THE END OF THE ROAD
The four-door hardtop, pillared or otherwise, slowly faded out in the nineties. Some of the offerings hadn’t done well: the Mazda Persona/Eunos 300 was a commercial failure, as was the Mitsubishi Emeraude. The Corolla Ceres and Sprinter Marino, which would seem to have had great potential, apparently didn’t meet sales expectations, although both models lingered for three years after the rest of the E100 Corolla/Sprinter line had been replaced. By 2001, most Japanese four-door hardtops would be gone or replaced by conventional four-door sedans.
There were several reasons for the decline. One was a shift in tastes from sedans and coupes to SUVs. Another was the growing popularity in Japan of European luxury cars and the emergence of Japanese-made cars made to compete with the Europeans, most of which were conventional four-door sedans. (It’s noteworthy that high-end JDM cars of this period, like the Toyota Mark II and Nissan Laurel, were usually hardtops while export-oriented models like the Toyota Celsior/Lexus LS400 and Infiniti Q45 were not.) Beyond that, the four-door hardtop style may also have become a little old hat. The idiom was more than 20 years old, after all, and the demise of the pillarless models — combined with the growing ubiquity of the pillared style — made it less special than it once was.
It probably wouldn’t be impossible to create new pillarless four-door hardtops, as evidenced by the continued existence of compact MPVs with sliding doors on each side (e.g., the Ford B-Max). However, achieving that style while complying with current roof crush and side impact standards would no doubt be expensive, so any future pillarless four-doors are likely to be high-end luxury cars rather than mid-price models like the original Toyota Carina ED.
There’s no particular reason the pillared four-door hardtop couldn’t make a comeback either, but barring a major turnaround in the Japanese economy, it’s unlikely to happen in Japan any time soon. The Japanese industry is currently struggling to stay competitive in the face of limited development funds, unfavorable exchange rates, and a shaky domestic market that seems primarily interested in the tax savings offered by hybrids and kei cars. Since the pillared hardtop body style didn’t make much impression on the U.S. market (most of the four-door hardtops marketed in North America weren’t even identified as such), there’s little incentive for a revival in the near future.
For the time being, Japan’s four-door hardtops remain something of a curiosity. Four-doors of any stripe seldom seem to attract the same kind of fan loyalty two-doors do and the limited exports mean that many of these cars are quite obscure. Nonetheless, they are intriguing — particularly the pillarless models — as unusual variations on otherwise familiar themes.
The author would like to extend special thanks to Don Andreina and Scott McPherson for their assistance with this article (and the use of Scott’s photos) and Igor Smagin for the use of his photos of the Carina ED.
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