Sedans

2018 Toyota Century first drive review: Timeless icon renewed

This six-figure Toyota is the most intrinsically Japanese car in the world -- one explicitly designed for graceful kimono exits.

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Toyota's most expensive car is also among its best-kept secrets. If you're familiar with the Toyota Century at all, you've probably heard it referred to as "Japan's Rolls-Royce." In fact, when this new third-generation model was introduced earlier this year, Roadshow's own headline trumpeted: "Toyota's Century is Japan's $180,000 Rolls-Royce rival." As nobody outside the company had driven the new car yet, our news editor, Andrew Krok, could not have known how on-target and yet simultaneously how spectacularly off-base he was. As I recently became the first -- and perhaps only -- member of the Western media to drive the new Toyota Century, allow me to explain.

Considering its sizable dimensions, formal body lines and six-figure price tag, it's understandable that everyone would leap to make Rolls-Royce comparisons. Both are highly luxurious, singular reflections of the countries from which they originate. But it's that last bit that's also precisely why the two are so different. 

Thing is, outside of Japan, very few know about the Century at all. That's because it isn't exported, and because Toyota builds so few: Just 50 examples are meticulously and painstakingly crafted on a monthly basis, and the company's order books for this new model are already filled for the better part of a year. The Century is an unassailable icon in its home country -- a legendary and immediately identifiable Toyota nameplate right up there with Supra and Prius.

Traditional looks

The timeless proportions seen here not only place this new third-generation model firmly in the Century design canon, they all but guarantee this sedan will age particularly gracefully. That's particularly important for a model that's historically updated so sparingly. While most successful cars receive all-new iterations every seven or eight years, Toyota goes about 20 years between Century renovations -- the last new one bowed in 1997, back when Harry Potter was first hitting shelves. 

The Century's formal roofline and imposing square-rigged bodywork may be old school, but it's also unmistakably modern, marked out by 18-inch wheels and subtly high-tech LED illumination. The design is both elegantly simple and swimming in rich details. The front grille features a delicate "infinite loop crown" pattern said to be evocative of harmony and prosperity. There's a phoenix badge that takes a master takumi artisan six weeks to engrave. The Century's wet-sanded, seven-layer paint, modeled after Japan's fabled lacquer box finishes, looks miles deep. 

As Toyota's other designs have become more complex and busy, the Century has doubled-down on traditional elegance.

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These days, the average Rolls-Royce buyer's age is just 45 years old (it's amazing how being the preferred ride of the nouveau riche, pro athletes and reality TV stars can confer youth on a brand). In contrast, the Century's average buyer is decades their senior. The Century is the choice of CEOs and politicians, as well as Japan's Imperial Family -- nearly all of whom ride exclusively in the back seat, chauffeur at the wheel. 

Whereas virtually all six-figure European sedans offer myriad color choices and optional extras that can add noticeable flamboyancy inside and out, Toyota deliberately keeps Century configurations simple. Paint? Your choice of four colors: black, silver, blue or burgundy. There are no special orders.

Japan's Imperial Family, captains of industry and yes, the Yakuza, will shortly know this view well.

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Above Lexus

Given the Century's rarified-air price tag, you might be surprised to learn that it doesn't wear an "L" badge. Indeed, if you had x-ray specs, you'd find that there's a great deal of Lexus LS underneath this four-door's glorious bodywork. But as a brand, Lexus was only introduced to Japan in 2005, and the Century cemented its status among Japan's elite decades before Japanese consumers were even aware of the marque. 

Alternatively, as Masato Tanabe, chief engineer of the Century program, told me during a meeting at the Toyota Automobile Museum in Nagoya, "There is kind of a clear division between the Lexus brand and the Century brand. Lexus is owner [operated] car top-level of the brand. however, Century is the TMC's [Toyota Motor Corporation] top brand of chauffeur cars."

It's all but certain the average Toyota Century owner will never open the hood and gaze upon this 5.0-liter V8.

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Eco/CEO-friendliness 

Whereas the outgoing Century was powered by a 48-valve, 5.0-liter GZ-family V12 (a massive engine designed exclusively for that application), the new model keeps that displacement but loses cylinders and gains electrons. The new Century features a 5.0-liter V8 hybrid powertrain borrowed from the outgoing Lexus LS. Total system output is quoted at 376 pound-feet of torque and 425 horsepower, 376 of which come from internal combustion. Why didn't the Century make use of the latest LS' turbo V6 hybrid setup? The V8's extra smoothness and sound characteristics were deemed more befitting a car of the Century's station.

Captains of industry and government needn't sweat Japan's notoriously expensive fuel prices, of course, but there is the issue of keeping up appearances: According to Tanabe, "[Century] customers don't [actually] care about the eco-friendliness, that's what I found through conversations. The corporate image is very important, so [being] eco-friendly is very important for the CEOs of the companies."

Regardless of motivations, Toyota says the new Century is more efficient, delivering 13.6 kilometers per liter -- that's equivalent to 32 miles per gallon US (an impressive number, albeit achieved on Japan's far more lenient JC08 test cycle).

The third-gen Century receives a longer wheelbase and more upright C-pillar for greater space and even more traditional aesthetics.

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Native environment

I never did get to fully exercise the Century's rear-wheel-drive muscle, as my day of test driving took place in dense Tokyo traffic. However, I did take the car out on area expressways in addition to city traffic. While I would've loved to have had the space to stretch out the Century's legs and thoroughly test its electronically controlled auto-leveling air suspension and stiffer chassis, the way a limousine like the Century comports itself in stop-and-go traffic is far more mission critical than the way it hustles around the Ebisu Circuit.

To that end, the Century's cabin is utterly serene. Chock full of soundproofing, thick glass, active noise-canceling tech and riding atop special silent-riding 18-inch aluminum wheels and model-specific tires, this big sedan is a veritable sensory deprivation chamber, a four-wheeled refuge from boardroom chatter and Shinkansen-track clatter alike. This silent nature, is, in fact, very much like a Rolls-Royce.

The same can be said of the Century's steering, which is generally light and highly assisted, though not to the finger-twirling level of many Seventies American luxury cars. Given that Centuries are nearly always chauffeur driven, the priority has been placed on ease of use rather than creating particularly communicative or sporty-feeling steering. 

It's tremendously difficult to find parking spaces anywhere in Tokyo, but I hit the jackpot.

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Size matters

The Century is from a right-hand-drive country, but after years of testing cars in England and Japan, I've grown accustomed to operating on the "other side" of the road. In fact, I even own a Japanese-market minicar in the US, so I'm reasonably proficient at it. Despite that, tooling around Tokyo in something as large and wide as the Century (never mind its considerable worth) would prove to be occasionally daunting. While piloting a full-size sedan of the Century's dimensions would be unremarkable in the US, cars of this scale are a comparative rarity in Japan, and one trip down a narrow side street will tell you exactly why. 

I have nothing but respect for Japan's meticulously trained force of professional drivers, especially considering this vehicle isn't available with 360-degree camera support for easier parking. Instead, proximity sensors and a single backup camera are standard. When I asked Tanabe-san if that's because a surround-view camera system might risk trivializing a chauffeur's skills, he demurred, saying instead, "I don't appreciate it. I don't like it. That's why." Instead, anachronistic "fender pole" antennae that mark out the corners of the car remain a 34,560-yen ($310) option.

Power articulated rear seats feature heating, cooling, massage, and there's a power-deploying ottoman.

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Back-seat beauty

While the Century is very comfortable (if ultimately somewhat staid) to drive, the best way to experience this sedan's considerable charms are from the back seat. It's here where the Century feels not only at its most luxurious, but its most traditional and Japanese.

Rear seat room is generous, and likely would've been even without this generation's 2.6-inch wheelbase stretch. Toyota has taken pains to make the Century's C-pillar even more upright, which not only lends the exterior a more formal appearance, it aids headroom. The whole of the Century's lower perimeter is rimmed in chrome, literally underlining that the Century is a different sort of motorcar.

Like attention to detail? Century's phoenix emblem takes a takumi artisan six weeks to complete.

Toyota

What I didn't expect from seeing the Century's cabin in photos is how open and airy it feels from the back seat. A Toyota employee was kind enough to chauffeur me around for a while so that I could experience the Century the way owners do, and I was taken aback by how chair-like the height of the rear seats is, as well as how the tall side glass contributes to commanding forward visibility. 

There's a noticeable step up to the ceiling height in the rear passenger compartment, and the front seats sit much lower, so seeing over the shoulder of the driver is easy and enjoyable. (I didn't even notice that the step-in height is different from front to back until Tanabe beamed and pointed out the flush rear door sills, proudly saying "kimonos," accompanied by a flowing gesture). 

Traditional wool upholstery is standard, my test car was fitted with optional leather.

Toyota

In accordance with Japanese tradition, wool cloth is standard, although my test car's interior was upholstered in leather, a 540,000-yen option (around $4,850). The latter is increasingly popular, but wool remains the sentimental pick on account of its freer-breathing nature and comparatively low noise. The latter fabric is available in gray, brown or beige, and leather can be specified in black or fromage -- an attractive shade somewhere between tan and white. 

(Those rear seats, incidentally, are not only heated, cooled and massaging, they're Toyota's only coil-sprung chairs, not only for comfort, but to curb vibration. While coils used to be common, today, cheaper multi-density foams are omnipresent).

Chances are, Toyota Century owners will never sit up front and experience this view.

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Cabin tech

Even if you don't use the multi-controller to motorize the front passenger seat forward and deploy the ottoman after peeling off your Hiro Yagimachi wingtips (don't forget to put the shoe horn back in its holder), the Century is still seriously comfortable in back. The aforementioned multi-controller takes the form of a seven-inch touchscreen mounted in the armrest, and it supervises everything from seat articulations and HVAC controls to infotainment. A central 11.6-inch screen accommodates movie, TV or presentation viewing (headrest-mounted screens were deemed too showy, and could allow other motorists to catch an errant glimpse of sensitive content). Chauffeurs aren't totally without convenience tech: They can watch television on the front screen during off hours.

You won't find a built-in refrigerator (let alone crystal champagne flutes), a perfume dispenser, matching throw pillows or user-selectable multi-color ambient lighting on the options list. In fact, like everything else about the Century, this cabin is remarkably restrained, not borderline baroque like some other six-figure sedans (Mercedes-Maybach, take a bow). The elegant, unusual paddle-like veneered door handles are arguably the interior's most eye-catching feature. 

An armrest touchscreen supervises seat, media and telephony functions.

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"Very flashy ornaments are not required by this model. We targeted to create the inside atmosphere…for Japanese people going to the tearoom and having a tea ceremony and feeling the tranquility or calmness," notes Tanabe. To reinforce that aura, the second row alone features a kanji-pattern headliner that Toyota says "represents perpetual prosperity for the home and longevity." 

You can, of course, specify lace privacy curtains ($1,440) and many drivers fit matching white antimacassars, too. 

One area where the Century badly lagged all other executive-class sedans? Active safety features. Fortunately, the new Century remedies that handily, with standard tech like pre-collision auto-brake with pedestrian detection, lane-keep assist, adaptive cruise control and blind-spot monitor. 

The first new Century since 1997, just 50 will be built per month at Toyota's Higashi-Fuji Plant in Susono, Shizuoka Prefecture.

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Development and future

The new Century has been a long time coming. In fact, it took over six years to develop. (Before 2012, there was a proposal for a new Century, but it fizzled). That's an unusually long gestation period for a modern car. Much of that timeline is attributable to the development of the vehicle itself, and part of it is because Toyota's takumi had develop the specialized processes and skills necessary to realize the vehicle's assembly. (In a country that stresses craftsmanship to the point that it regularly takes sushi apprentices years to learn how to make rice, it's perhaps unsurprising it took so long for the Century to bow).

Given Century's city-centric audience and the premium it places on noiseless travel, an eventual move to full electrification seems like a natural fit. Tanabe was noncommittal when I asked him about a battery-powered model, saying only that Toyota vows to "study it." He gave the same answer when asked about offering increasing levels of automated driving. To me, the idea of an autonomous Century feels simultaneously wondrous and utterly beside the point, as a white-glove chauffeured experience remains an integral part of the Century's traditional appeal.

Only Japan could produce a luxury sedan that's so restrained yet so opulent all at the same time.

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Without rival

On a very literal level, the Century exists on an island, in a luxury vacuum of sorts. Yes, there are other magnate-worthy motorcars on the home roads of this Toyota. Some offer more power or more features, and nearly all are more personalizable. But few can match this car's sense of occasion, and none are as harmonized with Japan's luxury aesthetic, a singular sensibility that somehow manages to embrace a love of ceremony and simplicity at the same time. As Tanabe himself told me, in the end, the Toyota Century has no real competition -- not even Rolls-Royce. 

After sampling it for myself, I couldn't agree more.


Editors' note: Travel costs related to this feature were covered by the manufacturer. This is common in the auto industry, as it's far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists. While Roadshow accepts multiday vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews, all scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms.

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