Coasting through the final year of its 1994 redesign, the 1999 Celica GT continues to offer a questionable blend of performance, style and value. Next year, a completely new Celica arrives based on the XYR sport-coupe concept car that was first shown at this year's North American International Auto Show. Like other remnants of the early `90s sport-coupe craze (including the Mitsubishi 3000GT and Acura Integra), a Celica redesign is long overdue and hopefully will inject some new life into this aging nameplate.
Headlining next year's list of upgrades will be a more-powerful 1.8-liter engine making 180 foot-pounds of torque. The current 2.2-liter inline four tops out at an uninspired 130 horsepower and 145 foot-pounds of torque. This engine runs up to 60 mph in approximately 8.5 seconds, which isn't particularly slow, but is well short of being fast or sporty. With only a driver on board, spirited travel is possible, but requires a heavy right foot. Add in a couple of adult passengers, however, and the Celica quickly falls out of "GT" status. Increased horsepower is by far the most promising aspect of the next Celica.
Exterior design will also take a radical new direction in next year's model, which, for the most part, is a good thing. The current Celica suffers from an overly bulbous front end, resulting in a bug-eyed, alien-like appearance that might work for the current Star Wars flick, but doesn't look right on a modern sports coupe. Rear-end and profile styling is much less offensive, yet with the coming Audi TT and recently re-introduced Mercury Cougar, the Celica's "baby Supra" lines are clearly from a bygone era. While we're not ready to endorse fully the approaching "hard-edged" future of vehicle design (a la new Mustang), we won't miss this Celica's swollen front-end treatment, either. Isn't there a happy medium where we can all just get along?
Additional Supra cues are apparent as soon as you open the Celica's door. The highly bolstered front seats, along with the three-spoke steering wheel and central dash that sweeps down into the shifter area, work to remind performance fans of that now-defunct Japanese supercar. This works against the junior sport coupe, which even Toyota describes as "peppy" in its own sales literature. Take it from us, the last thing you want to be thinking about while driving a peppy Celica is the 320-horsepower Supra.
Mournful thoughts of the dead Supra aside, the Celica's interior design is highly functional and comfortable. Sumptuous leather covers the seats and steering wheel while soft-touch plastic encases the dash and door panels. Driver's seat settings are many, including a seat-cushion height and length adjustment to satisfy even the most finicky of operators. Rear seats are not quite as accommodating, particularly in the legroom department. The rear seats do fold forward, increasing the Celica's 16.2 cubic feet of cargo space (but offering no assistance for clearing the waist-high lift-over). The cargo cover is also a source of frustration because of its stubborn straps that are difficult to remove.
For a five-year-old design, the Celica's control and gauge layout is remarkably effective. Simple dials operate the climate-control system and easy-to-reach stalks make headlights, turn signals and windshield wipers a no-brainer while driving. We also like the front-seat headrests, which tilt forward to reduce whiplash, and the scattering of small pockets and bins to store assorted driving gear. A larger center console would add to the Celica's storage capacity, but, for a sport coupe, this car offers an impressive array of compartments.
Our only interior complaint is with the location of the temperature and fuel gauges. Both are located to the right of the speedometer and are easy to read. However, because they are also identical in size and shape, and because the temperature gauge is above the gas gauge, we found ourselves repeatedly checking the temperature when we wanted to evaluate our fuel level. A minor point that, at this stage in the Celica's product cycle, is mute. By next year everything about the car will be different, including the temperature-gauge location.
If Toyota's in a listening mood, there are a few other points they might address before the 2000-model year debuts. These include cupholders that aren't adjustable in diameter and that interfere with shifting when carrying cups, a radio that is incapable of producing real bass, and a lack of underhood color coding to help identify service points.
Except from the horsepower issue, we expect the next Celica to change little in terms of driving traits. The upcoming model will continue to use a four-wheel independent suspension. Currently, McPherson struts up front and independent dual links out back, plus gas-filled shocks and front and rear stabilizer bars give the Celica a stable feel with just a bit more suspension movement than we'd like. For normal-to-spirited driving the car feels planted with excellent ride quality. Unfortunately, a lack of steering feel combines with the relatively long shifter throws to once again remind you that this is no Supra (or Integra GS-R or Neon R/T, for that matter).
The Celica's ABS braking performance was similarly adequate under normal driving but fell short (or long) when push came to shove. At 140 feet from 60-to-zero mph, it scored worse than a GS-R hatchback, but better than the aforementioned Neon. It was effective at setting the car up for a corner, with just a slight tap on the pedal to bring the rear end out while apex clipping.
The word that kept showing up when evaluating the Celica was "almost." Almost enough horsepower; almost enough suspension dampening; almost enough steering feel; almost enough braking ability. Rather than being totally lame in a single area, the Celica fails to satisfy completely in every area (with the exception of build quality and interior design). As an $18,000 sport coupe, this would be only moderately annoying. But at over $24,000, it's unacceptable.
With its front-drive, four-cylinder platform, the Celica doesn't compete officially with the Mustang GT or Camaro Z28. However, for buyers not stuck on a given drivetrain or country of origin, the Ford and Chevy offer way more bang for the buck. And for those who do want a front-driver with a Japanese nameplate, the Honda Prelude or Integra GS-R tout better performance numbers, superior handling, and a more attractive exterior.
A whole slew of new or redesigned models is lining up for the 2000-model year, including Toyota's own MR-S sports car. For the Celica to compete in this brave new world, it will have to offer increased performance, refined styling and improved value. If you're considering a 1999 Celica purchase, we'd recommend either waiting a year or test driving a Prelude, Integra or Volkswagen GTI.