It's hard to believe it's been nearly 30 years since Toyota released the Celica to sporting drivers. At its introduction, the Celica was a revolutionary vehicle, providing sports car-like features and performance at an affordable price.
When the first Celicas arrived on American shores in 1971, sports car enthusiasts were treated to not only a car that was fun to drive (with a 1.9-liter SOHC four-cylinder engine mated to a four-speed manual transmission) but the cars were reliable to boot. In 1978, a new body style was introduced with what would become the Celica's signature wide B-pillars. The following year, Toyota spun off the Celica Supra - the first Toyota to receive electronic fuel injection. While the Supra variant carried 20 additional horsepower over the GT (courtesy of its inline six), the inherit weight gain offset the boost in performance.
Toyota buffs remember the early 1980s as the beginning of the Celica heyday, with Toyota designers re-penning the Celica in 1982, creating a boxy look that is still popular today and Lamborghini Miura-like pop-up headlights (which basically "sat up" from a "lay back" position). That same year, Toyota decided to spin off the Supra as its own model, distancing it from the Celica with a distinctive front end and an independent rear suspension.
In 1986, the Celica changed completely - front-wheel drive replaced the traditional rear-drive setup; round, flowing lines enhanced the body panels and a new 2.0-liter, twin-cam four-banger graced the engine compartment. But four years later, Toyota would produce the "ultimate Celica," the 1990 All-Trac Turbo. With full-time, all-wheel drive and a turbocharged 2.0-liter engine producing 200 horsepower, the All-Trac quickly took its place as the Celica flagship. Fast forward again to 1994, when Toyota pulled out the styling pen once more, including four exposed headlamps, dual airbags and optional ABS. This mundane sixth-generation Celica bore little resemblance to its previous brethren, was overpriced and underpowered.
For 2000, Toyota has taken the Celica back to its performance car roots, with new cutting-edge bodywork, a high-revving powertrain and an aggressive suspension that beckons the switchbacks of canyon roads.
The Celica has come of age, and that's not a bad thing. Like a testosterone-laden teenager, the new Celica has an attitude that says, "This road is mine." From the moment we slid into the high-back, stiff-bolster seats, we realized that the GT-S is designed like a race car - and it probably won't take much time before tuners get their hands on this performance milestone.
An all-new 1.8-liter, four-cylinder DOHC variable valve timing and lift with intelligence control (VVTL-I) aluminum engine powers the latest Celica GT-S, generating 180 horsepower at 7,600 rpm and 133 ft-lbs. of torque at 6,800 rpm. Unlike the former-generation GT model, the new GT-S suffers from a lack of low-end grunt, only to make up the difference in the upper echelon of the rpm band. As with the Honda S2000, keeping the engine within the "sweet spot" of 4,500 to 6,800 rpm develops a mind-bending rush of power to the front wheels.
A first for the Celica, the GT-S's engine is mated to a standard six-speed gearbox with a short-throw shifter. The combination provided positive, quick gear changes with a race car-like feel. Caution must be exercised when changing gears, however, as the shift gates are extremely narrow and (as we found out in testing) it is very easy to hit second gear instead of fourth. We'll put money down that Toyota sees a lot of warranty claims for expired trannys due to this gate issue.
A four-speed "sport-shift" automatic is available, with Formula 1-style shift buttons mounted on the steering wheel. With the gear selector in the "M" position, the driver can "manually" shift the automatic tranny by selecting either the buttons on the back of the steering wheel spokes to upshift or depress the buttons on the front of the spokes to downshift.
With all of the potential Toyota built into the new engine, the GT-S needed brakes to hustle it to a stop in a hurry...and Toyota didn't skimp in the binder department. "Outstanding" was the first thought that came to mind when we stomped on the "whoa" pedal, feeling like we could stop on a dime and get nine-and-a-half cents change. With 11-inch front and 10.5-inch rear discs, our ABS-assisted test vehicle hauled us from 60 to zero in a scant 110 feet with only minimal ABS pulse through the pedal. Brake fade was virtually nonexistent.
When Toyota set out to pen the seventh-generation Celica, the designers elected to meld Indy car-like features - sharp-edged panels, low profile, air engulfing intakes and a low stance - with a high-fashion cab-forward design - dramatic plunging curves, tall tail and radically lowered front fascia - creating a stark design contrast over previous models.
The effect succeeded in spades.
Gone is the former bulbous front end and pudgy sides, giving way to a lean, mean street-fighting machine. This new design allowed Toyota to make the Celica over 4 inches shorter than the previous version, yet increase the wheelbase by over 3 inches for better stability and ride quality.
No matter where we went, the Celica GT-S drew more thumbs up than we'd seen in recent times. Fuel stops required an extra 10 minutes to answer questions from motorists. Most often, those comments revolved around the Celica's design and fit and finish, which was first-rate. Unlike some of the Celica's sport coupe counterparts, minimal orange peel was found in the paint and all body seams were aligned perfectly.
The Celica's redesigned interior is remarkably spacious, given this year's reduction of leg and hip room. In typical Toyota fashion, the Celica's interior is well laid-out with functionality as the first priority. The controls fall to hand naturally and the large buttons and switchgear make selections a snap.
But we were disappointed with Toyota's choice of materials when it came to the center console and climate controls, which were unusually clunky and cheap-looking (better suited for a Playskool replica). Similarly, the placement of the cupholders aft of the shifter made for difficult gear changes and a big mess as our tester's drink was in the direct path of the first-to-second and third-to-fourth gear changes. While you might get away with a can of soda, anything taller is sure to be blasted into the lap of unsuspecting backseat occupants during spirited shifting.
The front seats accommodate two large people easily without infringing on personal space. With the high-back seat design and large side bolsters, optional side airbags are crafted neatly into the side of the seatback. But while the bolsters help to keep the driver anchored in the seat during hard cornering, they make ingress/egress more of a gymnastic feat, as you contort your body into the seat. With the standard thin cloth fabric, we were concerned about premature wear - signs of which were already evident on our tester.
In our initial 250-mile test loop, driver and front passenger were pleased to emerge with nary a cramp in their bodies, ready for another stretch of highway. This is due in part to the GT-S's excellent steering wheel-centered driver position and superb lumbar support in the seats.
The new breed of sport compact enthusiast will appreciate the aluminum pedals, which are the correct width and perfectly placed for heel/toe gear changes. Toyota wisely added this feature with the rise of the sport compact market, and we figure it won't be long before the Celica GT-S becomes a prominent figure at the racetrack.
As expected in a 2+2 design, rear seat room is marginal with headroom and legroom virtually nonexistent. Expect to hear a lot of gruff from anyone over 5 feet 6 inches; getting back there requires substantial twisting and finagling. After 20 miles of traveling, you won't care anymore about being uncomfortable. By then, your lower extremities will be asleep from lack of blood flow.
If there is one sport coupe that stands out in the handling ranks, it's the Celica. We were pleasantly surprised by the neutral handling characteristics of the GT-S, despite the front-drive layout weight distribution of 61 percent front to 39 percent rear. Setting the suspension for hard corners was a breeze and it demonstrated excellent transitioning characteristics in the curves. Whether we trailed the throttle or trail-braked the car, the Celica took the "I'll take anything you throw at me" stance every time.
Overall ride quality was compliant, soaking up any rut or bump in the road, transferring just enough road feel for the driver to know what was happening underfoot, yet delivering a supple ride. Of course, this has its good and bad points. The car is so forgiving, an experienced driver can have a lot of fun at the upper limits of the car's ability, but trouble awaits the inexperienced driver, who can quickly exceed his or her driving skill.
Pitted against the Honda Prelude SH, Acura Integra GS-R and Mitsubishi Eclipse, the Celica GT-S beats the Prelude on price and cargo volume, the Integra in the horsepower department by 10 ponies and on price point, and buries the Eclipse in the braking department. Even with the American muscle competition -- the likes of the Ford Mustang GT and Chevrolet Camaro Z28 -- in the same price category, the GT-S is sure to snatch a good portion of market share. Our well-equipped tester (which was lacking only the leather trim package) stickered at $23,870, only $2,190 over base.
If asked to choose in this segment, we'd have to flip a coin between the Prelude SH and the Celica GT-S, with the Celica having a slight edge due to its new radical design. Either way you'll have a hard time handing the keys back after a test drive.