Curbside Classic: Toyota Sera – Wings Don’t Make It Fly

(first posted 8/8/2011)    There are many cars that are essentially defined by a singular feature: the DeLorean with its stainless steel body panels; the bubble canopy of the Messerschmitt; the gas tank location on a Ford Pinto. Perhaps one of the lessor known examples would be the Toyota Sera, with its trick doors. Just don’t call them scissor, gullwing or Lambo style doors, as any Sera owner is sure to set you straight; they are butterfly doors, just like on a McLaren F1. But that’s where any comparison to that car ends. In the words of Bill Clinton: “You can put wings on a pig, but you don’t make it an eagle”

Hinged on the A-panel, the Sera’s doors lift up and out in the tightest of places, which would certainly help in the only market the Sera was sold in, Japan. According to Wikicars, 43cm (17 inches) clearance is all you need, but somehow I suspect Seras were sold on the cool factor rather than any practical reasons.

Something a bit more practical with similar styling (minus the fancy doors) would get you a Toyota Paseo, which is essentially what the Sera is. Both the Paseo and Sera are in turn based on the Tercel, or the Japanese market Starlet, which donated its 1.5L 5E-FHE four cylinder engine making all of 108hp. Should that not be enough punch to match the exotic doors, an engine swap with a donor Starlet GT and its turbocharged engine is just a shipping crate from Japan away. A faster pig still isn’t an eagle.

A common misconception about the Sera is that it was only available with an automatic transmission. This is how most were built and sold, given that Japan is almost as fond of the automatic gearbox as the US, but both a five speed manual and the four speed automatic were available.

Despite the sporty looks of the Sera, it is not exactly known as a performance machine in either straight line speed or handling. A good part of the reason is all the extra weight of the doors, which of course ends up exactly where you don’t want it; up high. All that extra glass area means the Sera is also a bit more softly sprung.

Air conditioning was fitted to each and every Sera as all that glass operates just like a green house on warm days. The rear occupants must be prone to getting sunburn under that massive one piece rear glass. On the plus side visibility must be fantastic. There were panels to provide relief on the top glass part of the door but our owner has installed some of mural on the roof of their Sera to kept the sun out and apparently pay homage to their favorite band. It looked to be a similar material that those window bus ads that allow you to mostly see out are made of.

Seras are now found worldwide thanks to grey market imports in places such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United Kingdom. This one has found its way to western Canada thanks to our “fifteen-years old and it’s legal” rules. It is actually one of a handful around town which is remarkable since less than sixteen thousand were produced and were only sold half a world away. It can perhaps be partially explained by Seras having historically had one of the lower values of imported Japanese cars, probably due to lack of performance image while at the same time being very distinctive.

The Sera did have a few other party tricks up its sleeve including one of the first uses of project headlights, a feature its predecessor the Toyota AXV-II concept car of 1988 didn’t have. A sought after option is the so called Super Live Surround Sound or SLSS to turn your Sera into a mobile sound capsule. It features ten speakers, a Digital Sound Processor, various head units and enough presets to shake a stick at.

It is certainly easy to suspect that the Sera is a bit of a one trick pony, and one can certainly imagine every one you’d see at a car show would have its doors open much like Corvair owners always seem to have their rear mounted engines on display. Why not? Show and tell. Sure it doesn’t have wild performance, but not every car needs fire breathing dragon performance as some could perhaps pose with their butterfly doors. Unlike most one trick ponies though, the Sera doesn’t seem to have any glaring weakness and its pedestrian mechanical bits are only a Paseo away, unlike a McLaren F1. A cute and reliable piglet with wings; what’s not to like, even if it can’t fly?