Archive for October, 2009

A word to the wise…

October 29, 2009 3 comments

If you are planning on relocating to Japan and you’d like to drive, don’t take residence in Kanagawa.

Today, among my group of seven, seven people failed. I was the closest to passing, as I actually made it to the end of the test, and was told I failed by the slimmest of margins. On two left-hand corners, I turned wide by 10 cm. And prior to one left hand turn, I was 60 cm from the curb as I approached the limit line, rather than 50.

I was lectured about the importance of preventing cyclists from entering my blind spot. I don’t know many bicycles
That are less than 60 cm wide.

What I do know, is that in Tokyo or Chiba, many attempting license conversions pass on their first attempt. In Kanagawa, I have heard only anecdotal evidence of such, and it seems doubtful. Futamatagawa’s reputation seems to be well deserved. I may well pass on my third attempt. But if I do, that would still be beating the average.

Having invested ¥32,000 so far – most of that flowing into the coffers of the prefectural police – I’m not giving up yet.

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Coming attractions

October 27, 2009 1 comment

With my work in a transitional phase now, I’m happy to report I’ll have a bit more time to squeeze out some new content. Coming up shortly:

Thursday will see a post on my (hopefully successful) driving exam, and a guide on how to beat the system and pass on your first try.

Sunday will be my visit to Tokyo Motor Show. Look for a two part wrap up, with a feature on concept cars and green technology, and a review of the new models.

Part three of my kei-car series will follow with photos from the show floor, and a summary of new and significant models, as well as some innovative features, and hopefully, some hands on experience with the MiEV and Stella EV.

Also, a poll: As always, I’m looking for your feedback. I’d love heaps of happy repeat visitors, and to be blunt, I have more inclination to write than I actually have time. Just ask my wife! So help me out, and comments are deeply appreciated.

Categories: Previews Tags: , ,

A sea change at hand.

October 26, 2009 1 comment

A cold and damp day in Tokyo, and very little to report in the automotive world – despite the opening of the 41st Tokyo Motor Show. It’s been well and broadly reported that the show this year has suffered, with the vacancies of all but three European exhibitors, with Lotus, Alpina and Caterham as a surprise addition. The Japanese makes have scaled back their plans for the exhibition as well, with fewer concepts than any Tokyo show of recent memory, and a number of old classics (the lovely Mazda RX500, for example) dusted off and thrust out into the spotlight. Suzuki went to the trouble of at least applying new decals to their otherwise unchanged SX4 hydrogen fuel cell prototype I spotted at Motorsport Japan a few weeks back.

My visit to Makuhari Messe will be this coming Sunday, so a complete rundown is to follow. But to keep that post focused on the show, today’s discussion will be less about what’s there (or not) and more about what it means for the Japanese market.

It’s safe to say that the market is in a period of rapid contraction – production is off just over 25% year on year for this August (the most recent available data). It’s also undergoing serious flux, with the market polarizing toward high roof mini-vehicles (kei and subcompacts) and minivans, while traditional sedans and coupes have been abandoned in droves.

Akio Toyoda, the new president of Toyota motors, has pushed through steep internal resistance to secure the production of the LF-A and FT-86, which the Toyota board and senior managment see as useless, loss-making ventures which run counter to Toyota’s image. Takanobu Ito, the man now at the helm of Honda, recently went on the record as saying that he doesn’t regret his predecessors decisions to end Honda’s participation in F1 and end the development of the NSX replacement, and feels that a commitment to green is the surest way for the company to ensure it’s future.

From a business standpoint, they’re giving the consumer more of what they want. The Lexus HS250h has more than six months of backlog, and a downmarket Toyota variant, the Sai, is being exhibited now. The Prius is set to be the top seller in Japan this year, followed home by the Insight, with the WagonR kei car and Fit (Jazz in Europe) compact falling close behind. Amongst Japanese consumers, green is clearly the new black.

But one wonders if the dwindling number of auto sales in Japan might have to do with the fact that driving these cars can hardly be described as fun.

Categories: Uncategorized

A-O-Kei Part 2

October 17, 2009 1 comment

In my last post on the subject, we looked at why kei cars exist. Today, we’ll try to get an idea of what exactly these things are.

The stringent requirements placed on kei’s dimensions define the configuration of these vehicles. Most manufacturers take a subtractive approach to their designs: cutting away at the box that defines the maximum dimensions. Boxy forms are not only a stylistic choice, but a rational approach to maximize space within the constrints provided.

The wheels are pushed, literally, to the corners, at the expense of useful bumpers or just about anything else. The wheelbase of, say, a Suzuki Wagon R, for example, is 94.5 inches, less than for inches shy of the Honda Fit, while the 133.5 inch length is almost a full 30 inches – more than two feet – shorter. It’s also nearly six inches taller, despite having a lower floor.

Narrow, small diameter wheels and tires and a compact suspension configuration minimize intrusion into the passenger cabin, and the compact powertrain preserves foot room. But despite these accommodations, the driving position of a kei is startlingly upright – a bit more like driving in a phone booth than any proper cockpit.

Suzuki Palette (Image courtesy Suzuki)

Suzuki Palette (Image courtesy Suzuki)

The windscreen is near vertical and placed closer to the driver than in a traditional car, and the dashboard shallower. The front bumper is impossibly close, and visibility excellent (things are arrayed vertically under a kei’s hood to minimize the length of the engine compartment), such that the uninitiated driver will feel remarkably exposed.

interior arrangement

interior arrangement

Rear seat passengers are afforded plenty of leg room and an exceptional view due to staggered seating height. The exceptionally low floor plays a significant role in making this spaciousness possible. The extra inches rear passengers are afforded comes at the expense of utility – one would struggle to put anything larger than shopping bags in the rear hatch with all four seats occupied. Fold them down, and usable space becomes available. Buy a kei, and you’re presented with a choice: your stuff or your friends.

Unless, of course, you buy a kei van. Mid- or rear-engined cabover designs, they put the driver over the front axle and sit on a shorter wheelbase than kei cars for even greater agility. With the driver’s feet inches from the front bumper, these are not vehicles for the timid.

Subaru Sambar

Subaru Sambar

They do offer massive cargo capacity, and are the near exclusive domain of the business customer. The Daihatsu Hijet may be the best known example of the genre overseas, but the Subaru Sambar is the progenitor of the species, entering production in 1961. Honda’s Acty and Suzuki’s Every have found significant market share as well.

In the coming post, I’ll go through a who’s who of the kei market, and share some information on the different segments which populate it. Stay tuned!

Categories: Features

Motorsport Japan 2009

October 12, 2009 Leave a comment

Tokyo is not the best place to be if you’re a fan if motorsports. Japan’s great circuits are hundreds of kilometers away, and none have any public transit access. Roads are narrow and clogged, expressways astronomically priced, and parking a scarcity. Even the famed midnight club was limited to a single stretch of highway.

Just don’t tell any of this to the people of Tokyo.

The Nismo Super GT GT-R abusing its tires

The Nismo Super GT GT-R abusing its tires

What can be found here is the Motorsport Japan festival in Odaiba. An aborted future metropolis in the center of Tokyo bay, Odaiba alternates between high rise condominiums, sprawling malls, broad car parks and vacant lots left fallow. It’s a surreal place, and a testimate to how hard it is to accomplish anything in Japan, even when the conditions are perfect.

But with all its open space, it makes the perfect venue for a festival of motorsports – easy to access, easy to park, central, and with plenty of space for exotic race machinery to spin donuts and shred very expensive rubber.

The event is sponsored and supported by all the manufacturers, but was typically a service to Honda’s (many) and Toyota’s (few) F1 fans. The vacancy of the former for 2009 – along with a truncated lineup of demos – greatly reduced this year’s turnout. But with plenty left to see, and fewer people getting in the way of seeing it, 2009 made for a solid showing.

Demonstrations included EVs and fuel cell vehicles doing their best impression of speed, along with Japan F3, Formula Nippon, Super GT cars and a TF107 piloted by Kamui Kobayashi.

Particularly noteworthy was the LF-A of Gazoo Racing, which failed to complete the 24 hours of the Nurburgring. Shortly to be unveiled in production at the Tokyo Motor Show, the long in gestation LF-A screamed with one of the finest exhaust notes I’ve ever heard from a production car, and looked as nervous at the limit as an unsettled chihuahua  – one twitch away from casting itself sideways into the crowd. Should be a monster to drive, but I won’t be finding out – we’ll see how many Arab sheiks bury theirs in the sand.

The Gazoo Racing LF-A

The Gazoo Racing LF-A

More noteworthy for me was the appearance of the MP4/5: its engine alight but stripped of its bodywork, the throttle being operated by hand, a team of engineers in attendance. It was akin to seeing your your childhood hero in a wheelchair – still filled with life, but helpless to use it. I believe the purpose of keeping old cars is to have them run from time to time, but apparently Honda disagrees.

The event is a reminder of just how much motorsport activity there is in Japan, at all levels – children darting about in karts, flyers advertising turnkey packages for spec series, rally bred Subarus and Mitsubishis, fire-breathing Super GT monsters. For everyday people, the opportunities abound.

It’s the people who sit atop the pinnacle of Japanese motor sport – and here, I speak of Kazuki Nakajima and now Kamui Kobayashi – who leave me uninspired. Beneficiaries of nepotism and corporate benevolence, I find it hard to believe that the pair have really earned their place in F1 from amongst all those who struggle through the ranks in Japan’s various series. When Toyota team principal Tadashi Yamashina strolled onto the stage to announce Kamui’s forthcoming grand prix debut, there was hardly a reaction – even polite applause was scarce. The only audible gasp was mine, and more for the consequences for poor Timo Glock, whose future in F1 swings in the balance. I trust other more competitive teams will be rushing to give him a drive, but it just reminds me that for Toyota, their aim is less to win and more to be present, regardless of what they say.

Kazuki Nakajima and Kamui Kobayashi speak to the crowd

Kazuki Nakajima and Kamui Kobayashi speak to the crowd

All that aside, the access at this year’s event was exceptional. I’ve never been so close to the drivers, the cars, the engineers – I felt like a kid in a candy store, everything within reach. So who says we don’t have good motor sport in Tokyo?

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A-O-Kei part 1

October 6, 2009 1 comment

Japan has its fair share of automotive oddities. Mitsuoka comes to mind. But if you’re looking for mass market strange, look no further than the letter K.

軽自動車 (kei-jidōsha) or “kei cars” as they’re known, are an entirely different class of vehicle from, well, anything else on the road. They even wear a different shade of license plate.

photo credit Suzuki Motors

photo credit Suzuki Motors

The name signifies them as “light vehicles,” but the epithet “light” doesn’t quite appropriately characterize these cars. Diminutive would be more like it. Miniature. The dimensions are dictated by law – 3,400 mm in length, 1480 mm in width, and most dramatically, 660 cc of displacement. Even output is restricted to 64 ps (roughly the same horsepower), and that from forced induction variants. In the olden days, these cars were barely able to exceed 100 km/h. Clearly not destined for the interstate or the autobahn; even on city streets, earlier models were not going to get you anywhere in a hurry.

What the Japanese government has done, then, is to legislate a market where none would otherwise exist. So tiny cars, cheap to operate. Which means you’re now thinking Smart ForTwo. Or maybe Tata Nano. Niche market, razor thin margins – you’d have to be looking to make a loss to build these things, right? Well, no, not exactly. Certainly not in Japan. Because the government has also been sure to incentivize kei so significantly that demand has been created from the ether.

What incentives, you say? 50% lower registration and taxes would be a start. Reduced expressway tolls and looser parking demands round it out. To those of you who wonder what parking demands mean, an owner of a standard vehicle must furnish proof of an owned or leased parking space before any car can be registered. In many areas, kei are exempt from that requirement.

For the companies that trade in kei, therein lies the briliance. Because they are so heavily incentivized, the lifetime costs of ownership – everything after the moment you pay for it – could be two-thirds to half that of a traditional car. For Japanese, who tend to pay cash for cars, that’s money in the bank, and a down payment on the next, without even having to consider the purchase price.

Manufacturers have responded by using option packages to boost the equipment level while keeping the price right around what one would pay for a more spartanly equipped compact. And when price and content are both in your favor, what’s a fifth seat and passing power between friends?

So that’s why kei. So what’s kei, who’s who and what are they like to drive? Stay tuned, there’s much more to follow.

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A retrospective preview

October 6, 2009 Leave a comment

The Japanese Grand Prix has returned home to Suzuka, and oh what a difference. It’s criminal to have this circuit third to last on the calendar. Suzuka’s customary penultimate position having added even more drama to countless title battles, I wonder if it’s in danger of losing some of its magic.

While Vettel simply walked away with it this year, what circuit could elicit such awe and admiration from the great, and such remarkable self-destruction from the unworthy. If ever a circuit could separate the men from the boys, it’s Suzuka.

And then the fans.

And this year, for me, it was not to be. Not even on TV. But it is an impetus for the coming retrospectives: Suzuka 2006 and the Fuji experience. Stay tuned.

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