Five Toyota and Lexus Hybrids Not Sold Here...That Should Be

Hybrids don't have to be boring to drive. Toyota's overseas models show us this in excess.

By Jacob Brown | Photos By Jacob Brown | September 19, 2013
Toyota recently held an event called the Hybrid World Tour in Detroit. The HWT gathered 20 of the 23 hybrid, electric, and hydrogen models it sells around the world to show where the electrically assisted driving technology is headed, and how the markets are moving in Europe, Asia, and North America. It also celebrated the cultural phenomenon the Prius has become in entertainment and popular culture--including "South Park." Also, it was close enough to a 15-year anniversary of the first Prius going on sale in Japan, so why not? We had the opportunity to drive almost all of them, many of which would make plenty of sense in the U.S. but aren't sold here for whatever reason. Here are our top five picks for what Toyota ought to bring to our shores from the event.

Lexus GS 450h F Sport

You probably thought this one was already sold in the U.S.: It isn't. You can pick up a Lexus GS 350 F Sport, but there's no such thing as a GS 450h F Sport here. Why the quickest Lexus GS, complete with a 338-horsepower hybrid powertrain, isn't sold here with the sports package, which includes an adjustable suspension, bigger brakes, more aggressive seats, LED headlights, and special touches throughout, comes down to price.
Compared to the GS 350, the GS 350 F Sport costs an additional $5,690, which would make it at least $66,000 before piling on any extras. As it is, a GS 450h can already top $75,000, so can you imagine seeing an $80,000 Lexus GS that isn't called GS F? Neither can us. Toyota officials say the GS 450h may come to the U.S. in a few years. In the meantime, it will remain exclusive to the European market where Lexus is finally starting to gain some traction with buyers.

Toyota Alphard and Estima Hybrid

With the Sienna sold in the U.S., Toyota really doesn't need another minivan. But there are some things the Sienna could definitely pick up from its Japanese cousins, where executives still prefer sliding doors. Shag carpeting in the color of red wine? First class-style leather reclining and extending seats for all but the rearmost and driver seats? All of those sound good. But you know what would be better? The powertrain from the Alphard and Estima. By using the previous-generation Camry Hybrid's 200-hp 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine and hybrid powertrain, these minivans can achieve nearly 40 mpg. The Alphard also has what Toyota calls E-Four all-wheel drive that uses kinetic energy recapture in the rear wheels for longer electric range.
So why isn't the technology sold in the U.S.? Toyota says customers keep asking for a Sienna Hybrid, but the official word is that the system might not be optimal with a van as big and heavy as its U.S. people-hauler. Also not helping is the fact that Toyota sold the Sienna with a four-cylinder engine early on in its product cycle, with results so poor that it had to drop the engine after the first model year. Reintroducing a four-banger, even under hybrid guise, might be a risky move.
2013 Toyota Crown Royal Hybrid 03

Toyota Crown Royal

So much want. This car, by far, was our favorite overseas vehicle we had the privilege to drive at the Toyota Hybrid World Tour. It should be noted, however, that your humble author is a huge fan of American land yachts like the now-defunct Lincoln Town Car. This car would fill the void left by the full-size Lincoln with aplomb.
Powered by a 3.5-liter V-6 and a hybrid system that makes a combined 340 horsepower, the rear-wheel-drive Crown Royal isn't like any luxury car sold in the U.S. It has "premium" cloth seats, two stacked infotainment screens not unlike what you might see in a rival Infiniti Q50/Nissan Skyline sedan, and makes an aural cocoon of sound upon startup as if it were the symphonic version of the Dolby noise you hear before a movie starts in a theater. While based on parts from both the Lexus IS and GS, the Toyota Crown Royal rides nothing like either. It's ridiculously quiet and smooth, with a Jell-O-like suspension that numbs the driving experience and soothes the other souls that have the privilege of riding in this fine automobile. Ordinarily, we'd knock a ride like this one, but how can we? Toyota turned up the luxury and the kitsch to a whole new level with this car, and we love it. Unfortunately, it'd make no sense in the U.S., but we'd still love to see Toyota make a car like this for limousine duty.

Toyota Auris

While we get the 2014 Toyota Corolla, completely redesigned and much larger, our European and Asian friends get the Auris, which is similar but not the same by any stretch. Called the Corolla five-door and wagon in some markets, the Auris rides on a 102-inch wheelbase, while the new Corolla has 106.3 inches between its front and rear wheels, mostly contributing to a massive back seat. Also different are the two cars' rear suspensions. Our Corolla gets a beam rear axle, while the Auris has an all-independent suspension.
This allows for better lateral stability and a stiffer suspension that still rides just as well as the Corolla, at least in the longer-length wagon variant we sampled. We found the Auris hatchback to be choppier over the road than we'd prefer, with less weight over its rear. The Auris Hybrid is a more sophisticated car, owing in part to its suspension and a 136-horsepower hybrid powertrain that we sampled that helps it achieve near-Prius fuel economy. Unfortunately, it's not coming to the U.S., at least in the form it's in. As a next-generation Toyota platform, expect parts of it to end up in U.S. Toyotas sooner or later. However, since we like big, cushy highway cruisers, expect our Corolla to stick to its course for the direction of Toyota's compact cars here.

1997 Toyota Prius

If you're a hybrid devotee, you'll note that the 1997 Toyota Prius was never sold in the U.S. We sampled a Japanese-market righthand-drive model borrowed from the Toyota Museum in California. Down on power versus our 1999 car--its gas engine made 58 horsepower versus the 70 we got here, and its electric motor produced 40 horsepower versus the 44 in the U.S.--and a little less robust than the U.S. version that benefitted from two years of refinement, we found it to be an interesting juxtaposition with the Prius sold today.
While not as seamless as today's Prius, the first-generation model is surprisingly polished, even when compared to today's hybrids. Its brakes have a slight feel of awkward uncertainty when the energy recapture kicks in, but it's nowhere close to being as unrefined as the system in the current Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid, for instance. The car has a very 1990s compact car feel from its heavier, less assisted steering to its narrow dimensions. And yet, it's better to drive than many newer hybrid cars with more sophisticated electric power steering racks. To get into this car is to get into the car that started it all. While it's a far different animal than today's hybrids, it's surprisingly uncluttered, simple, and in some ways more purpose-focused around delivering an overall good, fuel-efficient car than modern hybrids that make so many compromises for the sake of what the numbers will be on the EPA sticker.
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