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Mini electric vehicle makers take aim at Japan's 'kingdom of small cars'

Tokyo Motor Show draws affordable electrics from Switzerland, Thailand and China

Oliver Ouboter, chief operating officer of Swiss electric vehicle maker Micro Mobility Systems, introduces a model at the Tokyo Motor Show inspired by the 1950s bubble cars. (Photo by Kenji Kawase)

TOKYO -- Measuring less than two and a half meters long and with a door on its front rather than sides, the Microlino is an electric homage to the Italian "bubble car" of the 1950s. Its Swiss maker is betting it will be a hit in Japan.

"We realize most cars are overengineered," Oliver Ouboter, chief operating officer of Micro Mobility Systems, told the Nikkei Asian Review at the Tokyo Motor Show, which wrapped up earlier this month. "Our idea was to make a car that was ... between a motorbike and a car."

Breaking into Japan's auto market is an ambitious goal. The market is dominated by Toyota, Nissan and other auto giants that are known for their technological prowess and deep pockets.

But Ouboter is confident that the two-seater Microlino, which can travel up to 200 km on a single charge, will appeal to drivers in Japan's cramped cities, much as the affordable Isetta -- the Italian-designed microcar that served as its inspiration -- won over postwar drivers in Europe.

A Microlino is parked between two other cars in Zurich, Switzerland.   © Reuters

Nor is he alone among niche car makers seeking to crack Japan's market with sometimes quirky designs -- Thai and Chinese companies are doing the same -- although none quite have Ouboter's transport pedigree.

His father, Wim Ouboter, invented a kickboard scooter 20 years ago that went on to become a global hit, leading the company to produce an electric version in 2013. This eventually led Oliver Ouboter, his father and his brother Merlin to develop electric cars.

Though their kickscooters found an international audience, the target markets for their cars are confined mainly to Europe and Japan at present. Ouboter says he has received about 16,000 orders online, with most coming from Europe and about 1,500 from Japan.

The Microlino's batteries are made by China Aviation Lithium Battery, or CALB, but Ouboter is not counting on China or other Asian countries as markets at this point.

For one thing, he does not see a price tag of 12,000 euros ($13,300) for a mini-electric vehicle being competitive in the world's biggest auto market.

"In China, people are still in the mindset of bigger cars," he said. "They only want small cars if they are cheap."

Italian EV maker Tazzari plans to begin producing the Microlino next year. Sales in Japan are scheduled to start in 2021, with partners for assembly in the country being sought.

By contrast, where Micro Mobility Systems emphasizes design and efficiency, electric vehicle startup FOMM is focusing on functionality.

FOMM -- which stands for "first one mile and mobility" -- was established by Hideo Tsurumaki, an engineer who built his career at Suzuki Motor.

The company began mass producing its initial FOMM One model in Chonburi, on the outskirts of Bangkok, for the Thai market in March after partnering with PEA Encom, a unit of a local public power supplier.

This front-wheel drive, four-seater EV offers a few unique features. The accelerator is controlled by a handle, not a pedal, to avoid confusion with the brake -- a serious issue for countries like Japan, which has seen a spate of deadly accidents involving elderly drivers.

The battery in the FOMM One is interchangeable, allowing drivers to exceed the 166 km limit of a single charge.

Perhaps the most surprising feature of the car is that it can navigate in water. PEA Encom sent three of the vehicles to northern Thailand during a flood, delivering needed materials to isolated regions. But Tsurumaki emphasized that "this function is to be used only in emergency situations" and that the owner must take the car in for maintenance afterward.

More than 200 FOMM One units have been sold in Thailand, with a standard price of 664,000 baht ($22,000). Tsurumaki plans to crack the Japanese market next spring. His motivation for this is personal: "As a Japanese person, I wish to see my cars running on Japanese streets."

Japanese engineer Hideo Tsurumaki looks to debut his Thai-made FOMM One electric vehicle in Japan next year. (Photo by Kenji Kawase)

As Tsurumaki prepares to hit Japan's roads with his made-in-Thailand EV, a made-in-China rival already has a head start. Tying up with Japanese used car dealer Apple International, Nanjing Jiayuan Special Electric Vehicles Manufacturing has made a full-fledged debut in the country with the e-Apple, a one-seater that can travel up to 120 km on a single charge.

The vehicle reaches a top speed of 55 kph, but limiting the speed to 30 kph extends battery life. The price tag is an affordable 1 million yen ($9,260).

"Japan is a kingdom of small cars," Li Hui, chairman of Nanjing Jiayuan, told Nikkei at the Tokyo Motor Show. "We have to try it out in the most developed market in the world to find out whether our product is good or not."

Li Hui, chairman of Nanjing Jiayuan Special Electric Vehicles Manufacturing, has collaborated with used car dealer Apple International to test his one-seater "e-Apple" in Japan. (Photo by Kenji Kawase)

Nanjing Jiayuan was established in 1982 by Li's parents, who were physics teachers exploring the possibility of solar energy. After Li joined in 1993, the company gradually shifted gears toward electric vehicles.

The company has sold over 20,000 units in 46 countries, including Germany, Li said. His latest ambition is to tackle another developed auto market and sell 1,000 units in Japan within a year.

Nobuhiro Tajima, founding chairman of Tajima Motor, a Tokyo-based dealer and EV manufacturer, has assisted Nanjing Jiayuan for the past three years, including importing a few dozen two-seater electric vehicles for a limited car-sharing scheme and test runs.

Tajima, a former professional motorsport driver known as "Monster Tajima," knows a thing or two about cars. And he has some advice for those looking to break into the Japanese market: "Selling cars in this country is about safety and post-sales servicing."

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