The four-door saloon isn’t dead yet in Japan. It’s no longer the force it once was, but it has managed to resist the successive onslaughts of the hatchback, the minivan, the SUV and the CUV since the ‘80s. There was a time though, a dark period called the 1990s, when the future of the Japanese saloon looked like the Nissan Presea. Or so it seemed.
I guess the sheer absurdity of the term “pillared hardtop” must have seemed like it made sense at the time. It’s kind of like when you find an old photo of yourself with a weird haircut or dated clothes and think: “I can’t believe I thought that looked good!”
The Japanese pillared hardtop epidemic started in the mid-‘80s, but it only went full bloom in the next decade. It affected (infected?) nearly all carmakers – well, all the ones that had a relatively large D/E-segment stake in the game, so everyone bar Daihatsu and Suzuki. Honda and Subaru were past masters at this body style, but Toyota soon became top dog. Nissan took a bit longer to wean themselves off genuine hardtops, but they eventually caught up with the pack.
For the longest time, four-door hardtops (real or pillared) only applied to bigger cars: the status symbols, such as the Toyota Crown, the Nissan Cedric / Gloria or the Mazda Luce, along with some second-tier quasi-luxury family cars (e.g. Toyota Mark II/Chaser and Vista/Camry, Nissan Bluebird, Laurel and Skyline, Honda Vigor, Mitsubishi Galant Sigma). But by the late ‘80s, the advent of the cheaper pillared hardtop meant that frameless doors were being affixed to an even lower class of cars: the 1500-1800cc compact family saloons. This was now Corolla / Sunny / Familia territory – a market segment where needlessly complex and gimmicks such as the pillared hardtop saloon held somewhat less buyer appeal.
This race to the middle was brief. It was precipitated by an economic boom that petered out just as the cars started coming out. The Toyota Ceres and Carina ED, the Mitsubishi Emeraude, the Mazda Persona and the Nissan Presea heralded a new era of small “hardtops,” out to bring exclusivity and sophistication to the great unwashed. The Presea R10, launched in June 1990, was based on the B13 Sunny / Pulsar, but looked like a genetically modified Infiniti Q45.
The pillared hardtop fad was going nowhere fast, just like the Japanese economy. But since there were no better ideas forthcoming, Nissan went for a second generation of their not-so-prescient Presea. That appeared in January 1995, still as a pseudo-hardtop four-door only. The R11 Presea actually used the same body as its predecessor – the only notable differences between the two generations were the front and rear ends. The Refina appeared as the top of the line deluxe model in 1997, when the Presea was given its final makeover.
The interior was also given a make-over. Here’s a Nissan photo, as I messed up the real one. Though not seen in any market west of Suez, Preseas were not a JDM exclusivity: certain Asia-Pacific markets (such as New Zealand, Singapore, Sri Lanka or Thailand) got these too. But the Asian financial crash of 1997 did put a damper on the whole region’s ability to afford niche automobiles, be they merely tarted-up Pulsars.
By the late ‘90s, the “pillared hardtop” craze was winding down, and nowhere was this more keenly felt than at Nissan. The conglomerate was in grave danger of succumbing to a surfeit of frameless doors, not to mention over a decade of very poor stewardship. Almost inevitably, the Presea was flushed away just as soon as Carlos Ghosn got the key to the executive washroom: production was halted in August 1999; it took a year to sell leftover stock. Some of the storied nameplates that disappeared around that time were genuine losses – e.g. Laurel, Silvia or Bluebird. The Presea, on the other hand, was on thin ice from the get go. Few noticed it when it was alive, fewer still lamented its passing.