1981 Toyota Cressida: The Most American Toyota Yet


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Dec 18, 2023

1981 Toyota Cressida: The Most American Toyota Yet

From the Archive: When better Buicks are built . . . From the August 1981 issue

From the Archive: When better Buicks are built . . .

From the August 1981 issue of Car and Driver.

A few years ago the Japanese automo­bile industry saw protectionist senti­ment growing in the United States and evidently reasoned that one way to slow their market penetration without hurt­ing profits would be to slide their whole product portfolio upscale—pump in more content all the way across the board and move out of the low-buck price-leader competition. Thus we've seen Toyota come to market with cars like the Celica Supra, the Corolla SR-5, the new Coronas, and the Starlet­—which surprised most people by coming in at a higher price than the base Corol­la Tercel and apparently ignoring its most obvious U.S. competitor, the Chevrolet Chevette. None of this has slowed Toyota's growth a bit, but it's the thought that counts.

The new Cressida is the latest and best step in this orderly progression into the upper-upper-middle price class. More than that, it demonstrates that the Japanese are now quite capable of building cars at any level of any market and scaring the bejeezus out of whatever established competitors might have been there ahead of them. Thus, with the arrival of the Toyota Cressida and Nissan's very similar Datsun 810 (Car and Driver, April 1981), firms like Volvo, Peu­geot, Audi, and Saab had better look to their defenses, because their markets are ripe for exactly the same kind of pillage that occurred down­stream among the econoboxes. It goes without saying that the danger is at least as great for the Buicks, Oldsmobiles, Pontiacs, and Mercurys, already buffet­ed by the mighty wind from the East.

The Cressida is a handsome car, in the sort of nondescript, Mercury Zephyr sense of the word. Straight lines, taste­ful ornamentation and trim, everything neatly coordinated, the Cressida looks like a quality piece, and it is. It also looks like the Datsun 810, so much so that one wonders which batch of Japa­nese designers was looking over whose shoulder. With better seats, more head­room, and the Cressida's engine and transmission, the 810 would be a dreamboat. On the other hand, if the Cressida had better seats, more head­room, and the 810's independent rear suspension and four-wheel disc brakes, it would be an absolute sensation. As it is, it begins to come pretty close to cars with much longer pedigrees and strong German accents.

Unfortunately, at $12,699, our Cres­sida was about $1800 dearer than the comparably equipped Maxima, and that must surely give pause to the prospec­tive buyer. The Toyota may have a larg­er engine, a better automatic transmis­sion, and marginally better acceleration, but $1800? And when Datsun's four­-wheel disc brakes and independent rear suspension are thrown into the equa­tion—with their attendant improve­ments in skidpad and braking perform­ance—one really must wonder what the Toyota bean-counters had in mind. The wonder increases when we consider that the Cressida comes with independent rear suspension in its home market. Senior Japan watchers on our staff opine that the uncomfortable difference in price is due to the fact that Toyota has always regarded the Cressida as their top-of-the-line luxo-cruiser, no matter how underwhelmed America may have been by that little conceit, while Datsun is playing catch-up with the 810 and its Maxima variant. This may be true, but the dollar difference, relative to the amount of real-world product content involved, is an awful lot to swallow.

Price and performance differences to the contrary notwithstanding, we were perversely inclined to prefer the Toyo­ta. Its interior lacked the Detroit-hyper decor that characterized the Datsun, for one thing, and its overall feel was tighter, sportier, for another. The Toyota's 2.8-liter fuel-injected six-cylinder (shared with the Supra) is torquier, and its four-speed automatic transmission (three plus overdrive) is really effective at converting that torque to entertain­ment. The car's isolation from both en­gine and road noise is very good, but that stirring six-cylinder drone can still be heard to good effect when the loud pedal is depressed all the way. Further­more, the Toyota feels solid, all-of-a­piece. Everything fits, everything is well finished, and the car is a rolling defini­tion of that see-touch-smell quality so elusive to Detroit's moguls.

The Cressida comes with a full com­plement of beads, bells, and whistles to captivate North America's gadget-con­scious natives. There is a wildly compli­cated radio/tape deck with buttons and levers enough to confuse an astronaut. Whether this device sounds as breathtaking as its plethora of controls would lead one to believe it should is a highly subjective judgment call, but the sound is better than average. Another feature that never fails to attract the curious is the Cressida's motor-drive passive-re­straint system: open either of the front doors and the upper end of the shoul­der belt slides forward and down the windshield pillar a little way, the lower end pivoting on its anchor between seal and driveline tunnel. You hop in, close the door, and the upper end of the belt whirs back into place just behind your ear and above the door. There is also a lap belt, but it's a little awkward, per­haps a tad too far forward to be com­pletely effective, and there was a strong tendency among our drivers and pas­sengers to simply rely on the gee-whiz shoulder belt—which, comfortable and convenient though it may be, wouldn't prevent the occupant from submarining in a frontal collision. If anything, the Toyota solution to the passive-restraint problem only points up once again that nothing works as well as a three-point lap-and-shoulder-belt combination. No passive-restraint system has yet met with the even halfhearted approval of the Car and Driver staff, but the Cressi­da's system gets a few points for innova­tive thinking.

The dash panel is a good one, with full instrumentation and good graphics. The speedometer and tachometer are round, side-by-side, non-digital, and easily read. An old solution, but one hard to beat. These are flanked by oil­-pressure and water-temperature gauges on the left, and fuel level, voltmeter, and digital clock on the right. A hori­zontal row of warning lights—"Blow your nose!" "Check your fly!" "Have you called your mother?"—marches across the bot­tom of the display panel, and some of these are actually helpful. The center of the dash contains the heater and air­-conditioner controls, as well as the AM/FM/cassette sound system. In the sys­tem's defense, we'd like to point out that everything is in one place; there's no equalizer panel or pre-amp hidden somewhere else in the cockpit.

The headlights are controlled with the turn-signal lever, and wiper-washer functions operate from a counterpart lever on the opposite side of the steer­ing column. For reasons we cannot comprehend, the cruise-control and overdrive switches are located on the instrument panel instead of somewhere near the steering-wheel rim, and this was a pain, virtually guaranteeing that those two controls would be ignored most of the time by most drivers. In the case of the overdrive, switch it on and forget it. Cruise control? Stick with your right foot. It may be old-fashioned, but it's right there at the end of your leg and you never have to wonder where it is, or grope around with your left hand to find it.

Once in the driver's seat, upper body restrained by Japanese ingenuity, you survey the creature comforts and ap­pointments. The quality signals are just as strong on the inside as they were on the outside. The seats are quite com­fortable, and offer a nice range of adjustments—fore-and-aft, backrest angle, lumbar support, and tilt—but the tilt mode is in some ways redundant, and is no substitute for a simple up-and-down adjustment. Drivers over six feet tall lacked headroom, and no combination of tilt and backrest angle could be ar­ranged to keep one's hair from clinging to the headliner through the miracle of static electricity. Eliminating the sun­roof would be helpful in this regard. Speaking of the sunroof, this always pleasant source of fresh air worked well enough and was free of buffeting, but its control was a complicated little man­ual-dexterity test—two fingers for the electrical buttons, then one hand to ram it home manually the last few sixteenths of an inch—an obscure Asian safety precaution almost as silly as many of ours. If the sunroof is an essential part of the Cressida's luxury appeal, why couldn't it be opened and closed with a manual system as functional and straightforward as that of the Saab?

Available either as a four-door sedan or a station wagon, the new Cressida is Toyota's most American car to date, a triumph of Japanese market research and technological cloning. It is a very good car. Its engine performs faultlessly and its automatic-overdrive transmis­sion is smooth and sure. We wish that its roadholding, handling, and braking performance were more European than American, but it's nonetheless a quality car throughout, and a very pleasant one to drive. It offers ample space for peo­ple and their luggage, delivers reasonable fuel economy, and is unoffensively good-looking. Unfortunately it costs a ton. The success of Japanese cars in the United States so far has been largely a matter of hitting it where Detroit ain't. It will be interesting to see if Japan can continue its dizzy upward market-share spiral with cars that go head-to-head with the competition, at very high prices.

While every three-letter organization from the UAW to the ITC was busy scolding the Japanese for swamping us with cheap cars, Datsun and Toyota both kept their heads down, preparing yet another sneak attack. This time the target is the expensive-car business. Now that the Cressida and the 810 have landed, I can't help thinking there must be a few mumbling, "Hey, why didn't we think of that?" in Detroit, because there is no direct made-in-America competition. The Cressida in not particularly space-efficient, there are bigger and heavier cars that match or beat it in fuel economy, and its styling is hardly what you would call soul-stirring. Even so, I'd spot it high on the appeal scale; it comes in a socially acceptable size, it has $10,000 worth of quality inside and out, and it drives well. Furthermore, there is something for just about everybody with this kind of money: technical intrigue under the hood, a satisfyingly solid body structure, and state-of-the-art reminders throughout. The automatic seatbelts are years ahead of their time. The stereo system could play Carnegie Hall. And under the gas pedal, the Cressida has its own secret reserve of Sixties-style acceleration. I'd love to shake one of those white-gloved hands that made it. —Don Sherman

This new Cressida is certainly improved, but it still leaves me lukewarm. The styling is finally in the current decade, and it's brimming with the multifarious features that people seem to demand in this class of car. But, while bestowing these riches on the Cressida, Toyota has ignored the needs of the discerning driver.

Seemingly small and subtle shortcomings become all too apparent when you drive the car. The steering has a dead zone on center that confuses the subliminal corrections essential for a non-fatiguing trip of any length. The speed-control and overdrive-switch locations were based on something other than convenient driver access. And the inside seatbelt anchor is too far forward of the hip to provide any useful longitudinal restraint.

These may appear to be trivial concerns, but they differentiate great cars from merely adequate ones. The Toyota's fundamentals are sound enough to justify a more than superficial look, however. If experience is a guide, Toyota will eventually correct these problems. It's just too bad that it takes so many tries. —Csaba Csere

The Toyota Cressida is a perfect example of why the Japanese carmakers are blowing the Big Three out of the water. There's not a car built in America that can match it for value.

These days, folks roll their eyes at the price of a fully loaded K-car. But the Cressida looks and feels worth every penny of its five-figure price tag. The fit of its body panels, its paint, its solidity, and the quality of materials used in the cabin are all up to Mercedes standards.

Given the sheer volume of the Cressida's thoughtful convenience features and standard equipment, it's a little embarrassing to realize that American manufacturers have only recently discovered the reclining seatback. And why is it that a Japanese automaker has already addressed the question of passive restraints so innovatively while our own carmakers are dragging their feet?

The Cressida reminds me yet again of the simple reason the Japanese are whipping us silly in the showrooms—and in a lot of other areas of trade: their products give you the most for your money. —Rich Ceppos


1981 Toyota CressidaVehicle Type: front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door sedan

PRICEBase/As Tested: $11,599/$12,699Options: AM/FM-stereo radio/cassette with graphic equalizer, $445; electric sunroof, $420; alloy wheels, $235.

ENGINESOHC inline-6, iron block and aluminum head, direct fuel injectionDisplacement: 168 in3, 2760 cm3Power: 116 hp @ 4800 rpmTorque: 145 lb-ft @ 3600 rpm

TRANSMISSION4-speed automatic

CHASSISSuspension, F/R: struts/rigid axleBrakes, F/R: 9.7-in vented disc/9.0-in drumTires: Yokohama GT Special 351,185/70SR-14

DIMENSIONS Wheelbase: 104.1 inLength: 184.8 inWidth: 66.5 inHeight: 54.3 inPassenger Volume, F/R: 50/36 ft3Trunk Volume: 12 ft3Curb Weight: 2930 lb

C/D TEST RESULTS30 mph: 3.3 sec60 mph: 10.2 sec1/4-Mile: 17.5 sec @ 77 mph90 mph: 29.0 secTop Gear, 30–50 mph: 4.8 secTop Gear, 50–70 mph: 7.2 secTop Speed: 106 mphBraking, 70–0 mph: 221 ftRoadholding, 200-ft Skidpad: 0.70 g

C/D FUEL ECONOMYObserved: 19 mpg

EPA FUEL ECONOMYCombined/City/Highway: 25/22/29 mpg


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