(first posted 4/6/2015) Toyota Motor Corporation CEO, President, and founding family scion Akio Toyoda and the most diehard American hater of Japanese cars quite likely have something in common: Their favorite Toyota model would be the Crown Comfort, introduced in 1995 and sold in only Japan and a few other markets in Asia. A rear-wheel drive sedan with cavernous rear seat room and a live axle in the rear, the Crown Comfort resembles a Ford Crown Victoria redesigned by Toyota engineers. Like the last generation Crown Victoria, it is an old-fashioned design that has survived because it is well suited for certain purposes, but unlike the Crown Victoria, it appears likely to survive for many years to come.
Before delving into the Crown Comfort, it is necessary first to explain where it fits into the long-running and extensive range of Toyota Crown models. The Crown name dates back to 1955, and Toyota has used it on large, rear-wheel drive sedans near the top of its Japanese domestic market model range. There have been 14 generations of the Crown during its first 60 years, the most recent introduced in 2012, continuing separately from the upmarket Lexus line from the 1990s onward. In addition to sedans, the model range has included hardtop coupes, wagons, and even a pickup during the 1960s. The U.S. market received only the first four generations from 1958 to 1973, after which the Corona Mark II replaced the Crown as the top Toyota offering in the U.S. The Crown Comfort diverged from the main Crown model range in 1995 during the introduction of the 10th generation Crown (shown), as a distinct design intended specifically for taxi usage.
When it split the Crown Comfort from the regular Crown, Toyota intentionally reverted to older chassis engineering to make the model less expensive to produce and maintain. In place of the four-wheel independent suspension used in Crowns since the 1980s, the Crown Comfort had a more durable and simpler to maintain solid rear axle. Rear drum brakes took the place of the Crown’s four-wheel discs. Aside from a unit body replacing the 9th generation Crown’s separate body-on-frame construction (sorry, BOF fans – Toyota fell a bit short in giving you all of the old-school features that you wanted), the Crown Comfort chassis was a throwback when new in 1995.
Toyota further specialized the Crown Comfort for the taxi role by changing its dimensions and body panels to make it shorter, narrower, and taller, maximizing rear seat space while keeping the overall dimensions within Japan’s “compact” classification. Only 4,695 mm (184.8 inches) long and 1,695 mm (66.7 inches) wide, it was shorter than a 1995 Camry and no wider than a 1995 Corolla, making it easy to maneuver through tight city streets. The vehicle was small and light enough, with a curb weight of only 1,400 kg (3,086 pounds), to power adequately with a 2.0 liter four cylinder engine for economy in urban taxi use. Within these compact dimensions, the tall and formal roofline, high seats, and nearly vertical side windows gave enormous headroom and legroom for passengers.
The large windows also created excellent sightlines for the driver and for passengers as well. They are well suited to ease driving in urban traffic, and also to allow tourists a panoramic view, although they may be bad for salarymen trying to hide from the boss while going home early at 2 AM.
The boxy design also gave the Crown Comfort useful trunk space despite its short rear deck.
The Crown Comfort interior is a spartan place, in keeping with the taxi role. Interior panels are hard plastic shaped in simple straight lines. Seats are flat, firm, and covered in hard wearing vinyl, and they can be configured for four or five passengers, with the front bench seat version (shown) allowing two passengers in front and coming with a snaky column shifter for the four-speed automatic. The curbside rear door has the driver-operated automatic door opening and closing mechanism expected in Japan, which confuses visitors unfamiliar with it.
Toyota has changed the Crown Comfort very little over the years, comparable to the long runs of the Checker Marathon from 1961 to 1982, the Austin FX4 from 1958 to 1997, and the London Taxis International TX1/TXII/TX4 from 1997 to today. The chassis has continued unchanged since 1995, despite the introduction of four new generations of the mainstream Crown. The only significant exterior styling change has been replacing the original small vertical taillights, seen in preceding photos, with a larger and more visible full-width arrangement in 2007.
The most significant evolution has been in the engine compartment. The engines initially offered were a gasoline 2.0 liter OHV four; a utilitarian pushrod 8-valve design dating back to the early 1980s and used primarily in Hi-Lux pickups and Hiace vans; and a diesel 2.2 liter SOHC four. In 2001, Toyota added an LPG fuel version of a more modern 2.0 liter four from the Hi-Lux pickup, a DOHC 16 valve design with VVT-i variable valve timing, producing 114 horsepower at 4,800 rpm and 139 ft-lbs of torque at 3,600 rpm in the Crown Comfort’s LPG version. The LPG engine became the most popular in Japan and is the only engine currently offered in the Crown Comfort.
A short wheelbase version (100mm shorter) with its name shortened to Comfort also is sold in Japan, where it is commonly used by driver education programs. The most interesting Comfort has to be the limited edition (only 59 produced in 2003) TRD Comfort GT-Z Supercharger, powered by a supercharged 160 horsepower version of the DOHC 16 valve 2.0 liter four used in the Camry and RAV4 during the 1990s. With a special monochrome exterior, spoilers, wheels, Toyota Racing Development (TRD) racing seats, and other TRD interior pieces, it is an amusing take on a car that many Japanese drivers first turned a wheel in as teenagers.
In Japan, the Crown Comfort is the leading taxi nationwide, seen everywhere in Tokyo and in smaller cities and towns. The unfashionably square Crown Comfort with its automatically opening rear door is as characteristic of Japan as an FX4 or TX-series black taxi is of London, or a yellow Crown Victoria has been of New York in the 2000s. Its main domestic competition has been the Nissan Cedric, archrival Nissan’s equivalent to the Crown.
Although produced in small numbers (only 36,400 from 2005 to 2011, approximately 6,000 per year) and only in right-hand drive, with insignificant export sales, the Crown Comfort has received recognition from Toyota’s highest authority as one of the company’s most significant products. Akio Toyoda, President and CEO and head of the Toyoda family that founded the company, declared the Crown Comfort in 2010 to be his favorite model and the best representative of Toyota as a company, during Toyota’s response to its 2009 quality crisis. He chose it over the class-leading Prius hybrid, the Lexus LS flagship luxury sedan, the worldwide-respected Hi-Lux and Land Cruiser, and other far more popular and high profile models. Many Ford fans must wish that William Clay Ford Jr. had made a similar statement about Ford’s Panther platform cars at around the same time.
Outside of Japan, Hong Kong is currently the main export market for the Crown Comfort. Red-and-white Crown Comforts are the main taxicabs in the Hong Kong special administrative region, where cars continue to drive on the left, as they did when the city was a British colony, instead of on the right as in the rest of China. Over 99 percent of Hong Kong’s 18,000 taxis are Crown Comforts. All are LPG fueled, as imports of diesel taxis ceased in 2001 and operating a diesel taxi became illegal in 2006. The pre-2007 taillight configuration is still commonly seen, which is a testament to the durability of these cars.
In Singapore, another Asian country with driving on the left, the Crown Comfort was formerly the predominant taxi, but it recently has disappeared from the streets–ironically, because of clean air requirements that the LPG engine was supposed to address. In 2006, there were 19,000 Crown Comfort taxis in Singapore that made up 80 percent of the country’s taxi fleet. With all Singapore taxis being diesel powered, and the Crown Comfort’s older diesel engine design being unable to meet the stricter Euro IV diesel emission standards that Singapore followed and that went into effect in September 2006, imports stopped in 2006. Singapore requires taxis to be retired after eight years of service, so the last Crown Comfort went out of service in September 2014. The Hyundai Sonata took its place as Singapore’s leading taxi. Trials of LPG powered taxis are currently in progress, and if they lead to general adoption of LPG taxis, the Crown Comfort may make a comeback.
The Crown Comfort has reached its twentieth year as the taxi of choice in Japan and other right-hand drive markets in Asia, and there are no signs that it is in danger of being replaced. At the 2013 Tokyo Motor Show, Toyota displayed a taxi concept car called the JPN Taxi which borrowed the shape of London black cabs, but there has not been any movement toward putting it into production. The familiar three box-shaped Crown Comfort does its job efficiently and with a strong reputation for long-term durability, so demand from taxi operators has been consistent and appears unlikely to switch to something new. Few Americans will ride in a Crown Comfort, but those who do during trips to Asia will find a lot that reminds them of the last of the traditional American rear-wheel drive full size cars, although in a far more efficiently sized and laid out package. There is no need to hurry to Japan or Hong Kong to ride in one, because they will be around for many years to come.