Watch from the cockpit of one very special BMW M5.
Across the ocean, a descent into Vell
It’s a great time to be an American driver, isn’t it? Admittedly, today’s cars are generally bigger, fatter, and more sluggish than they were a decade ago, not to mention significantly more expensive to purchase—but we do have supercar-quick Corvettes on the clearance rack, pony cars dominating the Nürburgring, and 306-horsepower Honda Civics. Drivers have every reason to count their blessings.
The American passenger, on the other hand… well, that’s a different story. Compared to his Continental or Asian cousins, the man in the Stateside back seat is a second-class citizen at best. Consigned to board-flat benches or SUV “captain’s chairs” that place considerably more value on ease of folding than comfort of seating, he gets less wheelbase than he needs and fewer comforts than he wants.
Consider, if you will, the case of the now-discontinued Cadillac STS, an example of which your humble author ran as a company car about 13 years ago. It was a nice ride, if just a little severe and razor-edged both inside and out. As a driver’s car, it offered a sonorous Northstar, sharp handling, and traffic-friendly dimensions. The rear seat, however, was an utter nightmare, accessed through Mercury-capsule-sized doors and offering less practical space than what you’d get in a Chevette. I never got anyone to ride in the back more than once. It might as well have been a coupe, given how much luck I had using it in situations which called for more than two people in the car. Heck, it might as well have been a two-seater.
The Chinese version of the STS, called SLS, had a four-inch stretch to the wheelbase. It made all the difference to rear-seat room, comfort… the car even looked better as a consequence of the slightly longer and better-proportioned rear glass. Why didn’t we get it here? At the time, GM said it was because cars in the STS/SLS segment are typically owner-driven in the United States but chauffeur-driven in China. So the American buyer got… a marginally better turn-in, while the Chinese buyer got a usable car. The Chinese buyer also got an astoundingly good long-wheelbase version of the Chevy SS, sold under the Buick name, but let’s not dwell on that, because it will only make us angry.
Not that any sane person would consent to be driven in a modern Cadillac or Buick of any type when they could catch a ride in a Toyota Alphard or Vellfire. The “VellPhard” twins are chrome-nosed boxes just a bit under 200 inches long, taller than American minivans without being wider, featuring an odd Colonnade-ish B-pillar profile. They’re exclusively front-wheel drive and are typically provisioned with the corporate 2.4-liter four and 3.5-liter six with which we are familiar from the Camry. The story of how they came to be is utterly fascinating and is worth a separate article in the future. For now, it suffices to say that they are in their third generation and that they have proven to be exceptionally popular in Asia and the Middle East.
Over the course of the past week, I’ve been driven around Malaysia and Singapore in several different Alphards and Vellfires of the second and third generation. The difference is generally cosmetic, with the Vellfire having a “sport” appearance both inside and out, although in certain countries they are also supplied with different powertrains. Feel free to take a look at this video shot by my friend Bobby Ang in Malaysia, which shows a bit of the Alphard and Vellfire:
While the VellPhards are occasionally marketed by importers and dealerships as family vehicles, Toyota has the Voxy and Noah twins which cover that ground a little better, being sized within certain Japanese tax restrictions and also offering hybrid drivetrains. It’s easiest to think of the Voxy as a 5-Series BMW and the Alphard as a 7-Series. Both are “family-sized,” but only the latter is meant to truly pamper the people inside.
Pampering is a task at which the VellPhards excel. If the focus of a Miata is the chassis and the focus of a Mustang is the engine, then the focus of an Alphard is the two business-class seats in the second row. They’re deliberate duplicates of the thrones you’ll find near the front of an Airbus A380, offering powered recline, power-extending ottoman leg support, and a variety of other comfort-oriented adjustments. It’s easy to sleep in them; it’s also easy to open up a laptop and work.
Pricing for the VellPhards parallels that of the Mercedes E-Class in most markets. Trust me, you’d rather be driven in the Toyota. Ah, but would you rather drive the Toyota? Twenty years ago, I’d have laughed at that idea—but we live in an era now where people want to sit higher than sedan level. The VellPhards are comfortable and stable up to about 100 miles per hour, which is truthfully faster than 98 percent of E-Class drivers will ever go outside central Europe, and they have reasonable body control when driven on curvy roads. The newest Vellfire actually makes pretenses to sporty handling, thanks to a multi-link rear suspension and aggressive running gear, but they aren’t autocross superstars for obvious reasons.
The suitability of the VellPhards for “black car” work in New York and other major cities is obvious; they’re nine inches shorter than the Lincoln MKT, offer greater maneuverability, and are probably longer-lasting in severe service. How about for the rest of us? That’s where I become a little less sanguine. America did have two separate and distinct love affairs with short-nose vans for personal use; the first was the “shaggin’ wagon” era of the Seventies and then the beige-with-stripes conversion-van phenomenon which made household names, however temporarily, of northern-Indiana firms like Explorer. Why not a third?
There are two obvious reasons for a lack of heartland American VellPhard enthusiasm. The first is that upper-middle-class families have effectively stopped having multiple children. It’s hard to justify having an Alphard for the one spoiled little baby you have at the age of thirty-seven—although to be fair, your humble author bought a Flex Limited for the one spoiled little baby he had at the age of thirty-seven, and I would have been equally interested in a Vellfire. Perhaps more important is the significantly greater role of pickup trucks as family cars in 2019. Why get an Alphard when the same money will get you an F-150 King Ranch or Silverado LTZ?
In the end, I think it comes down to our modern American disease, which is rampant narcissism. We are no longer content to identify as parents and members of our community. We need to be cool, we need to be hip, we need to be interesting. The 45-year-old men and women who dress, style, and act in pale imitation of their own teenagers wouldn’t be caught dead behind the wheel of an Alphard. That would suggest that their most important role is ferrying and caring for their children, when they’d all really rather be known for their prowess as CrossFitters or Instagram influencers or social activists. So they buy upscale SUVs and crossovers, not realizing that their own children view Porsche Cayennes and Audi SQ5s the same way they once viewed conversion vans and Cutlass wagons—namely, as things that sad old people drive and own.
That’s the depressing take on it. Another way to see it: Americans are still deeply, truly in love with driving, so we are always going to get the sportiest, most driver-focused thing we can afford. A Mercedes GLE-Class might not have a Vellfire’s worth of utility or comfort, but it has a long nose and a powerful engine and a visual identification with the Autobahn stormers of our childhood. We hate the VellPhards because we love driving. Let’s go with that. After all, isn’t it a great time to be an American driver?