Toyota Celica

AutoTrader NZ
Published 3 September 2020

There are subtle, barely-suggested wedges that are little more than a rising waistline.

There are bolder, more radical wedges. And there’s Toyota’s Celica which takes the wedge theme – leavening it with curves – to a new height of daring.

It was striking when first introduced; in fact, too striking for some tastes.

Distinctive, yes; but too distinctive for some.

A few years on it still looks radical and fresh, a testament to the skills of the stylists whose chance-taking has been vindicated.

It looks for all the world like a mini-supercar with lines that show some Lamborghini influences, especially in the high rear waistline.

But, aesthetically, it’s very much its own car; nothing looks quite like a Toyota Celica.

We’ve been driving one for a few days, the first real chance we’ve had to spend any time at the wheel of what proved to be a very enjoyable GT.

Though its lines might suggest a mid-engined, rear-drive layout, the Celica’s inline four-cylinder Double Overhead Camshaft 1796cc motor is front-mounted and drives the front wheels.

It runs what Toyota calls – with some dubious twisting of English grammar – Variable Valve Timing & Lift-intelligent.

The Lift-intelligent technology doesn’t come into play until the motor is singing more than 6000 revs. The valves then get extra lift and more power and torque come on tap, in an effect not unlike a turbocharger. The result is a satisfying burst of extra urge and an enthralling high-rev scream from the engine.

The downside is that in all gears bar first and second, 6000rpm equates to significantly more than the 100km/h open road speed limit.

So if you’re going to exploit the power burst you’re going to have to do so when you’re pretty sure John Law isn’t lurking with a conventional radar set or a hand-held gotcha-gun.

You can get a taste of the surge and the howl in second gear, but the redline comes up very quickly and you need to snatch third.

It’s a high compression motor – 11.5:1 – and it needs 96-octane petrol.

Its output is healthy – especially for a 1.8-litre naturally-aspirated unit – but it’s a good thing the motor loves to rev.

Maximum power arrives at a race car-like 7600rpm; peak torque of 180Nm is developed at a similarly stratospheric 6800rpm.

So to get the best out of the Celica you have to rev that motor.

That’s especially true from a standstill when to break inertia you need to give the car more right foot than you might do in other vehicles.

We’d like a little more oomph lower down the rev range, but all-in-all the Celica’s performance is more than satisfactory.

Keeping the Celica on the boil is made easier by the smooth if not especially fast-shifting six-speed manual gearbox. The double H-pattern shift gate is precise and easy to use and we never found ourselves wrong-slotting the stubby lever.

Sixth gear – at a high ratio of 0.725:1 – isn’t really viable in the city where the Celica is happiest as a fourth-gear cruiser.

But it provides relaxed motorway cruising and at speed the Celica will accelerate reasonably briskly in sixth gear.

The gearbox is nice to use and dashing up through the gears – the engine singing merrily – is very satisfying. We haven’t sampled the four-speed automatic version but in this car, we’d always opt for the manual gearbox.

British magazine Autocar has recorded a time of 9.5 seconds for the sprint to 96km/h (60mph) and a top speed of 200km/h.

The sprint time isn’t particularly inspiring, but also doesn’t reflect what the driver experiences. The high-revving engine, low seating position and slick-shifting gearbox give the car a feeling of urgency that the acceleration figure doesn’t suggest.

The chassis is excellent and in many ways it’s difficult to detect that you’re driving a front-wheel drive car.

Turn-in to corners is crisp and instant without being too abrupt, and there’s good feedback through the perfectly-proportioned steering wheel. The steering is quick at 2.9 turns lock-to-lock and the car is nimble in tight places with a 10.4-metre turning circle.

Understeer is well-masked and the Celica is one of the most satisfyingly neutral-feeling front-drivers we’ve experienced.

It tracks accurately and handles bumpy corners without being thrown off line. It changes direction with aplomb and is a hoot to drive on roads that put high demands on a car’s agility.

At 100km/h, few roads, no matter how twisty, present challenges to the Celica’s superb chassis. In fact the brake pedal becomes superfluous. Most corners – save for genuinely tight second gear bends – require only a brush of the brake pedal to settle the car a little.

That said, the four-wheel disc (with ABS) provide strong stopping performance and nary a hint of fade.

Ride is firm but never harsh and the grip from the 205/50 R16 tyres was very good on dry and wet roads.

The driver’s enjoyment is increased by the driving environment. You sit low in well-designed seats that provide excellent lateral support. The steering wheel is at just the right angle and its diameter is perfect. The gear lever is in the exactly right position. The pedals are carefully-placed and allow heel-and-toeing.

In short here’s a driver’s car in which the driver has been considered at every point in its design.

Maybe the only shortfall is the rear three-quarter view – those high hips can get in the way.

The Celica is a four-seater and the rear cabin has good room.

I’m reaching the age, though, where two-door coupes can be a bit of a pain, especially diving around the front seats to retrieve items from the rear cabin.

But despite its low height (1315mm) and low seating position, I found the driver’s seat easy to get into and out of.

You get plenty of goodies. The Celica rides on 16-inch alloy wheels and is fitted with a nicely-integrated factory bodykit and rear spoiler.

There are power windows and exterior mirrors; remote-control central door-locking; auxiliary driving lights; leather-wrapping for steering wheel and gearknob; air-conditioning; cloth upholstery; single disc dash-mounted Compact Disc player; cruise control; engine immobiliser; luggage area blind; alloy pedals; and driver and front seat passenger front and side airbags.

In all, a comprehensive equipment list.

For $45,000 (the auto is $46,000) you get a very stylish coupe with striking looks, outstanding road manners, a high degree of sophistication, a comfortable cabin, reasonably brisk performance and a high fun factor.

It’s loaded with thoughtful design touches and is a shining example of Toyota’s careful design at its very best. Even though it’s got only two doors, it’s a car we could happily live with; one of the most desirable coupes on the market with an engaging blend of style, handling and performance.

Words and pictures by Mike Stock