Forget what you’ve heard; the Toyota Century isn’t a “Japanese Rolls-Royce.” The Century is very much its own thing. It’s Japan’s interpretation on the ultimate luxury automobile and unlike any other car, luxury or otherwise, ever made.
It sits at the very top of Toyota’s lineup, above even the Lexus LS flagship. After driving the Alphard and Crown, I’ve finally leveled up to drive Toyota’s premium Japanese domestic lineup with the Century.
(Full Disclosure: Toyota of Japan loaned us a Century to drive for a few days with a full tank of gas.)
Amazingly, in its 52-year history, there have only been three generations of Century. The latest one made its public debut on its 50th anniversary at the 2017 Tokyo Motor Show.
It’s gone all modern and eco-friendly with a polar bear-hugging 5.0-liter V8 hybrid under the bonnet, replacing the second-generation’s much-discussed but rarely-heard V12.
The Century in unashamedly aimed towards Japanese buyers and Japanese buyers only. The Century isn’t fussed about like S-Classes, Flying Spurs, or even Ghosts. It doesn’t need to compete with them on a global scale because it’s not meant to.
The Century is a rare breed today: a car designed for one single market. It’s one of the best cars because of it.
Yet there’s nothing groundbreaking about the Century. It’s a sedan with four doors, a boot, an engine, and four wheels. But it’s the details and the history behind the Century that makes it the special automobile it is.
Honed over decades, the Century is made with unmistakable craftsmanship. Toyota limits production of the Century to just 50 a month, partly to keep exclusivity but also because that’s as many as even a corporate megalith can make.
The “phoenix” badge, inspired by the golden phoenix that adorns the Kinkaku-ji temple in Kyoto, sits on the intricate grille. It takes six weeks to finish, and each layer of the seven-layer paint taking four and a half hours to wet-sand. Only four workers are qualified to work on the Century’s paint, which is required to have a mirror finish. Centuries are painstakingly inspected thoroughly to make sure there aren’t any imperfections such as orange peel or panel gaps.
The third-generation looks unmistakably like the Centuries before it, with a modern touch, taken from the Japanese royal family’s Century Royal which was shown in 2006.
This latest generation carries on from there, with sharp and simple lines, never diverting from the status quo. Each crease and body line is stamped and smoothed out to the point of obsession at Toyota’s Higashi-Fuji plant. Each panel gap is identical on every car. There aren’t any irregularities in the Century’s bodywork. It has to be perfect because the people who buy these cars demand only the best.
My dad, whom I thank for passing on his love of Toyota sedans to me, once said “you can’t be in middle management and buy a Century. You have to CEO, chairman, or president of something.”
That’s exactly the type of people who buy a Century in Japan; royal family members, top government officials, masters of the universe. Basically, if your name isn’t on a building in downtown Tokyo you needn’t apply.
This latest-generation Century goes back to a V8 (as it had in its first generation). Some will be saddened by the loss of the V12 engine of the previous-generation, unique to the Century, but the new engine doesn’t lose anything in terms of smoothness or performance. The new powertrain isn’t actually that new - it comes from the previous generation Lexus LS600h.
That means under the heavily padded bonnet, and under all the plastic cladding, is a 5.0-liter V8 engine which produces 381 horsepower and 376 lb-ft of torque mated to an electric motor developing 224 HP and 221 lb-ft of torque. Due to some weird mathematic equation the combined figure is 431 HP and a many torques.
The Century is about the same size as other full-size luxury sedans at 210 inches long, 76 inches wide, and 59.3 inches tall. It’s no lightweight either at a hefty 5,525 pounds. But something as over-engineered and luxurious as this was never going to lightweight.
It drives just as you’d expect a car like this to drive. It’s very wafty. The Century isn’t about the driving experience, it’s not even about the front seat. The whole point is being driven while enjoying the massage seats in the back.
You notice it straight away as soon as you set off, the steering is phenomenally light. It’s lighter than both the Alphard and Crown, which weren’t exactly rough agricultural products.
I was surprised by how normal and docile it was. Sure, it’s a big car but it wasn’t obnoxiously large like a Rolls-Royce. You could still squeeze your way down neon-lit Tokyo alleyways after-hours with ease.
It’s all about ease and comfort. The Century has all the modern driving aids and creature comforts to make the chauffeur’s job that much more relaxing and safe. It’s got adaptive cruise control, rear-cross traffic alert, pre-collision safety, blind spot monitoring, adaptive high-beam system, and lane keep assist. It’s good to see Toyota are thinking about and looking after the drivers of these things too.
As for performance, 431 HP felt adequate to get the Century to get up and go when needed. Despite its weight and V8 the Century was still able return a decent 23.5 mpg, though the official claimed figure is closer to 32 mpg. What stood out was the smoothness of the driving experience. Yes it’s a hybrid and yes there’s a clever new type of CVT, but the combustion engine felt almost nonexistent. It was eerily quiet with little no vibrations. Even when you mash the throttle into the thick plush carpets there was no kick-down, just smooth linear acceleration like a bullet train.
It’s not going to break any land speed records anytime soon nor will it demolish any track times. In fact, just out of curiosity I gave the Century some poke out of a corner to see how it’d react and it really didn’t like it one bit. Instead it just cut power and understeered. But talking about understeer and 0-100 km/h times of the Century... there’s no point.
What it’s all about is giving the rear passengers, particularly the one in the rear-left seat, the most opulent, isolated, and comfortable ride possible. There were two stand out in the Century for me; the isolated silence and the seats. First, the quietness.
Short of a Rolls-Royce, I haven’t been in any other car that’s as quiet as the Century. It’s not just because it’s a hybrid and can drive in pure electric mode, Toyota has gone out of their way to make it as silent inside the moment you close the thick doors. The windows are double-glazed of course and there’s heavy insulation to absorb as much noise as possible.
What’s more, Toyota has developed its own noise-cancelling tech that it calls “active noise control.” It cancels out noises by emitting the opposite frequency. Whatever the process, the result is astounding in-cabin silence. Without any music playing through the 20-speaker sound system, the loudest thing inside is the A/C.
Then we get to the seats. As standard they’re trimmed in wool. Yes, wool because that’s what the buyers of these cars prefer. It’s quieter than leather. You have think about how Toyota has gone to great lengths to make the interior of the Century as quiet as possible only to have the silence disrupted by squeaky leather. Of course, if you so choose, leather can be optioned by why would you?
The wool seats were fantastically soft and plush. Whereas Rolls-Royce seats might feel like a sofa or nice wingback armchair, the Century’s seats felt like a familiar mattress. It just soaked you in. Forget the Brits, the Germans, and even the French. The Century’s seats are the most comfortable in the business right now.
It’s even better if you’re sat in the rear-left seat as that’s the only one equipped with massage functions. Admittedly the massages were a bit soft but at least they were there. The seats are also heated but oddly not cooled. It doesn’t matter because there’s so many air-conditioning vents in the back you’ll never be left wanting cold air.
The best thing about sitting in the rear-left seat is the ottoman. At the touch of a button the front passenger seats slides all the way forward, drops the headrest, and you can unlock the ottoman for the ultimate in rear-seat comfort. This mode really should be called “Boss Mode Seating” or maybe “Nap Mode.” After 30 minutes in this relaxed state you do start to doze off.
The details define the Century, like the curtains and seat covers, options by the way, with patterns matching that of the grille and speakers. The 11.6 inch screen for the rear passengers also works as a divider between the front and rear. The rear infotainment screen is also significantly sharper and crisper than the screen the ‘help’ at the front have to look at.
There’s also the way each button, dial, and switch feels to use. There must be a man who’s sole job is to test the damping, feel, and quality of these components because each one feels soft yet substation to use. You get a satisfying feeling every time you push on a button or turn a dial. But perhaps the best thing is the softness and effortlessness of how everything works. The power assisted things such as the rear sunshade, the seats, and windows all operate in a subtle fashion. The windows have the best party trick. If they’re wet and you wind them down, little rubber squeegee bits wipe all the water drops off as you raise the window up. It’s a little touch and a small thought but makes a huge difference.
The more time I spent in the Century, the more I realized why it’s viewed as the epitome of Japanese luxury automobiles. There’s no gimmicky features to make it feel like it has a long list of “luxury” equipment, there’s no state-of-the-art tech to play with. Instead, the luxury comes from the attention to detail the engineers and craftsmen put towards producing a perfect car. It comes from the isolation and silence inside the cabin, from the smooth ride and plush wool seats. It’s all carefully thought out and takes into consideration every need of the rear passengers with dignity, tradition, and attentiveness. It’s all very Japanese.
All the problems have to do with up front, which is irrelevant to the sort of people who buy these. Infotainment will get outdated quickly, the rear parking camera already is. There’s no front camera or 360-surround camera like Crown. No heads up display.
There’s good reason for this, though: a Century must never break down. That’s why Toyota only uses tried and tested technology. The V8 hybrid proved to be reliable for over a decade in its Lexus LS application. The infotainment, while starting to get dated and shared with other Toyota models, will never malfunction. It’ll stand the test of time and hopefully last as long as the car’s namesake.
The little niggles like some of the plastic stalks and buttons are irrelevant because the people who buy these cars don’t have the time to worry about such things. The Century is merely a way to get from their residence to the office, from meeting to meeting, and possibly to a nightclub at the end of a long night.
It’s hard to justify $180,000 for a Toyota to people outside Japan who don’t understand the cache that comes with the Century name. Stealth wealth. Ironic how the Century is meant to be understated, an expensive car that’s meant to go under the radar. But the reputation of these in Japan means people outside are curious who’s inside. That’s why it’s worth forking out ¥162,000 ($1,495) for the optional curtains.
If you know, you know. The Century is truly a car fit for royalty. It doesn’t need to explain itself, it is what it is. It might be a hard sell to overseas markets but that’s fine because since 1967 Toyota has only sold 100 Centuries outside its home market. That’s why the Century has remained so purely Japanese (read: old school) in its function and execution.
Much like Japanese culture, the Century is old school wrapped up in a modern (enough) looking It most certainly isn’t a Japanese Rolls-Royce, but it’s as close as you can get to Rolls-Royce level of comfort and opulence for the same money as a S-Class.