Growing up in New Zealand and reaching “driving age” in the mid 2000s, I was blessed to live in a place and time where ex-JDM cars were abundant.
Import rules for bringing cars into NZ have tightened substantially in recent years (this is one of the reasons why our good friend and occasional contributor Tim from J Cars – a specialist JDM car importer – is now focusing on international business as opposed to just importing to NZ).
However, when I was coming up through the ranks and old enough to buy my first car – around 2008/9 – the country was literally awash with all sorts of interesting, affordable JDM cars.
Even the “hero” cars like the Mazda RX-7, Toyota Supra MK4, Nissan 300ZX and Mitsubishi GTO (3000GT for American readers) were vastly more affordable than they are now.
That being said, although car insurance has never been as expensive in New Zealand as it has been in the United Kingdom, a 17 year old trying to get insurance for a WRX STI is going to be hosed down financially, and this was the case when I was getting into cars as well.
That’s why aspiring JDM car enthusiasts such as yours truly often looked to the “second tier” of Japanese performance cars. You had to be a little bit creative in terms of what you were buying, basically, and look for cars that still offered great performance but in a more amenable package.
These were cars that you could basically get past your parents (who didn’t want to see you impaled on the nearest lamp post … as a parent myself I now understand that) and also past the insurance companies (who didn’t want to pay out to clean up the mess when you inevitably bin your Nissan Skyline that no high schooler should own).
Cars such as the Toyota Levin BZ-R/BZ-G, Mitsubishi Mirage Cyborg ZR and Mazda Sentia (if you like more a VIP drive) were the sorts of ‘2nd tier’ JDM performance/VIP cars that back in my day were very affordable, and because there wasn’t a turbocharger or supercharger in sight, you could get away with telling mum and dad you were buying a fairly normal car; critical if you were also counting on the bank of mum and dad to contribute to your first car purchase.
The good news is that these 2nd tier cars are still vastly more affordable now, albeit relatively rare. For example, you can get a good Toyota Levin BZ-R for less than $10,000 NZD private sale … more than double what you would have paid 15-odd years ago, but still vastly more affordable than something like a Subaru WRX STI or Nissan 300ZX.
Another example of this “genre” of JDM car is the Toyota Sprinter Marino, which was also sold as the Toyota Corolla Ceres. Unlike the Levin or Mirage, the Marino/Ceres is a four door car making it more practical (and even easier to get past your parents as an acceptable first car choice) while still having some interesting tricks up its sleeve.
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What Is The Toyota Sprinter Marino/Corolla Ceres?
The Toyota Sprinter Marino – also available as the Toyota Corolla Ceres – is a four door, hardtop version of the seventh generation Toyota Sprinter (itself a JDM variant of the E100/seventh generation Toyota Corolla – the Sprinter having always been a more sporty twist on the Corolla platform)
The Sprinter Marino/Corolla Ceres is a true JDM car, like the Toyota Curren I recently wrote about, having only ever been sold new in Japan … an example you see for sale outside of Japan will have been a used import. Just like the Curren, which is effectively a Celica in a different body, the Marino/Ceres is a Sprinter/Corolla sedan in a different body.
The Marino/Ceres was available from 1992 through to 1998, when it was discontinued following mediocre sales and the impact of the the Japanese asset price bubble collapse. According to this article, the total number of sales across the entire production run of the Marino and Ceres was around 220,000 units.
What’s interesting is that the Sprinter platform was refreshed in 1995 with the launch of the 8th generation Corolla, but the Marino/Ceres (based upon the Sprinter) continue until 1998.
Although built on the Corolla platform, the Sprinter Marino/Corolla Ceres was more upmarket, boasting a more stylish body shape, better factory options, and a superior sporting “image”.
What Makes The Sprinter Marino/Corolla Ceres Special?
I know what you’re probably thinking … why even bother writing about a relatively obscure JDM version of the Toyota Corolla from the mid 1990s?
However, there are a couple of reasons why I believe the Sprinter Marino/Corolla Ceres deserves remembering and preservation.
‘Hardtop’ Body Style
Although many people would refer to the Marino/Ceres as a ‘sedan’, technically the body style is a four door hardtop, and Toyota was committed to stressing this fact (and continues to do so, even in their archive page about this car). Compared to the regular Sprinter/Corolla sedan, the Marino/Ceres is a lot more “swooping” in its design and has a lower roofline.
In the past, the term “hardtop” was used to describe a car body style that had no B-pillars between the front and rear windows. This created a seamless, uninterrupted line when the windows were down, giving the car a sleek, open look. American manufacturers, for example, were once big fans of the pillarless sedan.
A hardtop sedan, therefore, is a type of sedan that features this design element. It has a roof that is supported by the body of the car, rather than a pillar between the front and rear windows. This gives the car a more streamlined appearance, with a continuous flow from front to back.
That being said, the Marino/Ceres is actually a “pillared” hardtop, with a very slimline pillar between the front and rear doors. A less charitable description would be that the Marino/Ceres is a fake hardtop – Japanese car manufacturers in the 1990s had a bit of a thing for trying to make pseudo-hardtop versions of normal sedan cars.
As the Japanese car industry grew in leaps and bounds in the 1970s, manufacturers started launching more genuine pillarless hardtop designs (with four door hardtops coming after earlier two door/coupe cars). One theory is that private buyers preferred purchasing hardtop vehicles as a way of signifying that they were of sufficient means to not have to purchase a “fleet spec” regular sedan.
By the end of the 1980s, it was increasingly challenging for manufacturers to build genuine pillarless sedans that would still comply with safety regulations, particularly with respect to side impacts. The inferior structural rigidity of the pillarless hardtop design also negatively impacted on handling (in the same way that cabriolet versions of normal cars almost always handle worse).
Japanese manufacturers therefore turned to “pillared” hardtops as a sort of compromise solution, offering what was perceived to be a more sophisticated body shape while trying to avoid the rigidity and safety issues of the former pillarless approach. The first generation Mazda Sentia is another example of a pillared hardtop.
Ate Up With Motor describes in this article the formula that Japanese manufacturers, such as Toyota, adopted:
- The car features door glass without a frame surrounding it (i.e. frameless glass)
- The B-pillars, which are located between the front and rear side windows, are narrow and may be partially or fully hidden behind the glass.
- In the case of four-door models, the car has a roofline that is similar to a coupe, with a low height and curved “sail panels” at the rear. The car often has four side windows instead of the traditional six or eight.
If you compare the side profile of the Marino/Ceres versus the Sprinter sedan of the same era, you can see the difference, with the regular Sprinter having a “boxier” roofline and a more noticeable pillar between the front and back doors.
Honestly, I have no issue referring to the Marino/Ceres as a sedan … it’s just a curvier-than-usual sedan. I like the shape, although I can appreciate it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.
As you’d expect with a car that is ultimately a Corolla at heart, the Marino/Ceres was available from new with some fairly pedestrian engines.
The base engine was a 1.5L DOHC 5A-FE (available with five speed manual or four speed auto) or you could step up to a 1.6L DOHC 4A-FE.
However, the model to have had back when the car was new – and the one that you still want today – is the “GT” package that was originally available with Toyota’s excellent 1.6L DOHC 20V ‘Silvertop’ 4A-GE engine producing ~160hp. The GT package cars could also be optioned with a limited slip differential to improve handling.
In 1997 the Silvertop 4A-GE was replaced by the improved Blacktop 4A-GE producing 165hp, and the five speed manual was replaced with a six speed manual.
You can see in the following clip the GT Sprinter Marino go head-to-head with a Honda Civic Ferio SiR and Mitsubishi Lancer MR, both similar vehicles (more potent versions of ‘normal’ commuter cars):
If you’ve never driven any of the 1990s 4A-GE Toyotas (such as the Levin) then you are missing out. You can enjoy excellent economy when driving sedately, but get up in the rev range and you’ll make serious progress. Some argue that the GT trim Marino/Ceres is effectively a four door Toyota Levin GT Apex.
As with all JDM cars of the era, there were many other options available in terms of trim, factory improvements and enhancements and so on. For example, you could have opted for the ‘Extra Package’ or ‘Sport Selection’ upgrades, and depending on exact model a sunroof was also available.
Is There A Difference Between The Two Models?
Only visually, with the Marino and Ceres being mechanically the same but having a slightly different appearance in some aspects, particularly the front grille and lights.
Both models are stylish in my opinion, and much better looking than the normal Corolla sedan of the same generation.
Others have commented that the Marino/Ceres looks like it could be an upmarket Lexus design (and opined the fact that Toyota never chose to sell a Lexus-badged version outside of Japan)
Why Was The Same Car Sold Under Two Different Names?
Long story short, this is a throwback to when Toyota had a stupidly complex system of different dealerships.
Rather than just having Toyota dealerships in Japan, for many years (well prior to the launch of the Sprinter Marino/Corolla Ceres) the company had operated a series of distinctly, differently-branded dealerships that would specialise in a certain category of vehicle and/or appeal to a certain demographic of buyer.
The Toyota Corolla Ceres was, funnily enough, only available through the ‘Corolla Store’ chain while the Sprinter Marino was available through the ‘Toyota Auto Store’ dealerships.
I’m going to write a more detailed article on this topic at some point, but for now I suggest you read this excellent piece on the Japanese Nostalgic Car website that does a great job at exploring the history of Toyota’s unique JDM dealership system.
Should You Buy One?
As mentioned in the intro to this article, the Toyota Sprinter Marino/Corolla Ceres was one of those cars that savvy younger car enthusiasts would look out for when I was growing up.
Its mature, stylish shape and practical four door nature belies the fact that in the right specification (with the 20v engine) this car – which you could totally sell to your parents as being ‘just a Toyota Corolla’ – has some serious up and go and is a riot to drive, as all Toyotas using this same engine are. The 4A-GE is a JDM legend, for good reason.
The combination of relatively light weight, sharp handling, and a powerful, free-revving NA engine all rolled into a “polite” and inoffensive package meant that for first time car buyers (in a market such as NZ, blessed with easy access to JDM imports) this was the ideal car for driving to school on a week day, and then tearing up country back roads with your mates in the weekend. Your high school girlfriend’s dad wouldn’t think you were some kind of repugnant hooligan when picking her up in a car like the Sprinter Marino on a Friday evening to go to a 2-for-1 movie screening and post-cinema McDonald’s sundae.
Maybe it’s just nostalgia, but I still love this type of car, and although I wouldn’t call the Sprinter Marino/Corolla Ceres a “dream car” in the way that a Toyota Supra MK4 or R34 GT-R might be, it’s the sort of vehicle that if I saw a nice, clean example going for a reasonable price (and in the right specification) I’d struggle to say no.
It’s rare, it’s attractive – in a distinctly ‘vintage JDM’ kind of way – and with the right specification a riot to drive. What’s not to love?
What do you think about the Toyota Corolla Ceres/Sprinter Marino? Would you consider owning one? If you have one – what has our experience been? Feel free to leave a comment below, it would be great to hear from you.