Image: Honda CRZ
Everett Kennedy Brown  /  EPA
Honda Motor Corp. employees prepare the CR-Z concept car for display at the 41st Tokyo Motor Show in Makuhari city near Tokyo.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 11/2/2009 7:34:57 AM ET 2009-11-02T12:34:57

OK, so the Japanese threw a party and many of the guests didn't show up. That doesn't mean there weren't some tasty morsels served up at the Tokyo Motor Show.

The show was mostly notable for who didn't show up: Volkswagen AG, BMW AG, General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co. Not even South Korea's Hyundai Motor Co. attended the show, which runs through Wednesday.

But Japanese automakers showed off some new autos that are worth noting, including some hybrids, plug-in technology and a sports car with an outsized price tag.

The Honda CR-Z, a two-seat sport coupe modeled after the company’s much-loved CRX hatchback of the 1980s, is probably the most appealing. In its new iteration the little coupe carries a green shield to fend off charges of social irresponsibility.

It has a hybrid drivetrain featuring a 117-horsepower, 1.5-liter gasoline engine and a 13-horsepower electric motor if the company employs the off-the-shelf hardware already serving in the Fit and Insight models.

The real reason to hope the CR-Z will be fun to drive while it wrings the maximum miles from each gallon of gas is the torque of the combined drivetrains. The electric motor contributes a significant 123 pound-feet of torque to the gas motor’s comparatively paltry 106 pound-feet maximum.

We cannot add these numbers together to learn the system’s peak torque because the gas and electric motors develop their power at different RPM, but we do get a picture of how the electric motor’s torque will fortify the peaky gas motor, which makes its torque at 4,800 RPM.

These two engines power the CR-Z through a hybrid industry-first, six-speed manual transmission, ensuring that gearheads can still get their kicks piloting the CR-Z rather than enduring the anesthetized feeling of the continuously variable automatic transmission used in most hybrids. Honda’s original two-seat Insight hybrid also offered a (five-speed) manual transmission, one which made it easy to unintentionally chirp the tires pulling away from a stop because of the electric motor’s low-RPM torque.

“The vehicle will create completely new value by combining the fun of driving and outstanding fuel economy,” promised Honda president and CEO Takanobu Ito. Though the company disingenuously labeled the apparently production-ready CR-Z a concept car, it will hit Japanese showrooms in February and will arrive in the United States and Europe at some unspecified later point, Ito said.

While developing its vision of a fun car that is also affordable and socially responsible, Honda discarded plans to produce a new version of its NSX, a Ferrari-caliber super-sports car. Toyota, however, decided to stay the course on its long-gestated Lexus LF-A supercar, which the company debuted at the Tokyo show.

As expected, it boasts impressive specifications, and the company has already given test drives to some journalists at Germany’s Nurburgring race track, a de rigueur step in the product segment. But the question that is unanswered is whether there is a market for any 560-hp V-10 Lexus sports cars that cost $350,000 or more, much less the paltry 500 cars the company announced it plans to build.

“It is amazing to me they went through with it,” remarked Aaron Bragman, research analyst for Global Insight. “They may have dumped so much money into it already that they thought they might as well go through with it.”

The company also showed a concept version of a planned affordable, four-cylinder, rear-wheel-drive sport coupe labeled with the catchy moniker “FT-86” that could appeal to enthusiasts.

But the Subaru-engineered car remains two years from production, so the display of the concept served only to whet the appetite of prospective drivers. And Toyota exhibited a plug-in version of its Prius hybrid car, its obsolescent nickel metal hydride batteries replaced by more energetic lithium ion cells. The company has announced plans to sell such a car.

Meanwhile Nissan, which fell behind in the race toward hybrid technology, is aiming instead to win the race to pure plug-in battery electrics, revealing still more details of its upcoming Leaf electric car and letting journalists test drive the very latest prototypes.

As important as the new Leaf and Nissan’s enabling lithium ion battery technology are, bigger news from the show may have been Nissan’s yeoman labor to make driving an electric car a more realistic option for more drivers.

The company showed its design for public quick charging stations that will give the Leaf another 100 miles of range in half an hour. It also showed how the Leaf’s navigation system will project a circle onto the map showing the car’s remaining range based on the juice left in its batteries.

The nav system displays the location of charging stations within that range, giving drivers peace of mind that they aren’t in danger of stranding themselves.

Nissan also announced a deal with Sumitomo Corp. to develop a secondary market for the Leaf’s batteries, after they have become too depleted to be useful in the car. At that point the battery cells retain 70-80 percent of their capacity and they can be used for a variety of industrial applications, such as household standby power and to level out the power generated by irregular sources such as solar panels and windmills.

This secondary market is critical because experts say that the battery pack in an electric car could cost 30 percent of the car’s total price tag. The Leaf’s price will carry that bane of children’s toys: “Batteries Not Included.”

That means that customers will buy the car in one transaction, and then may buy or lease the battery pack separately. The creation of a market for used batteries means that they will have a residual value that can be calculated for leases, making use of the batteries much more affordable for mainstream consumers. This is critical the company’s plan to sell 20,000 Leafs a year, with orders starting in the U.S. next spring.

Such green eyeshade business deals certainly lack the glitz of past shows, with their scantily clad models posing beside sleek prototypes, but it is just such dull homework that will make it possible for consumers to afford to drive electric cars when they come to the U.S. late next year.

“We are probably the only automaker investing $4 billion [to develop requisite supporting technologies],” said Nissan president and CEO Carlos Ghosn. Why? “Because the technology makes it possible,” he explained. That should prevent Nissan Leaf dealers from looking as vacant as this year’s Tokyo Motor Show.

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