The Century is a high-class throwback to a different idea of luxury.
TOKYO — When luxuriating in the rear-seat hush of the just redesigned Toyota Century — Japan’s answer to a Rolls-Royce — it’s the little things that define the car as one part iconic ultrapremium status symbol, one part anachronism from a bygone era.
There is the wool moquette upholstery tailored to create a quiet, warm, cocoonlike cabin with all the nostalgia of Granddad’s old business suit. There is the ceiling fabric, embroidered with a slanting lattice motif that evokes the understated gentility of Grandma’s lace tablecloth.
Front and center stands a massive 11.6-inch audio screen with its fully functional television set, all controlled by a sophisticated touch panel at the passenger’s fingertips in the center arm rest.
But then you notice the interesting choice of a DVD player add-on. At least it’s Blu-ray. And there is also the clock — analog, of course.
And a shoehorn stand.
The latter is essential because the simple act of reclining in the back seat enjoins the well-heeled rider to immediately pop off the wingtips and throw up their weary trotters on the car’s fold-down ottoman.
Rest assured, the Japanese would not be as gauche as to put shoes on the ottoman.
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The whole experience explains why Toyota Motor Corp. keeps building this limousine. It perfectly encapsulates a frozen-in-time Japanese aesthetic of what luxury ought to be.
It is also one reason why export-minded Toyota has no plans to sell the Century overseas, despite finally giving the car its first redesign in 21 years. In an international limousine market dominated by Rolls, Bentley and Maybach, much of the Century just gets lost in translation.
A cut above
Demand for Toyota’s limo is low, even in Japan. The redesigned cruiser went on sale here in June, and Toyota expects to sell only 50 a month.
Eye-watering pricing has something to do with that. The new Century starts at ¥19.6 million ($176,600), including tax. That’s nearly $30,000 more than the top-grade Lexus LS sedan, the flagship of Toyota’s premium brand and the more obvious executive option. Toyota bumped up the Century’s price from $112,890 for the outgoing model partly to reinforce the Century’s status as a cut above.
To be sure, the new generation gets some big updates, starting under the hood.
Toyota has dumped the silky smooth 5.0-liter V-12 engine of the outgoing model in favor of the brand’s trademark hybrid technology. The next Century pairs a direct injection 5.0-liter V-8 with a two-stage electric motor and nickel metal hydride battery for power and fuel economy.
But other changes are mostly cosmetic, including the addition of LED headlamps, three-dimensional taillights and a more rear-slung posture. The rear door opening is also enlarged to ease access for the Century’s traditional demographic — those in the over-50 set.
But much of the Century doesn’t translate into the modern, international world of luxury.
Consider the Century’s iconic phoenix emblem: To produce each golden badge, an insignia that resembles a crowing rooster, requires six weeks of meticulous hand carving by master craftsmen. That artistry is likely lost on the casual foreign observer, who might be excused for mistaking the emblem for some electroplated bric-a-brac hawked to tourists in front of one of Tokyo’s temples.
But the car nonetheless resonates with many in Japan. There, the Century is revered with almost religious awe. It is the official car of the emperor, prime ministers and esteemed captains of industry — people who could afford and easily opt for European rivals but don’t.
Century Chief Engineer Masato Tanabe says the car fills an important niche.
“The Lexus LS is the top model among driver’s cars, but the Century is the only dedicated chauffeur model,” Tanabe said. “The Century is hand-crafted. That is the value of this model. You can’t just change a little on the LS and get a Century.”
Only 10 percent of Century buyers drive the car themselves, he added.
Indeed, at a launch event here last month, Toyota bucked convention by offering journalists a chauffeured test ride in the rear but no actual test drive from behind the wheel.
Unapologetic obsession with creating a fun-to-ride car may seem anathema to a company that has gone all out to reinvent itself as the purveyor of fun-to-drive cars.
President Akio Toyoda has been drilling the “fun to drive” mantra into the corporate consciousness for years.
The Toyota boss, an avid racing fan, may be among those wanting some compromise in the Century’s zenlike retro aura. When he recently took delivery of his own new Century, it was a one-off customized job. But it wasn’t to add premium accouterments befitting his CEO status. Akio’s Century was pimped with a tuner kit from Toyota’s GRMN performance line.
“At the line-off ceremony, President Toyoda said, ‘For me, personally, I wasn’t close to the Century,’ ” Tanabe recalled. “ ’But now, I’m driving a GRMN vehicle, and it’s closer now.’ ”