- After 56 years, Toyota appears ready to add a second Century model to its flagship range. This one is for Japan only, but with the Crown now on U.S. shores, perhaps we could dream of a U.S.-market Century?
- Like everything else these days, this new Century is likely to be a crossover, though not a direct rival to something like a Rolls-Royce Cullinan.
- Watch the debut at 12:30 a.m. ET on Wednesday, September 6.
Before ascending to the Chrysanthemum Throne as emperor of Japan in 2019, Crown Prince Naruhito settled into a place with nearly as much prestige: the back seat of a Toyota. Specifically, that of a Toyota Century, long the automotive equivalent of Japan's Imperial household.
Handbuilt, luxurious yet incredibly reserved, just three generations of Century limousine have existed since 1967. It is a machine steeped in tradition. Now that tradition seems destined to change as Toyota readies an additional model in the flagship ultimate luxury vehicle category.
It was initially hinted at in a projected silhouette at the launch of the Toyota Alphard minivan by Toyota chief branding officer Simon Humphries, and now the arrival of a Century SUV seems a sure thing. The most recent teaser image features the white-gloved hand of a chauffeur about to open the door of a crossover that bears the polished, squared-off styling of the current Century sedan.
A Legacy of Power
To understand why an SUV/crossover bearing the Century's phoenix badge is a big idea, here's a snapshot of the breed. Initially launched in 1967 as a large V-8 sedan, the first-generation Century received only the most minor updates for some 30 years. If you were the kind of conservative Japanese executive to exile the racing-obsessed Yutaka Katayama to the fledgling U.S. market to sink or swim, then you might well have been ferried around in a Century. Well, no actually, you'd obviously have been in a Nissan product, but the point stands. The Century wasn't flashy, but it projected power nonetheless.
The Century in 2018.Toyota
The second-generation Century resembled its ancestor closely but dropped the bubble-economy Toyota engineering mic by being Japan's only production V-12 car, ever. Introduced in 1997, early models of these are now U.S. importable, and they are wonderful to drive. Imagine the imperious wafting of a Rolls-Royce, with engineering from the people behind the Mk IV Supra Turbo, and assembled by trained takumi who hand-chamfer the body panels by feel alone.
Still Handcrafted, Now Hybrid
The current generation of Century is now a 5.0-liter V-8 hybrid with a powertrain shared with the Lexus LS600h. As such, it feels a little less special, but there's still a handcrafted quality to the car, one that limits production to just 50 vehicles per month, and Japan-only availability. Needless to say, the waiting list stretches to years.
Sinking into the rich wool upholstery of a Century—it breathes better than leather in the humid Tokyo summer, and doesn't squeak either—is a different kind of luxury. No flashy Maybach or Bentley, the Century embraces a subtlety not seen much in the luxury market these days. Akio Toyoda did have a GR version made, with less-reserved sporty tweaks, but that was more the exception that proves the rule.
What We Know So Far
Details on this new Century SUV have not leaked out ahead of the September 6 reveal (because of the time zone, it's just after midnight in the U.S.), but camouflaged prototypes have already been spotted by Japanese magazine Car-Moby. The rumor among Japanese publications is that this new Century will ride on the same platform as the Toyota Grand Highlander, a variant of which also underpins that Alphard minivan.
That means a transverse-mounted engine with front-wheel-drive architecture, a hard sell in the luxury segment. Given the Century's use as a chaffeured livery car, hybridization is likely, and it's possible that Toyota will be able to disguise any commoner roots with lashings of handbuilt quality.
Coming Here? Wishful Thinking?
What's perhaps more interesting is the possibility of a Century on this side of the Pacific. Toyota bringing the Crown sedan to North America was an interesting move, and the crossover market is a safer bet. Lexus does have the Grand Highlander–based TX on the way, but perhaps there's some room at the top for a flagship Toyota crossover without the L badge on the front.
Whatever the case, the expansion of the Century range after nearly 60 years of staying the course is, like Emperor Naruhito himself, an indication that some traditions are going to be shaken up. And if those tremors remain Japan-market only, don't forget to check those overseas auctions for any second-generation V-12 Centurys coming up for sale—there's one on Bring a Trailer right now, although the auction ends September 6. They are just the thing to make you feel like an emperor, even when you're just on the way to get takeout sushi.
Brendan McAleer is a freelance writer and photographer based in North Vancouver, B.C., Canada. He grew up splitting his knuckles on British automobiles, came of age in the golden era of Japanese sport-compact performance, and began writing about cars and people in 2008. His particular interest is the intersection between humanity and machinery, whether it is the racing career of Walter Cronkite or Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki's half-century obsession with the Citroën 2CV. He has taught both of his young daughters how to shift a manual transmission and is grateful for the excuse they provide to be perpetually buying Hot Wheels.