Last revised: 26-1-2009

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AutoRAI 2007: the concept cars

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Suzuki_Ionis_2005At the Suzuki stand there was also an official concept, the Ionis which appeared first at the 2005 Tokyo Motor Show. It's an unmistakably Japanese mini car concept with futuristic science-fiction looks. Basically the Ionis explores the possibilities of fitting fuel-cell technology effectively into a small car.
The buzz which accompanied hydrogen powered cars since the beginning of the new century has died down a bit. Short term feasibility appears to be unlikely due to cost problems (fuel-cells depend on expensive platinum as a catalyst), storage problems (hydrogen dissipates quickly and is highly inflammable) and the lacking sustainable production of hydrogen (traditional energy sources like oil or coal are still needed to make hydrogen). This means that a lot of technologic breakthroughs and considerable investments have to be made before hydrogen powered cars will be practical and affordable for the general public. And even though the technology behind hydrogen powered fuel-cells has already proven itself at the time of the 2007 AutoRAI in vehicles like buses and experimental cars and vans the general adoption of this alternative power source, if at all, will be a matter of decades.
As a result of this disillusion the number of fuel-cell concept cars seems to have dwindled and manufacturers looking for an eco-friendly image have turned to more obvious, short term alternatives like hybrid petro-electric propulsion or, more sensibly, biofuels like ethanol or vegetable oil.

Suzuki_Ionis_2005In spite of this Suzuki has pressed on with the development of a compact fuel-cell package. Hydrogen tanks and an innovative small fuel-cell have been stored within the chassis of the Ionis, under the cabin floor. The small nose of this concept conceals an electric motor, powered by the fuel-cell, which drives the front wheels.
Suzuki seems to have taken the long gestation of hydrogen power into account in their exterior and interior design. Without looking too flashy the exterior could be imagined as being something from the far future. Its lines are simple and streamlined, envisioning a water crafted shape. The unusual LED headlights and the unhappy looking grill give it an unique appearance, as does the ripple on the sides. Other striking features are the bicolored paintjob and the dissimilar sides with on one side a large sliding door and at the other two regular doors.
A similarity with the Bandit concept from the previous page shows in the interior: a hardwood floor. Apparently very fashionable in Japan and in this case even the dash shows wood veneer. Effectively the Ionis is a 4-seater with two rows of two uncomfortable looking seats. However one of the front seats can be removed (and stowed away in the back) to create a central driving position by sliding both the remaining seat and the instrument cluster to the middle, as shown on this picture.
The Ionis may be a look into the future of the compact car and shows some interesting technology and design features. Clearly it won't result in a production model anytime soon but it isn't an unrealistic dreamcar either. It does a good job as a visualization of what the next generation will be driving.

Toyota_Fine-T_2006Toyota's Fine-T concept is similar to yet slightly less convincing as the Suzuki Ionis. This too is a compact 4-seater car with fuel-cell technology fitted under the cabin floor. Another similarity is its introduction at the 2005 Tokyo Motor Show, under the name of Fine-X. Later it was rehashed into the Fine-T which made it debut at the 2006 North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
Though sprouted from the same principles as the Ionis, the results are quite different. Most interesting innovation in this concept is the fuel-cell itself. It features a hybrid catalyst which reduces the need of expensive metals like platinum, really a progression this technology needs to become feasible on a large scale. Another, less important difference is that the Fine-T has four wheel drive and steering. Each wheel is propelled by a small electric motor powered by the fuel-cell. Also each wheel as an electric actuator so it can be steered independently by the drive-by-wire system of the car. This system has different modes for optimal parallel parking, directional changes or U-turns. Drive-by-wire means that controls like the steering wheel, the accelerator and the brake pedal have no direct, mechanical connection to the wheels and the engines but that the manoeuvres the driver makes are translated by a computer in output which in turn operates the car by wire connections.

Toyota_Fine-T_2006A fancy drive system must be combined with an equally fancy exterior and interior seems to have been the Fine-T's motto. Whether it's also tasteful appears to have been a different matter. In some aspects the Fine-T reminds of the small bubble-cars of the 1950s.
The exterior is dominated by the two huge gull-wing doors and the large panoramic windscreen. In front there is a large Toyota logo in the center of the hood like a stubby nose flanked by squinting headlights. The wheel arches are flared in way that recall classic separate wings. Closed the Fine-T resembles a cabin on wheels.
Inside the Fine-T the interior conveys images of both classic science fiction movies and a boudoir. It's a full 4-seater in pearly cream and metallic hues with swiveling front seats which allow for easy access. When the doors are opened the seats slide backward and turn to the opening so its passengers only have to get up and walk away. The star-ship like controls are mounted on a arm which moves the controls away from the driver when not used. A special feature of the interior is that it's largely made of materials of vegetable origin which can be disposed off without adding carbon dioxide to the environment.
In some ways a bit of an obsolete space-age design, this Fine-T. Like the Ionis it's not preceding a serious fuel-cell production model. As a showcase for Toyota's innovative fuel-cell technology it could have done with less bells and whistles and more rational styling. Now its odd appearance distracts from its most important feature.

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