Welcome back to my ongoing discourse on Japanese cars that I think are cool! You may notice that up until this point, I haven’t mentioned any Toyotas. This might seem strange to some readers given that Toyota is the largest of Japanese carmakers. Could is possibly be that I don’t find any Toyotas cool? Nonsense, even though the enthusiast community has a lot to say about how soulless Toyotas are, there are a few that I think are pretty great cars and deserve a spot on my list.
The Toyota Crown is one of Toyota’s Japanese flagships. It is positioned as a premium luxury sedan, competing with similarly sized German rivals. The Crown Athlete is the sporting model, the Crown Royal is the luxury model, and the Crown Majesta is the extended wheelbase high luxury offering. The latest, fourteenth generation Crown came out when I was in Japan in 2013, and I got to sit in one at the Toyota Amlux showroom in Ikebukuro. The Crown is one of the most comfortable cars I’ve ever experienced. The level of luxury in the car is beyond anything I’ve experienced before. The very existence of the Crown might be cause for confusion among some people, especially because the Lexus LS, which competes in the same segement, is also sold in Japan. The Lexus LS is the reason why the Crown will never be sold in the US. Toyota made the Lexus brand because people in export markets would not be inclined to drop serious money on a Toyota-branded luxury sedan. The original Lexus LS was what cemented the brand’s popularity among wealthy consumers in America. However, I was a bit confused when it was announced that Lexus models were going to be sold in Japan, and it has confused Japanese consumers too. Sales of Lexus models have not met expectations, probably because of the long term existence of the Crown. In previous generations, one could even buy a Crown station wagon! In my opinion, the Crown was a strong enough nameplate that Toyota really didn’t need to bring Lexus over to Japan. But would you be surprised if I told you there was another, even more fantastically expensive Toyota flagship?
The Century is Toyota’s most exclusive and venerable model. The Century first debuted in 1967, and was not significantly updated for thirty years! Even then, the second generation car launched in 1997 looks much the same as the previous one did. Today, the Century remains the only front-engine, rear-drive car with a V12 engine ever produced in Japan. Knowing of the stringent taxation on engine displacement that gave rise to the kei car, one can see how having an engine of this size is an extravagant status symbol. As a proposition, the Century sells on subtlety. This car simply reeks of old money. The retro exterior styling stands out as simple and not-unattractive, compared to the Crown that has adopted the modern trends in angles and edges. It still has the same levels of technology, but in a different package. While the Crown says “Look at me, I’m rich”, the Century says “I’ve been rich since before you were born.” As such, Century technology is devoted to making the car as serene as possible. Most buyers opt for cloth seats because its quieter than leather. The door handles release the door electronically, and the doors only need to make contact with the latch, because they shut themselves electronically too. The rear windows are even covered with lace curtains, because tinted windows attract too much attention. All of this refinement comes at a steep price, as a Century costs more than $100,000! This is more expensive than all but the highest level Lexus LS! The most famous purveyor of the Century is the Imperial Household, who are ferried about in several specially built limousine versions. The Century is certainly a unique car, but I can’t help but wonder about its continued existence. As young Japanese people’s desires grow more cosmopolitan, it seems likely that they will be more inclined to buy the Crown, and other competing luxury models from foreign makers. Without a doubt, the Century will continue to be used by the Imperial Household for a long time to come, as their previous cars lasted in service for nearly 40 years!
Another deserving Toyota occupies a segment that couldn’t be farther from the Crown and Century. The Sera was introduced in 1990 as a smaller sporty alternative to the MR2. While it has fairly pedestrian roots, having only a 1.5 liter engine and being based on the Toyota Starlet, the Sera is undeniably an awesome car. It has an almost entirely glass roof, giving a decidedly 1990s bubbly appearance. The butterfly doors are especially notable, being the same style as seen on the McLaren F1 supercar, whose designer, Gordon Murray, was inspired by the Sera. To go with the neat appearance, the Sera was available with some pretty cool features too. There was an advanced audio system option, which featured 10 speakers, and a three mode digital sound processor that was capable of rotating the rear speakers so the sound bounced off the rear hatch/window. There were two optional air cleansers, one of which included a built-in air freshener with exchangable fragrance packs. You could equip your Sera to pump out such enlightening fragrances as Morning Green, White Herb, and Sazan Floral. Strangely, these packs are rather illogical in their packaging. Would you expect Morning Green to be green? Wrong. Its orange. Well, then what color is White Herb? Aha! That’s the green one! Sazan Floral makes sense, that one’s yellow. There was also Peppermint, which is blue, and Deodorizer, which is white. It looks like Toyota just decided to go crazy with this car and throw out all the rules!
In my last article, I mentioned the station wagon as a holy grail of automotive enthusiasm. Probably the best Japanese station wagon is the Nissan Stagea. The Stagea was developed to compete with the Subaru Legacy Wagon. It differs, however, in that the Stagea was built on a rear-wheel drive platform. It thus shared many components with Nissan’s higher tier rear-drive models, including the Gloria, Cedric, and Skyline. Yes, that’s right. The Stagea is a wagon Skyline. Now, at face value, there’s not much special about that, since all Skylines up until the R32 were available in station wagon guise. What makes the Stagea unique from the previous Skyline wagons is that its highest spec engine was the same 2.6 liter twin turbo unit as found in the R33 Skyline GT-R. So in certain trims, the Stagea was a GT-R wagon. Awesome! While the Stagea was technically the wagon counterpart of the Nissan Laurel, everyone more closely associated it with the Skyline. Nissan tuning shop Autech took this connection a step further by releasing a model with all the same tuning modifications as the GT-R. Some people have even attached an R34 Skyline front end, essentially creating an R34 wagon. Just like the Skyline, the Stagea moved to the new platform with the release of the V35, and lost any connection with future GT-Rs. The Stagea was eventualy replaced by the rather dismal Skyline Crossover, sold in America as the Infiniti EX/QX50.
Next we’ve got a significantly newer car, the Subaru Levorg. Despite the weird sounding name, the Levorg is for me the most exciting car Subaru makes today. Size-wise, it slots in between the Impreza hatchback and the Outback crossover wagon. This places the Levorg in a similar position to the discontinued Legacy wagon. There are a few hints as to what maked the Levorg special in its appearance. First, the Levorg shares its front fascia with the WRX. In America, the release of the WRX brought shock and outrage that Subaru wouldn’t be producing a hatchback body style for the WRX or the STi. This visual link shows that, at least globally, Subaru is still offering a more commodious body for its flagship boy racer. My reasoning for this is that since Subaru spun the WRX off into its own model line, dropping the Impreza WRX designation, a hatchback WRX would be too strongly associated with the current Impreza hatchback. However, bringing the Levorg in sets up a different connection, tying the current WRX to the pre-2007 Impreza WRX STi hatchbacks, which were marketed as wagons. In addition, the Levorg is powered by the same engine as the WRX. In my dreams, I would love to see the Levorg come to North America as a WRX wagon, but this seems unlikely. However, it doesn’t hurt to dream, and hopefully with Subaru’s wildly successful sales year in 2014, they might drop some money to localize the Levorg for sale in North America. But hopefully with a better name.