Even the smartest and most competent of us have the occasional brainfart. Back at the turn of the Millennium, Toyota were doing a lot of things right: the Prius, the Corolla, the Crown – and the Lexus brand in overseas markets – were all doing great. But there was a segment that was showing signs of distress, at least on the domestic front: Toyota’s compact executive car range, one rung below the eternal Crown and the Celsior, was in turmoil.
This is exemplified by the Verossa we’re looking at today, possibly one of the biggest eggs Toyota ever laid in this segment ever. The front end reminds me of a duck – not sure why, something in that grille design. It took me a little time to chance upon one that was photo-ready, but I’ve had my eye on these for a while. This colour, which is actually a model-specific hue called “black cherry mica,” hides some of the weirdness of the design, especially when coupled with water spots. But that’s the name of the game – and this colour is one of the Verossa’s few redeeming features. Just compare with the PR photo below…
So what was going on over at Toyota in the late ‘90s? Essentially, the picture on the domestic front was pretty bleak. After about 30 years of continuous growth, Japan’s postwar economy came crashing down in 1991 and crushed automaker’s plans in the process. They all suffered, but not all equally: Mazda and Mitsubishi were severely affected, Honda weathered it better. Nissan were fatally hit and only pulled through thanks to foreign intervention. Toyota seemed to be doing relatively well, on the whole. And they were. But that doesn’t’ mean they did not feel any pressure to adapt to a new reality.
Toyota’s JDM passenger car range had been carefully constructed over the ‘70s and ‘80s, taking into account the Japanese tax limitations and Toyota’s own multiple dealer networks. The Crown and the Corona were established in the ‘50s and kept on going, but between those two mainstays, the situation fluctuated. The Mark II, a sort of beefed-up Corona, took off in the late ‘60s and was joined by the Chaser in the ‘70s and the Cresta by 1980. This trio, exported as the Cressida, was extremely popular and became one of Toyota’s greatest hits in the ‘80s and into the ‘90s, pushing the Crown into proper “big car” territory.
In parallel, a FWD range (Camry / Vista) was created in the same 2-litre range, further complicating things. By the late ‘80s, the 2-litre mid-size segment was getting quite complex, comprising big now-FWD Coronas and Carinas, the Camry/Vistas, the Mark II/Chaser/Crestas, and the smaller Crowns. But things were about to get a whole new level of confusing. By the year 2000, Toyota had decided to kill off a number of the old JDM nameplates and create a bunch of new ones, all in the 2-3 litre bracket. Out went Corona, Carina, Chaser and Cresta and in came a nightmare of retro-infused, bug-eyed saloons.
The above are just the RWD ones, circa 2001-03. The Aristo (top left) was known as the Lexus GS and the Altezza (bottom left) was the Japanese name for the Lexus IS, but the Brevis (top right) and Progrès (middle left) twins were JDM-only, with an emphasis on luxury. The X110 Mark II (middle right) survived for now, but had to be given a new companion model. That became our Verossa (bottom right), launched in June 2001.
There were plenty of other Toyotas in this broader 2-to-3 litre range, such as the various Crowns, as well as a bunch of front-drivers (Camry, Vista, Avalon, Avensis, Windom…), so Toyota were really throwing the proverbial kitchen sink, plus the Prius, at this market segment to see what, if anything, met with the buying public’s favour.
The Verossa was supposed to be a sophisticated Mark II, with a definite “Italian” undertone to bring out the sportiness of the model a bit, and to explain its quirky appearance, no doubt. Working overtime and on very little sleep, Toyota’s PR department created a portmanteau of the Italian words “vero” and “rosso” (true and red) and feminized the ending I guess, to dub the new model.
Engine options were limited to a couple of 1JZ straight-6s, in 2.0 or 2.5 litre flavours. The 2-litre engine’s output was 160hp; the standard 2.5, as used in out feature car, churned out 200hp, but the top-of-the-line VR25 Speciale got a Yamaha-tuned turbo variant, pushing the power up to 280hp and was exclusive to the Verossa. Transmissions were of the 4- or 5-speed automatic variety, though a 5-speed manual was available as well, sending all that cavalry to the rear wheels, though some 2-litre cars were available with an AWD drivetrain.
Verossas, being ostensibly Euro-infused and luxuriously-inclined, were available with a leather interior, which was never a popular option in Japan. No surprisingly, our feature car has cloth seats, but no doilies. Still, unlike the exterior styling, this cabin is unremarkable in the extreme and quite plasticky for a so-called luxury car. But then, if you really wanted a Jaguar-like interior, the Progrès was the one to get.
It turns out very few people thought the Verossa was worth buying anyway. Sales got off to a slow start and never really went anywhere. A new grill in mid-2003 failed to move the masses and Toyota soon saw that the Verossa was nothing but a tortuously-shaped bomb in an overcrowded range. The merger of two sales channels in early 2004 was given as the pretext for the car’s cancellation, which thus died before its third birthday. Under 25,000 units were made in this time, tantamount to a big “thumbs down” gesture from Japanese carbuyers.
So what went wrong? Chiefly, the styling. I’m guessing Toyota tried to channel Lancia when designing the Verossa. The Lybra came out in 1998 and the infamous Thesis was being designed based on the 1998 Dialogos concept car, so perhaps Toyota’s designers saw this and took at least some inspiration from it, especially that beak and the headlights perched on the tips of the fenders. The sculpted fenders and Coke-bottlesque profile made for a busy design, certainly by the standards of the era. The Japanese are famously tolerant of retro and curious-looking cars, but in this case, the oddity of the duck might have been too pronounced for its intended audience.
The so-called “emblem” on the Verossa’s grille looks like the Crown’s logo from afar and like a halved pumpkin in close-up. Or something vaguely avian turd-like… Either way, it’s another illustration of the difficulty of creating logos. Toyota loved to do this for all their JDM cars, but ends up being a detriment to the brand.
But surely the fact that Toyota fielded a dozen-plus models in the same segment is a strong contributor to the Verossa’s premature death. Today, the RWD / straight-6 nature of these birds, plus 20-odd years of service, means many are being converted into drift cars. Ugly, duck-billed drift cars. At least, Toyota killed off the Verossa fairly quickly, initiating a process to de-cluttered their range, but the early 21st Century were certainly turbulent times, even for Japan’s top automaker.