In an industry that honours planned obsolescence, the Toyota Setsuna — a concept car built largely of wood — stands out like a sequoia in a forest of dwarf firs.
Set to debut later this month during Italy's Milan Design Week trade show, the two-seat Setsuna is that rarest of cars — one that hews less toward ephemeral style trends and more toward an heirloom-quality aesthetic. It is a vehicle built to last not for five years, or even 50, but for generations. Even the car’s name, which means “a moment” or "an instant" in Japanese, alludes to its aspirations to be something more than just the flavor of the week. To drive home this Zen-like point, the dashboard (an actual board, of course) features a century meter that monitors not only minutes and hours, but the years of ownership — in essence, chronicling the collective moments enjoyed between car and owner.
Carmakers have long understood the allure of wood, from grand wood-bodied American classics like the 1947 Chrysler Town & Country to splendid modern applications of exotic veneers in modern Rolls-Royces and Bentleys. But the Setsuna unabashedly embraces the material with much more verve and fervor. This isn't just a layer of polished wood affixed to a mass-market car; it is a wooden car. Its use of the material has nothing to do with a desire to give an impression of clubby luxury; Setsuna's unvarnished beauty honours its source — and, like the trees from which it is made, this is a car created to endure.
The roadster’s superb craftsmanship is reflected in its stout Japanese birch frame. Precision-cut pieces were assembled using classic Japanese joinery techniques called okuri ari and kusabi, which connect pieces not with nails or screws, but with exquisite housed-dovetail and blind double-wedged mortise-and-tenon joints. The 86 exterior pieces were hand-fashioned from Japanese cedar, and the seats frames, wrapped in simple leather swaths, are crafted of polished castor aralia wood, a species typically used for traditional Japanese tableware. The result is something decidedly more nautical than automotive; the Setsuna's gentle curves and high belt line evoke the sensual style and sumptuous patina of a classic 1940s Chris-Craft motor yacht.
Why wood? Toyota points out that with proper care, it can last for generations, and that, like fine furniture, its appearance can improve with time, assuming a richer tone and depth — maybe even changing color or texture. Said Kenji Tsuji, the Toyota design engineer who oversaw development of the car: “We would like the viewer to imagine how the Setsuna will gradually develop a complex and unique character over the years.”
With a driving range of 16 miles and a top speed of just 28mph, the battery powered Setsuna is not built to win at Le Mans. Instead, it champions a different cause altogether: a car-owner relationship that’s focused more on an intimate journey than on crossing finish lines.
If you would like to comment on this or anything else you have seen on BBC Autos, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter. And while you're at it, join the BBC Autos community on Instagram.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Autos, Future, Earth, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.