PREVIEW: Green Cars to Watch at the Tokyo Motor Show

For an international auto show organized around the theme “Fun Driving for Us, Eco Driving for Earth,” it’s only fitting for some cool green designs to be in the works. But while most automakers will have some kind of lower-emission offering on display when the Tokyo Motor Show kicks off next week, a few models deserve extra attention as examples of next-gen tech, progress toward mass market production and early attempts from new players in the plug-in and hybrid vehicle markets. We asked researchers, analysts and advocates focused on plug-in vehicles and energy storage to weigh in with their top picks.

According to CalCars.org founder Felix Kramer, show models in the concept phase, such as the Suzuki Swift plug-in hybrid¬†concept (which has lithium-ion batteries powering a 54 kW motor), are worth watching this year. “We expect more concept cars will turn into production-intent vehicles and deadlines will advance as competition and market opportunities increase,” Kramer said.

Suzuki Swift

Suzuki Swift

Mitsubishi’s MiEV Family
In addition to Suzuki, Kramer pointed to Mitsubishi — in particular its PX-MiEV, which can drive in four different modes: EV, series hybrid, parallel hybrid or regenerative —¬† as new plug-in hybrid players of interest at the Tokyo show. Among the plug-in models Mitsubishi plans to display there are the i-MiEV Cargo concept, which is meant to meet the cargo needs of “self-employed operators” when sales begin in April 2010, and the production i-MiEV (which J.D. Power and Associates analyst Jacob Grose sees as a potential challenger for the upcoming LEAF electric sedan from Nissan).

Mitsubishi PX-MiEV

Mitsubishi PX-MiEV

Mitsubishi i-MiEV Cargo

Mitsubishi i-MiEV Cargo

Conservative Players
Mitsubishi and Nissan are “two of the most aggressive automakers vying for the all-electric vehicle market,” said Grose. However, he added that he feels that “this market will not be as big as these two are hoping, and that more conservative automakers like Toyota will be the ultimate winners.”

High-Performance Honda
Honda may offer some of the toughest competition for Toyota’s hybrid crown. Grose pointed to the CR-Z hybrid sports car, which uses nickel-metal hydride batteries (unlike the Nissan and Mitsubishi models, which use lithium-ion), as a model to watch in Tokyo. A “near-production” version of the model will be on display at the show, said Grose, and it represents “another attempt by Honda to chip away at the success enjoyed by the Prius, this time by introducing a high-end model.”

Honda CR-Z

Honda CR-Z

Integrated Green Systems
Tom Turrentine, Director of the Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle Center at UC Davis, whose research focuses on what he has called “car anthropology” (how consumers respond to green vehicle technologies), is most intrigued by alt-fuel designs with serious potential to succeed on the mass market and reduce CO2 emissions: “I’m looking for practical stuff that can get families around for less than 50 gm CO2 per mile,” he explained — pointing to the Nissan LEAF and Toyota’s plug-in Prius as prime examples. Turrentine also has an eye out for technologies that complement electric drive in reducing emissions, such as the solar-assisted charging included in Honda’s EV-N concept.

Honda EV-N

Honda EV-N

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