toyota EPU is a small, crossover-like pickup truck that could easily vie with the similarly sized Ford Maverick and Hyundai Santa Cruz. Designed at Toyota’s Calty Design Research facility in California, the handsome, aerodynamic EPU seems a good fit for American tastes, and it would slot in below the Tacoma in size and price, and offer only electric power.
The key to selling this truck would be to get the production costs low enough to truly compete with the Maverick and Santa Cruz, something that could pose real challenges if it’s built in North America. No doubt, however, Toyota dealers would very much like to be able to offer something like this, so Toyota’s U.S. operation is certainly exploring how to make this happen. Beyond the EV powertrain, the EPU also has a clever multi-function tailgate and what looks like a very roomy interior, helped by not having a driveline tunnel.
At the 1989 Tokyo show, Toyota debuted the Ferrari-in-miniature second-gen MR2. For 2023, it showed off the FT-Se, a super-cool electric sports car that picks up where the MR2 line left off although it has its own design language. But it probably is going to get built, and use the Lexus LF-ZC’s battery pack, designer Hideaki Iida told InsideEVs at the show. Iida is the project manager for Toyota’s GR (Gazoo Racing) design group, which earlier this year gave us the Corolla GR, and the FT-Se is likely to be the first standalone GR EV.
It will be electric, but Toyota wants to keep the classic feel of low-slung, stringback sports cars alive, so a potential production FT-Se will use the company’s upcoming “electric manual” gearbox, which mimics the traditional clutch and pedal experience. How much power will it have? Unknown, but the battery pack will probably fit behind the rear seats. If it gets built, it won’t arrive until at least the end of 2026. But Toyota isn’t alone in exploring a small, light EV sports car; Porsche’s 718 EV will debut next year.