The Sera, one of Toyota’s more eccentric creations, is thirty this year. DTW remembers it and wonders what inspires the conservative Japanese automotive giant to go off-piste like this, as it has done regularly in the past.
For me, Toyota Motor Corporation has always been something of an enigma. Ostensibly, it is a deeply conservative and risk-averse company. For more than eighty years, it has meticulously and systematically developed its mainstream vehicles to align exactly with its customers’ evolving expectations. Whether you drive a Corolla, or are driven in a Century, you can be confident that the replacement model, when it arrives, will always be essentially similar and comfortably familiar, but just a little bit better.
Toyota has often been a late adopter of new technologies, such as front-wheel-drive*, happy to allow more pioneering manufacturers to take the technical and business risks in proving the new technology first before itself committing to it. This iterative approach has generated huge loyalty and satisfaction, at least amongst the vast majority of customers who regard motor vehicles as appliances that are expected to perform efficiently, reliably and economically over their service life.
Like other automotive companies of course, Toyota has had problems (usually with third-party suppliers) that involved recalls, but its reputation is still such that buying a Toyota is a pretty low-risk option: you may not be thrilled with your new car, but you are highly unlikely to be surprised or seriously disappointed by it.
It is, however, the case that more than fifteen million Toyota and Lexus-branded hybrid passenger vehicles have been sold since 1997. How did such a deeply conservative company become the world leader in developing these powertrains and selling hybrid cars? Firstly, Toyota had the financial resources to do so, generated by the company’s highly profitable mainstream model lines. Secondly, hybrids are, as might be inferred from the name, essentially an interim and iterative step towards the ultimate elimination of internal combustion engined vehicles.
Hence, and notwithstanding the novelty of the first Prius, its development aligned entirely with Toyota’s cautious and iterative philosophy. Hybrids presented no range-anxiety or external charging network concerns, over which the company could have no control. Toyota is the very antithesis of an industry disruptor like Tesla, and something of a latecomer to the EV party. That said, Toyota’s investment in Hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles remains an intriguing if relatively modest side-bet.
So far, so conservative, yet Toyota has a long and honourable tradition of producing somewhat eccentric vehicles for which the business cases must have been weak, or at least highly questionable. For me, this makes the company rather more interesting than it might otherwise be. One such vehicle is the Sera, which celebrates the thirtieth anniversary of its launch this year.
The Sera was a conventionally engineered FWD three-door 2+2 liftback coupé, powered by a 1,496cc inline four-cylinder fuel-injected engine producing 104bhp and torque of 97lb/ft. Transmission was five-speed manual or four-speed automatic. The mechanical package was sourced from Toyota’s contemporary FWD small cars, the Tercel and Starlet.
The Sera’s stand-out feature was its butterfly doors, with a large glazed area that wrapped over to meet the T-bar roof structure. The doors hinged upwards and forwards to open, their hinge pivots being on the A-pillar at the base of the windscreen and on the top rail, near to the centre of the screen. The doors were large and heavy, and needed the assistance of gas struts to open and remain in that position.
There was a smaller moveable area of glass within each door for paying parking tolls etc. Such doors are occasionally seen on supercars such as the McLaren F1, but never before or since on a modest small coupé. In such a car, the doors’ only practical advantage, being openable in a confined space**, was of questionable value when set against the cost of engineering them.
The rear hatchback was an all-glass wraparound item that also hinged from the T-bar structure. The abundance of glass made the interior very bright and airy, but kept the standard air-conditioning working hard in hot weather. The stout T-bar rollover hoop, required to support the doors and maintain structural integrity, did create an over-the-shoulder blind-spot, however. The Sera was also one of the first cars to come with projector headlamps fitted as standard.
The Sera was produced in right-hand-drive form for the Japanese domestic market only, although a small number became grey market exports, mainly to the UK and US. It remained in production for five years and a total of 15,941 were built. Its novelty value saw strong sales of around 12,000 in its first year, but thereafter sales slowed to a trickle. Modifications in production were limited mainly to trim and cosmetic details, but side-impact beams were incorporated into the doors in June 1992, from which time airbags and ABS were offered as options.
Ironically, the collapse in Sera sales after the first year may well have been caused by Toyota itself when it launched the Paseo in 1991. This was a resolutely conventional three-door FWD coupé, similar in size and using the same mechanical package as the Sera. The Paseo had an 80mm (3”) longer wheelbase and was 285mm (11”) longer overall, so had a rather roomier interior than the Sera. It was sold in Japan, but also exported widely and remained in production until 1999.
Shorn of the Sera’s complexities and with much greater economies of scale, the Paseo was undoubtedly more profitable for Toyota. Moreover, you really had to want the novelty of those trick doors (and live in Japan) to choose the Sera over the bland but not unattractive Paseo.
There can never have been a compelling business case for the Sera, so why did Toyota build it? Was it to test the engineering feasibility of those doors, perhaps to use them later on a Supra? Was it just a skunkworks project that was green-lighted for fun? Was it an image-enhancing project for the company? I guess we will never know the truth, but we should be glad that Toyota allows itself these momentary flights of fancy.
* I realise that front-wheel-drive was not a ‘new’ technology, but its complexity was regarded with suspicion by many motorists and only became the industry standard for mainstream cars in the late 1970’s and early 80’s.
** They required only 430mm (17”) of lateral clearance to open fully.