I recently had the chance to drive a 1990 Toyota Century. This was a tremendously exciting moment, which may surprise you, because driving a Toyota isn’t usually very thrilling. But this was, because the Toyota Century is the Japanese Rolls-Royce.
Yes, it’s true: Toyota makes a car that competes with Rolls-Royce. You might think the most luxurious Toyota is the Lexus LS sedan, or maybe the Lexus LX SUV, but that’s not the case. In Japan, the Toyota Century is more luxurious than all of them. It’s designed primarily for Japanese businesspeople and politicians, who can’t be seen in a foreign luxury car lest they be accused of not supporting Japanese companies. There aren’t many people who fit that description, but there are certainly some. And they have a Century.
And the Century has a V12. Not the one I drove, to be clear — but for many years a V12 was an available engine in the top-level Century, the one for the businesspeople who wanted to be chauffeured with a little more gusto than all the other businesspeople. The one I drove used a wonderful 4.0-liter V8 which made, I am not joking, 180 horsepower. This engine isn’t about performance, it’s about smoothness and reliability, and 180 horses was apparently the right number to deliver it.
I drive a lot of cars that are meant for luxury buyers, but few that are truly meant for chauffeuring — though the Rolls-Royce Phantom comes to mind. The Century is another, and you can tell from the moment you step inside. Of course, this car has all the usual "luxury car" features you’d expect from a chauffeur-driven vehicle — rear controls, for instance and the ability for rear passengers to move up the front seat. But there’s more. There is, for instance, a massaging rear seat — on a car from 30 years ago. There are power-operated quarter windows, not just typical side windows, for front AND rear passengers. And, here’s the kicker: there’s a tape recorder. Truly. Built into the center arm rest in back is a tape recorder, so, I guess, a businessperson can dictate into the recorder and then hand off the tape to a secretary, who can transcribe the tape later.
The Century also has a lot of other interesting quirks and features, and I invite you to watch the video to check them out — but here, I’ll tell you about the driving experience. It is both incredibly good and incredibly bad. Incredibly good in the sense that it’s ridiculously smooth, and quiet, and relaxing, and it really feels like you’re driving an automobile on the clouds. The benefit of getting only 180 horsepower from a 4-liter V8 is that the engine never feels taxed, even under hard acceleration, so the car always feels like it’s wafting or gliding along gently. It’s wonderful.
But, of course, there are drawbacks. The biggest and most obvious is that the Century just isn’t made for any sort of performance driving, or even any semblance of any sliver of performance driving. There’s excessive body roll if you attempt hard cornering, the steering is incredibly vague and over-assisted, and the car is simply slow. The 180-hp engine, which does feel nice and relaxed, just isn’t enough power for the car. The original owner should’ve opted for the V12.
Indeed, the Century is exactly what you’d expect: an awful drive if you’re looking for any form of performance, and a wonderful drive if you’re looking for comfort — or if you’re getting chauffeured around by someone else. It’s also just wonderful to experience the Century in North America, since Toyota never sold it here, finding no need to compete with the Lexus brand or offer a vehicle that would appeal to such a small market segment. Now that this particular Century is 25 years old, it can be legally imported, and it has been — and now the owner can drive around, quietly gliding from place to place, in the most luxurious Japanese car on the planet.