Sometimes, a car is meh because no one cared enough to make it more interesting. Sometimes, it’s meh because of a brutal campaign of blandization by innumerable committees and focus groups. In this case, the meh-ness stems from an actual attempt to de-meh a car, but that attempt was so half-assed that it actually backfired and super-meh’d the car all to Heck (remember, Heck is the Meh form of Hell). That car is the 1991-1995 Toyota Paseo.
Here’s how the Paseo is described: a sports-styled compact car based on the Toyota Tercel. It’s that sports-styled part that’s important, because the Paseo is not a sports car, and was never intended to be. It was just supposed to be something sport-y, like a freshly laundered and ironed track suit that has never, and will never, see a track.
Want to hear interesting and telling detail about the Paseo that speaks volumes about it’s tone? The name, paseo, in Spanish means a sort of leisurely walk. That’s a good example of the sporting character we’re dealing with here.
Now, I don’t have a problem with the fundamental concept of taking workhorse mechanicals and slapping on a sports-car-like body to make something that looks fun and exciting, but with no ability to back it up. That can be fun.
Volkswagen did this most famously with the Karmann-Ghia: Beetle mechanicals with a really stunning little Italian-designed body. It was basically the same formula as the Paseo: economy car platform, sporty body. So why is the Karmann-Ghia such a timeless charmer and hardly anybody remembers the Paseo today?
I think there’s two key reasons. First, VW was always in on the ‘joke’ of the Ghia, and never took it too seriously. They always acknowledged the car was not a true sports car, and played with that idea to their own self-deprecating, charming advantage. Like in this ad here:
Toyota never quite had the balls to try anything that confident with the Paseo. All of the Paseo’s advertising tried to cheekily suggest that Toyota was calling it a ‘practical’ car, but it was really a raw, untamed beast.
Now, keep in mind that the Paseo made all of 100 horsepower, and offered no real handling or performance improvements over the basic Tercel. Hell, even in 1991 or so, 100 hp was pretty average, at best. A base Civic made about 100 hp, as did a basic Golf. But at least VW would sell you a GTI with 132 hp, and even Nissan would sell you an actually sporty version of their economy car, the Sentra SE-R that made 140 hp.
The Paseo was like the opposite of a Ghia, marketing-wise: the company wanted you to be in on the secret that it really was the performance car it sort of looked like it should be, when they called it just practical. It wasn’t. For the Ghia, the car actually was slow and practical enough, it just looked fast, but the company was the first to remind you, ha ha no, it’s slow as shit.
The other big difference in the Ghia and Paseo is by far the most important: if you’re going to slap on a ‘sporty’ body to an economy car, that body better look fantastic. You have to go all out; VW did so with the Ghia, and Nissan, for example, also did so with the Figaro, built on their basic Micra platform.
The Figaro looked dramatically different than the Micra, as the Ghia looked dramatically different than the Beetle. The Paseo looked different, sure, but also managed to be about as bland and uninspired as the Tercel, just in coupé form and with a slightly wedgier nose.
This is the really galling part about the Paseo. For something that could have been fun and unique and desirable, Toyota’s stylists really phoned it in. The word ‘sporty’ today has just about lost all meaning when it comes to cars, and I blame some of the murder of that concept right here at the unadorned, forgettable face of the Paseo.
Hell, it’s even more galling when you realize that Toyota knew how to rebody cars for maximum excitement, interest, and fun: look at the Toyota Sera!
The Sera was full of novel, exciting design details, like those amazing doors. Those made the car memorable and desirable, and this was a car based on the same Tercel-based mechanicals as the Paseo. But what a difference!
Why did the Paseo exist, when we could have had the Sera here in America? Everything about the Sera did the formula right—what was the point of the Paseo? It’s like if you had a bakery and made eclairs to put in your window, but only sold vegan flourless buckwheat cakes, flavored with aphid honey.
It’s maddening, right? Nobody, nobody gives a matched, collectible set of rat fecal lumps about the Toyota Paseo. It looks like the original design was painted in watercolors, and was accidentally taken into the shower, where all the interesting design and detail were washed away, leaving a water-smoothed, general angled-oblongish form, which was deemed good enough.
The Paseo wasn’t ugly, it wasn’t quick, it wasn’t particularly fun, it wasn’t unreliable, it wasn’t anything. It was a boring-ass car with the slightest sops made to the vague idea that sometimes, people are still young, and maybe, just maybe, they’re not totally dead inside just yet.
With that in mind, the slightest attempts were made to make it sporty-adjacent, and these half-measures just make the whole thing sad.
It’s sort of like how a bare room with three semi-inflated balloons and a shitty, too-small store-bought HAPPY BIRTHDAY banner is more depressing than just an empty room.
That’s the Paseo. A breakroom at an office party that someone spent 12 minutes decorating before getting bored and wandering off to vape in the parking lot.
We should have had the Sera. Instead, we got this forgettable soap lump. I’m glad nobody remembers you, Paseo.