Curbside Classic: 1994 Toyota Corona Exiv (ST200) TR-R – The Four-Door Celica

I keep surprising myself with how many variations on the oxymoronic “pillared hardtop” theme bloomed across the Toyota range in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Well, I say Toyota because we’re looking as a Toyota right now, but most of the other Japanese carmakers were all pretty prolific in this regard – Subaru especially, but also Nissan, Mazda, Honda and even Mitsubishi. Everyone was at it. This body style, if it could be called that, died out in the 2000s. It’s a shame, as they did tend to look pretty good.

Our feature car is a pretty good late example of this species. Compared to a standard-issue Corona saloon, the Exiv looks almost sporty and certainly more driver-oriented. Under the swoopy body though, it’s all like your regular higher trim T190 Corona/Carina or T200 Celica: a 1.8 or a pair of 2-litre 4-cyl. driving the front wheels (or all of them, in 2-litre form only) via a 5-speed manual or, likelier, a 4-speed automatic.

In essence, the Exiv is less related to the Corona than it is to the Celica. Back in 1985, Toyota created a companion four-door hardtop from the new front-drive Celica T160 platform and called the result, somewhat confusingly, 1985-89 Carina ED (ST160, top row). So there was the FWD Carina standard saloon and its Corona twin on the one hand, and the sporty Carina ED hardtop and the Celica on the other. The first Corona Exiv (bottom row) arrived in 1989 as a twin of the second-gen ST180 Carina ED.

The name Exiv is a tortuous portmanteau of “Extra” and “Impressive.” It was included in the Corona family even as the Corona Coupé disappeared and lasted two generations trying to jazz up the aging Toyota nameplate’s image. The ST180 Exiv (1989-93) was an actual hardtop; I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of these as yet, though – nor their Carina ED sibling. The second gen Exiv / third gen Carina ED, as represented by our feature car, took over in October 1993 and lasted through to the very end of 1998.

There are still a few of those around, as although they probably didn’t sell as well as their predecessor (which is impossible to really ascertain, given that the 2nd gen Exiv’s production data are not disaggregated from the overall Corona data), they are known for being solid and comfortable cars, if a tad cramped for a big-ish four-door.

There were four grades of Exiv, starting with the base model TR, which came with only the 1.8 litre engine. Then came the TR-X, which could be ordered with either the 1.8 or the 2-litre, and the TR-R, which was 2-litre only, in 140hp guise. Top of the range, at over ¥2m, was the TR-G, which was exclusively fitted with the Yamaha-headed 180hp motor. For a JDM model, four levels of trim is a remarkable display of restraint. But the the heady days of the economic bubble were gone now.

To emphasize the driver-oriented nature of this model, they designed that dash to be entirely angled towards the driver, à la ‘70s GM. I imagine that must be great from an ergonomics standpoint, but it sure didn’t make the CC hunter’s job any easier. They never thought about us, the peeking public.

Here’s a factory photo to get a better idea of the lay of the land. It’s almost a caricature of an early ‘90s ambiance, isn’t it? Not unpleasant, just very typically grey-plasticky fin-de-siècle.

The rear seats are quite decent, legroom-wise, but according to the Japanese internet sources I’ve been trying to decipher, the main issue with these is the low roof. It’s a tight cabin, just like most contemporary JDM pillared hardtops. That’s the tradeoff for that sexier roofline.

The concept of a four-door Celica could have been a successful one in many markets, given how popular Celicas were in places like North America and Europe. Alas, it was not to be – more than anything else, the trouble of federalizing this design and devising an LHD variant would have been deemed utterly uneconomical.

The trouble with the Exiv, from my perspective, is that it shares no styling cues with the Celica at all. Toyota could have tried to graft the two-door T200’s distinctive quad-eyed face to this hardtop sedan and made the family bloodline stand out more. At least, if they had wanted to export this LWB Celica concept. But within Japan, it seems that would have been superfluous, as those who shopped for cars like these knew what they were getting, most of the time.

The other wrinkle is that the Celica and the Carina ED were sold via the Corolla Store sales network, whereas the Exiv was a Toyopet Store model, like all Coronas. The Carina ED could look like the Celica that was sold at the same dealership, but then the Exiv, a pure badge-engineering exercise, would have looked a bit out of place next to the Coronas at the Toyopet Store. Compromise, compromise.

But this pillared hardtop thing turned into a relatively short-lived fad – certainly at Toyota, in any case. By the year 2000, the likes of the Corolla / Sprinter, the Mark II, the Vista, the Crown and the Majesta, which had all had a pillared hardtop in their respective lineups throughout the ‘90s, and joined the Corona / Carina in scaling back to framed windows and somewhat higher rooflines. It was kind of pointless while it lasted, frankly, but at least we got some slightly racier-looking JDM saloons.