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December 12, 2011 3:00 PM

Technology, fuel-sippers take the spotlight at Japan auto show


The Tokyo auto show is heavy this year on hybrids and cutting-edge technology. (Photos by Koji Sasahara / The Associated Press)

TOKYO — "Green" cars and futuristic concepts rolled into the spotlight at the Tokyo auto show as Japan's automakers look to technological innovation to reinvigorate growth after tough times.

The showcase for Japan's auto industry started Dec. 3 and ends Sunday.

Japanese automakers have had a tough few years due to the strong yen, high-profile recalls and production disruptions from the March earthquake and tsunami. But green technology remains a strong selling point for the carmakers.

Honda says it will start selling an electric version of its Fit subcompact in the U.S. and Japan by the middle of next year. It showed concept cars such as the AC-X plug-in hybrid, EV-STER electric roadster convertible and a tiny electric car called Micro Commuter.


Honda President Takanobu Ito unveils the company's AC-X plug-in hybrid concept at the Tokyo auto show.


A model sits on Suzuki's whimsical Q EV Concept at the Tokyo auto show in December.

"We will continue to offer products with an edge," says Honda President Takanobu Ito before drinking orange juice poured by Honda's Asimo robot, which recently has gained more nimble human-like fingers.

Honda also showed a portable battery that people could carry around and put not in their electric cars and plug-ins as well as in small electric scooters.

Nissan had an updated version of its futuristic-looking electric car Pivo 3, which can drive itself, find parking spaces and swerve around in almost a complete circle.

Koichiro Imoto, who writes about Japan's auto industry, says this type of innovation is key to Japanese automakers' success.

"Technology is the only thing Japan has to cling to, so the show is trying to highlight those strengths," he says. "Selling the technological superiority is the only way left for Japan."

On display at Toyota's sprawling booth is the plug-in version of its hit Prius hybrid. The company is also showing an electric car and a fuel cell prototype.

Carlos Ghosn, chief executive at Nissan — which has been aggressive on electric vehicles with its Leaf car, but slower on hybrids compared to Toyota and Honda — says no single green technology is going to dominate the market.

In about a decade, electric vehicles will make up 10 percent of the auto market as concerns grow about global warming, and governments in the U.S., Japan, Europe and China encourage their sales, he says.

"Zero-emission cars are going to become more and more popular," Ghosn says. "You need to prepare the technologies."