Before you dismiss this “contraption” as nothing more than a ridiculous kid’s car as other news outlets have done, allow me the honor of explaining why the Toyota Setsuna is such a special, tasteful, 400-euro-job-worthy machine. Yes, it’s electric, it’ll do just 16 miles per charge, and has a top speed of 28 mph.
“So…” you’re wondering, “Why is it so special?” Because it’s the most uniquely Japanese car ever constructed.
First, to understand the Setsuna, I’ll need to unpack a few things. Its size, speed, and range would likely allow it—if ever produced—to sell in Japan as a low-speed vehicle. Think that’s unlikely? Toyota has a great history of hand-building some extraordinary, damn-the-torpedoes vehicles solely for its home market, including retro-styled 1996 Classic (based on a Hilux truck!) and 2000 Origin sedan, wearing suicide doors.
Second, it’s the only car I can ever recall built with the ideals of wabi-sabi (侘寂) : put much too simply, it’s seeing beauty in imperfection. Jun’ichirō Tanizaki explains in his 1933 essay In Praise Of Shadows: “I suppose I shall sound terribly defensive if I say that Westerners attempt to expose every speck of grime and eradicate it, while we Orientals carefully preserve and even idealize it. Yet for better or worse we do love things that bear the marks of grime, soot, and weather, and we love the colors and the sheen that call to mind the past that made them.”
Its chief engineer is quoted in Toyota’s press release as saying, “…we envisaged a family pouring love into it over generations so the car gains an irreplaceable value… [a] bond between the car and family, like the growth rings of a tree”. The Setsuna acknowledges it will never be perfect, not even from new, and with a novel “100 year” gauge in its instrument cluster, it silently ticks forward from the date the roadster is built. Nobody (yet) has owned a vehicle for 100 years, and it’s a very deliberate signal Toyota is thinking about what sustainable cars will look like in 2116.
How’s it built? A Japanese cedar frame holds its small batteries, powertrain, and suspension components. The rest is a mix of other woods and natural materials, each chosen specifically for the task at hand. The 86 hand-made exterior panels are locked in place without glue, nails, or screws, allowing for ease of repair, modification, and adaptation over years of use. The joinery techniques okuriari and kusabi rely on dovetail and mortise joints, which can be repaired if fastenings wear out. Wood changes form over time, too, and Toyota says the car will become more shapely as it ages—a neat party trick.
Kenji Tsuji is the brilliant chief engineer behind the project, which seems to have evolved from his other projects for the company in recent years—most based on this concept of a “kid’s car” that is inexpensive, easy to live with, operate, and repair. The 2012 Camatte Sora, Daichi, and Takumi; 2013 Camatte 57 and 57S; and the 2015 Camatte Hajime are all low-speed EVs with swappable bodywork. For what it’s worth, Toyota subsidiary Daihatsu already offers a production car with swappable body panels, .
“Although Setsuna is a functioning, driveable vehicle, it cannot be used on public roads,” Toyota says. That’s a shame: as Tanizaki opined in the ’30s, “…it is not impossible that we would one day have discovered our own substitute for the trolley, the radio, the airplane of today. They would have been no borrowed gadgets, they would have been the tools of our own culture, suited to us.”
The Setsuna’s big reveal is next week at the Milan Design Week in Italy.