The Toyota Sera Is a Long-Forgotten Toyota Model You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

At the height of Japan’s automotive boom in the late 1980s, Toyota looked at the future of commuting in style. The era’s Kei cars were popular, but their oddball shapes seemed a bit conservative, as too their tiny 660-cc engines. To improve its small, quirky, fuel-efficient offerings, Toyota took its butterfly door-built AXV-II prototype into production and created the Sera.

What did Toyota design the Sera to be?

Using parts from Toyota’s Paseo, Tercel, and Starlet—a car the U.S. market didn’t see—the Sera was born in 1990. The ultra-sleek, unibody, glass-canopied, twin-cam, two-door model wasn’t branded as a sports car but a lifestyle car—an eccentric’s futuristic commuter. Toyota said in a press release that Sera is the future tense of the French word “etre” (to be). The company explained it was chosen to “signify a dream-like car that takes us to the future.” Still, there was so much more to the Sera than hyperbole.

Toyota U.K. Magazine explains that the Sera’s 10-speaker Super Live Sound System was “one of the most radical audio systems Toyota has ever engineered.” Rumor has it that one of Gordon Murray’s neighbors had one, which inspired the McLaren F1’s dihedral door geometry. Given its unique looks, panoramic-view cockpit, fantastic fuel economy, and $11,000—about $24,000 in 2022—price tag, the website Classic asks, why didn’t everyone buy one?

Unfortunately, it was never sold in North America. Although the 25-year import law means some are poking around in the states these days, you’ll likely never see one in person. It had all the hallmarks to become immensely popular, but the Sera was a low-volume car.

Is the Toyota Sera rare?

Between 1990 and 1996, just under 16,000 Seras were built over three models, or “phases.” Roughly 75% of Seras were Phase I, says HotCars. The aesthetically-tweaked Phase II and III modernized the Sera for the mid-90s, including door side-impact beams in the Sera Phase III. Although any Sera is rare, some are even more uncommon. Depending on the drivetrain, finding one could be like finding a single piece of hay in a stack of needles.

According to Regular Car Reviews, 93% of Seras had an A242 four-speed automatic transmission. Designed as a hyper-miler, the gearbox would grab the top gear as soon as possible for the best fuel economy. Mated to the four-speed was the Toyota Tercel 16-valve 1.5-liter 5E-FE four-cylinder that revved to 6,400 rpm. That means 108 hp and 97-lb-ft of torque, which is excellent in a car that weighs less than one ton.

However, roughly 1,000 Seras rolled off the production line in Sagamihara with the C155 five-speed manual transmission. Bolted to the gearbox was the 93-octane 5E-FHE four-cylinder, a spicier version of the same 1.5-liter. The higher compression variant meant 15 more hp, a 7,900 rpm redline, and a flatter, wider torque curve. 

Is the Sera fast?

A red burgundy Toyota Sera hatchback coupe model driving on a country road
Toyota Sera | Rust/ullstein bild via Getty Images

The sensibly sporty Toyota Sera is fast like an anxious rabbit, rather than the falcon chasing it. Given its smallness, it’s likely that piloting one will make you feel like you’re going faster than you are. With around 110 hp per ton and equal weight distribution, Seras are light and compact enough to feel zippy and responsive. Power-assisted rack and pinion steering was standard on all models, so backroad barnstorming is a breeze.

Facts and figures on the Sera’s acceleration are few and far between. In a straight line, the Sera can hit 121 mph. Nonetheless, the time it takes to hit 60 mph remains a mystery, feeding into its obscure lore.

Why didn’t the Toyota Sera come to the U.S.?

Related

Should Americans Be Offered Japan’s Micro Kei Cars?

In 1990, Car and Driver published an open letter to Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A, Executive Vice President Robert McCurry stating the following:

“We took the liberty, Mr. McCurry, of calling your product-planning department, and we spoke with a fellow there we know to be intelligent and professional. He patiently explained that bringing the Sera to the U.S. is not even an option anymore, because it was developed without regard for our government’s crash standards and doing the necessary structural engineering now would amount to starting over.”

The folks at Car and Driver concluded that they were “just not convinced” with the response. As for Toyota’s concerns, T-top Camaros were popular at the time, with similar architecture. The American market’s Corolla 1.6-liter four-cylinder would have done the job of making the engine more mainstream. Finally, there have been gullwing/butterfly-door cars in the past.

The Toyota Sera would fit into today’s culture without missing a beat. Regrettably, there aren’t enough left to advertise its funkiness, but could enthusiasts coax a comeback for the eco-friendly sporty coupe?