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Twelve Times Toyota Got It Wrong

Not everything Toyota touches turns to gold

Aaron GoldWriterManufacturerPhotographer

1958 Toyopet Crown

When you consider the response to the first car Toyota sold in the U.S., the 1958 Toyopet Crown, it's a miracle that the company returned to sell a second one. Designed for Japanese roads where typical top speeds were about 40 mph, the Toyopet was never tested in America, and it proved to be thoroughly inadequate for our driving conditions. Its heavy-gauge steel body (an attempt to counter the reigning American opinion of the era that "Made in Japan" meant "cheap crap") completely overwhelmed its 60-hp engine, with 0-60 mph taking an excruciating 25.9 seconds. It overheated on hills, shook like a terrified chihuahua on the highway, and its brakes proved to be nearly as inadequate as the engine. U.S. sales were so dire that Toyota stopped trying in 1961. A trickle of Land Cruisers kept its American operation afloat while it regrouped and came up with a car designed expressly for the rigors of life in the States. That car, the 1965 Corona, would go on to change the course of American automotive history.

1984 Toyota Van

When the 1984 Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager minivans appeared in late '83, they became the hottest things on four wheels. What many people don't realize is that Toyota marketed its own van that year—but instead of success, Toyota learned a hard lesson that it takes more than good build quality to sell a car to Americans. The strange-looking and unimaginatively-named Toyota Van was based on a Japanese-market cargo van, and it had a short wheelbase, choppy ride, and a disconcerting tendency to lift the inside rear (drive) wheel in fast corners. The underfloor-mounted engine made for an awkward climb into the front seats, and servicing it required removing much of the interior. While the Van did have some nifty features, like an available fridge/water cooler and a panoramic sunroof, it wasn't enough to overcome its many shortcomings, and the Chrysler vans kicked its butt. Toyota replaced it with something new in 1991, and that didn't work out well, either.

1991 Toyota Previa

The successor to the Van was the Previa, which had the interior space and car-like handling that the Van lacked—but buyers still found it lacking. The rolling-egg styling proved just as controversial as the van-from-another-planet styling of its predecessor, but an even bigger problem was that Toyota insisted on keeping the underfloor mid-engine layout. The problem wasn't maintenance—a nifty new accessory drive moved much of the commonly-accessed machinery up front, where it could be accessed through a conventional hood—but the size of the engine compartment. While domestic minivans offered stout V-6 engines, the Previa only had room for a four-cylinder, which struggled with the Previa's nearly-two-ton curb weight. Toyota tried adding a supercharger, which made it faster but also a lot noisier and further ballooned the Previa's already-too-high price. Lousy safety scores didn't do the Previa any favors. Toyota finally replaced it with the competitive Sienna in 1998—just as SUVs were taking over as the family-cars of choice.

1992 Toyota Paseo

The Paseo was meant to be somethin' for the kids, a sporty two-door version of the Corolla that would offer cheap thrills with good fuel economy and a low price. Toyota flogged it to young Gen Xers, but the company probably would have had more success trying to sell them hearing aids. The Paseo's watered-down styling was a visual snoozer compared to competitors like the Geo Storm, the fun and funky Mazda MX-3, and the Nissan Pulsar NX, and the soul-sucking understeer bias of its chassis made driving the Paseo about enjoyable as an evening watching Lawrence Welk re-runs with Grandma. The Paseo's target market found it about as appealing as a rave without MDMA. Sales were slow for the first three years before trailing off to pitiful, and Toyota finally gave up in 1997.

1993 Toyota T100

Toyota pretty much owned the compact-pickup market, so it figured that taking on the Big Three in the full-size half-ton segment should be no problem. Wrong! Toyota's first effort, the 1993 T100, boasted the same eight-foot bed as the domestics, but the rest of it just wasn't big enough. The lack of an extended cab was an initial criticism that Toyota addressed later in the model run, but the lack of a V-8 engine showed a major disconnect with American truck buyers. Toyota tried adding a blower to the V-6, but supercharging didn't work any better for the T100 than it did for the Previa. Toyota replaced the T100 with the V-8 powered Tundra in 2000, which sold better, though not particularly well. There may be a little anti-Toyota bias at work: The current Tundra is the same size as its domestic rivals, and people complain that it still isn't big enough.

1999 Toyota Camry Solara

If the Paseo was aimed at the kids, the Camry Solara was aimed at their empty-nest parents—and like the Paseo, it landed wide of the mark. Intended as a sexier replacement for the Camry coupe, the Solara was supposed to provide a more thrilling ride, except it didn't: In a 1999 instrumented test by our sister publication, MotorTrend, the Solara's handling numbers were actually worse than the Camry sedan. In 2000, Toyota began shipping Solaras to American Sunroof Company for a convertible conversion; the only problem was that the conversion didn't include a reinforced chassis, so the result was a flappy, flexy mess. A second-gen Solara appeared in 2003, with convertible production moved in-house to Kentucky, but the resulting car was equally snoozerific (and equally shaky for the convertibles, but at least the top fit better). Toyota axed the slow-selling coupe in 2008 and the convertible in 2009.

2000 Toyota Echo

Toyota's entry-level cars—Starlet, Tercel, Yaris—have always been rather basic, but the Echo raised parsimony to an art form. In order to keep the price down, common must-haves like power steering, power mirrors, air conditioning, and a clock were all on the option list, and power windows weren't even available. Once you added in a few options, the Echo's value-for-money equation did a swan dive. But price wasn't the Echo's biggest problem: The Echo's tall, narrow, cartoon-ish exterior styling was its worst enemy, and it certainly wasn't helped by the interior, a penalty box of cheap plastics and thin fabrics with the speedometer and fuel gauge mounted on the center stack. The engine was powerful and frugal and the handling decent enough, though the tall body exaggerated the feel of body lean. Interest was strong in the first couple of years, then fell precipitously, and when Toyota launched its new Scion models in 2004, buyers lost all interest. Toyota finally pink-slipped the Echo after the 2005 model year.

2001 Toyota Prius

The second-generation Toyota Prius revolutionized the car market. Its impact was so great and success so strong that history seems to have forgotten that the original Prius, sold from 2001 to 2003, was kind of a loser. Originally designed for the Japanese market, the original Prius offered cabin space comparable to a Corolla, which was too small for most American families. It was dorky and pokey and would only deliver its EPA-estimated fuel economy (45 mpg city/52 mpg highway) to hard-core hypermilers with helium shoes. With a price tag of $19,995, the Prius cost as much as a nicer, roomier mid-size sedan of the time, and buyers were unlikely to make up the difference in fuel-cost savings. It certainly didn't help much that Larry David of Curb Your Enthusiasm drove one—although he did trade up for an '04, and that didn't hurt the second-gen Prius any.

2007 Toyota FJ Cruiser

Shhh… Hear that? It's the sound of FJ Cruiser fans firing up their email clients to write us some hate mail. No question, the FJ was brilliant, a tough-as-nails off-roader with handsome retro styling that made it a true modern-day inheritor of the FJ40 Land Cruiser mantle. Enthusiasts loved it (and still do), but to everyone else, it was just ridiculous—a bouncy, ponderous SUV that drank expensive 91-octane fuel with reckless abandon. The rear door design made rear-seat access a job for gymnasts, and over-the-shoulder visibility was non-existent—the only way to back an FJ Cruiser out of a parking space is to go slowly and listen for honking horns and/or crunching sheet metal. Sales were healthy for the first couple of years, but by mid-2008 everyone who wanted one had one, and Toyota discovered the trouble with retro vehicles: There's almost no path to a successful follow-up design. (Just ask Volkswagen.) The FJ's road dead-ended in 2014—in the U.S., at least. Toyota continues to build and sell it in other markets.

2009 Lexus HS250h

By the mid-2000s, the second-gen Prius was the hottest car on the market, and Toyota took note of its popularity with affluent buyers. Consumer research showed strong interest in a luxury hybrid sedan, so rather than merely rework the Prius, Toyota developed something unique for the Lexus division. The HS250h was a hit in Japan, and Lexus gleefully introduced it in the United States … just in time for fuel prices to collapse. Truth be told, cheap gas prices should have helped the HS, because its fuel economy was pretty lousy by hybrid standards—its EPA numbers trailed the Prius by some 15 mpg. The driving dynamics were forgettable and the styling just a bit too awkward to be graceful. It had a nice enough interior done up in rich-feeling materials, but so did every other Lexus. Sales were disappointing the first year and just kept getting worse, and early in 2012 Lexus halted production.

2009 Toyota Venza

The Venza wasn't a bad vehicle; it was just very, very badly timed. With the market planning done while gas prices were at their peak and "SUV" was a dirty word, Toyota tried to market it as a sedan, to the point of arguing with our sister publication, MotorTrend, about its classification. (MT invited it to participate in their Sport/Utility of the Year competition, while Toyota said it wasn't an SUV and belonged in Car of the Year. It wound up competing in neither.) The Venza was designed for empty-nesters who had grown to like their SUVs, with Boomer-friendly features like a low hip point that made getting in and out easier. Sales were only half of the 75,000-100,000 per annum that Toyota was hoping for, and the Venza was killed off after 2015. Fast-forward five years and competitors are rushing to the market with big five-seaters like the Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport and Honda Passport. One wonders if Toyota wishes it had followed the lead of the Ford Edge and waited—because as we now know, the Venza is coming back as a hybrid SUV for the 2021 model year. Let's hope it does better this time 'round.

2012 Scion iQ

The Scion iQ was Toyota's attempt to compete with the Smart, which was selling tens of thousands of ForTwos in the United States. Wait, did we say tens of thousands? Sorry, we meant tens. Granted, the Smart ForTwo was a pretty piss-poor car, and the iQ improved on many of its worst attributes. It had a smoother transmission, better interior packaging (it could accommodate three people if one was small enough), and, of course, way-the-hell better build quality. But it was still a thoroughly useless car for America, where easy-to-park is not anywhere as important an attribute as not living in fear of getting run over by a giant pickup truck. Maybe we could forgive this half-car if it was sold at half-price, but it wasn't—the iQ cost as much as a nicely-loaded Toyota Corolla. Of course, there were worse ignominies to come, because Aston-Martin would turn this thing into the Cygnet, a true stain on a great automotive brand (well, except for the V-8 version). The iQ's first-year sales of just under 9,000 trailed those of the Smart, and dropped by half or more every year until Scion quit trying in 2015. Bringing it to the U.S. was a dumb idea, and the irony of the car's name is not lost on us.