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Japan’s Automakers Put Wheels In Motion For Strong Comeback

THURSDAY, OCT. 26, 1995

After four years of gloom, the excitement is coming back.

From a folksy beetle-shaped electric car by Nissan to a heart-stopping wedgelike aluminum sports car by Honda, Japan’s auto industry this week is showing a return to its innovative, sometimes whimsical ways.

“We’re back on the road to profitability,” Mazda president Yoshihiro Wada beamed Wednesday at the preview of the Tokyo Motor Show, held in this city 40 miles east of Tokyo.

The last show two years ago was dominated by frumpy, unexciting concept cars as Japanese makers struggled to cope with the double whammy of a slumping home market and a powerful yen that upped the prices of Japanese exports.

But at this year’s show, which opens to the public Saturday, both Honda’s and Mazda’s exhibits are crowded by prototype recreational and multipurpose vehicles that portend powerful moves into some of the fastest-growing segments of both the U.S. and Japanese markets.

“Within Honda, the doom is easing. We’ve hit the bottom already,” said Honda president Nobuhiko Kawamoto.

The U.S. Big Three automakers also are finally taking aim at Japan’s own market. Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Corp. are looking for a dealer network - a focus of auto trade talks that ended in June - and announcing new models with right-hand steering wheels tailored for the Japanese market.

Overall, U.S. makers say they will offer at least nine North American-made cars with right-hand steering wheels - up from just two models available now.

“We want to have a major presence in Japan and clearly a right-hand drive is necessary to achieve that,” said Ford President Alex Trotman.

Among Japanese auto makers, Honda is exhibiting a striking prototype aluminum sports car called the SSM with a now unusual frontengine, rear-drive design.

Mazda is also showing a beautifully sculpted prototype sports car, the RX-01, that officials say is likely to succeed its flagship RX-7, which has been hurt by sagging demand.

And Toyota Motor Corp., in its own hint of a successor for its MR-2 midship sports car, is exhibiting a prototype midship called the MRJ with a hard top that automatically retracts into its trunk.

The showy cars signal a return of a degree of confidence for Japan’s auto industry.

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