2023 Toyota Crown First Drive Review: A Charming Hybrid Weirdo in Search of an Audience

“One day, a Crown.” That’s the slogan for the Toyota Crown in Japan, according to Akihiro Sarada, chief engineer of the new, 2023 Toyota Crown. The Crown has been ingrained into Japanese history as the car that Toyota customers aspired to own. Now, the nameplate returns to the United States market after a 50-year hiatus, and after driving it, I understand why it’s such an aspirational vehicle.

What’s new about the 2023 Toyota Crown? Everything, really. The Crown has gone through 15 generations in Japan and this new 16th generation is the first global model. So Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda himself wanted the new Crown to be the most radically different one yet. This is why it’s the first-ever front-wheel-drive-based Crown, the first-ever hybrid Crown, and the first to feature such unique body work.

Nico DeMattia

The latter is the first thing you notice. The new Crown looks like a four-door hatchback, similar to cars like the Audi A5 Sportback, Volkswagen Arteon, and BMW 4 Series Gran Coupe. But it isn’t. This is admittedly a bit disappointing, as I was hoping for that added practicality. However, Toyota says the Crown has always been a sedan, so that’s what it must be here. For those lamenting the SUV and crossover onslaught, rejoice, because the 2023 Crown gives the humble sedan a hell of a fighting chance.

2023 Toyota Crown Review Specs

  • Base price (Hybrid Max Platinum as tested): $39,950 ($52,350)
  • Powertrain
    • Hybrid: 2.5-liter four-cylinder hybrid | CVT | electronic on-demand all-wheel drive
    • Hybrid Max: 2.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder hybrid | 6-speed automatic | full-time electronic all-wheel drive
  • Performance
    • Hybrid: 184 hp @ 6,000 rpm | 163 lb-ft @ 3,600 to 5200 rpm
    • Hybrid Max: 340 hp @ 6,000 rpm | 332 lb-ft @ 2,000 to 3,000 rpm
  • Curb weight: 4,250 to 4,306 pounds
  • Seating capacity: 5
  • Cargo volume: 15.2 cubic feet
  • Ground clearance: 5.8 inches
  • Est. fuel economy 
    • Hybrid: 42 mpg city | 41 highway | 41 combined
    • Hybrid Max: 29 mpg city | 32 highway | 30 combined 
  • Quick take: The Toyota Crown is a true flagship sedan for Toyota and might even make Lexus ES customers think twice about switching over.
  • Score: 7/10

Despite not having a rear hatch, just a traditional trunk, the Toyota Crown’s interesting design isn’t purely for aesthetic purposes, there’s some function to its form. It sits up higher than a normal sedan, with 5.8 inches of ground clearance, and is positioned somewhere between a typical sedan and a crossover. You notice it right away and you’d be forgiven for being thrown off by it. However, the Crown was made that way for a reason.

According to chief engineer Sarada, the main reason for raising the Crown’s ride height was to simplify ingress and egress—getting in and out of the car. He and Toyota recognized that the Crown’s target audience in Japan is a bit older and therefore wanted to make it so they neither have to drop down into it like in a typical sedan nor climb up into it like in a crossover. So they settled on an unusual but surprisingly comfortable ride height. 

I’m only 33 years old, so I don’t need any Goldilocks ride height to comfortably get in and out of anything just yet. But even I found sliding into the Crown incredibly easy and can understand why some customers might appreciate it.

It also makes the Crown’s design unique and interesting. I won’t go as far as to say it’s a pretty car but it’s certainly one that turns heads, even if only out of curiosity. There really isn’t anything else that looks like it on the road. Seeing it in public, among other cars, really emphasizes just how odd its proportions are. There are some good design elements here, such as the sharp-looking headlights, the slick taillight bar, and its overall silhouette (I dig its frumpy shape). It isn’t perfect—the C-pillar is very Nissan Maxima and its large, lower front grille reminds me of a catfish—but I appreciate that Toyota boldly created something different and thought-provoking.

Slide laterally into its cabin, and you’ll find an interior that’s nicer than any other Toyota but doesn’t dare step on Lexus’ toes. The seats are lovely; nice and comfy, with thick bolsters and cushy bottoms; the dash design is simple but handsome, and its main attractions are its 12.3-inch touchscreen infotainment screen and its 12.3-inch digital gauge screen. Both are high quality, feature crisp resolutions, and have colorful graphics. The digital gauge cluster features different displays for different modes but it can also be a bit overwhelming with its information. I also wish there was a bit more interesting trim work. There really isn’t much trim inside the Crown and it can feel a bit drab as a result.

Built on Toyota’s GA-K platform, there are two flavors of Toyota Crown and both are hybrids; there’s the standard Crown Hybrid and the more powerful Crown Hybrid Max. I tested the latter, which only comes in the top-tier Platinum trim because it’s the only trim that comes with the new powertrain. Standard Crown Hybrid XLE and Limited models get a familiar 2.5-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder hybrid setup, similar to the Camry Hybrid. The Crown Max, however, uses a new 2.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder hybrid, with the same new four-pot from the new 2023 Toyota Highlander

The system works similarly to cars like the Mini Countryman hybrid, in which the piston engine up front powers the front wheels through a six-speed automatic transmission (CVT for non-Max models), with a small electric motor to help out. An additional electric motor at the back axle powers the rear wheels by itself. There’s no physical connection between the axles and the calibration of its all-wheel-drive system is entirely software-based. 

For the Crown Max, total system power is 340 horsepower and 332 pound-feet of torque, which helps it get from zero to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds. There’s no official EPA fuel efficiency rating for the Crown just yet but Toyota’s estimates are 29 mpg city, 32 mpg highway, and 30 mpg combined. The regular Hybrid Crown improves those numbers significantly with 42 mpg in the city, 41 mpg highway, and 41 mpg combined

Strangely, the Crown still uses a nickel metal hydride battery pack rather than a far more modern lithium-ion battery. The Crown is supposed to be the cutting edge of Toyota’s technology—the car that presents a new, radical way of thinking—and yet it uses old battery tech. When asked why it stuck with nickel metal hydride, a company spokesperson said it was the best option for the powertrain and didn’t elaborate further. However, I suspect it was just cheaper to use what Toyota’s always used in cars like the Prius than to develop a new battery.

Unfortunately, that means the new Crown lacks the battery capacity to be driven under electric power alone. So, it isn’t a plug-in hybrid but a traditional hybrid, similar to the Prius. 

Thankfully, none of that matters on the road. The Hybrid Max powertrain is smooth and feels well-calibrated. The rear electric motor fills in the missing torque gaps from the turbocharged engine, removing any lag or hesitance from the acceleration. Other hybrids have been doing the same thing for years, but Toyota engineers did a good job making the Crown’s powertrain feel seamless.

Off the line, the Crown is punchy, using the low-end torque of the rear-mounted motor while waiting for the little turbo-four to come on boost. Once both power plants are in full swing, the Crown feels quick. It isn’t as fast as similarly priced cars from more premium brands, like the Genesis G80. It doesn’t sound particularly good, either: a bit gruff when you really push it. But it isn’t as bad as the new Highlander with the same engine. 

On the gorgeously twisty backroads of Nashville, Tennessee’s outskirts, I was able to push the Crown hard and it actually proved to be surprisingly fun. It’s a heavy car, sitting at almost two and a half tons, but its steering was accurate enough to make snaking through the winding country roads rewarding and its suspension was capable enough to handle corners at speed. And thanks to the rear electric motor pushing the back end around, understeer isn’t much of an issue, even if it is a front-biased drivetrain. 

The Crown’s suspension system is Sarada’s real achievement. He told me its ride quality was his biggest challenge. It comes standard on 19-inch wheels, but Hybrid Max models ride on 21s. To make a car as heavy as the Crown ride well on such big wheels—and still have some handling chops—was difficult, to say the least. 

Nico DeMattia

I’m happy to report that Sarada and his team nailed it, as the Crown rides with the confidence and stability of a more expensive car. It’s comfortable and quiet most of the time, yet it never feels overly soft and suffers from minimal body roll. It can admittedly be a bit firm over sharp bumps (you can’t escape those big wheels and 45-profile tires forever), but, all things considered, it’s an impressive ride that customers will be happy with. I certainly was.

Who is the Toyota Crown for? In Japan, the Crown makes sense for many buyers because it’s always been there. It doesn’t need further explanation. But in the U.S. market, that’s the toughest question because customers are pretty unfamiliar with the nameplate. And being a hybrid-only sedan, it might struggle to find its niche. I also worry about how it will compete with a brand like Genesis, whose G80 offers a more luxurious experience, a more prestigious name, and even better performance for similar money. 

I’d say it’s a car designed for faithful Toyota customers who want to upgrade from a Camry into something that’s more interesting, stylish, and fun than a Lexus. And while I’m not sure that’s a big enough market for sustained success, I’m glad that it’s here. With a starting price of around $40,000, the Crown proves that unorthodox looks, a great ride, and a nice hybrid system don’t have to be relegated to far more expensive cars. The trick is getting enough buyers to realize that. (Or, it becomes a very popular fleet and taxi vehicle.) Otherwise, the Crown might become one of those one-model wonders we reminisce about but won’t see new again on our shores until another half a century has gone by. And that’d be a shame.

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