By the early eighties, Japan’s growing affluence had opened the four-door hardtop floodgates. First up were four-door hardtop versions of the second-tier luxury cars. Nissan added a pillarless four-door hardtop version of the new C230 Laurel in early 1977 and continued that body style for the C31 series in November 1980, simultaneously dropping the two-door hardtop models.
Around the same time, Toyota introduced pillared four-door hardtop versions of the Mark II and its Toyota Chaser sibling. Mitsubishi got into the act three years later with a pillared four-door hardtop version of the Galant Sigma and Nissan added a four-door hardtop Skyline in 1985.
It was inevitable that the trend would continue to filter downward into the cheaper price classes, which, frankly, needed the help. Japan’s biggest and smallest cars, if not necessarily attractive to Western eyes, at least had some memorable eccentricities; by contrast, most middle-class Japanese sedans of the era had about as much aesthetic distinction as an empty cassette case. Hardtop body styles provided some welcome relief from the stylistic doldrums.
Nissan had actually taken the first step in this direction back in 1979 with the addition of a four-door hardtop to the popular new 910 Bluebird line, but while that body style continued into the U11 generation in late 1983, other automakers were slow to follow suit — even Toyota, which was perhaps preoccupied with the expensive conversion of its C- and D-segment sedans to front-wheel drive.
TOYOTA CARINA ED
Finally, in September 1985, Toyota redressed that shortcoming by introducing its first pillarless four-door hardtop, based not on the big Crown or Mark II/Chaser/Cresta, but on the middle-class Toyota Carina. The new Carina ED — for “Exciting and Dressy,” said the press kit — shared its platform with the recently introduced FWD Carina and Corona sedans and the new T160 Celica, launched at the same time. Despite that structural commonality, the Carina ED shared neither sheet metal nor dashboard with the anonymous-looking Carina or Corona sedans and stood more than 2 inches (55mm) lower. It was also at least 110 lb (50 kg) heavier, probably due at least in part to the structural reinforcement necessitated by the pillarless roof.
Toyota made much of the Carina ED’s coupe-like styling, and in be-spoilered G-Limited form, it looked quite sporty. (We assume it drove much like a contemporary Celica, since it shared the same chassis and most of the same engines.) However, it seems that the main appeal was not sportiness per se, but simply that the ED was considerably more stylish than the stolid four-door sedan for very little more money. The biggest sacrifice was headroom, which was 2.8 inches (70 mm) less than in the sedan.
Although the Corona and Carina shared the same platform, Toyota hedged its bets by introducing the four-door hardtop only in the Carina line; the related FWD Corona got a two-door notchback coupe instead. The trepidation was unwarranted because the Carina ED was a hit, comfortably exceeding Toyota’s sales projections, while the Corona coupe appears to have been a flop.
The Carina ED was followed by a host of other moderately priced four-door hardtops: a pillared hardtop edition of the Toyota Vista (a twin of the V20 Camry) in late 1986; Nissan’s U12 Bluebird in September 1987; a V-6 Camry hardtop, the Camry Prominent, in August 1988; and the Mazda Persona (a hardtop version of the GD Capella) and Eunos 300 that October.
The second-generation (T180) Carina ED arrived in September 1989, now accompanied by a Corona version, the Corona EXiV (pronounced “ecksiv,” according to Toyota, for “Extra Impressive”), replacing the short-lived two-door coupe. Honda, which had largely abstained since the demise of the Z hardtop in the seventies, also entered the fray in 1989 with four-door hardtop editions of the new DA Integra and the five-cylinder CB Accord Inspire and Vigor.
PILLARS OF THE INDUSTRY
As far as we’ve been able to determine, the T180 Carina ED and Corona EXiV were the last new pillarless four-door hardtops to be launched in Japan. While the popularity of the style had not diminished, achieving it while maintaining an acceptable level of structural rigidity — to say nothing of collision protection — had never been easy and was getting harder as safety regulations became more stringent. As a result, a growing number of these cars were now pillared hardtops.
When that type first appeared in the mid-seventies, automakers had applied the term “hardtop” to almost any four-door with a roof treatment different from the standard four-door sedan’s. By the late eighties, the pillared hardtop had become a clearly defined body style with several distinct characteristics:
- Frameless door glass
- Narrow B-pillars partially or fully concealed behind the side glass
- For four-door models, a low, coupe-like roofline, usually with “faster” sail panels and often (though definitely not always) with a four-light rather than six- or eight-light side profile.
All of the new hardtops introduced from 1990 on followed this format, including the Mazda Sentia (which replaced the Luce as Mazda’s flagship in May 1991), the Honda Ascot Innova (another spin-off of the CB Accord), the Toyota Corolla Ceres and Sprinter Marino (four-door hardtop versions of the E100 Corolla/Sprinter), the Nissan Presea (based on the compact Sunny), and the Galant-based Mitsubishi Emeraude. The Mazda Lantis coupe introduced in September 1993 (sold as the 323F in some export markets) had all the characteristics of the type, but Mazda didn’t describe it as a hardtop.
During the same period, the pillared hardtop gradually displaced the remaining pillarless models. Nissan’s big Cedric and Gloria hardtops went from pillarless to pillared with the arrival of the Y32 generation in June 1991. The U13 Bluebird hardtop (now called Bluebird ARX) did the same in September and the Laurel followed suit with the C34 in January 1993. Toyota switched to a pillared configuration for the T200 Carina ED and Corona EXiV that October. (Toyota’s bigger Mark II/Chaser and Crown had always been pillared.)