Five Tokyo Motor Show Cars That Will Actually Get Built

Don’t look now, but the future is (almost) here.

TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP/Getty Images

The Tokyo Motor Show is held in the bizarre Tokyo Big Sight convention center, the most conspicuous architectural component of which consists of a quartet of inverted bronze pyramids balanced on elevated cement plinths, in-filled with amber-stained glass. It looks like the synagogue in which Optimus Prime would have been bar mitzvahed.

Inside, as at most auto shows, there are fields of cars. Some of these vehicles are so unconscionably cute you want to adopt them. Some of them are so provocatively impassive they feel like a robot enemy you need to quash. Some you want to take home, and then kill. And some presage vehicles that might actually come to the U.S. as production cars.

Here’s the inside scoop on five cars that represent the best bets on cars that will actually make it across the Pacific, in five key categories Americans care about.

ENVIRONMENT: Honda Clarity Fuel Cell

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Honda has a long history of creating and supporting outlier technologies. (Think of its radical CVCC engine-combustion system that circumvented the need for a catalytic converter, while still meeting the Seventies’ stringent new emission standards.) While the company continues developing hybrid, pure electric and smaller and more efficient petroleum engines, its biggest unconventional idea in recent years is the hydrogen fuel cell.

“Hydrogen alone among alternative fuel options provides the ability to store massive quantities of fuel and energy density, with zero emissions,” says Ryan Harty, manager of American Honda Motor’s Environmental Business Development office, citing the 300-plus-mile range of this new Clarity Fuel Cell car, a model that should be available in the U.S. (though mostly limited to California) mid-2016. “And hydrogen as a fuel allows us to increase range without the linear scaling of weight that’s required of battery-powered cars.”

Hydrogen cars can be refueled quickly. Hydrogen is cleaner to “refine” than gasoline. Presuming economies of scale were solved, the most pressing issue would be infrastructure. There are very few places in the U.S. (like, three dozen public and private sites, total) where one can refuel a hydrogen-powered car. Honda—along with Toyota, GM and Hyundai—is working to change this, but hydrogen has a volatility stigma and can be difficult to transport. So their vision is long-term. “This isn’t about 2020 or 2025,” Harty says. “The time for mass commercialization of hydrogen fueling is after that.”

LUXURY: Lexus LF-FC Concept

Speaking of hydrogen fuel cells, Lexus, a company known for taking a far more conservative approach to design and engineering, unveiled this handsome concept intended to preview its next-generation flagship, and it’s powered by fuel cells as well. (Lexus and parent company Toyota are working to create and develop the hydrogen infrastructure.)

This radical decision is part of an intentional decision to privilege passion, something generally lacking from the brand’s vehicular portfolio. “For our first 20 years, Lexus was a very rational brand, known for our dependability and reliability,” says Mark Templin, executive vice president of Lexus International. “We want to be, and are becoming, more emotional.”

The brand’s research has identified conservation as a means to tap into luxury consumers’ emotions. “The global affluent tribe has more in common in what they love, than where they live,” Templin says. “Environmental friendliness is resonant for this demographic.”

He also cites fine craftsmanship, an enhanced driving and performance experience, more evocative styling and technology as other ardence-enhancers. The LF-FC’s holographic dash, gesture control interface, wood marquetry, high-output all-wheel-drive powertrain and refined lines would fit with these desires. So, too, could the flexibility to create multiple flagships to serve different needs. “This platform could spawn a coupe, a sedan, an SUV,” Templin says. “As well as sportier F-Sport products.” The end goal here? “We want to make the brand more special.”

SELF-DRIVING: Nissan IDS Concept

Nissan has two central pillars in its technological portfolio: vehicular electrification and autonomiety. This concept car combines them for the first time, showcasing the brand’s goal to demonstrate leadership in both arenas.

“Sustainable transportation solves for the problem of carbon emissions,” says Takashi Sunda, Nissan’s deputy general manager of autonomous driving programs. “Autonomous cars solve for safety and reducing congestion. Together, they combine social benefits with personal benefits.”

This concept has two modes, manual and piloted, and the car’s interior configuration changes to match these different personalities. In manual mode, the driver operates the car—with a full suite of safety systems in place—via a yoke-like steering wheel.  When the vehicle takes over, the steering wheel rotates out of sight, replaced by a tablet-like screen. “You can do what you want. Watch videos, answer emails, sleep,” Sunda says.

The car’s design, which may inform the look of the next-generation Leaf EV, is intended to suggest a stress-free driving experience. The low, wide design dictates a recumbent seating position. Wood, white leather and a glass roof provide what executive design director Mamoru Aoki calls “a resort atmosphere.” Our recent experience in a self-driving Nissan wasn’t quite so chill, but the future isn’t here yet, right?

UTILITY: Subaru Viziv Concept

Subaru is on a roll. Its unique combination of ruggedness, capability and modesty, combined with the high driving position inherent in its all-wheel-drive products, has made the brand catnip for crossover-hungry American buyers. “We’ve tripled our sales over the past five years,” says director of communications Michael McHale. “But we’re not being strategic. We just can’t help being unique—it’s who we are. It’s like someone being strategically short.”

That uniqueness is evident in the three-row Viziv Concept, a rugged-looking yet modest thing, which likely presages the replacement for the proboscoid and unloved Tribeca crossover, the brand’s last attempt at a larger vehicle. Talk of a downsized turbocharged engine is intended to enhance efficiency, and new tech like the ability to change lanes autonomously is intended to lure in drivers who expect, well, more tech.

But really, Subaru probably just needs to keep doing what it’s doing. “Our space is squarely in the mid-price segment,” McHale says. “But people with money also buy our cars. A Subaru is very often a second vehicle. Wealthy people don’t take their Maserati to the ski house.”

SPORT: Mazda RX-Vision Concept

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Mazda stole the show with this, a sensually molded, rear-wheel-drive sports car that harkens back to the various incarnations of the RX-7 and RX-8 the brand produced from 1978 to 2012. The car is at once a clean break and an evolution, but is neither retro nor futuristic. Mostly, it’s sexy.

It’s also blatantly enthusiast-focused, a niche play from a niche brand in a very crowded marketplace. “Everyone else is building autonomous cars,” says Mazda North America public relations director Jeremy Barnes. “That’s not us. We make driver’s cars.”

Also true to the brand’s heritage is the existence, at least theoretically, of a rotary engine under the lengthy hood. A radical motor tested, and given up on, by nearly every other major automobile manufacturer—including Audi, Mercedes, Chevrolet and AMC—the rotary engine graced Mazda’s RX cars for decades. The engine is compact, light, high-revving and fun to torture. But, imbued as it is with inherent liabilities in efficiency and emissions, it seemed to have finally perished.

“This is the vehicle that harbors our dream of bringing back the rotary,” Barnes says. He affects a squawky Monty Python accent. “I’m not dead yet.