Review and road test of the Toyota Celica (1999 - 2007)
BY ANDY ENRIGHT
Look back over the previous iterations of the Toyota Celica and it's easy to pick out the highs and lows. The fourth generation ST165 (1985-1990), brought Toyota into world rallying with the GT4, the fifth generation Celica ST185 (1990-1994) had odd looks but was otherwise the best of the 'old' bunch. The sixth generation ST205 (1994-1999) was a bit chubby and overblown. This latest seventh generation Celica goes back to what made the Celica name popular in the first place, namely light weight and razor sharp reflexes. Although notions of practicality sometimes take a cramped back seat when buying a used sports coupe, Toyota's reliability record and engineering qualities help to keep the Celica near the top of most buyer's wish lists.
(3 dr coupe 1.8 petrol [VVTi, 190])
The development of the seventh generation Celica followed a standard path. Starting from an unsophisticated yet enjoyable original, Toyota built generation after generation of cars, gradually going further upmarket and getting heavier and more powerful. The ST185 series probably marked the Celica's competition zenith, winning two World Rally Championships in 1993 and 1994, but the follow up car was viewed by many as a disappointment, taking the sporty Celica into lazy cruising territory. The same was indeed said of Toyota's MR2 range, being developed in parallel.
The design team at Toyota's Calty Research division in California looked at this philosophy and went to work with the red pen on it. Espousing a doctrine of light weight, edgy styling and a wheel at each corner for exceptional agility, the seventh generation Celica looked a winner before it ever turned a wheel, and crowds at the 1999 Frankfurt Motor Show realised that Toyota was onto something. With only 140bhp from the VVT-i engine, it wasn't a fire breathing super coupe but nevertheless the pared down approach promised driver satisfaction, and so it proved.
So good was the Celica's chassis that it was an open secret that a more powerful model was being developed. Rather than unleash a turbocharged, four-wheel drive GT4 version, as it had with the three previous Celicas, Toyota instead did something of a Honda. The Celica 190 offered variable valve timing and variable valve lift to punch out 190bhp at a dizzying 6800rpm. Were it a Honda model, it would undoubtedly have worn a Type-R badge, but the latest Celica merely sported a tiny red badge on its angular rump to differentiate it. With a specific output of 106.7bhp per litre, the Celica 190's credentials as a masterpiece of the engine making art were put into perspective compared to the McLaren F1 (103.3bhp/litre) and the BMW M3 (106bhp/litre). The round of price-cutting that took place in 2000 made the two Celica models great value for money, although used values took a while to reflect this. Helping to restore profit margins was the Celica T-Sport, a model launched in 2001 which was mechanically similar to the Celica 190 but commanded a £3,000 price premium for a bodykit, leather interior and other accoutrements.
What You Get
Standard equipment includes twin front and side airbags, ABS, a leather-covered steering wheel, electric windows and mirrors, a decent stereo, 16'' alloy wheels and remote central locking. If you want more, a temptingly priced 'Premium Pack' (standard in the Celica 190) adds leather, a power sunroof and climate control. Alternatively, there's a 'Sports Pack' with bigger 17'' alloys and a spoiler. The T-Sport gets a set of cracking 17-inch alloy wheels plus a deeper front spoiler than that worn by the Celica 190, and interior upgrades that include leather seats and a CD autochanger.
Inside, there's not much to offend - unless you have a particular aversion to black and grey plastic or orange instrument dials. The three-spoke wheel feels good to hold and the 'drilled' metal pedals lend a sporty, purposeful touch. Despite the extra cabin space boasted by the latest model, don't expect this car to be any more than a 2+2.
Though there's enough legroom for a couple of adults to sit in the back, headroom is at more of a premium. Having said that, the given space is a lot less cramped than that offered by many coupe rivals. We could go on to talk about split-folding rear seats and useful luggage space but we'd be in danger of coming over all practical - which would defeat the point of the premise we began with.
If you don't like the look of this latest Celica, then you won't buy it and no amount of talk on fuel consumption, cabin space and low running costs will change your mind. Fortunately for Toyota, aesthetic objections are unlikely. The more you admire the clean, distinctive lines, the more details you find to appreciate: the tiny front grille, the Ferrari-like bonnet scoop and the beautifully sculpted front and rear lights. All speak of a design team that cared about their creation.
What to Look For
That Toyota badge on the bonnet is usually a guarantee of peerless reliability, and so far the Celica has given little cause to amend this view. Try to buy cars with a full service history, whilst late cars are easier to sell on if they've been treated to the premium or sport packs. Avoid anything that looks too aftermarket, as the Celica's intrinsic affordability and low insurance rating may soon make them an attractive target for the Max Power generation. Check the condition of the front tyres, as these rapidly become worn during spirited driving. To compound matters, the Celica is very sensitive to small variations in suspension geometry, and tyre wear is usually the best indicator. Find out whether the engine is running a standard ECU, as many owners fitted aftermarket chips that boosted power by 15%, but which may have worrying repercussions for the residual warranty. Celicas are also colour sensitive and, for the time being at least, silver sells.
(approx based on a 2000 Celica VVT-i) Toyota spares are reasonably cheap, as are servicing costs. Front brake pads cost £33, whilst rears retail at £22. A headlamp unit is around £120 and a new clutch assembly is around £180. Expect to fork out £280 for an alternator and £200 for a starter motor, although should you need a new exhaust, a rather serious £800 will do the trick. These prices are likely to be of academic concern however. It's a Toyota, remember?
On the Road
Being introduced just as the Honda Integra Type-R, Ford Racing Puma and Peugeot 306 GTi-6 were killed off, the Toyota Celica was suddenly touted as the best handling front-wheel drive car for sale, an award by default possibly, but something to be proud of nonetheless, and either of the two models proved to be an appealing choice.
If you can't stretch to the Celica 190, don't let the comparative lack of power put you off buying the 140bhp model. Absolute power has corrupted many a cleverly conceived coupe. In any case, the Yamaha-designed VVT-i 1794cc unit is, on paper at least, anything but slow. Indeed, this 1.8-litre 140bhp Celica's 0-60mph time of 8.7s comfortably beats most other rivals. You can get the most from it too, thanks to a standard six-speed manual gearbox. This 'box has shorter ratios in the 190 version, which help that car to sixty in just 7.2s on the way to 140mph. The high specific output of this engine gives a clue as to its driving manners, and sure enough in order to get the best out of the car you'll need to work it very hard. The engine is a tuneful and willing companion, but it never quite zings towards the redline with the manic zeal of a good Honda VTEC installation.
Other aids to an involving driving experience include strong brakes and an impressive engine-speed-sensing power steering system that keeps you constantly in touch with what the front wheels are doing. Toyota has also learned much about suspension systems in the last 10 years, producing a fine set-up perfectly suited to the kind of people who will buy this car. It aims to comfortably absorb poor surfaces at low speeds yet is sufficiently damped for sharp, fluid handling around your favourite back doubles. The combined fuel consumption figure of nearly 37mpg (which isn't much lower in the Celica 190) should make the Toyota the cheapest car in its class to run.
Mixing the ingredients for the ultimate affordable coupe would probably throw quite a few of the Celica's qualities into the pot. Metronomic reliability is a definite plus, as is styling that's as edgy as anything else out there. A lightweight, agile chassis and engines that will betray their Yamaha roots by revving like race bikes certainly create a good impression. Only the Toyota badge, a slightly plasticky interior and the omission of rear wheel drive prevent the Celica from touching greatness. It really is that good, and a nearly new example will deliver the goods week in, week out without costing the earth to run. If you value sensibility without being boring, this is one coupe that needs no excuses.
Toyota Celica (1999 - 2007) review by ANDY ENRIGHT