Sometimes beauty is more than skin deep. It's true of people more often than we like to admit. It's even more often true of machines. Experienced engineers will tell you that when it looks right, it works right.
That brings us to the current Toyota Celica, with its racy, razor-edge lines, looking like the very embodiment of high-technology performance. And guess what: Its looks aren't lying.
Celica is light on its feet and tenacious in turns. Its energetic engine loves to rev, and you can keep the mill spinning with a six-speed gearbox. One of our contributors compared the GT-S version to a motorcycle on four wheels, the automotive equivalent of a screaming, hyper-horsepower super-bike.
True, perhaps, except that Celica is no exotic. It's a straightforward little machine that's heavy on fun and light on the wallet.
Celica was redesigned for 2000, and has not changed significantly since then.
Celica GT ($17,085), Celica GT-S ($21,555)
The Celica's styling is based on Toyota's XYR concept car (for Xtreme, Youthful, Racy), which made the rounds at major auto shows a few years ago. The Celica's 102.3-inch wheelbase is long for a compact coupe, and its front and rear overhangs are short. That long wheelbase with short overhangs emphasizes the Celica's athletic appearance.
Designers at Toyota's southern California studio drew inspiration from Toyota's racing program. The channel down the Celica's hood is supposed to recall the needle nose of an open-wheel race car. The long, vertical headlights are intended to suggest the endplates of a race car's front wing. A mesh grille, new for 2002, adds a note of brutal functionality.
The racecar cues are subtle. However, the Celica's blend of organic curves and razor-sharp edges is anything but subtle. These contrasts aren't necessarily clean or elegant, but they are dramatic and by no means ugly. Celica's striking headlights make it look expensive. The Celica's styling is particularly bold by Toyota's usually edgeless, conservatively industrial standards.
As you might expect from a sport coupe, the Celica offers tight quarters: intimate for average-size people, perhaps cramped for larger folks. The front seats allow height adjustment, but they lack variable lumbar support. The optional leather upholstery ($660) looks and feels rich.
The rear seat provides a surprising amount of space for a 2+2. A toe-operated lever on the front passenger seat allows it to slide forward for easier access to the rear compartment. The rear seat folds to expand cargo space.
The dashboard starts with a simple, clean, cross-compartment design. The gauges have orange script on a black background. Switches are easy to find and operate, particularly the stereo controls. The center console has a storage rack for eight CDs or ten cassettes.
Occupant safety remains a priority in the Celica. Side-impact beams guard against intrusion, and side airbags deploy from the front seats. The seats themselves are built with a one-piece back frame designed to limit whiplash injuries, and many interior trim pieces are deformable to soften impacts. The Celica is the first Toyota that shuts off fuel delivery if the airbags deploy.
Central to the Celica GT-S driving experience is a high-strung, high-tech engine that loves to rev. With its high (11.5:1) compression ratio and more aggressive valve timing, the GT-S engine develops 180 horsepower at 7600 rpm and 133 foot-pounds of torque at 6600 rpm. It is one of only a handful of production engines in the world that produce 100 horsepower per liter of displacement without supercharging and turbocharging.
Throttle response is adequate through about 6000 rpm, and then, as if someone threw a switch, Toyota's VVTL-i kicks in and the Celica squirts forward with real urgency. The GT-S should manage 0-60 mph runs in the upper seven-second range. But far more satisfying is tackling a twisty back road, and working the shifter to keep the engine spinning balls-out. The red area on the tach starts at 7800 rpm, but that leaves another 500-600 rpm before the rev limiter interrupts the fun. And the engine keeps pulling strong, without flattening out, the whole way there.
The only downside is that the GT-S engine gets loud, just when it's hitting the sweet stretch in its power band. There's an abundance of intake and valve noise, made more noticeable because the engine feels so smooth.
The GT-S shifter works very well by front-drive standards: smooth, accurate, and direct. The E-shift automatic is equally impressive. Its controls work intuitively. Pressing one of the buttons on the front of the steering wheel shifts the transmission one gear up, while pressing a button on the back notches it down one gear. The electronics do very little thinking for the driver. E-Shift holds the gear you select, even with the engine bouncing off the rev limiter. It works as well as similar systems on some of the most expensive cars in the world.
The Celica's seats are comfortable and grippy, and the pedals, in both placement and operation, work well. Enthusiast drivers will appreciate the perfectly placed dead pedal, as it allows them to brace themselves with their left leg during energetic drives.
One of the best things about the Celica GT-S is that it corners nicely, and relatively flat, without a harsh, small-coupe ride. The optional16-inch tires are sticky. Steering is quick and accurate, and the feel through the wheel transmits clear information about how much grip the front tires have left. The chassis tightens its path through a curve when its driver lifts of the gas. Only the harshest, most abrupt maneuvers seem to unsettle its rear end. Overall, Toyota gets high marks for chassis tuning.
Celica also deserves high marks for build quality. There were no creaks or rattles in the unit-body or trim panels.
In all, we found the GT-S to be a well-balanced sport coupe. With the exception of its peaky engine, no particular component stands out, yet it all blends together very nicely.
The same theme applies to the base GT, which we've sampled as well. Its tires aren't as grippy, and its four-cylinder engine is not as smooth. Yet it delivers just as much torque through three-quarters of its rev range, and unless you constantly push the tach into the red zone, you might never notice the difference.
Introduced in model-year 2000, the current Celica is the seventh generation of a line of sport coupes that began in 1971. It is lighter and faster than the previous-generation Celica, an impressive feat among today's overweight vehicles. Sharing parts with other Toyota products has held down the Celica's price, which shows smart manufacturing.
Bottom line is that there's a solid sporty coupe beneath the Celica's new-wave skin. Potential buyers attracted by the edgy styling will find more than enough substance to go with this car's racy looks.