Curbside Classics: 1999-2007 Toyota Crown (S170) Estate – Japan’s Last Luxury Wagon

All good things come to an end. While the old saloon-based station wagon is still far from dead and buried, there’s no question that it’s a far less popular body style nowadays than it was in the latter part of the last century. Blame the wagon’s wane on joint efforts of the SUV and the minivan, the former being essentially a wagon on stilts and the latter a wagon on steroids.

Nothing wrong with stilts or ‘roids per se, but it’s easy to overdo both. Which is how we’ve come to have monstrous things like the Tacoma and the true successor to the Crown wagon on the JDM, the infamously ugly (but supremely comfortable) Alphard. The Crown saloon is still with us, so in theory Toyota could revert back to a wagon variant at any point. But they’re not looking like they will, leaving Japanese luxury wagon buyers, of which there are a few, judging by what I’m seeing on the streets here, to satisfy their cravings with BMWs, Mercedes, Volvos and the like.

Since the ‘50s, Toyota’s flagship JDM model, the Crown, always included a wagon variant. One could order anything from the most basic Diesel stripper “van” to the swankiest fully-optioned 6-cyl. Benz fighter. Yet in 2007, the wagon went away, never to return.

It was perhaps a small miracle that it had made it this far. Perennial rival Nissan never did replace the Y30 Cedric / Gloria wagon in 1999, due to the company’s precarious financial situation. Toyota probably knew this. They may have created the S170 Crown wagon – I’m sorry, “Estate” – despite this to emphasize their own confidence in their dominance of the JDM, as well as to capture whatever was left of that particular niche. They were now without direct domestic competition. But Nissan also left the field due to diminishing returns, especially since the Cedric / Gloria, just like the Crown, was made for the JDM almost exclusively.

Let’s glance at the S170 saloon, just to get our bearings. The eleventh generation Crown was launched in October 1999. For the first time since the mid-‘70s, the hardtop version was no longer on the menu – those were reserved for the Majesta range, which had branched off into its own thing.

Engine options included 2.0, 2.5 and 3.0 litre versions of the 1G-FE straight-6, all now provided with DOHC. The range was divided between the comfort-oriented Royals (the one featured here being the top-of-the-line “Royal Extra Limited”), which introduced innovations such as the Toyota “mild hybrid” pollution reduction system, and the sportier Athletes, which could receive turbo engines reaching 300hp.

Transmissions were by and large 4-speed auto, though some high-performance Athletes could be had with a 5-speed manual. Power was naturally sent to independently (and air-suspended) rear wheels, except for some Athletes whose front wheels could be called upon to take part in providing forward motion. All in all, the defining characteristics of these cars was, as always, conservative appearance, excellent comfort and bulletproof reliability.

The long-roof S170 Crown appeared in December 1999, replacing the S130 wagon that had been in production for 12 years. It’s not totally clear to me whether these Crown Estates came in as many varieties as the saloon. One thing is certain though: the days of the super basic quad-headlamp “Van” trim were now gone. The final Crown wagons were slated to be far more aristocratic than their live-axle forebears.

It’s a big car by JDM standards, though it still abides by the famously rigid width, length and displacement limits set by Japanese authorities. For comparison, the Crown Estate is virtually equal in width and length to the contemporary Mercedes-Benz E-Class (W210) wagon. The only differences are the Crown’s slightly shorter wheelbase (by 5cm / 2 in.) and very slightly taller roof.

I have photographed five different Estates (in different hues, naturally) for this piece, but only the white one is an early model. This can be identified by its orange turn signal lenses (those became clear in August 2001), slightly different badges and its non-mesh grille. It’s also an Athlete V, with the most potent engine of the early cars. Of course, there was a guy sitting in it at the time (potent engine idling, as per bloody usual), so I was unable to get an interior shot. Never mind, I thought, I’ll probably find another one of these easy.

Turns out the 2000-01 Crown Estates aren’t exactly common any longer. Certainly not compared to their younger cohorts. This silver example was very willing and able to pose for me, so I obliged. This one is an Athlete G, which could be described as the sporty-with-wood-veneer model. The problem with this one was that I’m really not keen on silver cars to begin with. I’m obviously in a minority because nearly all my subsequent sightings of Crown Estates were in this colour. And what I wanted was something different, something dark.

Fortunately, this one came up recently. Another Athlete G, but in black – and in the sun too, which does help. Of course, things are never perfect, by which I mean I was unable to photograph the front or the interior of this lovely ebony Estate. But at long last, no more of the dreaded silver. Almost sinister in this dark livery, isn’t it?

I was also able to catch a glimpse of a rare maroon car not long after. See the sort of lengths one has to go through to collect enough photos for a decent CC post?

Well, there was still the small matter of the interior. I realized that I already had the saloon, but as long as I was at it with the wagons, I thought I might as well try and capture a genuine one. Which I did, from another silver Athlete V (if memory serves).

The S170 Crown saloon went out of production in December 2003 and was immediately replaced by, you guessed it, the S180. The Estate, for its part, stayed the same. As Nissan and Toyota were wont to do with these types of cars (see the Toyota Mark II X70, the Nissan Cedric / Gloria Y30 and others), the Crown Estate just carried on regardless, with the noticeably different-looking S180 saloon by its side, near the top of the Toyota range.

This situation was made to last for eons in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but it was not as long as that for the S170 Crown. Toyota kept it on the market long enough to satisfy a dwindling demand and allow themselves ample time to reposition the dreaded Alphard minivan to take over. The Crown Estate was built until June 2007 and the second generation Alphard, with its markedly improved interior and bigger engines, arrived under a year later.

It’s certainly true that the Alphard offered much more interior space, even if a large portion of it is just a vast amount of unnecessary headroom. And given a decent amount of ticks on the options list, Toyota’s big minivan is probably even better than the Crown Estate in terms of creature comforts. But what a dreadful sight those Transformer-faced fridgeboxes are compared to the dignified wagon they’re meant to replace.

Whether in saloon or wagon form, the S170 was, in my opinion, the last Crown that really looked like one. Subsequent models began to suffer from the LED-facelift-eye malady that befell a great many cars in the ‘00s (and continues to this day). Headlamps, once confined to the front of the car, started stretching back into the fenders, giving the cars a sort of permanently-startled look. Taillamps usually followed suit, either climbing up towards the roof or extending along the flanks. Taking this trend to its logical conclusion, the headlamps and taillamps should have ended up meeting at the B-pillar by the late 2020s. Toyota cleverly avoided this by imposing the corporate frowny face that graces most current Toyota and Lexus products on the Crown as well. Ugh!…

None of that nonsense with the S170 Crown. The styling is as conservative as can be, reminiscent more of the W140 S-Class than anything else. Those came out in 1991 – eight years before the Toyota. But then the Crown was never meant to be on the cutting edge of design. The Lexus kinship is also there – one could call the Estate a sort of Lexus GS wagon, albeit styled more like the LS. It’s hard to find the exact comparison. Another JDM car lost in translation.

It’s a shame that Toyota gave up on big deluxe wagons, but perhaps inevitable, given the apparently universal appeal of the tarted-up minivans that filled that niche. Perhaps this post’s title is a bit too categorical. I guess the Mitsuoka Ryugi still exists as a JDM “deluxe wagon.” That’s what these cars are nowadays: ultra-niche and super-kitsch. Wasn’t like that but 20 years ago. S170 Crown Estates are still seen in 2020 traffic, but they’re getting a bit old now. Numbers are going to start plummeting precipitously, if they haven’t done so already. But I’m sure a small army of nostalgic owners in Japan will keep theirs on the road for a long while yet.


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Curbside Outtake: Toyota Crown Athlete Estate and Toyota Avensis – Put Out to Pasture…Prematurely, by Jim Brophy