Mike Stevens | May 14, 2008

Earlier this week, Toyota launched the next generation of its flagship JDM luxo-van. Unlike the rest of the civilized world, in Japanland a minivan can actually serve as luxury vehicle. It makes sense; they offer plenty of headroom, space for cargo or factory installed amenities, and contortion-free entry/egress for panty-eschewing Hollywood starlets. It's no wonder that the Japanese often use vans as a second, street-legal flat. The Japanese do not take their vans lightly.


The top dogs of the minivan world have long been the Nissan Elgrand and the Toyota Alphard. Rotate your head in the general direction of any street in Tokyo and you're bound to see one dressed to the nines, with fender scraping chrome wheels and at least a dozen LCD screens casting their bluish glow on neighboring prefectures. As an indication of their purpose, a popular option is loading the back with barcalounger-type seating rather than a conventional minivan bench, all of which recline, even those in the third row.


So when Toyota launches a completely redesigned Alphard, it's big news. But what's even bigger news is that this time, it has a twin. Apparently, Toyota believes there's enough room in this rarefied segment to offer not one, but two ostentatious people movers. The Vellfire is completely identical in every way mechanically, powered by either a 2.4L inline four mated to a CVT or a seven-speed automatic, or a 3.5L V6 and six-speed automatic. These units drive the front wheels for now, but requisite AWD versions will arrive in August.


Problem is, when you have two identical cars that differ only in sheetmetal, how can you differentiate them so sales of one don't cannibalize the other? The answer: marketing. Toyota has positioned the Alphard as the one for customers looking for "elegance and refinement" while the Vellfire, a demonic-sounding name derived from combining "velvet" and "fire", targets those who want "power and innovation." In case you're wondering what that means, a clue may reside in the vans' respective commercials. For the Alphard, it's all airy, majestic scenes bathed in light while classical music plays; for the Vellfire, helicopters tail a caravan of them driven in military precision as they change formation to an industrial rock soundtrack. If that sounds like empty marketing-speak to you, that's because it is.

[Source, Images: Toyota]


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