Will the 2023 Toyota Crown be the ICE 'lift-up sedan' that succeeds?

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Toyota calls our 2023 Crown a "lift-up sedan." The coinage reminds us that the bard’s line, "A rose by any other name," works in the other direction, too. That is, the duck-billed platypus and red-lipped batfish would look just as awkward if they were named Archangel and Jennifer. The question is, will this lift-up sedan look sweeter or less awkward to the American market than similar vehicles that have preceded it? Can the 2023 Toyota Crown triumph where, so far, in the internal-combustion segment, buyers haven’t taken to body styles that splice the sedan and crossover segments?

Admittedly, the sample size is small. The Honda Accord Crosstour gets called up as the go-to comparator. Toyota distances the two by noting the Honda was designed to be a practical crossover with a hatchback, the Crown is a premium sedan with a trunk. There was BMW’s Grand Turismo range – definitely sedan(ish), definitely premium, definitely short-lived. We could shoehorn the Acura ZDX here, having approached this segment black hole from the other side as a lowered crossover coupe instead of an elevated sedan. It, too, got sucked into the singularity. Challengers: 0. Quick oblivion: 3.

In the past 27 years, Toyota’s taken three big shots at blending established vehicle segments. The first was the 1994 Recreational Active Vehicle with 4 Wheel Drive, more commonly known as the RAV4. On sale here since the 1996 model year, relentless market ardor made it the fourth-best-selling vehicle in the U.S. in 2021. The marketing brief couldn’t have been simpler: An SUV that drives like a car. Even more important: There was no mistaking what it was; it looked like an SUV.

Thirteen years later, the second shot was the 2009 Toyota Venza, which split the difference between the RAV4 minivan and a Camry wagon. Toyota touted it as mixing the "styling and comfort of a passenger car with the flexibility of a sport utility vehicle." In-house marketers tagged it with, "You’re more than one thing. So is Venza." But reviewers couldn’t come to a consensus on what that one thing was – a tough fate in a classification-obsessed world. I liked everything about the Venza. But its fulsome utility couldn’t break through the anonymous styling, marketing fugue, and the fact that it cost about the same as the clearly-an-SUV Toyota Highlander. In 10 years on sale in the U.S., the Venza sold about as many units as the RAV4 did in 2014.

Fourteen years later, the Crown marks Toyota’s third shot down the gap. Don Johnson, product manager at Toyota Product Education, told us we’re getting this body style out of the four new Crown variants because "Toyota will not abandon the sedan market," clarifying that Toyota does consider this a sedan. Well, Toyota USA does; Toyota Japan’s English language press materials refer to this body as a crossover. The cynical take would be that if an automaker is going to cling to the sedan segment in the U.S., that automaker will need something like a crossover to do it.

The idea of a little lift, Johnson told us, was to “Give people leaving the sedan market a reason to stay, a chance to get what they want from a sedan and a crossover.” With the former, that means more dynamic handling. With the latter, that means higher sight lines and easier ingress and egress. And again that trunk, which buyers are expected to read as a noteworthy difference from previous, similar vehicles.

There’s subtext here as well, in that Toyota isn’t trying to keep Avalon buyers. Ash Hack, vehicle series manager in Toyota Vehicle Marketing and Communications, told us, "The Avalon’s median [buyer] age was 66. The Crown is shooting at [the age bracket] 35-59 with a $125,000 median income." That’s the tip of the Boomer tail, all of a more affluent Gen X, and a chunk of Gen Y who will appreciate the Crown’s "bold and striking innovation for the model and class," as Toyota PR told us.

Volvo and Subaru have made hay with ICE-powered lifted wagons. So far, though, U.S. buyers have only excused electric sedan-CUV hybrids. Even then, we’re talking about vehicles that clearly look like crossovers smushed to sedan height. The Crown matches the ground clearance of the outgoing Avalon. The ground clearances of the Chevrolet Bolt EUV, Volkswagen ID.4, Kia EV6, and Polestar 2 are a mere 0.2 inch to 1.5 inches higher than the Avalon. But their roof heights are four to eight inches higher and they have hatchbacks, so they’re crossovers as far as buyers are concerned. Seems shoppers will ignore blurry details for a quick, familiar answer to, "What is it?"

So there’s no doubt the Crown's a bold move in the class – if it even has a class – and that it ups Toyota’s hybrid game. The company’s waiting until closer to media drives to give up details on tech like the rear axle motors, driving modes, stiffer springs, and the electronically controlled braking system. But we know the Crown represents the first time Toyota’s tuned a hybrid system for dynamic rewards and paired it with a traditional automatic transmission in a passenger car. Going further to fulfill the Crown’s tech legacy, engineers developed the multi-plate wet start clutch to replace the usual torque converter and provide better in-gear punch.

Since this is an opinion piece, I can say I’d give the Crown a better chance of making a market impact if it were prettier and/or electric. The car does look better in person, and the monotone color is the way to go for the less bold among us. The bi-tone paint job carves out the sedan’s details in less elegant ways than I’d prefer. And no matter the color, it’s hard to unsee the Nissan Maxima-esque lines in the rear three-quarter once detected.

The unexpected shape contains unexpected decisions throughout. The nickel-metal hydride battery sounds like a throwback. Toyota said that choice "was about the availability of components for mass production. But there have been efficiency gains with Ni-MH, so the type works for right now. Of course, the writing’s on the wall." That’s perhaps more subtext, Toyota deciding it didn’t want to worry about lithium-ion battery materials for even the Crown’s small pack. Whither our electric vehicle future. …

Other intrigues include the manual prop used to hold up the curt hood; the Avalon comes with two hydraulic struts. We were told, "Owners don’t really lift the hoods anymore." Hack described the Crown at speed as "Ultra quiet – the goal was to make it as quiet as possible inside." Standing outside, though, the Hybrid Max powertrain on the performance-oriented Platinum trim makes the same dreary buzz as a frugal Toyota hybrid minus the frugality.

Inside, the most upscale interior available is Softex synthetic leather trim with perforated leather inserts in the seats, standard on the Limited and the Platinum. Only the mid-grade Limited gets the choice of an interior color other than black, with Macadamia and Chestnut/Black on the menu. Considering Toyota has Lexus to protect, and our suspicion that the Crown’s MSRP won’t be far off the Lexus ES, the Crown’s cabin is … fine. We daresay we might end up thinking the Avalon Limited cabin – offering three shades of premium, genuine leather – is nicer.

Having recently become a judge for the World Car of the Year Awards, I look forward to getting the answers and comparing the Crown to both the Avalon it replaces and the competition. So far, without having driven it, I don’t see the Crown as the model to escape the hex on this mashup category, feeling less RAV4 and more Venza: The Sequel. But who knows; I might have said the same about the platypus and batfish if I were a biologist, and we see how that turned out.

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