Japan’s automakers are keeping sports cars alive in the EV era

In auto enthusiast circles, there have been two widely shared sentiments in recent years: auto shows are dying off, and the onset of electrification will bring about the death of sports cars and driving fun. 

While the latter statement is heavily debatable, the former isn’t. Even before the covid-19 pandemic, fewer and fewer automakers were investing in auto shows, with many pulling out entirely, leaving once-packed convention centers in the US and Europe feeling barren and boring. Instead of fighting with competitors for media coverage and show floor space, most car companies now host their own dedicated reveal events, and we can’t really blame them.

In Japan this week, though, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was still 2005. What used to be called the Tokyo Motor Show has been rebranded as the Japan Mobility Show, with a broader focus on all sorts of futuristic modes of transportation, not just cars and motorcycles like before.

Dozens of vehicles have debuted at the show, from production kei vans and crossover concepts to eVTOL (electric vertical takeoff and landing) prototypes and robotic scooters. I truly can’t remember the last time an auto show had this much new product to talk about, aside from some shows in China that are typically much more focused on the Chinese market. 

In Japan this week, though, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was still 2005

But there were five new debuts in particular that have taken the world by storm. Honda, Mazda, Nissan, Subaru, and Toyota all revealed show-stopping sports car concepts that feature fully electric or hybrid powertrains, with each brand committing to keeping enthusiast segments alive amid the global EV transition. None of them seem too far-fetched or far away from production, and some of these concepts were even genuine surprises, which is extremely rare in this day and age, especially at an auto show. 

That’s not to say the Japanese automakers are the only ones working on electric performance cars. Porsche’s next-generation Boxster and Cayman will debut next year as full EVs, though they will be sold alongside the existing gas-powered models for a while. Most other brands are being even more cautious.

Electric sports cars from other high-end brands like Audi, Lotus, and Mercedes-AMG are still years away, with no concepts to even give us a taste of what to expect, while supercar companies like Ferrari and McLaren are only just starting to talk about making EVs. Pininfarina and Rimac currently sell incredible electric hypercars but only in limited numbers and at a cost of over $2 million each.

Honda, Mazda, Nissan, Subaru, and Toyota all revealed show-stopping sports car concepts

There are even fewer performance EVs on the horizon from mainstream brands. The next Dodge Charger was previewed with an electric concept, but it seems like the production car will also be available with a gas engine, and we’re probably years away from seeing an electric Ford Mustang or Chevy Camaro. Hyundai and Kia have the Ioniq 5 N and EV6 GT performance models, but both are based on family crossovers.

Japan has long been a bastion of affordable performance cars of many different types, and these five concepts represent the exact kind of variety that enthusiasts dream about. Even if only one or two of these cars had debuted, it would be big news, so getting all of them at once is pretty incredible. Reports of the auto show’s death may have been premature after all.

Honda Prelude Concept

Photo by Tomohiro Ohsumi / Getty Images

The most visually production-ready of the sports cars shown, Honda’s reborn Prelude is also the most conventional-looking. It’s a cab-forward, two-door coupe that more closely evokes the discontinued Civic coupe than Preludes of the past. The Prelude features a fresh design language for Honda with an angry face and crisp surfacing, and its raked roofline and stubby proportions either look great or too much like an old Mitsubishi Eclipse, depending on who you ask. Even details like the lights and bumpers look like they could go straight into production, and the concept even has real panel gaps and glass surrounds.

Honda’s CEO described the concept as “a prelude for Honda’s future models” that will bring the brand’s “joy of driving” philosophy “into the full-fledged electrified future.” To that end, the Prelude concept is a hybrid, not a full EV. The production Prelude will most likely ride on the same platform as the Civic sedan and use the new Civic Hybrid’s powertrain setup, which pairs a four-cylinder engine and two electric motors. Fingers crossed there will be a high-performance Type R version, too.

The most visually production-ready of the sports cars shown, Honda’s reborn Prelude is also the most conventional-looking

While Honda could eventually come out with an EV version of the Prelude, it doesn’t have an ideal platform yet, and the Civic platform might be tough to fully electrify. Honda is still using General Motors’ Ultium platform for EVs like the Prologue, the brands’ proposed architecture for affordable EVs has been canceled, and Honda’s own e:Architecture platform won’t be ready until 2025 (and that’s for larger cars anyway). A Prelude EV could ride on a version of the European e:Ny1 crossover’s front-wheel-drive platform, which was developed in-house by Honda, but that doesn’t seem suitable for this model either.

Regardless of what powertrain the Prelude uses, it’s pretty exciting to see a brand-new, affordable coupe coming to market. It’s a once-thriving segment that has almost completely died off, with everything from the high cost of production to low customer interest cited as the culprit. The increased popularity of crossovers is certainly a factor, too, and those models usually have higher profit margins. Yeah, you can still get cars like the Ford Mustang, but that’s a totally different sort of vehicle and buyer demographic. In even more exciting news, Honda has already teased two fully electric sports cars in its pipeline, one of which will be a flagship successor to the NSX.

In addition to the Prelude, Honda showed off half a dozen electric bikes and scooters, including the incredible Motocompacto that will go on sale in the US later this year. There’s also the Sustaina-C concept, a small hatchback made from recycled acrylic resin, and the CI-MEV, an autonomous microcar for elderly people who can’t walk, drive, or easily take public transit. On the more wacky side, Honda revealed an Avatar Robot that can remotely perform tasks for the controlling user and the Uni-One wheelchair-like mobility device that can be controlled without using your hands by just shifting your body weight. Oh, and Honda’s eVTOL and HondaJet are on display, too.

Mazda Iconic SP Concept

After years of concepts and rumors, it seems like Mazda is finally getting close to putting a rotary-powered sports car back into production, this time with an unexpected twist. The new Iconic SP concept uses a rotary engine as a range extender for an electric powertrain, similar to the Chevrolet Volt and BMW i3 REx, and the whole thing seems pretty grounded in reality.

Before focusing on the powertrain, just take a look at the Iconic SP — it’s absolutely stunning. A two-door coupe with swan-wing doors, a fixed roof, and what presumably is a liftback glass hatch, Mazda describes the Iconic SP as a car that “embodies the joy of driving.” It’s perfectly proportioned, with wonderfully sculpted, super wide fenders, an extremely sloping hood and low nose, and minimal surfacing frippery. Mazda’s signature smiling grille is present, but otherwise, there are no large intakes, big exhaust tips, or other typical sports car cues. But the Iconic SP does mark the return of pop-up headlights, with the slim LEDs hiding behind a small cover when not in use.

It’s absolutely stunning

Despite the Miata-inspired design cues, the Iconic SP is more like an RX-7 revival both in size and purpose. At 164.6 inches long, 72.8 inches wide, and 45.3 inches tall, it’s 10.5 inches longer, 4.5 inches wider, and 3.3 inches lower than the current ND MX-5 Miata, and the Iconic SP’s 102-inch wheelbase is 11.1 inches longer.

Mazda says the Iconic SP’s two-rotor engine is mounted in the center of the car, which helps give it a perfect 50:50 weight distribution and a low center of gravity. With a stated weight of 3,197 pounds, the Iconic SP is also around 850 pounds heavier than a Miata but still lighter than the vast majority of existing electrified vehicles. We don’t know battery size and placement or how many electric motors the Iconic SP has and how powerful they are, but Mazda says total output is 365 horsepower, more than double what a Miata makes.

Unlike in a traditional hybrid, the Iconic SP’s rotary doesn’t actually power the wheels. Instead, it is used as a generator to charge up the battery, which then sends juice to the electric motor. The rotary can burn carbon-neutral fuels, including hydrogen, and depending on charge, the Iconic SP can be driven under electric power only. The Iconic SP can also be plugged in to charge the battery, and it features V2X capabilities. 

The Iconic SP’s powertrain might sound fantastical, but Mazda has been fervently working on rotary range-extenders for years now. In Europe, the MX-30 crossover is currently available in R-EV guise, which uses a single-rotor motor as a generator in the same way as the Iconic SP. Earlier this year, Mazda filed six patents related to rotary powertrains, as well as multiple patents for rotary hybrid sports car packages. Mazda has previously confirmed that a next-generation Miata is coming, and it will use some sort of electrified powertrain. The NE Miata is likely to have a standard hybrid setup, both to keep costs and weight down and preserve the Miata’s analog feel. That would definitely leave room in Mazda’s lineup for a more upmarket sports car like the Iconic SP, and it seems more likely than ever to actually be happening. 

Nissan Hyper Force Concept

Photo by Ahmet Furkan Mercan/Anadolu via Getty Images

By far the most outlandish concept of the group, the Nissan Hyper Force concept is a pretty blatant preview of the long-awaited R36 GT-R. This supercar’s carbon-fiber body looks straight out of a sci-fi movie, mixing dramatic angles and flat surfaces with some wild, active aerodynamic elements. Its massive chin, extreme diffuser, and big rear wing provide tons of downforce, and the grille shape and round taillights are obvious GT-R cues. As with previous GT-Rs, Nissan collaborated with Gran Turismo developer Polyphony Digital on the in-cabin graphics and infotainment. The Hyper Force’s multitude of screens move around the driver depending on drive mode, shifting colors and showing different information, and when the car’s not in motion, it can be used as a VR gaming setup.

Nissan says the Hyper Force uses a solid-state battery pack, something the company has already started working on. Nissan’s first solid-state batteries will enter pilot production in Japan in 2024, with the first production EV using them to go on sale by 2028. It’s unknown how many electric motors the Hyper Force uses, but Nissan says it makes a whopping 1,341 horsepower that’s sent to all four wheels via the brand’s e-4ORCE technology.

This supercar’s carbon-fiber body looks straight out of a sci-fi movie

The current R35 GT-R was first unveiled in 2007, and while it has undergone many updates since then, it’s felt long in the tooth for years and sales numbers haven’t hit four digits in almost a decade. Nissan executives have been hinting at what the R36 follow-up could be like for years, with most recent rumors pointing toward it being a full EV, but it’s unlikely that the R36 will be out before 2028. At least the Hyper Force is our first concrete look at what to expect and proof that Nissan is still taking the GT-R’s future seriously. 

The Hyper Force is one of five “Hyper” concepts that Nissan unveiled in Tokyo, with the lineup including a wild Hyper Tourer minivan and a Hyper Punk crossover designed for content creators. All five concepts are available to play in Fortnite, and they were featured in a digital 3D billboard in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district. These concepts might seem completely over the top to you, and they certainly are, but each one packs technology ideas and design themes that will be used in future Nissan production cars. I hope the names stick around, too.

Subaru Sport Mobility Concept

After developing two generations of rear-wheel-drive sports coupes together, Toyota is breaking off from Subaru for the next-generation 86 (which will still be gas-powered), leaving Subaru on its own to decide the BRZ’s fate. Subaru debuted its new Sport Mobility concept in Tokyo, which sure seems like a preview of an electric BRZ successor.

Like most new Subaru designs, the Sport Mobility concept has gotten mixed reactions, but I think it looks awesome. It’s got a boxy, upright stance with a tall greenhouse reminiscent of the 1980s XT coupe, which Subaru says lends it a low seating position that still has great visibility. Chunky wheel arches are separated from the body by bright blue accents, and it has thin LED lights with rally-style inboard headlights. Take away some of the unrealistic material choices and details, and the Sport Mobility’s design could easily translate to a production coupe.

Like most new Subaru designs, the Sport Mobility concept has gotten mixed reactions

In traditional Subaru fashion, the Sport Mobility is implied to be all-wheel drive and potentially have rear-wheel steering, but we don’t know any further details. Subaru is likely to continue sharing platforms and powertrains with Toyota, so the production car could use Toyota’s upcoming solid-state batteries. Subaru has said it will launch three new EVs by 2026, but all of them will be SUVs using as-yet-unknown powertrains and platforms. Subaru has also said that it’s working on a fully electric next-generation WRX STI for later this decade, and a coupe could definitely be spun off of that car. A potential BRZ replacement would be at least a few years away anyway, so here’s hoping the Sport Mobility comes to fruition.

Hanging above the Sport Mobility on Subaru’s stand is the Air Mobility concept, a UFO-like flying vehicle that has a car-like cabin, six horizontally mounted propellers, and a funny set of head- and taillights. Though it’s just a static model for now, Subaru says it’s actually working on real-life flight demonstrations with aerospace and automotive engineers.

Toyota FT-Se Concept

It’s been 16 years since Toyota last offered a mid-engined sports car with the third-gen MR2, and it’s bringing that car’s spirit back with the electric FT-Se concept. Toyota first teased an electric sports car a couple years ago, and the FT-Se’s design is an evolution of what we’ve seen before. Toyota isn’t confirming whether the FT-Se will enter production, but it seems like a sure bet.

The FT-Se looks phenomenal, unlike any other Toyota in history — in a good way. It seems quite small, and Toyota says it was designed with aerodynamics in mind. There are large intakes at the front and rear, thin LED lights and awesome angular fenders, and Toyota showed photos of one version with a big fixed rear wing. Little details like reflector lights add to the FT-Se’s production-intent looks. The interior is pretty radical, with a yoke steering wheel flanked by rectangular displays and a narrow dashboard. Still, take away some of the sillier elements like the prominent hand grips, and the FT-Se’s cabin isn’t that far off from what could be produced.

The FT-Se looks phenomenal, unlike any other Toyota in history

Sadly, Toyota has given out barely any details or specs for the FT-Se, but we can make some fairly solid assumptions. Toyota says it shares a modular architecture and many components with the brand’s other next-gen EVs, including a gigacasted body and new prismatic battery cells that are slimmer and mounted behind the occupants to give it mid-engine weight distribution and handling characteristics. Toyota’s images show the FT-Se performing some lurid drifts, and it will most likely have a rear-biased all-wheel-drive system. The FT-Se also seems like the ideal candidate for the simulated manual transmission that Toyota is developing for EVs.

Among Toyota’s other Tokyo concepts are the Land Cruiser Se, a large electric SUV with three rows of seats, and the FT-3e, a super cool electric crossover that previews the replacement for the existing (and underwhelming) bZ4X. Toyota also showed off an electric kei van designed for different business solutions, a modular flatbed pickup, an electric wheelchair with autonomous capabilities, a new type of steering yoke with hand controls for people with disabilities, and even a drivable lunar rover prototype. But most relevant for the US market is the super cute EPU, a Ford Maverick–style compact electric pickup that looks extremely production-ready.

The Lexus brand also revealed a pair of concepts based on Toyota’s next-gen EV architecture. The LF-ZC previews an IS-sized production sedan coming in 2026 that will have twice the range of existing EVs, while the LF-ZL is a flagship luxury crossover with less immediate production intent. Lexus is still working on its own high-performance EV sports car, having first shown the Electrified Sport concept in 2021. 

A sign of what’s to come

Photo by Ahmet Furkan Mercan / Anadolu via Getty Images

Japan’s adoption of electric cars has been even slower than other countries, both in terms of actual sales volume and introduction of EV models by Japanese automakers. So far, only 1.5 percent of new car sales in Japan this year were EVs, compared to around 15 percent in Western Europe and 8 percent in the US.

The current most popular EV in Japan is the Nissan Sakura (and its Mitsubishi eK X twin), a tiny kei vehicle with a price tag of around $13,000 that has accounted for more than half of EV sales this year. Other brands will be coming out with other electric kei cars over the next few years, capitalizing on the microcar segment that makes up more than one-third of all car sales in Japan.

The popularity of hybrids in the country, high EV price tags, and the lack of charging infrastructure are also hindrances to Japan’s EV transition, just like in the US. While most major Japanese automakers have plans to launch a multitude of EVs by the end of this decade globally, Japan might still remain one of the biggest holdouts for overall adoption.

But this lineup of sporty concepts at the Japan Mobility Show is a sign that not only are the automakers serious about electrification, but they also want to keep the spirit of driving enjoyment alive in our new era. Potentially ushering in the rebirth of relevant auto shows is the cherry on top.


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