Launched in 1989 as a domestic-market only model, the smooth, glassy body sported dihedral doors that inspired the McLaren F1 layout, owing a lot to the Alfa Romeo 33 Stradale. Exotic looks clothe a mundane Starlet and Corolla derived drivetrain, with an eager 1.5 16v engine and choice of remarkably efficient automatic, or close ratio five-speed manual gearbox. Previewed as the AVX-II, the few changes made placed the Sera as a more advanced vehicle than the concept. For a boutique car the Sera accomplished impressive sales, with 15,941 produced between February 1990 and December 1995.
As the JDM personal import boom caught the imagination of UK buyers, by the mid 2000s there were at least 300 Seras in Britain. Some cars continue to be available through importers, though the best survivors are now cherished classics in Japan where values are rising. Now the majority of UK imports now have been on these shores for over a decade, they represent an affordable route to supercar styling with low running costs and plenty of scope for sympathetic tuning.
Driving a Sera is a unique experience, with a low seating position and incredibly airy cabin
ambience. Stop for fuel and you will be fending off questions for days, and should you meet another Sera owner it’s unlikely your cars will be identical - diverse options and accessories almost ensure no two Seras are alike. Now is the time to buy, before the UK’s winters and low prices have reduced the number and quality of survivors.
TORQUE 195lb ft@2500rpm
MAXIMUM SPEED 120mph
fuel consumption 20-24mpg
TRANSMISSION RWD, four-spd man
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Despite the common belief that JDM cars aren’t well rust-proofed, the Sera is a well made car from a firm with a good record for build quality. Even so, with the youngest examples approaching 20 years old rust issues from poor rectification on import are only one element. Problem areas are the bottom of the doors, where the rubber protection strip can be lost and stonechips overlooked, B-pillars and front wings. Sills may be poor near the rear arch and jacking points. Check for bollard damage at the rear, also.
Most Seras in the UK arrived as secondhand cars already 10 years old. From new, the Sera door should lift itself swiftly with only a couple of inches movement, with a distinct deceleration, then stop. Three components work to lift the door, and most owners focus on the visible gas strut, tending to get overgassed, reconditioned items to compensate for drop in the heavy doors. For correct operation, the internal door balancer and the pivot mechanism linking the top of the strut to it need to be free to move. Attempts to repair the struts should start by ensuring the pivot is free to move.
Engine & Drivetrain
The Sera came equipped with one engine option, the Toyota 5E-FHE. Closely related to the UK market Paseo’s 5E-FE, this 110bhp engine combined components from the E-family. Several Seras have been converted with 4E-FTE Starlet Turbo engines, a very appropriate route to giving the car performance to match the looks. Most cars are equipped with Toyota’s impressive automatic gearbox, which allows economical, relaxed motorway cruising; manual versions have a five-speed with pleasant, precise shift action but gearing that makes longer motorway trips tiring. As expected from Toyota there are few weaknesses, though one quirk is that automatic cars will not engage overdrive until the car reports it has warmed up - stuck thermostat or failed sensors major fault.
Trim and Equipment
Specification can vary wildly, with typically Japanese-market features like ‘scent synthesiser’ and in-car fax offered. Air conditioning is standard, so look to see if it has been converted for R134a. The most common option encountered is SLSS - Super Live Sound System, which in original form could rotate the rear speaker to bounce off the rear window or aim directly into the car, applying different processing. Most cars will have lost the original DSP-equipped head unit, many have lost the speaker tube, but they should have a centre speaker and pod mounted tweeters on the dashboard. It is possible to make a loom that supports rotation and subwoofer. Desirable extras include the CleanACE cabin filtration unit, centre cubby/armrest and dashboard organiser. Most of the 2+2 cabin’s trim is hardwearing and simple. A pair of lightweight roof blinds to cut down on solar gain were standard, and some cars are also tinted. The parcel shelf and luggage space divider suffer peeling vinyl, and the standard parcel shelf is not strong enough for aftermarket speakers.
Headlights go cloudy, and are expensive new or used Like most Japanese imports, cheap and nasty foglights are often used - a 7th Generation Celica one is a perfect fit in the bumper for a factory look.
Toyota’s Sera is a joy to live with. Compact dimensions with great visibility make it an excellent urban car, with soft suspension coping well with Britain’s neglected streets. The minimal space needed to open the doors is perfect for cramped parking, and proven Toyota running gear is smooth, economical and refined, particularly in automatic form. Yet the impact on passers by when you stop and open the door never gets old.