Even as I photographed this car, I was dreading having to write it up. I had seen these before many times and read up a few brief things on them, but nothing seemed to be stirring any excitement in me. A little bile maybe, but nowhere near enough for a post’s worth of diatribe. “Take the pics anyway, you never know.” There are many JDM cars that appear bland, but end up having some sort of an edge. Luckily, after a bit of research, this one did too.
I used to watch Goodness Gracious Me when I lived in London, a comedy show made by Brits of South Asian origin. There was one famous sketch that always stuck with me: a reverse take on British yobs going out for a curry, where Indian yobs “go out for an English” on a Friday night in Bombay. One of them tells the waiter: “I want the blandest thing on the menu!” The Toyota Motor Corporation’s answer to that demand would be the Progrès.
They previewed it at the 1997 Tokyo Motor Show, to deafening yawns. It was unleashed on the Japanese market in May 1998 as the Progrès (pronounced “Pro-GRAY” – because it’s so French), but was almost launched as the Neuron (pronounced “You-CanNOT-Be-SEE-rious”) until someone realized “I’ll fire up the Neuron” sounded really neuronally-challenged.
The Progrès came in two shades of gray: NC 250 for the 2.5 litre straight-6 or NC 300 for the 3-litre. The “NC” bit stood for “Neo Category,” as even back in 1998 the car did not really fit into Toyota’s plethoric JDM range. Underneath its milquetoast exterior, the Progrès was a watery cocktail of a Mark II platform with a Crown S150 drivetrain mixed in – RWD of course, though an AWD version did appear in 1999. In early 2001, the Progrès got a slight facelift (new grille, new alloys, new back-up lights and little else) and thereafter was left in a state of blissful inertia until it was killed off in 2007.
What was the point of this car? That is a question that many at Toyota probably wondered, but alas not loudly enough to spark a reflection on the opportunity to halt proceedings before the launch occurred. The idea, as far as I can make out, was to compete with mid-sized Audis, BMWs, Jaguars and Mercedes-Benzes on the JDM by offering a medium-sized car chock full of technological goodies and upscale trim. Think 1975 Cadillac Seville, but done by Mitsuyuki Noguchi, the guy who was in charge of the V12 Century.
Problem number one: the Progrès looked about as appealing as a root canal. The fugly face hesitating between square and round headlamps was supposed to echo the new Century, which was fortunately spared this catastrophe. The rear of the car is less immediately dreadful, but has a passing similarity with the Crown Comfort taxi – not the most glorious of references for a car with lofty hopes, a high price and a French name.
Problem number two: Toyota already had a bunch of executive RWD saloons to combat Mercedes and BMW’s inroads into the holy ground of the JDM. (And let’s not pretend the threat wasn’t there – the big German saloons have a following in Japan, like everywhere else.) But if you’re fighting against the sporty, hairy-chested BMW and the glamorous, stand-up hood ornament Benz, why show up with a hyper-conservative shape and a face like a half-finished clay model?
Here are some (i.e. just the RWD ones) of the Toyota executive saloons that existed alongside the Progrès, circa 2002-03. We have, in no particular order: the Mark II (soon to be replaced by the Mark X), the Verossa, the Crown, the Brevis (a reskinned Progrès launched in 2001), the Aristo and the Altezza. Fragment much, Toyota? Let’s not gloss over the fact that the Progrès was boxing in the “high-end luxury” category. That all comes at a price. Before tax, the 2003 Crown Royal Saloon cost between ¥2.95m and ¥4.42m, while the Progrès cost ¥3.22m to ¥4.2m. And the Crown, by that point, was quite a bit bigger than the Progrès. Toyota soon started dropping some excess baggage (bye-bye Mark II, vamoose Verossa and adios Aristo), but this did not help the Progrès one jot. Sales were downright stagnant.
Therefore, it was soon time for Toyota’s Seville to head for the chopping block, along with its Brevis sister model. The axe fell in 2007, as the model was in its tenth year. Few noticed, even fewer cared. The whole “Neo Category” thing, which entailed that no Toyota badge was to be found on the car, was a marketing and branding dead end. People went back to buying Mark Xs and Crowns, or were lured towards the BMW dealership. Since 2007, a great many of the Progrès have left their homeland, as JDM cars tend to do, for a second life in various parts of the world. It seems a number have ended up in East Africa, where they had a brief moment of popularity in the early part of the 2010s, before tales of huge running costs and repair bills started to tarnish its image.
Toyota’s global image was not necessarily affected by all this. It mostly took place in Japan, where most of Toyota’s screw-ups have tended to happen. From the outside, Toyota looks like a sleek and efficient corporate giant that makes great cars and pickups for the entire world. From the Japanese perspective, it’s a confusing, contradictory, bureaucratic and arch-conservative leviathan that has shot itself in the foot on a number of occasions. It’s a similar dichotomy with pre-bailout GM – how it was viewed from the outside, as opposed to how it was experienced in North America.
The Progrès was not entirely wasted, as it did produce the Origin, one of the few retro/pike cars that doesn’t make one’s eyes bleed. I’m sure all things being equal, the Progrès was a fine car for its time. But things never are equal, especially in such a competitive and crowded segment. To stand out in this crowd required a cool gimmick, like a three-pointed star or a leaping feline. The pathetic round in-board headlamps just didn’t cut it, and the silly French name no local could ever pronounce didn’t fool anyone. Toyota went a saloon too far with this one. Maybe it should be pronounced “re-GRAY.”