This is small ‘90s pillared hardtop week, it seems. We had the dreary and quite superfluous Nissan Presea on Monday, so in the interest of fairness, we will presently take a mercifully brief look at the Toyota side of things. Don’t worry, I saved up some bile for this one.
The early ‘90s was the peak of the fake hardtop era in Japan. Everyone was at it and the fad started to spread downward. Big cars all had a hardtop version (a few were still pillarless, at that point), as did second-tier family saloons. Now the 1500cc class were going frameless. Nissan had led the way with their Sunny/Pulsar-based Presea, so they were naturally going to be followed down the rabbit hole by Toyota.
Thus the humble Corolla/Sprinter E100 begat the Ceres/Marino in the spring of 1992. Alongside the AE101 Levin/Trueno coupé, the new hardtops were supposed to bring extra pizzazz to Toyota’s popular family hauler. The Ceres/Marino inherited the coupé’s dash, but only received the more sedate versions of the platform’s 1.5 and 1.6 litre engines.
The main feature was the pseudo-hardtop’s extremely smooth and swoopy styling. The Nissan Presea is also a bit like this, but the Toyota design seemed to try to out-bathtub the Nash Airflyte. Compared to the original jelly bean, the Ceres is much closer to the actual confectionery’s shape than the Ford Taurus ever was.
Toyota’s new small hardtop saloon, tediously, was another one of those “I’ve-got-two-names” kind of deals, like the Nissan Cedric/Gloria or the Honda Vigor/Inspire. The sister model Sprinter Marino was identical save for minor details, such as the grille, headlamps and taillights. Some Toyota dealers carried one type, some carried the other.
For what it’s worth, I’m glad to have found an early model Corolla Ceres, as opposed to a later Marino, as these early Ceres’ elongated headlights and miniature plastic grille are just atrocious and fit the blob-like personality of the vehicle perfectly.
In actual fact, Toyota aimed to make these small faux hardtops something aspirational for the toiling masses who could never afford a Crown. The main problem was that said masses felt that unique styling and frameless windows were a hefty price to pay for cramped rear seats. The diminished headroom was less of an issue on larger cars, but on a Corolla, the idea just did not make much sense.
And so even as the Corolla/Sprinter platform evolved to the E110 in 1995, the hardtops got some updates (suspension and engine, mainly), but kept the older platform. Sales were modest to begin with, but as the economy continued to tank and the pointlessness of the model became evident to most observers, Toyota bit the bullet and cancelled the Ceres/Marino in July 1998. It took them until December 1999 to get rid of all the units they had in stock – pretty telling, especially for ultra-efficient, just-in-time Toyota.