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2023 Toyota Crown: Jalopnik First Drive



There are generations of drivers in the U.S. who have no idea what the 2023 Toyota Crown is, or what it represents. The last time Toyota sold a new Crown here in America was in 1972; most of us born after Generation X have no recollection of the model. Some might say Toyota itself has no idea what the Crown is — or was — given the design of this latest model: No longer recognizable as a sedan, and much closer to a crossover.

Toyota still insists the Crown is a full-size sedan, but the automaker admits it is reimagining what that term means. I guess imagination has its own borders because in Japan, Toyota refers to the 2023 Crown as a crossover, and it’s listed under the SUV section on the company’s website. But terminology aside, the 2023 Toyota Crown really does drive like a big sedan — and a fast one at that.

Full disclosure: Toyota invited me to Tennessee to drive the all-new Crown. The company flew me to Nashville, put me up in a hotel downtown and fed me while there. The Music City was unusually gloomy and rainy when I landed, which threatened the scenic drive Toyota planned for us in the hills just south of Nashville. By the next day, the storm had gone and the Crown lit up under the sun like the crown jewel it is, sitting atop Toyota’s lineup in the U.S.

A Brief History of the Crown

The release of the 2023 Crown is a big deal for Toyota. When the new Crown goes on sale early next year, it’ll be a return to the U.S. some 51 years in the making. Toyota even flew in chief Crown engineer Akihiro Sarada from Japan just to answer our questions. As you can imagine, those questions were mostly along the lines of “Why Crown?” “Why now?” and “What about the Lexus ES?” Indeed, in 2022, Lexus is the elephant in the room.

Lexus wasn’t around when the Toyota Crown left the U.S. in 1972. The luxury brand was founded in 1989, with the LS 400 specifically designed to one-up the Crown in opulence. For the next three decades, Toyota was happy to let Lexus enjoy the spotlight in America, while high-end Toyota models like the Century and Crown endured abroad.

Of course, savvy U.S. buyers could choose the Toyota Avalon if they wanted a well-equipped sedan, but didn’t want to pay for a Lexus badge. The Avalon is being discontinued after 2022, and that’s where this new Crown comes in. Sort of.

The Crown doesn’t look anything like the outgoing Avalon, nor any current Lexus, for that matter. It does its own thing. Toyota says the Crown isn’t meant to appeal to buyers stuck between the Avalon and Lexus ES; it’s aimed at those who want luxury, style and more performance than either of those models can offer. Toyota nailed the performance, and did a decent job with the styling. But the luxury? No, not really.

Heavy Weighs the Crown, But it’s Fast

The Crown feels fast for a car its size, and that performance comes from its new hybrid drivetrain. First, let’s talk size. The Crown is a big crossover pretending to be a full-size sedan. Or is it the other way around? It’s hard to tell, but it weighs between 4,250 and 4,306 pounds depending on trim. There will be three trims available, starting with the base-model XLE, then Limited and, finally, Platinum.

The Crown is just over 196 inches long. It has a wheelbase of 112.2 inches — one inch longer than the Camry’s, and less than an inch shorter than the Avalon’s. The Crown is about as long as the Avalon overall, appreciably longer than the Camry. All this makes sense, as the Crown shares its TNGA-K platform with the Avalon, Camry and Highlander. Where the Crown differs from both the Avalon and Camry is ride height: Crown drivers will sit almost four inches higher than in the Camry, and that much is obvious as soon as you climb aboard.

Getting in and out of the Crown is effortless. You don’t drop in the way you settle into a sedan, nor do you hop up like when climbing into an SUV. That’s especially good for older drivers, who just so happen to be the main target market for this new Toyota. The automaker plans on selling 200,000 Crowns per year, many of them to empty-nesters.

But the ride height is great for more than ingress and egress: it also makes for great visibility. It’s easy to survey the road and the car’s place in its lane. It’s not like driving an SUV, but it’s easier to scan your surroundings than, say, if you were sitting in a standard sedan. From behind the wheel, the Crown appears to float gently over the road rather than hungrily feeding pavement into its mouth like a sport sedan.

When configured a certain way, however, the Crown has sport-sedan speed. The Crown Platinum will be the first Toyota to feature the Hybrid MAX system, which combines a 2.4-liter turbocharged inline-four and two electric motors for a total output of 340 horsepower and 400 lb-ft of torque. Thus equipped, the Crown Platinum will sprint from zero to 60 in 5.7 seconds, with the torque coming on as low as 2,000 rpm.

With an electric motor driving each axle, the hybrid Crown is all-wheel drive. The gasoline engine drives the front wheels through a six-speed automatic transmission; the rear wheels are driven purely by their electric motor. The system adjusts torque distribution on the fly, varying between 70:30 and 20:80 front-rear.

During spirited driving when power is biased to the rear wheels, the Crown feels like a proper sports sedan. And not just because the torque shoves you into the seat; the Crown Platinum also has adaptive suspension with MacPherson struts up front and a multilink rear. The Platinum suspension constantly adjusts to eliminate body roll in corners and pitch and roll when speeding up or slowing down.

The XLE and Limited trims tone down the performance with a milder drivetrain, which makes for an unpleasant reminder of the Crown’s size. Lower trims will come with the latest Toyota Hybrid System, combining a 2.5-liter four-cylinder and two electric motors, totaling 236 hp and an as-yet-unspecified amount of torque. Whatever the official figure is, from the driver’s seat it’s noticeably less than that of the Hybrid MAX system.

The lower Crown trims use a CVT transmission programmed for fuel efficiency; they use non-adaptive suspension without active roll control. So, even in Sport mode, the Crown drives as big as it looks; it’s just not as fun to drive a base-spec Crown as it is to drive one with the Hybrid MAX drivetrain.

At least the lower Crown trims get better fuel mileage: up to 42 mpg in the city and 41 on the highway. Compare that to the Crown Platinum, which gets 29 mpg city and 32 mpg highway, and it’s easy to see what sets the different models apart. The XLE and Limited trims make for a fuel-friendly hybrid crossover, while the Platinum is a relatively efficient, legitimately fast car.

As if the performance gap between trims wasn’t enough, the Crown Platinum gets two additional driving modes, for a total of five. One is a custom mode, while the other is Sport Plus mode, which sharpens the throttle and steering response and makes it handle even better.

It feels that much more taut and precise. Between the power and the handling, the Crown Platinum with Hybrid MAX is a much more engaging car than the base-model Crown. I’ll put it this way: the Crown Platinum is a perfect car for a weekend at the beach. Friday after work, you load up the Crown and take off like a rocket, using the low-end torque to blast up the onramp. Or better yet, take the back roads and weave your way out of town.

When Sunday comes around and you’re sunburnt and spent, take a quiet drive home. The Crown XLE and Limited can do the quiet part well, but the Platinum will do both. If I were to buy a Crown, it’d have to be a Platinum, and I’d end up driving it in Sport Plus most of the time, even if it would crush my fuel economy. That’s the gist of the Crown’s bizarre duality: It’s either a regular Toyota with irregular design, or a fast one that draws attention with both its performance and its looks.

Looks Fit For a King or Queen

Ah, yes. The looks. You know what I think of the Crown’s design, more or less. I’ll note, this vehicle almost ended up looking completely different from the sedan-crossover hybrid you see here. This latest Crown, the 16th generation of the model, was designed from scratch but has a completely new look that was changed at the eleventh hour after a designer suggested a switch to two-tone paint.

Chief Engineer Akihiro Sarada said the styling was done by a pair of Toyota designers, one of whom is an older industry veteran, while the other designer is in their 20s.

Sarada and his interpreter explained how the younger designer encouraged the veteran to give the Crown a new sheen with the flashy two-tone finish. The team liked it so much, the original design was modified to accommodate the new color scheme. Sarada didn’t specifically explain how much was changed after the two-tone scheme was decided, but the Crown’s lines were redrawn to better accommodate the color split.

You could say the Crown is ideally supposed to come in a two-tone finish, an option unique to the Platinum trim. That’s sly, I suppose, since the Crown was quite literally re-conceptualized to work with the Platinum color scheme. Me? I’d go for a visually lighter single tone, but I’m a simpleton. I would want my Crown to be all black.

To be fair, you kind of get used to the design. After you’ve been around the car for some time, and after you’ve driven it in ways that’d make you stand out in a sports car, the weird design starts to look normal. You won’t mistake it for the stately and streamlined sedans that once wore this badge, but the tall, aggressive stance starts to grow on you with time.

There are still design decisions I can’t get my head around, like that tiny window at the C-pillar. It looks weirdly pointy from the outside, and is almost useless from the inside.

Call it an accent window — a garnish of glass that the designers had to throw in, even if they settled for a shape that’s hardly cohesive with the rest of the car. And the 21-inch wheels (standard on Platinum) are too big. They’re the “largest ever on a Toyota sedan,” but I don’t know why. Who asked for this? Was it really empty nesters?

Luxury (Un)fit For a King or Queen

Other than those small questions of styling, the Crown’s looks are mostly fine, and that applies to the inside too. The problem is whether “mostly fine” is enough for a car that wears a Crown badge in Japan, and will inevitably be compared to a Lexus in the U.S. I guess calling the new Crown a luxury car is complicated.

As far as road manners go, it’s as good any late-model Lexus in terms of noise, vibration and handling (NVH). Toyota used acoustic glass throughout the cabin, and loaded up the Crown with sound-proofing. It’s a very quiet car — so quiet, you’ll only ever hear a hint of an exhaust note.

The interior appointments are neither too gaudy nor too ascetic. There’s a combination of soft-touch plastics and leather inside the car, and while Toyota used cheaper, harder materials in certain places, they’re quickly forgotten. For example, there’s a rough plastic texture on the airbag cover on the steering wheel, but I don’t look at or touch this other than to slam on the horn. If I’m honking to high hell, the last thing that’ll cross my mind is going to be Toyota cheaping out on material.

Then again, at the price Toyota will be charging for the Crown, soft-touch ought to permeate the cabin of the upscale Platinum, which comes with nice leather seats and a better sound system than base. The woven fabric seats standard on the Crown XLE and Limited are okay.

The Crown’s infotainment and electronics are good: There are four USB-C ports and a single USB-A port for holdouts. The upright wireless charging pad is excellent; I’m unsure if Toyota meant to do this, but it makes the phone less visible and that’s a good thing. I don’t really want to interact with my phone in my car.

That brings me to my next point: Apple CarPlay. I know CarPlay and its Google equivalent, Android Auto, are both great, but I have zero issues with the Toyota Audio Multimedia system. Granted, it has an awful name but the software is good.

The interface and design of the Toyota system is nicer than the one Apple uses for CarPlay. I see my iPhone all the time. I don’t want that same theme taking over my car. I prefer the UI of the Toyota system: it’s simple (bordering on bland) but it doesn’t draw any attention to itself. It’s like a light Linux distro that you’d put on an old laptop. It’s legible and uncluttered, and it just works.

I’ll even say I prefer it to CarPlay (GASP). I know, I know. That’s blasphemy, but Toyota’s Intelligent Assistant is no less useful than Apple’s Siri. They’re both much less capable than Toyota or Apple will admit. Siri never knows what the hell I’m saying, and will often mistake commands for something unrelated.

Likewise, the Toyota bot didn’t reply to any of my prompts. Toyota also claims the assistant is bilingual, but I tried talking to it in Spanish and it replied with a resounding silence that said no hablo Español. Your mileage may vary.

A Crown Conclusion

The 2023 Toyota Crown goes on sale early next year in the U.S., starting at $40,985 including destination charges. That’s for the base model; Crown Limited will start at $46,585 and Crown Platinum will start at $53,565. That’s Lexus ES money, or more, and while I’m sure the hybrid technology in the new Crown justifies the premium, I wonder whether buyers will trip over this vehicle wearing a Toyota badge, rather than Lexus.

The Crown’s price might be too much to stomach for those who are not fans of the nameplate — meaning, those who have no idea what a Toyota Crown is supposed to be. In the U.S., where we haven’t had a Toyota Crown in half a century, that’s nearly everybody.

Maybe that’s too long. The Toyota Crown is not the value proposition that the Avalon once was. It’s a Toyota that wants to break free of that comparison with performance.

I’d buy a Crown over a Lexus based on idealism alone, in support of a major automaker getting weird with it. But most people will be less impressed with a Crown than a Lexus. In the end, I guess if you really want a Crown, chances are you won’t care what those people think in the first place. Hail to the crown.

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