Toyota held an event in Ypsilanti, Michigan this week called the Toyota Hybrid World Tour, similar to the recent Nissan 360 event where the company displayed its foreign market forbidden fruit. I didn’t realize what a Big Deal the THWT was until I arrived at the hotel & conference center. I had thought that it was just some kind of ride & drive event but in fact it was a major corporate level promotion by Toyota. For the first time in history the company gathered in one place every one of its hybrid vehicles sold around the world, along with a few alternative energy prototypes and some history, including an example of the first Prius sold in the Japanese domestic market. Toyota also gathered high ranking executives like North American chief Bob Carter from California and Toyota Managing Officer Satoshi Ogiso from Toyota City. Ogiso is in charge of global product development and chassis engineering for the entire company as well as being the Chief Engineer for the Prius program. Regular readers of TTAC will know just how important chief engineers are in the Toyota hierarchy and Ogiso is more or less the chief engineer for all of Toyota in addition to the Prius. He was a member of Toyota’s G21 team, out of which developed the first Prius. Though new Toyota Chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada didn’t attend, he did record remarks prepared for the journalists in attendance.
When I asked, “why so close to Detroit?”, the lower level PR people were on message. They said that they wanted to reach out to the many automotive journalists based in the Detroit area. However, when I asked someone more senior, “Why Detroit?”, she smiled broadly and said, “Make of it what you will.” Since they called it a “tour” I asked about the next stop on the tour and was told that it might become an annual event but that there was no actual tour scheduled beyond the first stop, a stop that was located closer to Detroit than Toyota City is to Tokyo. Make of that what you will.
The cars in attendance ranged in power from the first 1997 JDM Prius to the TS030, the prototype that raced against Audi’s diesels at LeMans earlier this summer, a hybrid that uses supercapacitors instead of batteries to store and discharge electric power.
They wouldn’t let us drive the TS030 but for the first two days of the event we had our pick of any hybrid currently sold by Toyota (and Lexus), along with RAV4 EVs and a couple of Highlanders converted to fuel cell hybrid vehicles, and we could drive them on either an urban or suburban route in and around Ypsilanti. The final day of the event took place at a test track owned by Aisin, about an hour west of Detroit. We had access to the track’s slalom and handling courses along with an Interstate-like oval, speed limited to about 70 mph. Apparently they were serious because when some European journalists decided to take it up to 100, we were all warned that if it happened again, they would shut down the oval, which prompted grousing from some European journalists standing near me.
Faced with the choice of at least 20 different cars to sample on the first day, I had a dilemma. Do I act like a responsible auto journalist and drive cars on sale in North America, where most of our readers live and buy cars, so I can tell them something useful, or do play car enthusiast and drive oddball RHD JDM stuff that I’d otherwise never get to drive? I did what I suspect most of you would do. I walked past the four current Prius models and the Camry hybrid straight to the Toyota Crown Royal Saloon. I had to wait to drive it. Offhand it looked like the Crown was the vehicle in highest demand at the ride & drive. I didn’t usually have to wait for the F Sport GS450h, or the flagship Lexus 600lh, or any of the Prii, but there was almost always a wait to get behind the wheel on the right hand side of the Crown.
The Crown Royal hybrid, which shares Toyota’s GRS rear wheel drive platform with the Lexus GS, and shares a drivetrain with the RWD IS300h hybrid, is the kind of car that an older, very successful Japanese businessman would buy. Everything about it is designed for comfort and smoothness. Even the power up and warning tones, and the female Japanese voice alerts seem crafted to comfort and sooth. You can get the Crown Royal with leather but apparently most customers opt for “premium fabric”, as luxurious as the upholstery in any great Detroit land yacht from days of yore. The carpet was sort of tiger striped, and the wood trim in the car had somewhat similar grain and stain. I can’t tell you how the infotainment system worked, it was all in Japanese, and in any case the radio stations were preset to Tokyo. I needed help getting the climate control system cold enough for the muggy late August weather. Once situated, though, it was fine. I hadn’t driven a RHD car before, so it took some time to get used to looking left for the proper mirrors and remembering to use the turn signal, not activate the windshield washers, but other than that I felt comfortable, very comfortable, and soothed too.
On the outside, it’s a handsome, if unassuming car, that appears to be assembled very well, with considerable care. Fit, finish, interior trim and the like were the equivalent of just about any luxury car you can buy in America. Everything about the Crown Royal speaks to quality and attention to detail.
So what’s it like behind the wheel. Some reports from the ride & drive event have characterized the Crown as being all about body roll and heaving over onto the tires’ sidewalls. I didn’t think it was nearly that bad, but then I cut my automotive teeth driving fullsize 1960s Oldsmobiles and 1970s Mercurys. Compared to the Alphard minivan I took through the handling course, it handled like a sports car (the Alphard is single worst handling vehicle I’ve ever driven, I was pressed to come up with enough synonyms for wallowing and yaw). Well, maybe not like a sports car, more like a Town Car. Even if you push it, it’s going to take some doing to get the back end to hang out, RWD or not, but then that isn’t what the Crown Royal was designed for. It was designed to isolate that hypothetical Japanese businessman from an unpleasant world. The steering has just enough feel so that you know that the front tires are doing their job, certainly more feel than the Alphard had, or the RAV4 EV, whose steering box could wear the Novacaine brand, but again, this isn’t a sporting car. The suspension is soft, very soft, but I didn’t have any trouble making it through the slalom or the handling course.
The result is an exceptionally smooth, quiet, and comfortable car, a Japanese take on the Town Car as mentioned, or maybe a Buick from an earlier generation. One of the things that I noticed after driving many of the various Toyota hybrids and EVs was just how different each one of them felt behind the wheel, how they drove. Even the cars equipped with Toyota’s signature Hybrid Synergy Drive, first brought to market in the Prius, felt different from one another, something that I’d characterize as more or less “hybridy”, perhaps a result of different combustion engine displacements along with how regenerative braking is implemented. You could feel that more was going on than just an engine spinning. All of that went away with the Crown. If I wasn’t looking at the indicator lights on the dash I wouldn’t have known what mode the car was in. Everything felt seamless and smooth and the braking and deceleration felt the closest to normal of any of the hybrids that I drove at the event. Now and then you could tell some regeneration was going on, but other than that, it was the most normal feeling hybrid at the event (the pure electric drive cars, the RAV4 EV and the fuel cell hybrid Highlander, ironically felt the most normal). Apparently most Crown Royal buyers agree since a majority of Crowns are sold in hybrid form.
There were Japanese market vehicles at the event, like the Alphard and Estima executive minivans, that would just not make sense if Toyota tried to market them in the U.S. but I think if Toyota brought over the Crown Royal, either as a Toyota or with a Lexus nameplate, a lot of traditional American sedan drivers would find it familiar and like it as much as I and seemingly everyone else that drove it at the Toyota Hybrid World Tour did as well.
Toyota provided the cars, gasoline, electrons, insurance, some snacks (but no kosher pizza), a t-shirt, and a Jambox by Jawbone, which sounds pretty good considering it’s playing audibly compromised and lossy compressed MP3s. Lodging was offered but I chose to drive to the event each day and avoid the bus ride to the trackday. That way I didn’t get motion sickness until my fifth or sixth time through the slalom and handling courses.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can dig deeper at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS