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Toyota Carina E: What to Sell When You Can't Sell a Camry

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author photo by Aaron Gold December 2016

When I left the U.S. to intern at a British car mag in the early 1990s, Toyota Camrys were selling like hot cakes -- as a car enthusiast, this was a sad fact that made it much easier to leave the land of my birth. When I got to England, I was delighted to discover that while the Camry was offered for sale, almost no one bought it. Instead, they went for a smaller Toyota model that arrived in the U.K. just a year before I did: the Carina E.

I once attempted to figure out the Carina E's lineage, and I couldn't remember why I gave up until I started doing the research for this article. Apparently, the European Carina (the E is for Europe) was not exactly a Carina but actually a Corona -- not to be confused with the station-wagon version of the car, which is called the Caldina, and not even remotely related to the Corolla. No wonder these things were boring to drive. By the time they finished designing the names, everyone must have been too exhausted to put any work into chassis tuning. (Corona, Carina, Corolla, Caldina -- let's call the whole thing off.)

The Carina and the Camry were, as far as I know, completely unrelated. The Carina E was sized for Europe: shorter, narrower and with an engine cradle that would only hold a 4-cylinder. It sold reasonably well, as opposed to the Camry, which was such a nonentity in the U.K. that it was excluded from this rather strange 1993 TV commercial. (Yes, it was sold there -- check out Toyota U.K.'s history of the Camry.)

How was the Carina E to drive? Well, it was certainly better than the Camry: Smaller, stiffer and more agile. Most of the Carinas I saw were hatchbacks -- and this being Britain, odds were that any given Carina would have a manual transmission. Engine choices included a 1.6, a 1.8 and a 2.0, all with 16 valves, which was hot stuff at the time. The engines delivered between 99 and 126 horsepower, and a 175-hp GTi version would be introduced after I left the country. (Diesels were still a couple of years away.) And yet, compared to the other cars you could buy -- the Peugeot 405, the Citroen Xantia and even the Rover 620 (which was actually a Honda Accord) -- the Carina E was a snoozer. But it was built in the U.K., at a plant that opened in 1992, and this fact scored points with British buyers.

One cool thing about the car (at least I thought it was cool) was that nearly all Carina Es had a sticker in the back window with Toyota's ad slogan, "The car in front is a Toyota." (Hey, it's better than "Let's go places.")

Not knowing a whole heck of a lot about what it takes to certify a car for sale in the United States, I often wondered why Toyota didn't bring the Carina E to America. One of their rivals did: The first-generation Infiniti G20 was actually a Nissan Primera, the Carina's chief rival in Europe. The G20 was well-regarded in the States, but Lexus chose a glorified Camry for their entry-level model. Lexus is obviously the more successful brand, so I guess we can't accuse Toyota of not knowing what they were doing.

The Carina E's stay in the U.K. wasn't very long. In 1998, it was replaced by the Avensis, a car that looked a bit like a Hyundai from the front and a Ford Mondeo from the back. The Avensis continues to be sold in the U.K., another funky-looking Toyota we can't get here. The oldest Carina Es are just now celebrating their 23rd birthday, which means in 2 years, they can come to the States. And hey, why not? It's a more interesting car than the Camry.

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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Toyota Carina E: What to Sell When You Can't Sell a Camry - Autotrader