The 1999 iteration of the Tokyo Motor Show was everything everyone expected - and then some.

Although the Japanese economy appears to be only slowly emerging from a protracted downturn - and just before the show, Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. laid bare the depth of its business woes (see p.55) - the country's automakers put on a show of impressive optimism combined with some genuinely wacky concepts.

Two themes prevailed: The need to connect with the "youth" customer (an idea with which all automakers lately seem preoccupied), and the usual "environmental friendliness" motif that has become the expected Tokyo Motor Show maxim.

Throughout the show's three main exhibit halls, the domestic carmakers exhorted consumers, in some way or another, to "have fun." The message was meant to attract the notoriously trend-conscious Japanese youth while simultaneously signaling their parents that the economy is rebounding and spending money for a new vehicle is no longer irresponsible.

This year, however, the import automakers display virtually nothing of any importance. At the Tokyo show two years ago (the show is biennial), BMW AG unveiled the Z07, Volkswagen AG debuted the W12 supercar and Mercedes-Benz uncovered the ultra-luxurious Maybach. This year, all showed up at Tokyo with little more than standard production-car displays or concepts already seen elsewhere.

As usual, the Japanese automakers went heavy on hybrids - in both senses of the word. There were numerous crossover-type hybrids, blending the line between passenger-car and minivan/truck/sport/utility vehicle, as well as a rash of hybrid drivetrain vehicles. Almost every Japanese automaker was talking about direct-injection (DI) engines - both gasoline and diesel - as well as continuously variable transmissions (CVTs).

Honda Motor Co. Ltd. broke out of its usual conservative box with probably the show's goofiest concept, the hilarious Fuyo-Jo, which everyone immediately dubbed "the toaster," joined by the good-looking but rather outlandish Spocket truck/sports car.

The automaker that tugged best at the heartstrings was Mazda Motor Corp. First, it displayed the next evolution of the rotary engine, for now dubbed Renesis, the combination of "rotary" and "genesis." The new, all-sideport design apparently gets Mazda past some of the rotary's former emissions bugaboos. Then came the car powered by Renesis - the RX Evolve, a four-place sports car billed as the spiritual successor to the much-loved but little-bought (at least in its last generation) RX-7 sports car.

Not everyone liked the RX Evolve, but it was agreed that it offered an intriguing design, as were most of the concepts at the last Tokyo Motor Show of the century.