TOKYO — Once upon a time, Japanese automakers looked like electrified-vehicle visionaries.
Toyota pioneered a bold new future with its Prius gasoline-electric hybrid. Honda was the first to bring a hybrid to North America, in its ultraefficient Insight. And Nissan amped it up a notch with its full-electric Leaf hatchback, a risky reach to deliver a legitimate mass-market EV.
Fast forward to the present, and Japan looks a little lost in the haze. Especially compared with the buzz generated by Tesla and ambitious EV plans by rivals such as Volkswagen. Even China's vast field of wannabe EV makers seems poised to surge ahead.
Toyota is still by far the world's hybrid leader, but it doesn't have a single full electric in the lineup. Honda is struggling to find traction for electrified cars outside Japan: The new Insight, for instance, is outsold in the U.S. by the Fit subcompact. And Nissan still leans on the Leaf, now in its second generation, as its primary EV offering, despite pretenses of being an EV leader.
But as recent events show, Japan is finally rousing from its doldrums.
This month, Toyota pulled forward its electrification sales target by five years, citing a surge in the popularization of the technology. It wants to have at least 10 full-electric vehicles on the market in the early 2020s, starting with the first being introduced in China next year.
And critically, Toyota is seeing the first fruits of its all-Japan EV consortium with affiliates Subaru, Mazda, Suzuki and Daihatsu. It will develop a dedicated EV platform with Subaru to underpin a full-electric crossover. And it's working with Suzuki and Daihatsu on compact EVs.
While other automakers cast about for partners to share the costly r&d burden — think Renault and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles — Toyota's alliance has baked-in group volume topping a whopping 16.5 million vehicles. That makes Team Toyota the world's biggest EV cooperative.
Nissan also has a new EV platform in the works. It will debut as soon as next year. And it promises to dial up the driving dynamics — in a world in which EV enthusiasts crave Teslas.
Nissan's next-generation electrification play — which has hybrids in the form of its signature e-Power range extender — will include Infiniti, offering a boost to the beleaguered premium brand. One wild card: Will rocky relations with Renault ruin the run?
Honda, too, is belatedly getting serious about EVs — at least in Europe.
In March, Japan's No. 3 automaker said it wanted 100 percent of its European sales to be electrified by 2025. And to foreshadow what it has it mind, it rolled out the Honda e Prototype, a smartly designed, full-electric urban commuter with a sporty rear-wheel-drive layout.
Customers in Europe can start placing orders for the production version this summer.
If Japan's carmakers were falling behind in the EV race, they are rapidly making up for lost time by pursuing scale, expanding overseas and focusing on offerings that are fun to drive.