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Tokyo Auto Salon
by Richard Saberton, SEMA Asia Pacific Director

SEMA Asia Pacific (AP) looked around the Tokyo Auto Salon 2008 (TAS), held January 11-13 at the Makuhari Messe Exhibition Center, took pictures, spoke to personalities and professionals in the aftermarket industry and identified 10 trends of interest to SEMA members.

1: Sports Cars Are Back

SEMA AP asked Koichi Sumino, chairman of AUTOBACS Seven, what he saw as the major trend of TAS. His answer was immediate. “Sports cars are back,” he exclaimed. As boss of Japan’s largest aftermarket retail chain in Japan, Sumino is always looking at industry trends, and there was plenty of evidence to support his assertion.

The three cars that prompted his opinion were the 2008 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X, the redesigned 2008 Subaru Impreza WRX STi and the long-awaited Nissan GT-R. These cars are either already available, or soon will be, in the United States (though the Subaru engine is expected to be a 2.5L turbocharged mill, not the 2.0L standard in Japan).

The effect of these cars on the aftermarket in Japan has already been felt, with GT-R cat-back exhausts from GReddy, ARC, and Fujitsubo, and wheels from Work and BLITZ on display, even though the car was only launched in November at the Tokyo Motor Show. They aren’t cheap, though. A set of BLITZ forged magnesium wheels costs a little under $10,000 USD a set.

2: …and they are AWD Turbos

One regular attendee from the Philippines noted that the number of Nissan 350Zs had dropped since 2007 due to an influx of new AWD entries. This trend away from RWD to AWD has been gathering strength for a while, and this year’s TAS seems to have underlined this as the three cars mentioned above are all turbocharged and four-wheel driven.

Interest among American enthusiasts for the Evo X, WRX STi, and especially the GT-R, has been building. There are already well-established aftermarket niches for the Evo and STi and probably will not be long before SEMA member companies in the U.S. have new products out for the latest Evo and STi.

The GT-R has never been exported from Japan to these shores apart from a few gray market older models. But the GT-R name is well known due to years of magazine and Internet coverage of Skyline GT-Rs (aka “Godzilla”) that appeared in the '80s and '90s and became staples of the Japanese aftermarket.

Industry professionals in Japan say that over 70% of the older GT-Rs sold were modified, so interest in this car, which will be sold worldwide, was running high at the TAS 2008. Recent road tests by respected entities show why. The You Tube video of Inside Line (see calls it “the fastest car we’ve ever tested.”

The test car, borrowed from a very brave owner of a brand-new standard GT-R in Japan, tested on street tires, posted a 0-60 time of 3.3 seconds and a 11.6-second quarter-mile at 121 mph. Those numbers beat the Porsche 911 Turbo, Dodge Viper and Z06 Corvette. Braking distance from 60 mph was 104 feet, only one foot longer than the 911 equipped with a special optional ceramic brake kit. Top Gear got similar figures when they tested it too.

3: Innovation Is Alive and Well
The innovation that aftermarket companies around the world display is legendary, and the in-house innovative power displayed by some TAS exhibitors showed that the bar has been raised higher this year, particularly when it comes to products that have become highly computerized. Aftermarket companies in Japan had heard dire predictions from inside Nissan that the GT-R would be impossible to modify, so they were prepared for the worst.

A Japanese journalist reportedly had the following experience when test driving a pre-release model of the GT-R. As he approached the main entry gate of Suzuka International Circuit, the car’s GPS-equipped computer warned him in a pleasant voice that once he entered the circuit, the car’s warranty would be voided.

The navigation screen then gave him an "Accept" screen, requiring him to push "Accept" to get rid of the voice. After a couple more times, the voice issued a final warning that the vehicle was recording his driving habits and any damage done to the vehicle at the circuit would not be covered under the new-car warranty at a Nissan dealership.

This story seemed to confirm all the fears that the Japanese aftermarket had about the GT-R being a very difficult vehicle to modify. Once it was in the hands of the 10 or so companies that showed their vehicles at the Tokyo Auto Salon, however, the car proved to be less sensitive to simple modifications than recent Toyota and Lexus releases, for example.

For a start, the vehicle will let you add aftermarket wheels and tires without any problems. Some recent Toyota and Lexus models will not even let you do tire rotation without the entire dash turning red as a "danger warning" when you turn on the ignition. It reportedly costs about $200 USD and a trip to the nearest Toyota dealer to get the dash back to normal again.

Luckily, it seems that the new GT-R is a little easier to customize. Most of the GT-Rs at TAS had aftermarket wheels and tires, but not much else. It will be a while before the degree of accessibility of the vehicle is known. It has only just come out, so even the big players in the market like HKS, BLITZ, Endless and Trust have not had time to develop products for the car.

One indication of how aftermarket innovation has surprised even the automakers was a NISMO (Nissan Motorsports) staffer who commented that he was already amazed at some of the work done by the aftermarket companies on the just-released GT-R, in particular the work performed by HKS engineers on the display GT-R in the HKS booth. Next year the same gentleman will probably see 10 other companies he will be surprised at.

4: Drifting Culture Is Alive and Well

This year’s TAS saw a wide range of drift display cars in all sorts of booths, in much the same way that Super GT cars were displayed in past Auto Salons. Drifting has become very mainstream these days, and despite the level of confusion in some parts of the drifting world, the Street Legal drifting series that broke cover at last year’s TAS is contributing as many cars to booths this year as the top level D1 Series. A big booth for the D1 series, a bank of drifting arcade games complemented the display cars and the famous BLITZ R-34 GT-R of D1 Super Driver "Nomuken" will be supplanted this year by a brand-new 2009 GT-R. Drifting culture is alive and well in its home market.

5: Big Aftermarket Makers Continue to Increase Their Product Ranges
The number and variety of products marketed by the large players in the aftermarket such as HKS, BLITZ and GReddy continues to increase in size and breadth. All well-established aftermarket companies are leveraging their brand and expanding into new areas or including and building sub-brands to attract a different type of customer or enter a slightly different area of the market.

Aero parts manufacturer DAMD established a brand directed at women called Ancel. The brand manager is female and Ancel is mainly concentrating on interior modifications, a departure for DAMD as a brand. BLITZ is continuing to develop interior gauges and GPS monitor-based instrument panels, and HKS is making attempts to catch up in this area.

6: GPS Monitor Instrument Clusters

These are increasingly present because there are so many cars on the road in Japan today that have a GPS system fitted. This aftermarket product can be fitted to either an OEM or aftermarket GPS system, and the GPS can either be used as a GPS car navigation system, or with the flick of a switch or push of a button, become an instrument panel with tachometer, speedometer and boost gauge in analog, digital or a mixture of both. Both HKS and BLITZ’s booth had such products, and it’s only a matter of time before many more of these products are available.

7: More Non-Japanese Cars on Display. More Japanese Parts for Non-Japanese Cars

In many Japanese company booths, such as Autobacs, PIAA and HKS, there were European cars that featured aftermarket products made by Japanese companies. HKS, for instance, has produced a range of suspension systems to suit European cars and had a BMW E90 in their booth. As we were told by an HKS employee, the customers that visit shops selling HKS products drive European makes in addition to Japanese cars. There has been a latent demand for high-quality product for these vehicles and customers are increasingly open to Japanese brands, even if they own European cars.

8: Colored Wheels, Lighter Wheels

As noted last year, wheel size is not the main priority for the Japanese aftermarket. The main trend is continual improvements in quality, design and weight loss. There is less chrome shine and an increasing amount of paint and anodizing, resulting in wheels that are “colored bling” rather than “mirror bling.”

BLITZ had an interesting display in their booth, with a "lift it and see" experience corner featuring the standard Nissan GT-R rim, and their brand-new BLITZ Magnesium rim. The standard rim is 27.5 lbs., the BLITZ rim, 21 lbs. You could lift samples of both rims yourself to feel the 6.5 lb. difference. The weight savings for four wheels would be almost 26 lbs. The cost? Very little change out of $10,000 USD, but BLITZ is banking on the willingness of GT-R owners to part with this kind of money to personalize their vehicles.

9: OEM and Aftermarket Cooperation Deepens
Japanese automakers first dipped their toes in the aftermarket water in 1999. Toyota Racing Development (TRD) was the only presence that year, but OEM presence has grown to one-third of the Tokyo Auto Salon. OEM booth sizes had to be restricted a few years ago because of complaints by aftermarket companies who couldn’t get space at the show.

Now many of the OEM booths feature cars that have been modified by the aftermarket, and many of the aftermarket companies are doing significant business with the OEMs, enough that some companies do not feel the need to have their own booths at the show. This trend mirrors the cooperation between the aftermarket and the OEMs seen at the SEMA Show.

10: Rationalization of Booths
There were still many VIP-style cars present at TAS, but there was a noticeable decrease in the size of the booths and the number of cars. A chance meeting with one of the VIP company owners gave the reason.

“We got together and all decided to reduce our presence this year,” he said. “It all came down to a cost-benefit analysis. We get the same benefit with a smaller booth, so why spend the extra money. It’s easier this year because of it.”

Some VIP companies didn’t even appear this year. There was a similar story from the “Big Three” aero kit manufacturers—Ken Style, DAMD and Gialla—none of whom had their own booths this year. There were examples of their cars in OEM and other booths, but according to an employee of one of the “Big Three,” there were no booths this year because “the bosses got together and decided that none of the three of us would take part this year. Everyone knows who we are, and the ROI isn’t what it used to be.”

Tokyo Motor Show

SEMA also had Japanese photographer Kyoshu Mizohata at the 2007 Tokyo Motor Show, who captured the annual gathering of bizarre concepts and state-of-the-art displays of Japanese horsepower and innovation, including this full-body cutaway of Nissan's GT-R.

Lexus may leap into the primo-luxe segment with its LF-A, rumored to make production with a mid-mounted, 500 hp V10 and expected to cost more than $100,000.

Honda pays tribute to its past with the concept CR-Z, a logical successor to the beloved CR-X of the '80s and '90s.

The Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X is the latest, and some say greatest, generation of the famed rally-street performer. With hallmark all-wheel drive and 320 horsepower/325 lb-ft torque, it's one of the most anticipated arrivals of 2008.