The Toyota Crown has a rich limousine pedigree
Several Toyota sedans are named for a crown, but only one is king. It’s true: a “corolla” is a seventeenth-century word for a little crown, and “Camry” derives from the Japanese word for crown, kanmuri. For a short time, Toyota even offered a model called the Toyota Tiara.
Leaving the etymology lesson aside, the big news last week was the return of Toyota’s flagship sedan to the North American market. While the mighty Century will continue to be the company’s emperor in Japan, there is a new king among USDM Toyotas. The Crown has returned.
This effective replacement for the U.S.-market Avalon is quite a thing to behold. Blending elements of crossover, sedan, hybrid, and even a dollop of Lexus, the new Toyota Crown is about the size of the now-defunct Lexus GS but rides high—four inches taller than a Camry. It has a choice of two hybridized powertrains, one of them with a healthy 340 hp. All-wheel drive is standard, with an electric motor on the rear axle as with the Prius AWD-e.
Of course, the Crown’s polarizing styling is getting the most attention. We’ve only just become used to the filter-feeder front end of the Camry and Corolla, but the Crown now doubles down with a two-tone exterior that looks downright weird.
If it’s a shock, it shouldn’t be. The Crown’s long ancestry is perhaps not well known on this side of the Pacific, but this isn’t the first time Toyota’s taken a risk with its biggest sedan. In fact, the very first Crown represented the company’s biggest gamble.
First Generation: Toyopet Crown
If a 1950s Cadillac was a finely tailored business suit, the Toyopet Crown was what happened when you washed that suit in hot water instead of getting it dry-cleaned. It had a wheelbase of just 99.6 inches but came with lashings of chrome and whitewall tires. Reliable luxury on a budget? Sounds like a good start for Toyota’s first export passenger car to the U.S. Right?
Not exactly. The first Crown was well engineered to handle Japan’s still-rebuilding road network, but the interstates of the U.S. might as well have been paved with kryptonite. The first cars arrived in 1958 and were not a sales success. At $1999, the Crown cost slightly too much for a compact car, it was quite heavy for its size and the 1.5-liter engine was underpowered. One of Toyota’s early U.S. employees also discovered that you couldn’t take it to the drive-thru, as the trays used at the time pressed against the steering wheel and set off the horn.
Things were so bad that by 1960 Toyota had pulled the Crown entirely, returning later with the Corona sedan which was much better suited for the U.S. market. However, because of this failure, an American-spec Crown is quite rare and collectible. They are still very slow, even more so by modern standards, but the build quality is outstanding. Nine-coat painting process!
So, not successful, but quite like a tiny Cadillac. The first Crown’s ambition exceeded its grasp, and Toyota would try again.
Second and Third Generation: Japan’s first V-8
The S40 Crown which emerged in 1962 was a far more convincing effort. Available in the U.S. as a sedan or a wagon, it now blended full-size looks with compact car efficiency. It wasn’t too thrifty—that was the job of the smaller Corona—and was now up to the job of handling interstate travel with an ultra-smooth inline-six engine.
More interesting was the Crown Eight, the first Japanese car to boast a V-8 engine, displacing 2.6 liters. Not built alongside the regular Crowns, owing to its very wide body, the Crown Eight was built to offer an all-Japanese alternative to the U.S.-made executive limousines that were still in use by various companies.
It was also hoped that the Japanese Imperial Household would adopt the Crown Eight for its transportation needs. However, the colossal Nissan Prince Royal beat it out, equipped as it was with a 6.4-liter V-8. (Hard to disagree there.) Later, the Crown Eight’s duties would be taken over by the Toyota Century.
Fourth Generation: Blue whale
If the wild styling of the 2023 Crown has you scratching your head, this is where it came from. Launched in the 1970s, as Japan’s economy really switched into high gear, the fourth generation Crown offered a daring design. It was quickly nick-named kujira, Japanese for blue whale.
Crowns of this generation are really quite lovely to drive, smooth and reliable, and striking-looking. Available as a sedan, coupe, and wagon, they did not sell well and are uncommon cars now. As fuel prices rose, Toyota elected to remove the Crown from the U.S. market. The blue whale disappeared from our shores.
Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Generations: MC Royal Saloon G takes the mic
Out of the 1970s and into the 1980s, Toyota got a lot more conservative with its flagship. The cars were boxy, well-equipped with interesting features like a trunk-mounted refrigerator, and generally not very exciting.
One exception was the Royal Saloon G, which definitely sounds like a rap artist of the late 1980s. Not only was it available with the world’s first CD-ROM color navigation, but it also could be optioned with the four-liter V-8 out of the Lexus LS400. In many ways, the Crown blazed the trail for the creation of Lexus.
Ninth Generation: Taxi cab
Statistically speaking, the Toyota Crown most familiar to the average North American is the Toyota Crown Comfort. Just as the Ford Crown Victoria was the mainstay of New York’s yellow taxi cabs, the Crown Comfort is how most tourists get around Tokyo when they can’t figure out the subway. Launched in 1995, these cars were built without major change for years.
The non-fleet Crown offered in this generation was not much of a success. Toyota had modernized its looks, and Crown customers wanted something more traditional-looking.
Tenth and Eleventh generation: Athletics department
Despite a change to modern unibody construction, the Crown was once again appealingly boxy. In 1999, trims were simplified to the Royal (for luxury) or Athlete (for sporty).
Probably the coolest variant from the period was the Crown Athlete wagon, which could be optioned with the same 3.0-liter twin-turbocharged straight-six that you got in the Mk. IV Toyota Supra. A wagon fit for Dominic Toretto? That’s family.
Twelfth and Thirteenth generation: Toyota’s S-Class
An increase in size saw the Crown now outperforming the BMW 7 Series and Mercedes-Benz S-Class in terms of interior room. At the same time, the car featured a level of refinement and luxury that would have been surprising to someone used to a USDM Camry.
By the end of the 2000s, the Crown had also adopted a number of forward-thinking driver aids. Collision avoidance, pedestrian detection, and driver monitoring all showed up. It still carried a Toyota badge, but the Crown was intended to be every bit an equal rival to the European luxury marques.
Fourteenth Generation: Pretty in pink
In many ways, this generation of Crown made the car … less interesting. V-8 power was no longer available, just a couple of V-6s and a hybrid or turbocharged four-cylinder.
On the other hand, there was one very odd special edition. Built in partnership with the popular Japanese actor/personality, the Toyota Reborn Pink Crown Athlete is exactly what the name says: extremely pink. Toyota managed to shift a surprising 650 of these cars in the domestic market, and they are apparently still in demand.
Fifteenth Generation: Gran Turismo
As the last generation of Crown before the new U.S.-market one arrived, the S220-chassis Crown is a bit more engaging than you’d expect. If you’ve played Gran Turismo 7, you’ll have already digitally driven one of these cars, as it features early on in one of the challenges.
Tuned on the Nürburgring, it’s surprisingly fleet of foot for such a big sedan. The top model came with a 3.5-liter V-6 and a hybrid drive system good for nearly 360 hp. That’s about as much as you could ever need for Tokyo’s frequently clogged highway systems.
And up front, in place of pride on the front grille, it carried a stylized crown badge. The 2023 model that replaces it and brings the Crown back to this side of the water will not have such a badge in U.S. trim, just the model name out back. But anyone who takes off the Toyota badge on the nose and puts the Crown badge back will be doing it right. Toyota build and sells a lot of sedans. Only the Crown is king.