Curbside Capsule: 1996-99 Toyota Paseo – Un Paseo Aburrido

(first posted 1/25/2018)         There’s one thing I’ll never understand about the second-generation Toyota Paseo. Toyota wanted to make a compact coupe off the Tercel platform, something a little more stylish, right? I mean, who wants to pay extra for less practicality if they’re not getting a little more style or performance in the equation? So, why did Toyota style it to look like a little Camry coupe?

Don’t see it? How about now? There are the slim, rectangular taillights, and the rather large, recessed headlights. The Paseo manages to have more of a familial resemblance to the Camry than even the Camry’s contemporary coupe derivative, the Solara.

Surely it wouldn’t be appealing for a young, style-conscious shopper to have a little coupe that looks so much like Dad’s Camry but that’s how Toyota styled it. The Camry was (and is) an utterly respectable and hugely popular car but there was nothing terribly exciting about its styling and nothing particularly scintillating about its dynamics. Why not make the Paseo look like a smaller Celica or Supra instead?

We’ll never know. The Paseo took after the Camry in another respect, too: it just wasn’t very exciting to drive. The second-generation was merely a restyling of the 1991-vintage first and used the same humdrum 1.5 four-cylinder with 93 hp and 100 ft-lbs. Paseos were rather noisy, with competent but unexciting handling and a tad too much body lean in the corners. Well, maybe there’s something to be said for the Paseo’s honest styling, then, as it certainly didn’t suggest the car was sportier than it was.

But do you know what was even more honest? The cheaper Tercel 2-dr. Comparably equipped, the Tercel was around $2k cheaper, had the same engine, and boasted more rear seat room.

While the Camry has remained a sales juggernaut, the second-generation Paseo was a sluggish seller. The coupe market was contracting significantly by the mid-1990s and yet the Paseo was outpaced by rivals like the Hyundai Tiburon. That’s perfectly understandable—Hyundai’s image may have paled in comparison to Toyota’s but the Tiburon was keenly priced and adventurously styled, ideal for budget- and style-conscious shoppers. You could even get a Honda Civic coupe for the same price as a Paseo which, while hardly any more exciting to look at, was a lot more pleasurable to drive.

In 1996, Toyota sold just 6,069 Paseos in the US market. The following year, even with the addition of a convertible variant, Toyota sold just 2,762. Hyundai, in comparison, sold almost four times as many Tiburons. The imported Tercel was also suffering, with the Corolla offering more car for not much more money. Toyota quietly discontinued the Paseo from the US market (the Tercel followed it a year later) but continued to sell it in Canada and other markets, including Australia. Lord knows why, we didn’t care for it either.

I still don’t understand one thing: just what is the point of a compact coupe with no style, no pricing advantage, and marginal performance?

Related Reading:

Curbside Outtake: 1993-98 Honda Civic del Sol/CR-X – More Reboot Than Sequel

Curbside Classic: 1993-1999 Toyota Celica – Those Headlights