The Fast & The Forbidden: 1997-Present Toyota Century
Most car geeks outside Japan will tell you that the fanciest, biggest-engined sedan Toyota makes is the Lexus LS. And it’s certainly a stately, full-size car in the mold of the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, Jaguar XJ, Audi A8 or BMW 7 Series, available in standard- and long-wheelbase forms with a V8 or a V8 that’s boosted by a hybrid system to provide V12-ish performance. Make no mistake, the LS is a sweet ride.
However, those folks who assume that the LS is Toyota’s top four-door aren’t as in the know as they think they are. As it turns out, the most prestigious car made by the Japanese juggernaut is longer than even the extended wheelbase LS, powered by an engine that isn’t used by any other vehicle, and is only officially available on the home market. Its name? Century.
The original Century debuted in 1967 to commemorate the centenary of the birth of Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of the companies that would become the automaker we know today. It was a proper prestige car, with a 3.0L V8 driving the rear wheels. There was also a long-wheelbase version – the L-Type – with an extra 6.3” between the axles (for a total of 118.5”). Granted, American and European luxury sedans were larger, but the Century was bigger than just about all other homegrown passenger cars at that point (with the possible exception of the Century's arch-nemesis, the Nissan President).
Remarkably, the first-gen Century remained in production for a whopping 30 years with only relatively minor evolutionary changes, chief among them increases in displacement for the V8 powerplant. But by mid-1990s, the Century was most definitely over-the-hill. Nissan had redesigned the President in 1990, creating a thoroughly modern car that formed the basis of the original Infiniti Q45. Toyota decided to follow suit by releasing its own second generation flagship, but took a decidedly different course of action when the new Century finally rolled into dealers in 1997.
For starters, the styling is far more evolutionary than revolutionary. You really have to be paying attention to spot the changes. Secondly, rather than sticking with the old V8 or utilizing the new-generation V8 created for Lexus, Toyota decided to create an all new 5.0L V12 specifically for the Century. To this day, the engine (which is officially rated at just 276hp per a gentlemen’s agreement among Japanese automakers) remains exclusive to the Century. You’d think Toyota, being arguably the most buttoned-down and pragmatic car company on the face of the earth, would look to amortize the investment in that lump by also making it available in another car or maybe cramming it into a Lexus SUV like the GX or LX to better differentiate them from their Toyota kin. Yet somehow, the company has resisted the temptation. The V12 is currently paired with a 6-speed automatic that can be had with either a column- (Yes!) or console-mounted shifter.
But it didn’t hold anything back when outfitting the Century with creature comforts. The interior has enough wood trim to give termites orgasms, and leather upholstery is available; however, most Century buyers opt for wool cloth seating surfaces, mainly because it isn’t as noisy as leather when you park your posterior upon it (It’s also not as hot or sticky when you’re wearing shorts on a warm day, but that’s probably of no concern to your average Japanese captain of industry, high-ranking government official or yakuza boss.). And while the Century isn’t as lengthy as its European rivals, there’s still plenty of room for the left-side backseat passenger to stretch out, thanks to a trap door in the front passenger seatback through which you place your legs. Clever, no? You also get toys like reclining rear seats, rear seat massagers, self-latching doors, a digital TV tuner and…lace curtains for the rear windows. Suck it, Bentley.
What you don’t get, Joe or Jane America, is the chance to buy one on these shores, despite the fact that it is marketed as the car for the modest plutocrat. It’s roughly analogous to a 1960s Pontiac Bonneville or Oldsmobile Ninety Eight, whereas the German and British battleships are like a 1960s Cadillac. However, just because it's positioned as a humble car doesn't mean it's priced like one; in Japan, it’s priced at the equivalent of $149,000 with taxes; for comparison, the priciest Lexus LS (the hybrid LS600hL) starts at $111,350 and has a longer wheelbase, is more powerful, gets better gas mileage and doesn’t resemble what an early-‘80s Buick LeSabre might look like if it had been designed in the mid-‘90s. In short, authorizing selling it to us gaijin (which would include all the fun of extensive reengineering to meet U.S. safety and emissions regulations) – either as a Toyota or a Lexus – would send you down a path that leads directly to seppuku. But that doesn’t make it any less cool in our view; if anything, it makes it even more attractive.