Современные модели Toyota

Toyota Yaris / Vitz / Echo
Related models: WiLL VI, dB / Scion xB, ist / Scion xA

I used to ignored the Starlet and wasted no time in writing about it. It simply wasn't in the same league of European's super mini. Things is going to be changed when Toyota replaced the Starlet with a radical new car called Yaris. Not only appears as Vitz in Japan and Echo in North America, it will also be produced in France starting from mid-1999, eventually reaching the rate of 200,000 units a year. Hopefully it will be a strong force in the super mini market currently leading by Peugeot 206, Renault Clio, Fiat Punto etc. 

The Yaris is styled by Toyota's European studio in Brussel, which also penned the odd-looking European Corolla hatchback. Given a new clean sheet of paper, they have done a great job to create a stylish, distinctive yet functional small car. Formerly appeared as concept car "Fun Time" in 1997, the design team deleted the two tone color scheme in front bumper and tail gate, but the overall shape is unchanged. I'm sure most people will love it. 

The exterior dimensions (Length / Width / Height / Wheelbase : 3610 / 1660 / 1500 / 2370) imply a very modernized philosophy of design. Compare with VW Lupo, the length and width are 83mm and 21mm longer, but a close contest with Renault Clio finds 163mm short of length. So it seems the Yaris rivals to the Lupo, Seat Arosa, Fiat Seicento, Renault Twingo etc. rather than Peugeot 206, Fiat Punto and Renault Clio. However, considering the wheelbase, which is more essential to interior space, Yaris is 102mm shorter than the benchmark Clio, or 72mm shorter than Peugeot 206, but 47mm longer than VW Lupo. Moreover, the body height of 1500mm exceeds all rivals - Peugeot by 68mm, Renault by 83mm, Lupo by 40mm. Therefore the little Toyota actually steals sales from both categories. 

Although the wheelbase is shorter than all other super minis (not sub-mini), interior space actually exceed all of them bar Fiat Punto, thanks to the upright seats which make use of the excessive height. Especially the leg room and head room in rear seats is bigger than Clio and even the 206. Apart from the Fiat, only Renault Twingo (whose wheelbase is even shorter, at 2345mm) can match its space efficiency. 

To European's super mini makers, Yaris's 1-litre engine is a dream. While the Fiat, Volkswagen, Renault and Peugeot still employ single cam 2-valve engine of roughly the same size, Toyota has twin cam, 4-valve head, individual coil on spark plug and the VVT-i variable valve timing. Class leading 67hp / 6,000rpm and 66 lbft / 4,000rpm output guarantee the highest performance of any 1-litre super mini, while the fuel consumption remains unaffected. 

However, in Europe the Yaris is expected to compete with those equipped with 1.2 litres to 1.4 litres rivals. To a certain extent there is no replacement for displacement, especially is for those small engines. Japan's MOTOR magazine tested the Vitz 3 doors against Ford Ka (1.3 litres 59hp/5000rpm, 77lbft/2500rpm) and Renault Twingo (1.15 litres, 60hp/5250rpm, 69lbft/2500rpm). It found the Vitz feels least powerful, especially at low and mid range. As the high-revving dohc engine deliver its peak torque at some 1,500rpm above its rivals, no wonder drivability is worse than those old tech 2-valves-per-cylinder units. 

To keen drivers, this is not always bad. UK's Autocar, for example, like this engine very much. Keep changing the quick (if slightly notchy) gearbox results in 14.2sec for 0-60mph, even faster than the Ka's 14.7sec. Oddly, the open roads in Europe suits the little Toyota better ! The British love it not only for its demanding character, but also because it revolves smoother and more refined than rivals, bar its comrade Nissan Micra. And then you'll find a paradox - Autocar said above 5,500rpm the engine becomes noisy and harsher, isn't that the revvy engine always need to be operated at such speed to deliver its full strength ? Perhaps the Japanese magazine is right again : it rated the quietness field at 3 stars, that is, one star less than Ka and Twingo. Anyway, the 1 litre unit won easily in the contest of fuel consumption. 

Toyota has not reveal any plans for a sport version, say Yaris GTi. If it want to do so, a 105hp 1.5 litres engine could be immediately fitted under the bonnet, as it has been already shown in the Echo, the sedan version primarily destined at North America. Luckily, I've heard a 1.3 litres unit with 85hp is on the way. Hopefully it will fill the black hole. (updated: yes, the 1.3-litre has arrived. As expected, it is powerful and refined. It makes Yaris nearly perfect.) 

To test its handling and ride, you need to take our benchmark cars - Ford Fiesta, Ka and Peugeot 206. Fiesta is famous of sharp handling, so is Ka, while 206 offers class-leading ride. In certain extent Autocar did not chose the right version - the Yaris offered by Toyota is fitted with optional alloy wheels, which is supposed to reduce unsprung weight thus add some advantage to ride quality. Fiesta and 206 were fitted with standard cast iron wheels. Ford Ka is even not in the line up. The British magazine praised Yaris handles surprisingly remarkable, steering is quick and accurate, whose response and weighting are adequately balanced between high speed stability and low speed parking. The car attack corners with high agility and neutral steering, fine body control despite of high body. On the other hand, ride quality is approaching the level of Peugeot. Overall speaking, Yaris handles more lively and competently than rivals bar the Fiesta, although the latter is just marginally sharper in some area. 

The Japanese magazine riches our view by testing it against Ford Ka. If the 5 doors Yaris is not competing directly with the little Ford (whose rear passenger room is noticeably smaller despite of the longer wheelbase), at least the 3 doors must. Remember the Ka was created by shortening Fiesta's platform ? As it is only stiffer and having less overhang, both handling and ride are superior. Without hesitation, Motor magazine rated its handling above Vitz. Therefore our Handling King of Super mini is still the Ka. 

To the majority of buyers (most of which will be female), the build quality and comfort are more important. Being a Japanese-engineered car, especially is a car as serious as this one, fit and finish is first class, so is reliability and durability. 4 years ago, my older brother bought a Volkswagen Polo, so-called the best built European mini. He always complained the unreliable electric and dozens of trivial faults that trouble him times and times. Also the high cost of replacing the bumpers. Those driving Japanese cars know their decision is right, at least judging by brain instead of heart. 

The cabin of Yaris is very attractive. Dashboard locates above the center console, angled towards the driver just like many modern MPV. In Japan, the 3 doors version has sportier analogue dials instead of the 5-doors' digital one. European is likely to be limited to the digital. Trip computer is standard while GSM navigation is optional. The facia and inner shell of doors are curvy, artistically styled like Ford Ka. There are a lot of storage cubbies, and as much as 3 cup holders. You can say these are just gimmicks, but what about the ambience ? Thanks to the high roof, occupants must feel free. 

Overall speaking, Yaris scores very high marks in all area. Even though we say its engine is not punchy enough, it still competes strongly with other engines of the same size. No other super mini could be more all-round.  

At the year's beginning, AutoZine Awards chose Peugeot 206 as the class winner, the article said, "Peugeot 206 born at the right time. When Fiat Punto is getting old, Ford Fiesta is waiting for a new body, Renault Clio II is aiming to cut cost, Ford Ka is lacking of a good engine, MCC Smart is understeering..... the little Peugeot takes the crown without making much effort..... Anyway, put all things together it is still the best super mini at this moment."  

Now we know that moment is over. The new winner has come. 

US Echo / Platz


The 3-box version of Yaris may look odd, but it is no less space-efficient than the hatchback. In North America, the Echo 4dr replaced Tercel as Toyota’s entry level model. Despite of the smaller size, it offers more interior room than Tercel, while the 1.5 VVT-i engine provides brisk performance. 

Toyota Funcargo (Yaris Verso)

Funcargo is the MPV version of Vitz (Yaris). Thanks to a massive growth in all dimensions but width (length gains 250mm, height 180mm, wheelbase 130mm), the mini MPV has interior space exceeding a Renault Scenic, which is a category higher in market place. As usual, the seats offering different configurations, but the most brilliant is that the rear seats can be folded completely into the floor.  

To cope with increased weight, it is powered by either a 1.3-litre 85hp / 90lbft four or a 1.5-litre 105hp / 102lbft four, both with dohc 4-valve head and VVT-i, mated to 5-speed manual or 4-speed auto. 

Given a height as much as the width, the body roll is inevitably more than Yaris, but overall speaking the handling is still remarkably good for a MPV. Ride is smoothed out by the longer wheelbase, while new muffler and improved sound insulation benefit a quieter driving environment.  

All these positive points - fun look, huge cargo room, good refinement and decent handling - come at a bargain price. The only question is the shoulder room at the back when carrying 3 passengers there, because Funcargo is no wider than the Vitz. 


This car is all about yuppie. Undoubtedly, the hemi-elliptic profile and sliding soft roof are inspired by the late Citroen 2CV, while the channels recessed in the bonnet, boot lid and doors are inspired by military vehicles. It looks dramatic, especially is the contrast between the vertical rear window and swoopy boot. 

Mechanically, it is simply a repackaged Yaris. As usual, yuppie packaging always result in compromised practicality - poor aerodynamic drag, cramped rear leg room (thanks to that vertical rear window), limited boot volume for a 3-box, lack of slide rear seats, completely lack of lateral support from the flat seats, more weight (= slower), automatic only (= even slower), higher price ... it’s quite irrational, isn’t it? 

Those buying this car might believe they are smarter than others. On the contrary, they actually pay more for less. The WiLL Vi is not as practical as PT Cruiser or New Beetle, nor it is a living history like 2CV or Mini. 

bB / Scion xB

"bB" stands for "Black Box". A strange name it may be, but by no means meaningless. When you have a black box, you are unlikely to care about its internal construction or how it work. What you care is the outcome. Similarly, bB gives first priority to practicality instead of styling, gimmicks etc. It really works. 

More accurately speaking, there is no styling at all. It’s just a plain rectangular box with 5 big doors, high roof and huge windows. This ensures remarkable cabin space as well as visibility. 

The platform comes from Funcargo, thus there is a lot of legroom for all passengers. However, bB is not intended to be an MPV, although it has huge cargo volume once the rear seat backs are folded down. Rear seats are just 40-60 split, neither detachable nor slidable. 

Toyota ist / Scion xA


Toyota ist is derived directly from the Yaris / Echo / Vitz, not only sharing the same suspensions, engines, transmission etc. but it is actually a Yaris with different packaging. It has been on sale in Japan for a year. Now American can also buy it, although it is rebadged as Scion xA. For your information, Toyota has established the new brand Scion in the North American just earlier this year, aiming at attracting young customers that the conservative Toyota brand failed to. Scion xA and xB (an equivalent to the Japanese bB) are its first offerings. 

The ist has a taller body and more aggressive styling than the Yaris. Its interior offers a touch more space but an unchanged wheelbase means there is no big improvement over the already stretched-to-the-maximum Yaris. Because the mechanicals are the same as Yaris, and the tuning is similar, I don't know how can I write more.  

So, why did Toyota create this car? well, two years ago Honda Jazz stormed the domestic market, gunned down the Vitz and eventually took the top spot in sales chart. Sales of Vitz dropped to half. With the introduction of ist, Toyota has two small cars to fight against the Jazz. Those do not like the styling of Vitz may prefer the ist. Those tired of the Vitz may also find the ist refreshing. As a result, the combined sales of Vitz and ist rose back to the original level. Because developing ist based on Vitz cost little, the additional investment is worthwhile. 

Model Yaris 1.0 Yaris 1.3 CDX Echo 4dr
Layout Front-engined, Fwd Front-engined, Fwd Front-engined, Fwd
Dimensions (mm) L / W / H / WB: 3610 / 1660 / 1500 / 2370 L / W / H / WB: 4145 / 1660 / 1500 / 2370
Engine Inline-4, dohc, 4v/cyl, VVT. Inline-4, dohc, 4v/cyl, VVT. Inline-4, dohc, 4v/cyl, VVT.
Capacity 998 c.c. 1298 c.c. 1496 c.c.
Power 67 hp 85 hp 108 hp
Torque 66 lbft 91 lbft 105 lbft
Transmission 5M 5M 5M
Suspensions F: strut / R: torsion beam
Tyres N/A 175 / 65 R14 175/65 R14
Weight 820 kg 920 kg 965 kg
Top speed 96 mph* 104 mph* 112 mph (limited)
0-60 mph 14.2 sec* 11.5 sec* 8.5 sec**
0-100 mph N/A N/A 29.9 sec**
Model Yaris Verso 1.5 WiLL Vi bB 1.5
Layout Front-engined, Fwd Front-engined, Fwd Front-engined, Fwd
Dimensions (mm) L / W / H / WB: 3610 / 1660 / 1500 / 2370 L / W / H / WB: 3760 / 1660 / 1575 / 2360 L / W / H / WB: 3825 / 1690 / 1640 / 2500
Engine Inline-4, dohc, 4v/cyl, VVT. Inline-4, dohc, 4v/cyl, VVT. Inline-4, dohc, 4v/cyl, VVT.
Capacity 1496 c.c. 1298 c.c. 1496 c.c.
Power 108 hp 85 hp 108 hp
Torque 105 lbft 91 lbft 105 lbft
Transmission 4A 4A 4A
Suspensions F: strut / R: torsion beam
Tyres 175/65 R14 165 / 65 R15 185/65 R15
Weight 1020 kg 950 kg 1040 kg
Top speed N/A N/A N/A
0-60 mph N/A N/A N/A
0-100 mph N/A N/A N/A

Toyota Corolla

Related models: Spacio,  Matrix & Pontiac Vibe  - based on Corolla

Corolla never raised my curiosity. In car enthusiasts point of view, it always lived under the shadow of arch-rival Honda Civic. Then, why were there so many people buy the Corolla? what made it the no. 1 best seller in history, with 28 million people purchased 8 generations of Corolla since 1966? From the beginning, the Corolla’s winning formula has been reliability, economical and good after-sale service. This latest Corolla is more or less so.  

First of all, let us go through the whole Corolla family. The 9th generation is simplified under cost reduction policy, leaving only 4-door sedan (simply Corolla), 5-door hatch (Runx or Allex, with just cosmetic differences between them), estate (Fielder) and mini-MPV (Spacio) surviving. In other words, derivatives such as Sprinter, Levin and Trueno have passed away silently. It’s a pity, because Levin / Trueno (your "Corolla coupe") was once an exciting pocket-rocket. 

Here we are going to talk about the 4-door sedan, which is not yet on sale overseas. Compare with the previous generation, it gets extra wheelbase which was desperately needed. Although 2600 mm is by no means class-leading, it is already 135 mm longer than before. In addition, the new Corolla adopts a MPV-profile (like Prius), with very high roof and cab-forward windscreen to boost interior space. That means it is very spacious, although not quite up to the record set by Civic 5-door. The negative side is a fat proportion that - accompany with the incompetence of Japanese designers - deliver a boring message. Here, Toyota should have referred to Audi A2 or Peugeot 307 to understand that MPV-profile is not necessarily boring.  

In terms of comfort and convenience, the new Corolla rates high. Although rear passengers would have preferred Civic’s flat floor, the Corolla has plenty of head and shoulder room to match its arch-rival. Moreover, the high-mounted seats are easy to access, though keen drivers might not like that. Seat cushion is thick and comfortable, if not laterally supportive. The cabin is trimmed and built with high-quality material and superb fit and finish, rather like a mini Lexus. Nevertheless, design is very dull, washing out any good impression we have already mentioned. Therefore the Corolla looks not a bit desirable no matter from outside or inside. 

The comfort-biased feel extend to the chassis. There’s nothing wrong with front struts and rear torsion beams, but springs and dampers are set soft, generating a lot of body roll. While it rides more supple and quieter than Lancer Cedia, it is quite far away from Civic’s level, let alone Ford Focus. Bouncing at high frequency bumps, floaty at high speed, this reflects the problem is not just "designed to be comfort" but the inadequate tuning.  

New electric-power steering is too light and lack of feel, especially at high speed. Brake pedal effort also favour housewives. Comparatively, engine is the strongest mechanical part of Corolla. Both 1.5-litre (110ps) and 1.8-litre (136ps) four-pot are smooth, quiet and torquey throughout a wide band, thanks to the infinitely variable VVT-i. The 4-speed automatic transmission is not quite so. Basically carried over from the previous generation, it is sometimes jerky. For domestic market there is no option of 5-speed manual, but the Runx and Allex hatchbacks can be powered by Celica’s 190 hp VVTL-i engine which mates with a superb 6-speed manual.  

Again, the Corolla disappoints car lovers. While Ford, Peugeot and Honda prove that a comfortable car can also be a great driver’s car, Toyota is still contenting with its old formula. 


Euro Corolla and T-Sport

Fine tuning to suspensions and steering are very important. Most cars in the D-segment employ the same kind of suspensions (front struts, rear torsion-beam axle) and steering (rack-and-pinion). What separate a good driver’s car from a poor one is usually the fine tuning of every components. The Japanese Corolla - as described above - was heavily criticized for its light steering and soft suspensions. Now thoroughly retuned by Toyota’s Germany R&D center, the European version of Corolla drives like another car.  

The Euro Corolla is a hatchback. In five-door form it looks like the Japanese Corolla Allex and Runx, just with larger front intake and a pair of more aggressive headlamps. 3-door looks handsomer with a thick C-pillar like Peugeot 307. The cabin is unchanged from the Japanese version, offering plenty of space and good build quality although looks dull.  

Power comes from either 1.4, 1.6 and 1.8-litre version of the VVT-i four-cylinder engine, generating 100hp, 110hp and 136hp respectively. These alloy engines are smooth and eager.  

Touch the steering wheel and you will get a good first impression - it is weighty ! even heavier than many European cars. The variable power assistance has been reduced considerably. As a result, both steering feel and confidence are enhanced. It is not as communicative as Ford Focus, but already better than many European competitors.  

Similarly, the suspensions are tuned much firmer, like German cars. Firm yet composed. On motorways it displays high stability accompany with quiet ride. Enter corners, it rolls a bit more due to high center of gravity but never excessive. Push it harder it remains neutral. Harder still, it understeers gently. Lift off the throttle mid-corner, the rear end will slip out a little bit. This lift-off oversteer comes gently and predictably, safer than that experienced in Peugeot 307. 

Apart from steering feel, the Corolla also loses to Ford Focus in terms of chassis balance and ride quality. On regular roads it rides comfortable enough, but on rough surfaces the Focus’ independent rear suspensions has an upper hand.  

Corolla T-Sport

T-Sport is the hottest version of the Corolla. Like the Japanese Corolla Runx, it is powered by a 190 horsepower 1.8-litre engine first used by the top Celica. VVTL-i mechanism (especially the variable lift) accounts for the 106 hp / litre specific output. It also adopt the same close-ratio 6-speed manual gearbox as the Celica to make better use of the high-revving manner. 

The suspension setup has been stiffened for T-Sport. This also lower ride height by 15mm. Nevertheless, Toyota chose a rather narrow and high-profile tyres 195/55 R16. This compare unfavourably with Honda Civic Type R’s 205/45 ZR17. 

Road test impression confirmed our suspicion - Corolla T-Sport is not a real hot hatch.  

Firstly, the VVTL-i engine is too peaky for a hot hatch. Below the variable-lift’s changeover point at 6,000rpm, it does not feel any stronger than the standard 136hp engine. Because of the lack of displacement, hence torque, you need to work hard at the gearbox to keep it running in the peaky power band. This is rather frustrating if you need power at once to overtake a Renault Clio RS or the Civic Type R. In the Corolla T-Sport, that is impossible. It is a simply a league slower. Celica GT-S has the same problem, but what we ask for a hot hatch is different: instant power for use in twisty roads.  

As for handling, the T-Sport also let us down. The steering is heavy, but judging by hot hatch standard it lacks feel. Like the standard Corolla, it rolls a lot into corner. Perhaps the suspension setup and tyres need to be more sporty, at least the good ride quality has space for sacrifice.  

Being priced at the same level as Civic Type R, no doubt which one you will choose. The T-Sport is a half-hearted effort. From engine, suspensions and even the dull dashboard you will see Toyota did not invest too much into it. 

Spacio (Corolla Verso)

Spacio is derived directly from Corolla, that's why in overseas market it is called Corolla Verso. In Toyota's dictionary, Verso means versatility, or in other words, MPV.  

Toyota is keen on MPVs. From small to big, it has Yaris Verso (Funcargo), Avensis Verso (Ipsum / Picnic) and Previa (Estima). However, compact size MPVs like the Spacio is increasingly more important in the market, especially European countries. Renault Scenic, Opel Zafira, Citroen Picasso etc. has already established solid reputation there, how can Toyota break into this competitive segment? 

The answer is a good base platform. Remember, the Corolla platform is new, much stronger and more refined than the Megane, Astra and Xsara that its rivals are based on. The Corolla's handling is also superior. Spacio uses the same platform with the slightest modifications. It even shares the same 2600mm wheelbase and sporty suspension setup like the European-spec Corolla. This might not benefit people carrying capability and ride comfort, but ensure a sharp and secured handling with so little body roll and excellent body control for a MPV.  

Unlike many other MPVs, the Spacio drives like a car rather than people carrier. This is partly due to the low driving position, partly because of taut chassis setup. The VVT-i engines (1.5 with 110hp and 1.8 with 136hp) are rev-happy but quite noisy at top end, adding the sense of sportiness rarely found among MPVs. Surprisingly, this Japanese MPV is probably the sportiest one in the segment.  

However, no one buys MPVs for handling instead of comfort and practicality. The Spacio loses marks in low-speed ride comfort, especially on bumpy surfaces the torsion beam rear suspensions transfer a fair amount of shock and noise into the cabin.  

Practicality is good. It provides more headroom, front and rear legroom than Renault Scenic and Citroen Picasso. Large windows guarantee a bright ambience and excellent visibility. Center console-mounted gearshift means walk-through capability. Vertical tailgate and flat floor provides a huge cargo-loading area. There are a lot of storage space and functional utilities, such as big door bins, a drawer under front passenger seat, a lot of cup holders, a lot of power sockets and coat hooks. Front passenger seat and middle second row seat can fold down to form tables... above all is solid build quality, nice plastics and trimming, though interior design is too dull. 

The biggest disappointment is the lack of flexible seating plan. Unlike most rivals which provide individual detachable or sliding rear seats, Spacio's rear bench is 60/40 split only. It can be detached as a whole, but the action is heavy and inconvenient. Toyota also realize this, therefore it made the rear bench thinner and lighter. Unfortunately, the side effect is too hard and flat to be comfortable. A big mistake for a vehicle designed to carry a lot of people in comfort. 

Like the first generation, the new Spacio (Japanese version only) offers an additional third row for a couple of children, making it a so-called 7-seater or actually a 5+2. The tiny third row has little legroom, thus not suitable for adults at all. When it is not used, it can be folded flat onto the floor without engaging cargo space. 

Time for conclusion. Spacio is an oddball MPV. So strong at what people do not expect from MPVs while weak at what people really ask for. This explain why in Hong Kong, where Corolla overwhelms Civic, I saw far more Honda Stream than Spacio. 

Model Corolla 1.6 5dr (Euro) Corolla 1.8 4dr (Japan) Corolla T-Sport (Euro)
Layout Front-engined, Fwd Front-engined, Fwd Front-engined, Fwd
Size (L / W / H / WB) mm 4180 / 1610 / 1478 / 2600 4365 / 1695 / 1470 / 2600 4180 / 1610 / 1460 / 2600
Engine Inline-4, dohc, 4v/cyl, VVT Inline-4, dohc, 4v/cyl, VVT Inline-4, dohc, 4v/cyl, VVT
Capacity 1598 c.c. 1794 c.c. 1796 c.c.
Power 110 hp 136 hp 190 hp
Torque 110 lbft 126 lbft 133 lbft
Transmission 5M 4A 6M
Suspensions F: strut; R: torsion-beam
Tyres 195/60 VR15 175/70 R14 195/55 VR16
Weight 1140 kg 1090 kg 1150 kg
Top speed 116 mph* N/A N/A
0-60 mph 10.1 sec* N/A N/A
0-100 mph 29.6 sec* N/A N/A
Model Spacio
Layout Front-engined, Fwd
Size (L / W / H / WB) mm 4240 / 1705 / 1610 / 2600
Engine Inline-4, dohc, 4v/cyl, VVT.
Capacity 1794 c.c.
Power 136 hp
Torque 126 lbft
Transmission 4A
Suspensions F: strut; R: torsion-beam
Tyres 195/60 R15
Weight 1315 kg
Top speed N/A
0-60 mph N/A
0-100 mph N/A

Toyota Matrix

Related models: Corolla - on which Matrix is derived from;  Pontiac Vibe - same car different look

Don’t be fooled by its SUV look, Toyota Matrix is actually a hatchback. It is derived from the Corolla, sharing the same floorpan including suspensions and even the same 2600mm wheelbase. Apart from taller body and higher ride height, it does not have any SUV ingredient.  

You may ask, "doesn’t it have a 4-wheel drive system that Corolla doesn’t ?" yes, but obviously you have ignored the fact that the domestic Corolla also has this 4WD system. It uses a simple viscous-coupling to deliver power to rear wheels whenever the front wheels slip. Therefore in normal conditions it drives as if a pure front-drive car. Like Corolla, the 4WD version has double wishbones rear suspensions instead of the FWD’s torsion beam-axle. You know, the construction of torsion beam does not fit transmission shaft and rear differential. 

Sharing platform with Corolla has various advantages: 1) most apparently, save money; 2) allow it to be assembled in the same Canadian production plant as the Corolla (oh yes, forget to tell you the Matrix is primarily destined to the US market). Again, this save money; 3) keep the car at relatively lightweight, which is less than 1300kg; 4) allow it to share engine and gearbox with Celica.  

What ? Celica ? don’t be surprised. Remember, Celica shares the same front suspensions with Corolla, so its 180hp VVTL-i engine is also compatible with Corolla and Matrix. Ditto the close-ratio 6-speed gearbox, the mandatory companion to that high-revving engine. Unluckily, carrying 110 more kilograms than the Celica, the peaky manner of this engine is even more obvious than that in the Celica. Shifting tiresomely to squeeze out its maximum power at 7600rpm, or at least keep it at its power band above 6200rpm, is not what you expect in a 5-seater hatchback, let alone what the SUV-look suggest. Car And Driver might be able to measure 7.3 second from 0 to 60mph, but real world performance is much slower and inflexible. In contrast, the standard 130hp VVT-i engine has better manner at mid-range, so I would recommend it over the 180hp version. It is also available with optional automatic transmission. 

The Matrix’s sporty look is handsome and radical by Toyota’s standard. The interior was designed by GM’s designer because its sister car, Pontiac Vibe, shares the same interior. There is extensive use of alloy-looking plastic panels, feeling young and sporty. The console-mounted gearshift comes from Lexus RX300. Overall materials and build quality are good, if not as good as the Corolla. Thanks to high roof and higher seating position, both head and legroom are plenty for 5 passengers. The rear seats are 60/40-split, whose backrest can fold down to enable a flat cargo loading area with hard plastic surface. This is the only SUV goody it has. However, many hatchbacks have such versatility now. If you take compact MPV such as Renault Scenic into account, you will find the Matrix relatively less versatile. It does not have individual sliding seats, fold tables, storage trays, big sunroof etc. Therefore it is not yet a mini MPV. It is a cross-over between hatchback and mini MPV at best. 

Judging by hatchback standard, you will find its tall-body handling unexciting (maybe dangerously exciting if you insist to corner quickly). More body roll, lower cornering limit despite of good grip, firmer damping ... there is no free lunch for having a higher body and SUV-like ride height. The brakes of 180hp model are identical to the hot Celica, but coping with the heavier car means brake fade after continuous hard use. Ease back, drive it in the same way as in Corolla is the best way to enjoy the Matrix. It is equally easy to live with, with more passenger and luggage room to satisfy your occasional needs. Even if you don’t need its extra versatility, you may still prefer it to the Corolla because of its look.  

The question is: do we need this kind of cross-border vehicle ? it does not handle like a hatchback nor carry things and people as clever as a compact MPV. In the North America where compact MPV does not exist, this question can be ignored. Nevertheless, the world is changing fast. 5 years ago no one believed the American would start loving hatchbacks. Tommorrow may be compact MPVs. 

Pontiac Vibe

GM has track record for selling restyled Toyota cars. In fact, the joint venture NUMMI plant in California was set up to produce Toyota Corolla and Chevrelot Prism. Now Prism has gone and the plant is converted to produce Pontiac Vibe, which is simply a restyled Matrix. Pontiac designer did a great job here, making their version more attractive to look than the Matrix.

Model Matrix XR Matrix XRS
Layout Front-engined, Fwd Front-engined, Fwd
Size (L / W / H / WB) mm 4351 / 1765 / 1540 / 2600 4351 / 1765 / 1540 / 2600
Engine Inline-4, dohc, 4v/cyl, VVT Inline-4, dohc, 4v/cyl, VVT
Capacity 1794 c.c. 1796 c.c.
Power 130 hp 180 hp
Torque 125 lbft 130 lbft
Transmission 5M 6M
Suspensions F: strut; R: torsion beam F: strut; R: torsion beam
Tyres N/A 215/50 VR17
Weight 1265 kg 1298 kg
Top speed N/A 130 mph (est)
0-60 mph N/A 7.3 sec*
0-100 mph N/A 19.6 sec*

Toyota Prius

Hybrid powertrain, which incorporated both petrol engine and electric motor, appeared many years ago in show cars. Its objective is to reduce emission as well as fuel consumption through the following mechanism : during acceleration, the stronger petrol engine provides the power, then the electric motor will take over in higher speed, it will also generate electricity and charge up the batteries during braking, thus make good use of the energy that conventional car loses.  

Toyota became the first car maker to put "Hybrid car" in production by launching Prius in December 1997. At first, it is only for sale in Japan in a small volume, but strong reaction may lead to its appearance in foreign markets, especially is environmental conscious California.  

Prius uses a compact hybrid power unit, in which the straight four 1.5 litres engine is mated inline with the d.c. motor and driving the front wheel. The petrol engine is of Toyota's latest lean burn technology, which provides remarkable emission and fuel consumption even without the aid of the electric motor. A complex planetary transmission offers smooth transition between the engine and the motor. 40 pieces of Ni-MH batteries store the energy for motor use, they alone may not provide enough range, but during normal use they will be frequently charged up by the energy generated by braking so that the car can travel no shorter than conventional petrol cars.  

Compare with fully electric cars like GM EV1 and Honda EV Plus, Prius has the advantage of long range and no-charging time needed, that makes it far more practical. Compare with petrol cars, it is slower due to the additional weight of the batteries and electric motor, but it burns a friction fuel and offers superior emission just next to electric cars, that seems to be very attractive in the future.  

Besides the power unit, Prius offers as much interior space as Corona despite of the Corolla-size external dimensions, thanks to the long wheelbase and short overhangs. Dashboard and central console is futuristically styled. Satellite navigation is provided in domestic market. It is the most practical green car until now. 
Model Prius - -
Layout Front-engined, Fwd - -
L / W / H / WB (mm) 4445 / 1727 / 1488 / 2692 - -
Engine Inline-4, dohc, 4v/cyl, VVT, DI / 500V AC electric motor - -
Capacity 1496 cc - -
Power (engine / motor / combine) 78 hp / 67 hp / 108 hp - -
Torque (engine / motor) 85 lbft / 295 lbft - -
Transmission CVT - -
Suspension (F/R) strut / torsion-beam - -
Tyres (F/R) N/A - -
Weight 1295 kg - -
Top speed 105 mph (est) - -
0-60 mph 10.5 sec (est) - -
0-100 mph N/A - -

Toyota Avensis

Avensis is a typical Toyota product. Reliable, well-built, comfortable, easy to drive.... but it also associates with descriptions such as "ugly", "uninspiring", "lack of character" etc. In short, very Toyota-like.  

This is not a great way to introduce the new Avensis, but I am really tired of such Toyotas after watching cars for many years. Toyota, in some way like GM, cares too much about customer surveys thus its mainstream cars are usually lack of a clear design and engineering philosophy. But the most disappointing is that they still do the styling wrong. By all standards, Avensis is an ugly design. It looks bulky, dull and boring. Its body language tells you that the driver inside must be Mr. Average. 

The Avensis was engineered mostly in Japan base on the Allion / Corona Premio architecture (the duo was launched about a year before the Avensis). However, it has the rear suspensions upgraded to the Celica’s double-wishbones setup and the ride and handling was sorted out on European roads (by Lotus, if Toyota didn’t tell you). Yes, I almost forget to tell you that the Avensis is built in UK and supplies only the European market, therefore care has been taken to make sure it handles and rides like a European car. The chassis is about in the same size as rivals, with a 2700mm wheelbase and tall roof to achieve a roomy cabin. The engines include a 1.6 VVT-i, a 1.8VVT-i, a direct-injection 2.0D-4 petrol and a 2.0D4-D common-rail turbo diesel. Cheaper models employ electric power steering while the top petrol and diesel model use conventional hydraulic assistance to ensure better road feel. 

In terms of performance, the Avensis is rather disappointing. Autocar conducted a group test against Ford Mondeo, Mazda 6, Honda Accord and Renault Laguna and found the Avensis was the slowest. Despite of variable valve timing and direct injection technology, despite of 147 horsepower, the 2.0D4 engine fails to provide sparkling performance. Moreover, the engine sounds coarse and noisy under stress, which is disappointing by the engineering standard of Toyota. 

In terms of ride and handling, the new Avensis is competent but never outstanding. It feels more like a European car than even some European rivals, such as Renault Laguna and Volkswagen Passat. The hydraulic steering in top models is responsive and provides crisp turn-in, if not specially good communication. As the suspension is set firmer than Japanese norm, Avensis has its body control very well in most circumstances. However, "most circumstances" does not include extreme conditions. If you rush into corners, weight transfer at the tail will build up suddenly and destroy your confidence. In short, Avensis is not as good a driver's car as Ford Mondeo, Mazda 6 and European Honda Accord. 

The best thing is probably the cabin. It employs Volkswagen-grade soft-touch plastic and is screwed together as solidly as Lexus. The center console is surfaced with real metal, not metal-effect plastic. The cabin is roomy, although rear accommodation is ultimately not as big as Mondeo. 520 litres of luggage room is simply class-leading. However, the cabin is short of styling and character, just like the car itself. Mr. Average might like it, but we don't. 

Toyota Allion and Premio

Toyota launched the Allion and its twins sister Premio in December 2001. Both are bounded in the domestic market thus are less well known overseas. They are basically the same car, just with different packaging. The Premio still goes the conservative route while the Allion (means "all in one", oddly) looks more sporting.  

The Allion is smaller than the Avensis to which it derived. To meet the lower taxation class, its width is limited to 1.7 meters, virtually the same as the smaller Corolla. In fact, the Allion is merely longer than the Corolla and have a 100mm longer wheelbase. It even shares the same semi-independent torsion-beam axle rear suspension with the Corolla. In contrast, its European cousin, Avensis, employs a more expensive double-wishbone suspension instead. The same goes for other derivatives, Avensis Verso (the MPV), Caldina (the sport estate) and the next generation Vista sedan - all uses the higher-spec suspension. That’s why I name Avensis as the representative of this platform although Allion was launched earlier. 

3 engines are available to Allion: 1.5-litre (109hp), 1.8-litre (132hp) and 2.0-litre (152hp). All have VVT-i and the 2.0-litre also has D-4 direct-injection. No manual gearbox for domestic version. The top model is equipped with CVT while the other two have 4-speed automatic. 

Toyota Caldina

Talking about 4-wheel-drive performance estates, you might think of Audi RS4 or S4 Avant. In Japan, there are more choices, also at lower price - Subaru Legacy GTB, Mitsubishi Legnum VR4 and Toyota Caldina.  

The new Caldina is derived from the Avensis platform, with the same 2700mm wheelbase. However, if we consider only the hottest model Caldina GT-4 - the most interesting model to me, we can find it owes very much to the last generation Caldina GT-T. Basically, the engine and 4-wheel-drive system are carried over from the old car, which in turn took the mechanicals from the mighty Celica GT-4. 

The engine is a 1998cc 16V Turbo, pumping out 260hp and 239lbft, unchanged from the old car. The 4WD system employs viscous coupling to distribute power between front and rear axle, in addition to a Torsen limited-slip differential between the rear wheels. Again, this is the same as the old Caldina and Celica GT-4. Transmission remains just a 4-speed automatic, although it gets manual shift pattern.  

However, compare with the old car there are still a lot of new items. Most notably is the sharper and handsomer new look, the much higher quality interior and the introduction of double-wishbone rear suspensions from the current Celica. 

Lesser models are powered by a 152hp 2-litre 16V engine (which has no relationship with the turbo engine) with direct injection, or a 132hp 1.8-litre 16V engine, both with VVT-i. The 1.8 unit is for FWD only. 

Model Avensis 2.0 D-4 Allion 2.0 D-4 Caldina GT-4
Layout Front-engined, Fwd Front-engined, Fwd Front-engined, 4wd
L / W / H / WB (mm) 4630 / 1760 / 1480 / 2700 4550 / 1695 / 1470 / 2700 4510 / 1740 / 1445 / 2700
Engine Inline-4, dohc, 4v/cyl, VVT, DI. Inline-4, dohc, 4v/cyl, VVT, DI. Inline-4, dohc, 4v/cyl, turbo.
Capacity 1998 cc 1998 cc 1998 cc
Power 147 hp 152 hp 260 hp
Torque 144 lbft 147 lbft 239 lbft
Transmission 5M CVT 4A
Suspension (F/R) strut / double-wishbone strut / torsion-beam strut / double-wishbone
Tyres (F/R) All: 205/55 R16 All: 195/65 R15 All: 215/45 ZR17
Weight 1375 kg 1240 kg 1480 kg
Top speed 127 mph (c) N/A N/A
0-60 mph 9.4 sec (c) N/A N/A
0-100 mph N/A N/A N/A

Toyota Camry

Look at the new Camry, you won't love it from first sight, nor you will hate it. It is as unadventurous and inoffensive as its 3 predecessors. If you have to praise it, you can still say the new Camry looks a bit more sexy than ever, with sleeker lines running from nose to tail. The slippery profile not only contributes to a good Cd. of 0.28 but also hides its extra dimensions very well - now it offers more head room and rear passenger legroom, thanks to 50mm longer wheelbase and 64mm higher roof. Like the cold-war USA and USSR, Camry fights hard with Honda Accord in "space race". 

This fourth generation car is said to have a new platform, however, you will find the Highlander SUV and sister car ES300 have already stolen its debut. Expect Avalon / Pronard, Solara coupe and Sienna MPV to join this platform as well. Yes, it might be new, but by no means revolutionary. Most disappointing is that it still rides on MacPherson struts at each corner, while most rivals (bar the GM ancient designs) are already employing multi-link. However, improvements to chassis rigidity and suspension calibration do enhance handling and refinement - maybe most on the latter. NVH level is lowered, ride is supple, making the Camry a smooth, quiet and refined family sedan as it once renowned for.  

Good refinement also comes from engines. Center of limelight is a new 2.4-litre four-cylinder. With twin-balancer shafts it runs almost as smooth as a V6. 157 horsepower is not big number, but the adoption of VVT-i enhance torque delivery across a wide band, making it an easy-going companion. The engine is made of aluminium block and head, with magnesium cam cover and plastic intake manifold to make the lightest in class. 

In comparison, the 3-litre V6 is rather disappointing. Without VVT-i, output remains unchanged at 192hp and 209 lbft, which has long been overtaken by rivals. Although refinement is good, its extra weight over the nose make it less nimble to handle than the four-pot, while advantage in performance is not big. So the 2.4 is still my choice. 

Of course, if our choices are not limited to Toyota (some people only trust Toyota's reliability and good servicing), Ford Mondeo is still the first priority. Although we said the new Camry has improved handling, with linear and accurate steering, tauter control and strong brakes, it is still a car designed for comfort and driving ease rather than driving fun. Mrs. Robinson and Mr. Grey might enjoy that kind of fuss-free driving, but those who really Love driving will find the steering still lack of feedback, body control is not good in twisty roads and it tends to understeer early. In short, it does not feel as agile as the best European sedans as well as Nissan's new Altima.  

Nevertheless, I guess Toyota cares little about that. The successful history of Camry (American best selling car from 1997 to 2000) proves that American care most about space and comfort. The new Camry has plenty of them. No matter whether I like it, it will be another sale success. 

Lexus ES300 / Toyota Windom

I want to write more about the new ES300, but I can't. Since the car is still derived directly from the mainstream Camry, it is as technically uninteresting as its 2 predecessors. How uninteresting ? first of all, it is the last car in the world riding on MacPherson struts at each corner while dare to declare itself as a prestige car. For the cheap Camry, this is forgivable, but for Lexus it sounds like a joke. Well, many BMW uses struts up front and Alfa 156 uses them at rear axle, but at both front and rear ? ES300's chassis is the last breed of Jurassic dinosaur.  

It seems that most improvements were done to enhance refinement and quietness, most notably is by strengthening chassis, upgrading engine-mount and increasing sound-deadening materials. In this respect, the ES300 still lives up to Lexus' standard, but no longer feels as outstanding as its predecessor a few years ago. That said, competitors have closed the gap or some even surpassed it. In terms of ride quality, the old suspension shows its limit here, offering a floaty ride over undulation. Optional 4-stage adaptive damping actually improves ride and injects more driver appeal at the stiffest setting, but the latter is just relative to the standard car. When come to handling, ES' shortness becomes clear: it rolls, pitches and understeers (remember, it is front-drive). It feels nose-heavy. Its steering is light and lack of feedback. Facing 3-series, C-class, A4 and X-Type, it is hopelessly uninspiring and hopelessly slow on twisty roads.  

Slow is also because of an old engine. The compulsory 3.0 V6 (with VVT-i, unlike Camry) is simply unchanged from the old one, producing the same 210hp and 220 lbft. It is as smooth and quiet as before, but neither charismatic nor characterful. Though mating to a new 5-speed automatic instead of 4, the increased weight of 30kg cancel any performance gain. The 5-speeder isn't world-class, blame to sluggish downshift response. And where is Tiptronic mode ? forget it. Lazy drivers don't need that. Keen drivers don't drive the ES. 

Perhaps the new exterior styling can score back some points ? unlike its predecessor, it was styled in Japan instead of California, but it has an aircraft-style profile and radical nose to make you believe it was done in the USA. However, the organic grilles and headlights are unlikely to withstand the test of time, and they devoid of any sense of prestige. The last ES300 feels more expensive. 

Inside is much better. There is more space than its RWD or 4WD rivals. Light-color soft leather contributes to a warm-feeling environment. Instruments are clear and economical, but the plastics used is not first-class.  

Among Lexus' line-up, this one is the most non-Lexus. It does not feel as prestige as LS, nor as exciting to drive as IS and GS. After all, it is still a pseudo prestige car built on Camry. Small investment doesn't worth good sales. 

Toyota Avalon / Pronard

Avalon (or Pronard for Japan) is built in the Kentucky plant alongside Camry on which it is based. Basically, it is a grown-up Camry with massive increment of cabin space enable it to be classified as full-size sedan by EPA regulations. In other words, it targets Big 3’s products (especially the sales-topping Buick LeSabre) instead of other Japanese cars.  

Avalon offers 5 or 6 seats configurations. In 6-seater form, front bench seat is used to accommodate 3 persons, and column shifter is used instead of conventional console shifter. Undoubtedly, there are a lot of space for all occupants, because the wheelbase is stretched by 50 mm from Camry, while width is up 35 mm, height grows 40 mm. However, unlike its American opponents, Avalon is "just" 4.9 meters long, thus its roominess is implemented by efficient use of space rather than adding sheet metal. 

Carrying more weight than the Camry, it requires more power. Toyota gave it Lexus ES300’s V6 (that is, Camry’s V6 plus VVT-i). 210 horsepower and 210 lbft of torque. 4-speed automatic is smooth, although column shifter is tricky to select the correct gear.  

Like other full-size sedans, the suspension setting is very soft, hence there is apparent body roll in tight corner. Even so, the Avalon is still better to handle than its rivals. 

Toyota Camry Solara

Solara is the coupe version of Camry. Being built exclusively in Kentucky of USA alongside the Camry, it differs from the sedan by just packaging and tuning. It was styled by Toyota's California studio, hence looking sexier than the Japanese-designed Camry. Nevertheless, there is strong traces of Pininfarina's Alfa GTV in its side profile, harming its originality. Besides, the sedan proportion (long wheelbase, long tail) doesn't do it justice. It should have been more sporty, but sadly, Toyota would rather save money and time by building it directly on the Camry floorpan. 

So, what you can expect from the Solara is spacious cabin, good build quality and remarkable comfort, just like the Carmy. It is powered by a new 3.3-litre V6 from Lexus RX330. 225 horsepower might be a little underpowered by today's standard, but it remains smooth and quiet in Toyota's tradition. Because this is a comfort-biased coupe, the V6 can partner with only a 5-speed automatic from the sedan, although ratios have been tightened to improve acceleration. It can therefore go from rest to 60mph in a brisk 7.0 seconds. A drag coefficient of 0.29 also allows it to slip easily into air stream. 

Enter the cabin, after disappointed with the sedan-like dashboard design, you will start appreciating the good materials and fit and finish as well as vast of space. Only taller passengers at the back will find their heads toughing the fastback roof. Sound insulation is almost as effective as the sedan. 

Now fun time.... maybe not so fun. Although Toyota claimed to inject more sporting character into the new Solara than the last generation, the scale of improvement is actually too small. It does have stiffer suspension setup than the sedan. It does employ a tower brace over the front suspension to stiffen the chassis. It does have better sorted damping than the last generation. However, compare with European coupes it still cares too much about female buyers. With relatively soft suspension setup and a bulky size, the Solara fails to control roll and pitch as good as European coupes. This also leads to severe understeer at tight corners. Furthermore, the steering is too light and too numb to give you any confidence. Some German cars are more capable than inspiring. This Toyota is neither capable nor inspiring. It is just a sedan in a coupe's clothes.

Model Camry 2.4 Camry V6 Lexus ES300
Layout Front-engined, Fwd Front-engined, Fwd Front-engined, Fwd
L / W / H / WB (mm) 4805 / 1795 / 1490 / 2720 4805 / 1795 / 1490 / 2720 4854 / 1811 / 1455 / 2720
Engine Inline-4, dohc, 4v/cyl, VVT,  bal shaft. V6, dohc, 4v/cyl, var intake. V6, dohc, 4v/cyl, VVT.
Capacity 2362 cc 2995 cc 2995 cc
Power 157 hp 192 hp 210 hp
Torque 163 lbft 209 lbft 220 lbft
Transmission 5M 4A 5A
Suspension (F/R) All: strut All: strut All: strut
Tyres (F/R) All: 205/60 R16 All: 215/60 VR16 All: 215/60 VR16
Weight 1435 kg 1545 kg 1560 kg
Top speed N/A N/A N/A
0-60 mph N/A 8.4 sec* 8.3 sec (est)
0-100 mph N/A 23.7 sec* N/A
Model Avalon 3.0 Solara 3.0 -
Layout Front-engined, Fwd Front-engined, Fwd -
L / W / H / WB (mm) 4895 / 1820 / 1460 / 2720 4892 / 1815 / 1425 / 2720 -
Engine V6, dohc, 4v/cyl. V6, dohc, 4v/cyl. -
Capacity 2995 cc 3311 cc -
Power 194 hp 225 hp -
Torque 209 lbft 240 lbft -
Transmission 4A 5A -
Suspension (F/R) All: strut All: strut -
Tyres (F/R) All: 205/60 R16 N/A -
Weight 1475 kg 1585 kg -
Top speed N/A N/A -
0-60 mph 8.4 sec* 6.9 sec** -
0-100 mph N/A 19.4 sec** -


Related models : Verossa, Progres, Brevis - shares major components and floorpan

This is the Japanese interpretation of "sports sedan" - a twin-turbo 2.5-litre straight six pumps out 280 horsepower, providing acceleration eclipsing many sports cars. The chassis is not very stiff by today's standard, but compensate that by riding on stiff springs results in good roll-control in corner. The steering is surprisingly heavy by Japanese standard, but apart from kickback it offers no feel. Though the car is rear-drive and have perfect double-wishbones suspensions all round, it understeers rather early and spoil any enthusiasm to attack corner. When you call for driving fun, it says to you, "I'm a luxury sedan". Then you ask for a supple ride and it replied, "I'm a sports car". In contrast, a BMW will satisfy both requirements. Fly the Mark II on highway and you can sense the cross wind, shake and roll due to aerodynamic lift.  

Admittedly, Toyota has been changing. IS200 was made according to European taste and tuned in Nurburgring before appearing in show room. But it is a copy cat. What the Mark II has is a unique character - no matter you like it or not. It won't appeal to most of us - otherwise Toyota won't bound its sales in Japan - but it is a living history for Japanese traditional sports sedan. A history started in 1968 and entered the 9th generation last year. Its sister car Cresta has already announced dead. Another sister Chaser is also dying. The same goes for Nissan's similar Laurel. Everybody can see this kind of cars will eventually die under the threat of European prestige marques.


The days left for traditional Japanese-taste luxury cars are limited. Toyota no longer needs Chaser and Cresta as supporting roles to Mark II, therefore both were replaced by a European-style new comer, Verossa. From the name which consists of Italian words "Vero" (True) and "Rossa" (Red) you’ll see this car tends to attract younger customers who used to prefer the dynamic image of BMW 3-series and Audi A4. In fact, the radical styling has strong Latin influence. Not unlike Alfa Romeo, but even more exaggerate, something approaching Zagato. Officially it is said as designed in Japan, but who knows whether Zagato gave any inspiration ? you know, Toyota is the biggest client of Zagato. 

Mechanically, Verossa is a repackaged Mark II as they share virtually the same dimensions and all mechanical components. However, Progres and Brevis are also its sisters, just have shorter overhangs and different choice of engines from the same gene pool. To lesser extent, all of them can also link to the smaller Altezza (Lexus IS). Strangely, all these cars bar Altezza are bounded in domestic market thus cannot avoid internal competition.  

What differs the Verossa from Mark II is not performance or comfort. It is the subjective dynamic image delivered by the styling. So, I have no more say about it.

Model Mark II 2.5 turbo Verossa 2.5
Layout Front-engined, Rwd Front-engined, Rwd
Size (L / W / H / WB) mm 4735 / 1760 / 1460 / 2780 4705 / 1760 / 1450 / 2780
Engine Inline-6, dohc, 4v/cyl,  VVT, turbo Inline-6, dohc, 4v/cyl,  VVT, direct-injeciton
Capacity 2491 c.c. 2491 c.c.
Power 280 hp 200 hp
Torque 278 lbft 184 lbft
Transmission 4A 5A
Suspensions All: double wishbones
Tyres 225/45 R17 N/A
Weight 1530 kg 1490 kg
Top speed N/A N/A
0-60 mph N/A N/A
0-100 mph N/A N/A


Appeared in 1955, "Crown" is the oldest nameplate in Toyota’s current line-up. Generation after generation, today’s Crown is still the most popular company car in Japan, which is good, but its presence is still bounded in domestic market and South East Asia, which is less good. One word summarise its character - Conservative. To please Japanese company executives and businessmen, you know, it HAS to be conservative in styling and trimming. It has to ride as supple as magic carpet, offering independent audio, climate and lighting controls for the rear passenger. In contrast, driving pleasure is not very important. 

But the latest Crown is no longer that conservative. It has been styled, tuned and trimmed to please driver as well as passenger. To be honest, it is still not as driver-bias as Lexus GS, but the improvement made is substantial enough to let you forget any pervious Crowns. For the first time, I found the Crown looks quite nice. Nice, if not handsome. Doesn’t it look like a Lexus LS400?  

The cabin also looks fresh. Lexus-like back-lit gauges looks cool. Center console has a unique shape and is no longer taxi-like. Two-tone colours match very well with wood decoration and leather trimming, although I suspect the wood is fake. Fit and finish is first rate, so is the quality of material. My only complain is the dull-looking 4-spoke steering wheel. There’s plenty of space for front and rear passengers, the latter also enjoy independent audio and climate control, reading lamps and a small refrigerator behind the arm rest. Overall speaking, it’s an enjoyable place to spend hours of long journey. 

There are 3 versions of Crown - Majesta, Royal and Athlete. The Athlete is the most sporty, with stiffest suspension setup. Majesta is most luxurious, powered by a 280 hp V8. It also has longer wheelbase. Royal runs middle of the road and is usually the best seller among them. No matter which version, handling is far beyond imagination. Gone is the traditional soft suspension setup, which is replaced with firmer springing and damping. As a result, steering response and body control are greatly improved. Although it is still regarded as comfort-bias by European standard, it is already more driver-bias than other domestic rivals, including Nissan Gloria. In particular, it rolls less and steer with more feel than the Nissan. 

Although the range-topping Majesta is powered by Lexus’s 4-litre V8, most other Crowns are likely to be ordered with 3.0 inline-6. This 24-valver is actually the same as Supra and Lexus GS300. No matter with or without direct-injection, it output 220 horsepower and 217 lbft of torque. As in Lexus GS, it is silky smooth and quiet. Predictably, Toyota provides no option for manual gearbox, but there are two electronic automatic for choose: 4-speed automatic is smoother; 5-speed Super ECT (with Tiptronic style manual override mode) is quicker.  

Model Crown Athlete 3.0G Crown Majesta V8
Layout Front-engined, Fwd Front-engined, Fwd.
Dimensions L / W / H / WB:  4820 / 1765 / 1455 / 2780 mm L / W / H / WB:  4900 / 1795 / 1465 / 2800 mm
Engine Inline-6, dohc, 4v/cyl,  VVT, direct-injection V8, dohc, 4v/cyl, VVT
Capacity 2997 c.c. 3968 c.c.
Power 220 hp 280 hp
Torque 217 lbft 296 lbft
Transmission 5A with manual mode 5A with manual mode
Suspension All: double wishbones
Tyres 215/55 R16 N/A
Weight 1580 kg 1700 kg
Top speed N/A N/A
0-60 mph N/A N/A
0-100 mph N/A N/A


Century is the local-bounded model which topped the company's model range. Since 1967, it did not received any significant modification until recently. The 1997 version boosted by a larger body and an amazing 5 litres V12 (Japan's first V12) with 48 valves and variable valve timing. Like other powerful Japanese engines, it is voluntarily bounded to 280hp, but accompany with astonishing 355lbft of torque. Without doubt, its suspensions are tuned to be very soft while the driver appeal is..... those Japanese enterprise directors won't drive the Century by themselves ! 
Model Century
Layout Front-engined, Rwd
Dimensions N/A
Engine V12, dohc, 4v/cyl, VVT.
Capacity 4996 c.c.
Power 280 hp
Torque 355 lbft
Transmission 4A
Suspensions N/A
Tyres N/A
Weight N/A
Top speed N/A
0-60 mph N/A
0-100 mph N/A

Toyota Altezza / Lexus IS200

Related models: Progres, Brevis
BMW 02 Series and 3 Series are one of the miracles in motor history. They proved there are millions of keen drivers that would pay premium price and sacrifice a little bit passenger comfort for a sedan with superb handling and performance. For thirty years, BMW dominated this market segment without any serious challenge. As the market is expanding, Audi A4 and Alfa Romeo entered the market, both with great success. Toyota, which has already created the 5-Series-challenging GS400, also wants to have a slice in this market. 

If you are European or American, you need to do 100% to win people's heart. If you are Asian, you need to achieve 120% of what the European done in order to win their respect. That's what Toyota's engineers thought. Therefore, from the beginning they chose the most ideal mechanical configuration for their 3-Series challenger : rear-wheel-drive and all double wishbones suspensions. 

They know their suspension tuning used to be criticized by the Western media as too soft, steering used to be criticized as too light and lifeless, so they spent extra time to test and tune the car in Germany. After that, they decided to equip the car with sports car-style 17 inches wheels with 45% aspect ratio, a first in this class of car. Besides, 6 speed manual and 5 speed adaptive automatic were employed for enhancing driving pleasure. 

In terms of engine, they thought they have nothing to worry about. From the existing range, they picked up Celica and MR2's 2-litres four, upgraded with double VVT-i (at both inlet and exhaust valves) and titanium valves. Accompany with 11.5 : 1 high compression ratio, this high-revving unit output 210ps at 7600rpm and 160lbft at 6400rpm. 

So, this becomes the Altezza, the Japanese Car of the Year 1999. According to the local magazines which have tested it, Altezza has the handling to overshadow the latest BMW 3-Series E46. Steering is neutral and sensitive, body control and grip are extremely good. 

Supra has good handling and performance, but it was criticized as lack of character. Altezza avoid this by deliberately making a beautiful exhaust note. 

However, comparing with BMW 323i, 328i and Alfa 156 V6, Altezza's inline-4 feels lack of power. Forget the 210ps rating, the lack of capacity result in the lack of torque and a relatively peaky torque curve. Road testers felt unable to exploit the potential of the chassis. 

Altezza / IS200 is rather small compare with the 3-Series. It is 71mm shorter, 19mm narrower and 5mm lower. Wheelbase is 55mm shorter. Although the rectangular shape seems to benefit interior room, it isn't. 6 feet high rear passengers will find their heads touching the roof as in the 3 Series. However, rear leg room is marginally better.

Toyota's stylists intentionally create a very aggressive interior. Undoubtedly, the highlight is 4-in-one chronograhic dial, which is probably inspired by Casio's G-shock watch. What a pity the packaging is awful. You'll see cheaper grade of plastic than rivals and sub-standard build quality for a Lexus. The seats looks unattractive and feels not very comfortable, mostly because of lacking lumbar adjustment and short in the squab. Steering wheel is not adjustable in reach thus deteriorate the otherwise good driving position.

The exterior looks even worse. This is the ugliest car I have seen in the whole 1998. Although recently I see this car twice a day averagely, I still can't accept its look. Lexus IS200A cheaper version was developed for both domestic and overseas market. For overseas market, it is badged as Lexus IS200. It is powered by a 2-litre straight 6 modified from the Mark II sedan, with inlet-bounded VVT-i. Lower compression ratio (10.0:1) suits the inferior fuel in overseas. Its output is very much lower : 153hp, although the 144lbft / 4400rpm makes acceleration less different. 

It is not provided with the 5 speed automatic. People who need auto have to put up with the slow 4A. However, IS200 has a flat undertray to improve the coefficient of drag from 0.29 to 0.28. It should benefit high speed cruising on Germany's autobahn.

Road test impression

2 UK publications tested the IS200 and reported great impression. Both describe it handles very good on smooth surface. Steering feels very communicative in action, quick and more accurate than 3-Series. Nevertheless, power steering offers an abundance of assistance during parking. The chassis and well tuned suspensions feels alive in bends, body control precisely and tightly thanks to the grippy 215 tyres. However, when arriving limit, steering feel fade out as the camber change (due to body roll) makes the thin, 45% aspect ratio tyres riding on their outside edge. In this respect, BMW 3 Series and Alfa 156 deal better with cornering limit.

In terms of ride, Lexus IS200 is a little bit bias towards hard for some people but just perfect for keen drivers. Even our civilised local magazines regard its ride comfort as acceptable.

As predicted, performance is the weakest sector of the baby Lexus, at least until the arrival of IS300. Against the clock, it took a full 9 seconds to complete 0-60mph. 0-100mph of 25.8sec is no better. Not just the figures prove that, in fact the driver always feel the engine lack of flexibility and punch to keep up with BMW 323i (0-60 in 7.6sec) and even Alfa 156 2.0TS (8.1sec). It just edge out the four cylinder 318i.

Luckily, the short-throw, close-ratio 6-speed manual gearbox keeps the driver involving. The lovely exhaust noise also enhance excitement.

On a typical rough B-road, IS200 started to show its shortness in damping and body control, also shows some high speed float. Steering feel deteriorates as speed increases. Now I know why the European IS200 has added with the flat undertray : because the engineers experienced high speed stability problem during its test in Germany. They thought they've solved the problem by the addition of flat bottom thus the reduction of lift, but on rough British roads it is another matter.

Lexus IS300

The so-called 3-series segment is getting excited now. Lexus has already shipped IS300 to the USA. Unlike the IS200, it should have abundance of power to beat the benchmark BMW 328i. That’s a total of 215 horsepower and 218 lbft of torque, coming from the Supra-derived 24-valve straight six displacing 2997 c.c., aided with VVT-i continuously variable valve timing. It’s virtually the same as GS300 and Crown’s power plants too. 

Don’t celebrate too early. BMW is introducing a 3.0-litre straight six into the 3-series as well. This engine will replace the 2.8 unit in all BMW models. It retains the basic construction of the current 2.5 and 2.8 unit, that means all aluminium construction and Double Vanos VVT. The extra displacement boost power and torque to 231 hp (DIN) and 221 lbft (DIN) respectively. In SAE scale, it is 225 hp and 214 lbft. So the new 330i will be at least as quick as the IS300.

In terms of eagerness, sound quality or refinement, unless the new BMW 3.0 is worse than the 2.8 (very unlikely), it won’t have problem to beat the Lexus counterpart. In fact, BMW’s 2.5 and 2.8 have been one of the Ward’s 10 best engines since their debut, while Lexus’s straight six never won this title. The differences are small, but enough to distinguish.

The IS200 was already praised as a good driver’s car, better than any Japanese sedan ever achieved. However, giving the bigger engine burdening the nose, handling is inevitably compromised a bit. Although Lexus claimed the center of engine is located 55 mm behind the front axle, this also implies that nearly half of the engine is hanging in front of the axle. Most important, unlike BMW, it has heavy cast iron block. Toyota has yet to develop an all-alloy in-line six.

According to early road test impression, extra weight at the front results in poorer handling. At modest drive, it behaves as sporty and communicative as the IS200. Under pressure, the IS300 has quite a lot of understeer. 
Steering feel is deteriorated. Damping on rough roads isn’t as good too.

In contrast, the marvellous 3-series never has such problems. Basically, there is no difference in handling can be felt among 318i, 323i and 328i. What separate them is just the wheel and tyre, which give the pricier models a positive edge. Therefore we can predict the 330i will handle better than IS300.

Lexus loses another battle in the drive train. Unlike BMW, it doesn’t offer a manual transmission for the IS300, at least for the first year. It’s a big disappointment, as the IS200’s 6-speed manual shift so sweet. There’s rumours saying the IS200’s unit cannot handle the extra torque from the new engine. So far, the most demanding application of that gearbox is used in Nissan Silvia turbo, which handles 203 lbft of torque, still not matching the IS300’s 218 lbft. Another feasible gearbox is Supra’s 6-speeder, which always mate to this 2JZ-GE engine. However, a Japanese tuner has already proved that it doesn’t fit neatly into the Altezza (that is, Japanese IS200). It requires the shifter lever to be relocated several centimetres rearward. Moreover, it doesn’t shift as slick as the IS200’s. 

Toyota is now trying to fix that, so in the first year only a 5-speed automatic will be offered. It is already optional in Altezza and standard in GS400, with E-shift manual override via the buttons on the spokes of steering wheel. Nice auto, but it’s hard to convince that a driver’s car shift by itself. Performance is also harmed - Lexus claimed a top speed of 143 mph and 0-60 mph in 7.1 seconds, no match with BMW’s claim for the 330i, that is, 155 mph and 0-62 in 6.5 sec. 

Weight also plays an important role in performance. At 1483 kg, the IS300 has lost any advantage over BMW.

Oddly, American Lexus offer 205/55R16 tyres as standard for the most powerful IS, with 215/45ZR17 as option. European IS300 will offer the 17-in as standard, just like the IS200.

As usual, there is price advantage for the Lexus. I expect 5-10% over the BMW 330i with equivalent equipment. That doesn’t mean Toyota can make the IS cheaper, it is just BMW can enjoy higher profit margin because it is still the benchmark.

Toyota Progres

Progres could be said as the forerunner of Altezza. It was launched half a year earlier than the latter, but unlike its sister, sales is bounded in Japan. While the Altezza represents a new idea, the Progres conforms to the traditional value. Although based on the same rear-wheel-drive platform, its wheelbase has an extra 110mm to provide the amount of cabin space that a luxurious sedan deserve. Similarly, the overall length is 100mm longer than Altezza, while the 1700mm width is 20mm short of its sister, once again prove that it is not designed for ultimate driving excitement.

Engines come from Mk II and Supra etc., model NC250 gets a 2.5 litres VVT-i straight six, rated at 200ps and 185lbft. NC300 is powered by Supra's 3.0 litres VVT-i straight six, capable of 215hp and 217lbft. Rumour said the 2.5 unit may eventually share with IS200 in order to compete with BMW 323i.

Toyota Brevis

Toyota Brevis is the twins sister of Progres, hence an enlarged Lexus IS. Unlike Progres, the new Brevis aims at younger customers and compete directly with imports like BMW 3-series and Mercedes C-class. Basically, the chassis and powertrains are identical to Progres. What makes it more appealing is a (relatively) handsome exterior styling and a beautifully trimmed interior. The stylish center console houses a LCD monitor and an alloy-effect sound system consists of on-dash CD changer, DVD and MD, with 7 speakers on top model. Besides, like Ford Taurus, it provides power pedals which can adjust across a range of 70mm to suit drivers of different height. Better than Taurus, the position of pedal, steering wheel and driver’s seat are memorised. 

Brevis rides on the same rear-drive platform as Lexus IS, with wheelbase extended to 2780 mm to better all its European rivals. In terms of size and weight, it stand between a BMW 3-series and 5-series, so cabin space is plenty. However, dynamically speaking it can hardly match the European rivals (that role is left for Lexus to fulfill), although rides on double-wishbones suspensions. Suspension is set softer than the Lexus, steering is less direct, and its 1550 kg kerb weight also hurt handling agility.

There are two choices of power plant: 2.5-litre or 3.0-litre straight-six, pumping out 200 hp and 220 hp respectively. Both are equipped with VVT-i and D-4 direct injection. In contrast, there is only 1 transmission available - 5-speed ECT automatic without Tiptronic-style manual override, the same one as IS300. 

Of course, Brevis is bounded in domestic market.

Model Lexus IS200 Toyota Altezza RS200 Lexus IS300
Layout Front-engined, Rwd Front-engined, Rwd Front-engined, Rwd
Dimensions L / W / H / WB: 4400 / 1720 / 1410 / 2670 mm
Engine Inline-6, dohc, 4v/cyl, VVT Inline-4, dohc, 4v/cyl, VVT. Inline-6, dohc, 4v/cyl, VVT
Capacity 1988 c.c. 1998 c.c. 2997 c.c.
Power 153 hp (DIN) 210 ps (JIS) 215 hp (SAE)
Torque 144 lbft (DIN) 160 lbft (JIS) 218 lbft (SAE)
Transmission 6M 6M 5A with manual mode
Suspension All: double wishbones
Tyres 215/45 ZR17 215/45 ZR17 215/45 ZR17 (option)
Weight 1435 kg 1360 kg 1483 kg
Top speed 137 mph* 143 mph (estimated) 143 mph (claimed)
0-60 mph 9.0 sec* 7.7 sec (estimated) 7.5 sec**
0-100 mph 25.8 sec* N/A 19.5 sec**

Toyota Aristo / Lexus GS

BMW 5-series, the untouchable. Since 1996, the 5-series has been the benchmark of the class, offering driver appeal as well as refinement that competitors hardly match. Among many challengers, Toyota Aristo comes closest to the benchmark.

Aristo is better known as Lexus GS300 / 430 for overseas market. You might remember, the first generation Aristo / GS had a sporty styling penned by Italdesign but it didn’t drove like that. In contrast, the new car looks less pretty, a bit too fat, and the irregular-shaped headlights seem odd, but underneath the skin is a competent chassis and powertrain combination. As usual, Toyota gave it the best components - double wishbones suspension all round, rear-wheel drive, front and rear subframes - but most crucial is the chassis setup, which distinguish the new GS from its predecessor or Crown. However, let us first start from the heart ...

Having experience about Supra, you don’t need more description about GS300’s engine. In fact, Toyota uses this 2997 c.c. straight six (with dohc, 24 valves and VVT-i variable valve timing) throughout all its rear-drive big cars, such as Mark II, Crown and Supra. Powerful, responsive and smooth are its basic instinct, letting it to rival BMW’s 2.8 well. If you want more power, Aristo provides two additional turbochargers and boost output to the domestic boundary of 280 hp, with 334 lbft to match. In other words, that’s the same heart of Supra turbo. However, best among them is GS430’s 4.3-litre V8, also aided by VVT-i. It pumps out 300 silky smooth horsepower without any hesitation. More powerful than BMW’s 4.4 V8, yet refiner. Perfect.

Working in companion with the fine engines is a 5-speed adaptive automatic. For GS430, it offers E-shift Tiptronic-style manual override with finger-operated button on steering wheel spokes.

The V8 gives GS430 fire-breathing performance: it takes just 6.0 seconds for 0-60 mph acceleration. Top speed is electronically limited to 155 mph like its German rivals. In contrast, GS300 is just average by class standard. Autocar magazine found it took 8.5 sec for 0-60 and the kerb weight is 140 kg in excess of a BMW 528i. Admittedly, the GS300 paid little attention to weight saving - the straight six still uses cast iron block (the V8 is aluminium alloy). There’s no aluminium used in suspension as well, unlike BMW and Audi. 

Lack of aluminium suspension also distinguish its ride quality from the BMW benchmark. Generally speaking, Lexus GS is tuned softer than its German rivals. Even with the UK-only Sport suspension package (with 17-inch wheels), although it runs very close to the 5-series, it is still noticeable the BMW has an edge in body control, steering feel and ride quality. The low-profile tyres ride and damp pretty well at speed, but does not overcome low speed bump as good as 5-series. 17-inch wheels are also optional for the GS430, although the suspension is no stiffer than the standard setup. American journalists also agreed the BMW 540i handles and rides better. In particular, the standard suspension lead to more roll and pitch, without the confidence experienced in BMW and Audi. European version GS430 fitted with Sport suspension package has quite poor ride on bumpy road, which is hardly forgivable for a Lexus, while body control and steering are both worse than GS300, thanks to the extra weight of V8.

That said, the GS is less sportier than 5-series and A6 (V8 only), but its driver appeal as well as refinement are well ahead of any front-drive A6, Jaguar S-Type and Lincoln LS. What about Mercedes E-class? it’s good, but too expensive to be direct competitors. Talking about price, the GS300 isn't cheap in Euorpe, therefore Lexus found it difficult to shift more than 3,000 cars there annually.

While handling and ride matches the German, interior trimming is not. There is purposeful styling for dashboard, such as 3 separate backlit gauges. There are a lot of equipment as well, plus full leather trim. The problem is lack of classy feeling. The plastic feels cheap. The placement and styling of ventilation lack of attention to detail. Fit and finish is also under question. It feels more American than European, not even matching Lexus’ own SC coupe.

However, the GS is still a satisfying executive sedan offering remarkable refinement, comfort and European-style handling. GS400 is especially good for high speed cross-country journey. It’s fast and relaxing.

Model Lexus GS300 Lexus GS430 Toyota Aristo
Layout Front-engined, Rwd Front-engined, Rwd Front-engined, Rwd.
Dimensions L / W / H / WB: 4805 / 1800 / 1435 / 2800 mm
Engine Inline-6, dohc, 4v/cyl, VVT V8, dohc, 4v/cyl, VVT. Inline-6, dohc, 4v/cyl,  VVT, twin-turbo.
Capacity 2997 c.c. 4293 c.c. 2997 c.c.
Power 218 hp 300 hp (SAE) 280 hp (JIS)
Torque 219 lbft 325 lbft (SAE) 334 lbft (JIS)
Transmission 5A 5A 5A with manual mode
Suspensions All: double wishbones
Tyres N/A 235/45ZR17 N/A
Weight 1671 kg 1745 kg 1680 kg
Top speed 140 mph* 155 mph (limited) 155 mph (limited)
0-60 mph 8.5 sec* 5.9 sec* N/A
0-100 mph 23.6 sec* 14.8 sec* N/A

Lexus LS430

Related models: Celsior - Japanese version badged as Toyota.

One of the most successful Japanese cars in history is Lexus LS400. When it was launched in 1989, many Western automotive industrial insiders could not virtually believe what the first attempt from Japan had done: very high quality, all-round refinement, ultra-smooth and near-silent V8, comfortable ride ... plus a bargain price that scared Mercedes and BMW. 
Luxurious car market was originally dominated by Mercedes and BMW (plus a small portion by Jaguar). Those German makers, especially Mercedes-Benz, has many years of experience in making the best sedans in the world. Therefore when Lexus LS400 overtook them in only one night, and then followed by Nissan's alternative, Infiniti Q45, this market was significantly changed. First we saw the more open-minded American buyers steered towards Japanese luxury by their wisdom. As a result, LS400 beat Mercedes and BMW in number of sales in the North America market, believe it or not ! 

However, because of rising Yen and rising production cost in Japan, the price of LS400 gradually increased throughout the first half of the 90s; simultaneously, Mercedes, BMW, Audi and Jaguar fought back with newer models. LS lost its top spot in sales chart. The ’95 and ’97 makeover did stopped sales decline temporarily, but only an all-new LS can put Lexus back in limelight. 

Finally, Toyota showed the new Lexus LS430 in the Jan 2000, Detroit Motor Show. That’s more than a decade after the original LS400 launched. 

The LS430, indicated by its name, has a bigger, 4.3-litre V8. The increase of displacement does not provide more horsepower than the previous 290hp, but it boost more torque - 320 lbft, or an increment of nearly 30 lbft, thus compensating the slight weight increment. 0-60 mph in 6.7 seconds is by all means a very quick luxurious sedan. 

The exterior styling has a strong resemblance to (not LS400, but) the previous generation Mercedes S-class, once again demonstrating the incapability of Japanese designers. It’s not a surprise, because its predecessor was already criticised as copying an older S-class. Now we can predict how the next generation LS will look like ....

The body is no longer or wider but boost 55 mm height and 76 mm wheelbase. That guarantee a huge cabin without increasing weight significantly. As Toyota sees aerodynamic as an important mean to reduce wind noise, it smoothened the body to achieve a class-leading drag coefficient of 0.25, which shares world record with Honda Insight and Audi A2 "3-litre". At lower speed, the Cd is actually 0.26 because it rides on adaptive air suspension which lower ride height at high speed. The system is believed to be taken from the Japanese top-of-the-range Crown. 

Once again, refinement is untouchable. The S-class might ride as comfortable (also thanks to air suspension) but the Lexus wins convincingly in quietness and smoothness. The V8 remains almost silent at full throttle. Wind noise is obvious by its absence. The 5-speed automatic box shifts so smooth. Its clever program links with electronic throttle to deliver the smoothest gearshift ever experienced - it cuts engine torque to smooth gear change; whenever going uphill it increase torque to avoid downshift; whenever going down hill or under braking it automatically downshift to take advantage of "engine braking". 10 years on, European rivals still cannot match its high level of refinement.

On the contrary, the LS430 has narrowed the gap of dynamics. It has taken a big step forward from the LS400. The steering is now reasonably communicative and is quite accurate. The suspensions with stiffer springs, thicker anti-roll bar and new dampers reduce body roll and contribute to sharper cornering. Therefore it feels far more agile than before. 

Ultimately there is still something separate it from the likes of 7-series and S-class. The fact is, the German duo still steer with a bit more sharpness and approach cornering limit with more confidence. The Lexus, in contrast, display more roll and understeer at limit. However, considering Lexus is designed to be first priority in comfort, its dynamics is already remarkably good.

The new-found dimensions benefit a roomy cabin which is equipped with many high-tech equipment just like the new S-class, such as keyless entry, DVD-ROM GPS navigation, voice phone, heated and cooled front seats, heated and massager-incorporated rear seats and parking sensor. Ergonomic wise, however, it is not as impressive. There are many switches placed in a confusing manner. Using touch screen to control radio and adjust climate control is rather annoying and unnecessary. In terms of material and craftsmanship, the Lexus’s leather and wood-rich cabin is competitive, although never feels as prestige as Audi and Jaguar.

In short, the new LS has improved a lot in handling and retain its leading position in refinement. Is that enough ? I’m afraid not. All the improvements are just predictable. It won’t surprise you like 10 years ago. What the automotive world needed is a Japanese-quality luxurious car with character and innovation, both are not Lexus’ strength.

LS430 versus Mercedes S430

Strangely, just 1 letter separates their names. Even more strange, the Lexus is now being priced slightly more expensive than the Mercedes in Europe (although it does include more generous equipment), thanks to the successful cost control of the new S-class. Face to face, how do they compare with each other ?

Styling: no doubt the sleek S-class looks more handsome and original.

Performance: the Lexus is quicker to 60 mph from rest, but the S430’s flat torque curve enables quicker mid-range acceleration. Both are lively enough.

Noise: Lexus V8 is quieter most of the time although the Mercedes V8 matches it at high rev. However, Mercedes' sound-deadening is more effective to isolate wind and tyre noise.

Smoothness: both V8 are very smooth, but Lexus’ transmission shifts more seamless. 

Handling: S-class outperform its rival here convincingly. It feels more nimble to corner, with more grip, more 
steering feel and quicker steering response but less body roll. At speed, it is more resistant to crosswind. 

Room: Mercedes has more legroom up front but the Lexus is bigger at the back for all dimensions, proving it is more passenger-bias.

Model Lexus LS430
Layout Front-engined, Rwd
Dimensions L / W / H / WB: 5005 / 1830 / 1490 / 2925 mm
Engine V8, dohc, 4v/cyl, VVT.
Capacity 4293 c.c.
Power 290 hp
Torque 320 lbft
Transmission 5A
Suspensions All: double wishbones
Tyres 225/55 ZR17
Weight 1830 kg
Top speed 155 mph (limited)
0-60 mph 6.7 sec*
0-100 mph 16.7 sec*

Toyota MR-S

Mr. Nakagawa is responsible for the development of both Celica and MR-S. While the recently launched Celica is well received by the public, he seems to be more nervous about the MR-S. He spent a lot of time to explain the new car to the press, stressed that his mission was to bring back the agility that made the first generation car so good.

He is right. The second generation MR2 was originally praised for being powerful. In normally aspirated form it produced 165hp (then rose to 173hp); Turbocharged version’s 225hp even earned it a name of "mini-Ferrari". But the public’s enthusiasm quickly calmed down. People started to complain about its grown up size and weight of around 1200kg. Criticised its downgraded steering feel and cornering agility. Last year, decline sales figure forced it withdrew from all markets except Japan.

If you are old enough, you might remember how exciting the first generation MR2 was. It opened the eyes of European journalists, letting them to see the rising sun’s ability to create exciting sports cars. The 16-valves engine was powerful and years advancer than European. The mid-engined chassis balanced and felt so good, with brisk performance to match. That was 1985. 14 years later, the third generation car is going back to the basis.

The name of the Mk3 might arise some confusion. In home market, it calls "MR-S" rather than MR2, the latter is used in elsewhere. The "S" stands for Spyder, in other words, Convertible. 

In terms of styling, the MR-S is another example demonstrating the incompetence of the Japanese studio. Despite of the deliberate imitation on Porsche Boxster (look at the front and rear lights !), its angular profile and poor execution of details make it uncomfortable to look at. Next time please ask the California studio (which styled Celica) or Brussel studio (which penned Yaris) for help.

The cabin is tight fit, thanks to the size reduction. The instruments do what they are intended to and no more. Lack of a stylish dashboard, lack of high quality plastic as well as a decent trimming, you know price cut is the second biggest mission of Mr. Nakagawa. The steering wheel is adjustable in rake but not reach. The soft roof is operated manually, although it stores neatly under a panel. So, inside and outside, the MR-S does not deliver a good impression ....

.... until you fire the engine. The 1794 c.c. all-alloy 16-valver is equipped with VVT-i like all other new engines from Toyota. The reduction of 200c.c. drops power and torque to 140hp and 127 lbft respectively, but drivability is not deteriorated. Nakagawa believes 1.8-litre is the best optimized size for a four cylinder. It enables smaller radiator, smaller brakes, narrower tyres .... in short, a lighter and more nimble car. 

Kerb weight is just 975kg, exactly identical to the Mk1 MR2. This is a remarkable achievement, considering the crash protection requirement for 2000 is far stricter than those of the 80s, and then the new car has more powerful engine and a soft top. 14 years ago, it might not be the lightest (cars such as Bertone X1/9 and Honda CRX might be lighter). Today, it is some 100kg below the competitors.

On the road, the weight saving translate into excellent control. The mid-engined chassis has first rate balance. Although it rides on MacPherson struts all round, the good set-up works well to keep the wheels perpendicular to the black top. The electric-assisted steering feels superbly communicative and well weighted. 2.6 turns from lock to lock means quick response. More important, the new MR-S corners with the agility and throttle adjustability that remind us the first MR2 or Mazda MX-5. However, some may describe it as "too tail happy", as it is easily prone to oversteer like Lotus Elise, thanks to the suspension setup and 56% weight taking by the rear axle. Well, such people just deserve to drive a boring BMW Z3.

In terms of sheer handling, the little Toyota is unmatchable in its price range, not even the ever-green Miata. But the latter has prettier styling and a sense of originality. The MR-S, like the first 2 generations, are more likely to be the choice for boy racers, who don't like art and philosophy. Nevertheless, with the addition of convertible, the MR-S should appear to the larger crowd.

To most drivers, the biggest problem of MR-S is it is too keen on oversteering. Skillful drivers may see that as engaging, but if they drive the car in a raining night, they have to be very careful. Responding to customer’s criticism, Toyota made a revision in August 2002. From exterior, it looks like just a minor facelift which concentrates on bumpers. However, underneath the skin there are 2 major changes.

Firstly, to keep the rear tyres firmly glue on the road, they are enlarged from 15 to 16-inch in diameter and widened from 205/50 to 215/45. Moreover, a mechanical LSD (limited-slip differential) is added to the rear axle, regulating wheelspin. As a result, road testers found the revised MR-S becomes much more sure-footed at the limit.

The second major change is upgrading the gearbox - no matter the manual or the SMT sequential manual - to 6-speed. The box is taken from Celica. It makes better use of the limited torque of the 1.8-litre engine thus improves performance slightly.

The look and interior of MR-S was never outstanding. After 2 years, it starts looking outdated. What a pity the revision do so little in these area.

Model MR-S
Layout Mid-engined, Rwd
Dimensions L / W / H / WB: 3885 / 1695 / 1235 / 2450 mm
Engine Inline-4, dohc, 4v/cyl, VVT
Capacity 1794 c.c.
Power 140 hp
Torque 127 lbft
Transmission 5M
Suspension All: strut
Tyres F: 185/55 R15; R: 205/50 R15
Weight 1076 kg
Top speed 126 mph*
0-60 mph 7.5 sec*
0-100 mph 22.9 sec*

Toyota Celica

Unless you are Japanese, you must be amazed that the Celica has entered its 7th generation. A quick calculation found Toyota launched a new Celica every 4 and a half years, again hardly imagined by European and American. Since the first Celica appeared in 1970, it is always the biggest selling coupe in Toyota’s line-up, capturing those 20-something buyers who want to have their first taste of a coupe. There were some memorable milestones in its 30 years history, e.g., the third generation gave birth to the six-cylinder Supra, the fourth generation shifted to front-wheel-drive and 16-valves engine, then came the rally ace GT-4. There were also some unfavourable moment, such as the launch of the overweight and ugly fifth generation (I used to call it "Monster") and the continuous sales decline during the life of the sixth generation. It’s time to revive the Celica nameplate now.

Undoubtedly, the latest Celica has two things to make headline : first, a striking look ; second, the new VVTL-i. Sadly, both are not the efforts of Toyota itself. Across the Pacific, the American stylists of Toyota’s California studio designed an aggressive body mirroring Ford’s New Edge. The triangular headlights, a tiny nose intake and the scoop over the bonnet are the main features at the front, while a sharp shoulder edge dominates the rear half of the side. A rear wing is the signature of the 180hp version thus it is a must for enthusiasts. 

Underneath the striking look, the new Celica is actually rather conservative. Everything play safe : front-wheel drive remains unchanged, no GT-4 anymore, no V6, no turbo ... that means the car is not going to be as exciting as Nissan Silvia, our current favourite. Why not build the car on the Altezza (IS200) chassis ? I’m sure it would be fantastic to handle. Why not gave it a chronographic gauge ? 

The second selling point is the VVTL-i equipped 2ZZ-GE power plant, that is, an all new aluminium four cylinder developed with the help from Yamaha. Displacing 1796c.c., it breaks the tradition since the third generation that 2-litre engines must be used. It is smaller yet it has an aluminium alloy block. The result is of course great weight saving, which lightens the front wheels and improve handling. Yamaha has been known as an engine expert in Japan and works as a consultant to other car makers. Its experience was acquired from racing motorcycle (an arch-rival of Honda) and once the Formula one engine program (not really Honda’s arch-rival). Its famous creations range from both generations of Ford Taurus SHO engines and the European Ford’s Zetec engine. Toyota’s first sports car, 2000GT of 1967, was also assembled by Yamaha. 

Like many high tech aluminium engine, the 2ZZ-GE gets Nikasil treatment instead of using cast iron liner as a means to reduce friction and wear. Yamaha is one of the few experts in the world having the Nikasil treatment facilities (Ford’s Zetec is treated there), thus Toyota is eager to ask it to assemble the 2ZZ-GE engine. Its work does not stop there. Base on Toyota’s VVT-i variable valve timing system, Yamaha developed the VVTL-i which also incorporates variable lift control. You must know that variable lift is so important to top end power. Without it the new engine can never reaches a maximum power of 180hp at 7600rpm. Basically, the mechanism is a combination of the continuously phase-shifting variable timing (VVT-i) and a 2-stage cam-changing variable lift like Honda’s VTEC, but the implementation differs a bit from Honda thus avoid violating the rival’s patent. Once exceeding 6,000rpm, the high speed cams take over and the engine can rev for another 2 thousand rev.

You may ask why the Toyota’s unit does not pump out as many horsepower per litre as Honda’s Civic Type R, Integra Type R or S2000. Very simple, Toyota’s engine is a fully mass production engine without the hand-intensive treatment required by the special Hondas, such as forged pistons / con-rod / counter weights etc. Take a normal Integra GSR’s VTEC and you’ll notice the superiority of Toyota’s VVTL-i, especially is low and mid-rpm torque, thanks to its additional continuously variable valve timing. 

On the road, the 180hp Celica is pleasantly fast, despite of its reduced displacement. Benefited by weight saving (the kerb weight is 1190kg) and a close-ratio 6-speed manual, 0-60mph was timed in 6.8 sec by Road & Track (Motor Trend even did that in 6.6 sec), 0-100mph was reached in 18.2 sec, very impressive. Nevertheless, don’t expect it to match the lightning Silvia turbo or Fiat Coupe turbo, they do 0-100 in 14.2 sec and 14.5 sec respectively. 

If speed is not the most important, the Celica should restore some ground with its fine handling and ride. There is no trick in the conventional front MacPherson struts and rear double wishbones, but the combination of well-tuned spring / damper and lightweight engine lifts its performance. Ride quality couldn’t be better for a coupe. Steering is surprisingly quick and accurate, with plenty of feedback. As a FF its understeer is well suppressed, although someone may ask for the ultimate fun as experienced in a rear-drive Silvia or even the Altezza sedan. However, the Celica’s balance, body roll, grip and brake are all no inferior to those FR opponents.

The 180hp engine for the GT-S model is revvy yet sufficiently torquey once you’re in open road. Although its peak torque of 133 lbft arrives at sky-high 6,800rpm, the torque curve is very flat across the whole rev range. However, I can’t help thinking that an addition of 200c.c. would have been better coping with the competitors. The next thing I dream is a turbo, perhaps from TRD. No way, I’m afraid only a new GT-4 could cope with that.

Budget choice is also a 1.8-litre four, with the normal VVT-i instead of VVTL-i and output just 140hp and 125lbft. Please note that it is not a detuned version of the 180hp unit because it is developed by Toyota itself. Not only has cast iron liners instead of Nikasil coating, its cylinder bore / stroke dimension of 79.0 / 91.5mm also differs from the Yamaha engine’s 82.0 / 85.0mm. As reflected by its name, IZZ-FE, it is the one shared with the new MR2 (MR-S). The basic engine has been reported as well short of power. Both engines have the same 6-speed manual, which requires a strong hand. An optional 4-speed E-shift automatic is well out of pace and grace.

I personally dislike the interior. It tries to be stylish but without using the proper material to express the idea. The plasticky center console looks nothing like alloy as it wished to be. The dials are well left behind the chronographic era (finally the Japanese stylists found something superior to their American colleagues). Overall speaking the interior is nothing other than another mainstream coupe. In terms of comfort, the front seats and driving position are comfortable, with ergonomically placing instruments and controls. The rear seats are, again, lack of headroom thus they are just "+2".

Summing all up, the new Celica is far better than the last 2 generations, no matter in styling, performance and handling. On the down side, it does not have some fundamental breakthroughs to make it a class winner. It appears well to the majority, but might not be enough to set us on fire.

Model Celica GT Celica GT-S
Layout Front-engined, Fwd Front-engined, Fwd.
Dimensions L / W / H / WB: 4335 / 1735 / 1315 / 2600 mm
Engine Inline-4, dohc, 4v/cyl, VVT Inline-4, dohc, 4v/cyl, VVT+VVL
Capacity 1794 c.c. 1796 c.c.
Power 140 hp 180 hp
Torque 125 lbft 133 lbft
Transmission 6M 6M
Suspension F: strut / R: double wishbones
Tyres 205/50 R16 205/50 R16
Weight 1150 kg 1190 kg
Top speed 127 mph (claimed) 140 mph (estimated)
0-60 mph 8.5 sec (claimed) 6.8 sec*
0-100 mph N/A 18.2 sec*

Toyota Soarer / Lexus SC430

A running pillow. Truly, it looks like a running pillow. Toyota said the design was chosen among proposals from its studios all over the world, including the headquarters (think of IS200), the California-based CALTY (whose track record includes the old SC and new Celica) and Brussels (that pretty Yaris). Of course, the first to be ruled out was those who penned the ugly IS200. Then, surprisingly, the management guys chose the design from Brussels. In sketches it did look good, but after adaptation to production - reducing the size of wheels, increasing the windscreen incline angle, raising the level of bonnet and boot lid - the beautiful profile was ruined and became a fat pillow. It is just another poor design that looks good in concept stage but completely different in production form. It is just another example that we car lovers foresaw a problem but the management old men did not. Another problem is I cannot find a single styling detail delivering a sense of elegance or prestige. They should have chosen CALTY.

The point is clearer if you compare the new SC with the old one. While the former looks odd, the latter is still handsome after 9 years (born 1992) even though without much restyle. The same feeling extends to interior. Better material used aside, the new styling is quite inconsistent - sometimes you see a straight-and-cool center console housing a sound system with brush alloy face, sometimes you see some light-color wood decorated in the dashboard in an American-traditional shape, at the same time you face 3 cute dials as found in some funny cars. Too much character means no character.

While subjective sense is cruel to Lexus, as always, in objective sense it is hard to fault. The new car has a much sportier dimension than the old one - a massive 384 mm shorter, 24 mm wider, same height and have a wheelbase 71 mm shorter. The positive outcome is much improved driver appeal, also thanks to the all-double-wishbones suspensions donated by GS sedan. The bad news is a pair of laughable "plus 2" rear seats. You would be generous to call them "dog seats". How small ? it might accommodate handicapped passengers without legs. And I doubt if the boot, with the roof stored, can accommodate a folded wheelchair.

However, the SLK-style aluminium roof is fabulous. Press a button and it will be automatically folded and stored in the boot within 25 seconds. Unluckily, when a Peugeot costing a third of its price has the same feature, driving this Lexus is no longer as proud as it should have been. Sorry for going back to subjective sense again, but honestly speaking subjective image means a lot to this kind of prestige cars.

Back to cool mechanical spec and you’ll see the platform is actually a shortened GS430, with the same creamy yet powerful 300-horsepower V8 and silky-smooth yet clever 5-speed automatic, though there is no Tiptronic-style E-shift. Few care, as the chassis still favour comfort rather than handling although the old car was even more so. Lexus claimed the body shell is stiffer than Jaguar XK8 Convertible but R&T’s testers found the opposite, that’s probably because the Lexus rides on softer suspension setting. They also felt the Jaguar more agile to change direction while the Lexus felt bulkier and heavier. Steering is accurate and vibration-free but could be a little numb. Unsurprisingly, the positive side is smooth ride.

In this respect, the Lexus follows tightly its traditional values of placing refinement in first priority. That’s a bit sad after seeing the new direction set by IS. Being a 300-horsepower coupe pricing near Jaguar XK8 and Mercedes CLK430 Conv., it’s driver appeal is inevitably letting us down. Perhaps the car concentrates too much on American market - some two-third of the 15,000 cars produced annually will destine there - and fail to care the rest of the world, especially Europe. Ah ha, you know, the old SC coupe was bounded in the America and Japan.

Watch out next year’s long-awaited (for 13 years) new Mercedes SL, with similar roof and superior handling yet no compromise in ride comfort, I believe the tri-star can sell double number of cars compare with the Lexus yet manage to earn double profit margin per car. Believe or not !

After all, the new SC coupe is less desirable than the original appeared in 1992. I think it cannot last as long.

Model Lexus SC430
Layout Front-engined, Rwd
Dimensions L / W / H / WB: 4516 / 1829 / 1349 / 2619 mm
Engine V8, dohc, 4v/cyl, VVT.
Capacity 4293 c.c.
Power 300 hp
Torque 325 lbft
Transmission 5A
Suspension All: double wishbones
Tyres 245/40 ZR18
Weight 1750 kg
Top speed 155 mph (limited)
0-60 mph 6.2 sec*
0-100 mph 15.2 sec*
Более 2000 руководств
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