Last year, I ran a four-part QOTD called “Say One Nice Thing”. The challenge was for you to, as the name suggested, say one nice thing about some of the most maligned cars in the history of General Motors, Ford, Chrysler and American Motors. Now, the Japanese automakers have had some product misfires of their own, although their failures tend to be more Gremlin-ugly than Vega-unreliable. Toyota’s indomitable rise to being the world’s largest automaker has resulted in millions of happy, loyal owners, even if reliable, well-built vehicles like the Corolla and Camry stir little passion in enthusiasts. But there have been just a handful of vehicles along the way that have either missed the mark or received a lot of scorn. Your challenge is to say one nice thing about each of these but, just to make things a little more difficult, your “nice thing” cannot be simply that these cars are reliable or well-built. They’re Toyotas, after all – that would be too easy!
One of Lexus’ rare product misfires, the HS250h was a compact luxury hybrid sedan based on a Toyota platform. Although much of Lexus’ volume consists of humble Toyota-based offerings like the ES sedan and NX and RX crossovers, this Toyota-based model lasted just three years on the North American market due to poor sales. Blame bland styling and poorer fuel economy than the Prius but at a higher price. In its defense, it was unique in being a compact, hybrid offering from a luxury manufacturer; launching in 2010, it preceded the Audi A3 e-tron by 4 years. It was also very on-message for Lexus, a brand which had come to offer an increasingly large number of hybrid vehicles. The HS250h was comfortable, quiet and a very sensible purchase for eco-friendly lovers of luxury and economy. Alas, it sold only 20,880 units in the US over three years and was dropped in 2012. It was replaced by the more fashionable and far more successful CT200h.
On the other hand of the efficiency spectrum at Lexus was the SC430 luxury roadster. Replacing the ageing SC300/SC400 coupe, the 2001 SC430 took the nameplate in an entirely new direction. It was like The Beatles re-forming but with only Ringo returning and playing only disco music. The SC was no longer an elegant coupe with a choice of six- or eight-cylinder engines but rather a convertible with a retractable aluminium hardtop. The only engine was a buttery smooth 4.3 V8 also available in the GS and LS sedans, mated to a 5-speed (later 6-speed) automatic. These were cruisers with thoroughly unexciting handling and despite the presence of rear seats, the SC430 only comfortably sat two adults. For some buyers – most probably wealthy empty-nesters in Florida – this was exactly what they wanted. But for many fans of the first-generation SC, this was a bizarrely-styled follow-up to a successful name. It stuck around for a very long time, too, finally being in axed in 2010 after years of slow sales.
If lumpy, awkward styling, a soft ride and generally lackluster handling were traits you were happy with in a convertible but you couldn’t afford an SC430, the 2004 Camry Solara was just the ticket. Also available as a coupe, the 2004 model was the debut year of the second-generation Camry Solara and the third generation of a Camry coupe. Gone was the crisp and clean styling of the first-generation model, the new Solara wearing similarly ungainly and poorly-proportioned sheetmetal to the related 5th generation Camry. The Camry’s smooth powertrains were carried over and the convertible had a relatively spacious cabin. Both Solaras were comfortable to drive and were unabashed cruisers, no bad thing and certainly a point of distinction in an increasingly sport-focussed marketplace. In 2005, 50k Solaras were built but by 2008 sales were down to the 20k mark. The coupe was discontinued in 2008 and the convertible followed a few months later.
Both generations of the Toyota Paseo featured clean, curvaceous sheetmetal in typical 1990s Toyota style. Their appealing sheetmetal might have suggested these had some mild sporting ability, but the name gave it all away: in Spanish, “I stroll” is “Yo paseo”. And the standard engine, a 1.5 four-cylinder, certainly made the Paseo a stroller and not a sprinter. Perhaps to avoid strolling over the Celica’s toes, the Paseo was never given a more powerful engine option. It was simply a Tercel in a party frock, embarrassed at stop lights by turbocharged Hyundai S Coupes.
Mighty Toyota isn’t impervious and these four offerings have certainly had their detractors. But remember, you have to say one nice thing and it can’t simply be that they are reliable and well-built. We have come to expect nothing less from Toyota, no matter how bland or ungainly some of their cars may have been over the years.