The weird & wonderful new Toyota Century epitomizes Japanese priorities

Some cars simply epitomize their makers, and the Toyota Century is just such a vehicle. The Japanese-only luxury sedan has become a mainstay of executive transportation since it debuted in 1967, a singularly unique play for very specific local tastes. Now, Toyota has given the Century its first complete redesign in more than two decades.

Many outside of Japan won't have even heard of the Century. The car was created to mark the 100th birthday of Toyota Group founder Sakichi Toyoda, a Japanese vision of what chauffeured luxury should look and feel like. Now, in its third generation, it has lost none of its unique charm.

Indeed, looking at the new Century you could be forgiven for mistaking it for a much older car. There's an unusual mixture of the familiar and the new, particularly if you look at the car with eyes more used to cars on sale in North America. A little Lincoln in places, and some Bentley too. Some of the crispness of Silver Spirit era Rolls-Royce, perhaps.

In reality it's none of those things: it's just what Toyota knows plays well in Japan. Outside, there's more to the surfacing than you might think from first glance: the C-pillar has been made more upright, for example, to emphasize the fact that the Century is a car to be driven in, not to drive. A cleverly polished pair of angled lines on the side work together to give the effect of a more prominent sculpt that runs the length of the car.

It's Toyota's obsession with traditional detailing writ large, and the polar opposite of the efficiencies of the automaker's regular production line. The Century's phoenix emblem, for example, is engraved by a single craftsman over a period of six weeks, and mounted on a crown-pattern grille. "Eternal Black," the new finish for the sedan, is a full seven layers deep. Toyota came up with a clear coating laced with black paint that gives the look of black lacquer from traditional furniture. Before that can be applied, the body of the car is wet sanded a full three times.

Inside, the smallest details have been stressed over. The wheelbase has grown just over 2.5 inches versus the outgoing Century, all dedicated to rear passenger room. The scuff plate and the floor has been dropped, meanwhile: only by about half an inch, but enough to make the floor mats lie completely flat across the rear footwell.

The ceiling has been raised in the back, for extra head-room, and there are two seats divided by a fixed center armrest. That has a 7-inch touchscreen which controls the audio system – 12 channels and 20 speakers – along with the HVAC, massage seating in the reclining left rear seat, and the curtains.

It's not all technology, though; there's the Japanese belief system woven through the Century, too. The roof lining has a slanting lattice motif, for example, using the manji symbol to represent "perpetual prosperity for the home and longevity."

Somewhat fitting for the automaker which is arguably most associated with hybridization, under the hood there's a gas-electric drivetrain. A 5.0-liter V8 is paired with a battery-electric system for a total of 425 horsepower. Toyota puts that to work for quiet, smooth cruising: there's air suspension and new tires, suspension arms, and other parts all focused on cutting vibrations and improving comfort. An active noise control system helps avoid the sound of the engine starting up from disturbing whoever is inside.

Then there's safety. That means pre-collision systems, lane departure alerts, adaptive cruise control, and automatic headlamps which use 24 LED lights on the side. Should that not prove enough, the Century can automatically summon air and ground ambulances, based on onboard sensors figuring out just how serious a crash might have been.

On the face of it, you could be forgiven for struggling to see why someone might go for a Century compared to, say, a Mercedes-Benz S Class or a BMW 7 Series. Indeed Toyota only expects to sell fifty of the cars each month, and will only be offering it in Japan. There, it'll be priced at the equivalent of around $178k. Strange, then, to foreign eyes, but in a country where national pride is so important, the new Century is likely to be a hit.