Road Test: Toyota Celica 2.0 GT

A slicker Celica

This is the fourth model to appear under the Celica name, and this front-wheel drive coupe is an entirely distinct car from its bigger brother, the Supra. Previously, the two shared a body-shell and drive-line, with different engines and nose treatment, but the models have now followed separate lines of development, resulting, together with the two-seater MR2, in probably the widest choice of sportscars from any volume family car manufacturer.

Many components for the Celica are sourced from other Toyota models, but they have been thoroughly revised where necessary, and sensibly blended together into one of the most strikingly styled vehicles to appear recently. A long flat screen and large glass hatch help to disguise what this is nearly a four-seater, and despite the combination of front engine and tall Macpherson strut suspension, the nose appears low and penetrating.

The belt-driven twin-cam 16-valve head is very similar to that of the mid-engined MR2, with a pentroof combustion chamber with 50° between inlet and outlet valves, but the inclined block is derived from the 2-litre Camry. It whistles up to high revs eagerly, if not as sweetly as the 1600cc unit, and in fact the peak power of 147bhp is not produced until 6400rpm, with torque swelling to 133lb ft at a similarly high 4800rpm, so the unit’s character is based on the second half of the tach.

Petrol and air are mixed and fed by an all-electronic system which incorporates a fallback programme, so that one fault will not bring the car to a complete halt, and as on the MR2 an extra device is fitted which attempts to improve the low-speed torque of the four-valve per cylinder layout.

Toyota calls this its Variable Induction System or TVIS — the Japanese seem to be obsessed with acronyms, shades of ’60s America when every feature had a name like Turbo-Fire or Torque-Flite. What this does is to restrict the inlet tract below 4300rpm, keeping the airflow speed up; above that figure, the small flap opens fully to allow unrestricted airflow. The valve acts on one of the two paired tracts which serve each pair of inlet valves, and is vacuum-operated.

Improvements have been made to the cold-start and idling systems, and the Celica never failed to fire after a few whirring turns of the starter, hot or cold. The five-speed transaxle is derived from the FWD Corolla, and both ends of the car use Macpherson struts with gas damper inserts. Location at the front is by L-shaped lower arms with bushes which are more compliant fore and aft than sideways, while transverse paired links control the rear track, anti-lift and anti-dive geometry is built in, and Toyota has adopted urethane foam bump stops in place of the more usual rubber to provide more progressive bump control at extremes of movement.

A brake-booster is part of the dual-circuit system, and the pedal effort is modest and progressive; heavy braking from 100mph did not upset the stability, but although there were no signs of fade, the brakes did begin to squeal after a session on the test track.

Inside the roomy cabin, the generally tasteful note is only let down by the fake stitching around the rim of the unnecessarily large steering wheel. Top marks for clarity, though, for the instruments: a large speedometer and tachometer are separated by fuel and water temperature gauges, with oil pressure and volts flanking this group. Audible warnings are relayed via a central horn-push, while a complex stalk on the left offers two-speed plus variable intermittent wipers, with an end push for washers.

A similar stalk on the right twists for side and headlamps, and also gives indicators and flash, which is commendably quick despite the electric pop-up lights. Electric window switches are fitted in the door, slightly masked by the handle, the driver having that useful facility which opens or closes them completely with one touch.

Heating controls are very much the Japanese standard, with little pictograms illustrating what is on offer, and very logical and flexible the system is — a considerable advance over the crude choices offered by many European cars even now. Air conditioning is integrated in the system.

Below is the radio/cassette, as sophisticated as one would expect in a £12,000 vehicle, but suffering from the miniaturisation mania which afflicts most Oriental offerings in this area : closely packed blocks of tiny flat buttons with minute script, and all well out of the eye-line. The sound quality of the multi-speaker system, however, is particularly good.

Push-switches for the heated rear window and the hazard flashers are handily placed in the edges of the instrument binnacle, although the rear fog-lamp switch is further away, down beside the radio. The well-placed door mirrors are electrically adjustable, and a powered tilt or slide steel sun-roof has its rocker switch in the roof together with a convenient central map light. Access to both front and rear seats is fairly easy through the long doors, although that length becomes a problem when the Celica is parked in a row of other vehicles – they need lots of clearance to open wide enough.

Transverse-engined cars are not generally noted for their slick gearchanges, but Toyota deserves particular credit for this one; the shift has quite a long action, but it moves from second to third to fourth with delightful ease and a satisfying click. Nicer still is the well-matched combination of throttle response and clutch movement with that rapid shift: acceleration through the gears is almost without pause since the revs drop back in exactly the time it takes to dip the clutch and flick in the next gear. Perhaps the engine is a little harsher at high revs than its 1600cc cousin in the delightful Toyota MR2, but when pulling hard it emits a subdued but hard-edged snarl which really ought to belong to an Italian car.

It does need to be stretched into the buzzier 4-7000rpm range, though pulling power is noticeably less between 2000 and 4000rpm, despite its smoothness in this range, and country lanes or even city roundabouts will have the keen driver in second to ensure that the Celica’s punch is ready for instant use.

The tach has an orange line at 6700rpm and an electronic rev limiter is triggered at 7200, so the power band is generous, but rather high on the scale; it is a pity that despite the claimed 150bhp and the undoubtedly fast 0-60mph times we measured of 8.3sec, the Celica seems lacking in the easy flexibility that extra low-down torque would give. And this even with the TVIS system.

The idea of a front-wheel drive sportscar always seemed inappropriate despite what Lancia and Alfa Romeo had achieved with the Fulvia and Beta and Alfasud Sprint until VW’s successful innovation with the GTi proved that it was quite possible to achieve excellent handling with this package. Successive developments of this layout have felt less and less like front-drive cars, and the Celica really gives very few clues to which end is propelling it. With abrupt treatment the wheels will spin, but in normal driving the 195/60 VR 14 are not left scrabbling for grip, and the power-assistance takes the strain out of manoeuvring.

The sensation during cornering is one of good balance, the car running a little wide off the throttle and turning eagerly when acceleration is reintroduced, while the fast steering and large wheel disguise any steering tendency when the car is just beginning to turn in to the corner — the ideal recipe for a powerful front-drive car, one might think. But there is also a nervousness about the chassis which is amplified by the excessive lightness of the speed and load-sensitive steering — a straight line wandering which is particularly apparent while accelerating.

Once the Celica is settled in a particular attitude, whether braking or cornering, it is very stable and displays exemplary roadholding. But during the transition between bends it is over-responsive, reacting to bumps and even cats eyes with small sideways rocking movements accompanied by twitches of the steering wheel. This is most obvious on rougher surfaces, and thankfully on the motorway it feels no worse than an over-light power steering system.

Nevertheless, there is a pronounced contrast between the secure square feeling under braking and the vagueness under acceleration which on a fast B-road detracts from what is almost an excellent chassis. Nor is it a question of damping, for the ride is a comfortable one with a sporting stiffness under load.

Drivers of any shape should find a comfortable position behind the wheel, since there is plenty of room in all directions and the wheel telescopes as well as tilting. The bonnet is out of view, so the pop-up headlamps offer a useful aiming point; there are no blind spots to make junctions awkward. Space in the rear seats is reasonable, (though Toyota is being optimistic in fitting three seat belts here) and one or both sides will fold down to provide really quite impressive cargo space. The suspension turrets intrude, but the width of the car still leaves plenty of useable room between them.

An internal catch releases the huge rear hatch which rises very slowly on gas struts, taking the central section of the broad spoiler with it, and revealing an enormous gaping hole; it says a lot for the advances in computer structural design techniques that one does not need even to comment on bodily rigidity, despite the inclusion of the strength-sapping hatch opening in cars like this.

In Japan and the USA a booted or notchback version is also available, but it is hard to see what the advantage would be, so useful is the liftback version. And it is very attractive too, combining the long-favoured wedge profile with the current vogue for glazed-over window pillars and a pronounced spoiler which carries the waistline off the back of the car, indicating the idealised path of the air over the vehicle.

Such flush glass detailing naturally helps towards the Celica’s low drag coefficient of 0.31, but it is also a source of joy to the stylists, who can give freer rein to their ideas. It does not always work — witness the Granada/Scorpio where the long roof appears to be balanced on two skinny front-pillars — but the Toyota’s shorter, cleaner cabin sits solidly on the simple lower wedge, while the chamfered nose and deep airdam push air up over the bonnet and past the concealed wipers.

As a result, what noise there is tends to come from the tyres, plus a distant growl from the large-bore exhaust pipe. Raising the lamps introduces a little extra wind roar, and the test car’s lamps rattled at 100mph and above (on the test track of course) although the beam was rock-steady.

Comprehensively equipped in the Japanese manner (apart from those items already mentioned, the Celica GT includes central locking, remote fuel filler release, rear wash-wipe with intermittent function, headlamp washers, electric aerial and a luggage compartment tonneau cover), Toyota’s almost-four-seater seems virtually as luxurious as its £16,000 stable-mate, the Supra, though it feels and sounds more sporting than that ultra-smooth cruiser; and my vote goes to the Celica which is probably roomier inside, more chuckable, and more adventurous to look at.

Assuming that the overt sportiness of a coupe is one of the attractions of the Celica, its potential rivals must include the Nissan Silvia Turbo ZX (well-equipped but less grip), the Isuzu Piazza Turbo (fun though unsophisticated, available at huge discounts at the moment — around £9000), one of the last 10 examples to be imported of the Alfa Romeo GTV6 (pedigreed but dated — £12,000), and the 16-valve VW Scirocco, which is slightly quicker but less roomy and rather bare.

Apart from the last batch of the Capri 280 (which is a full two generations behind and feels it) and the slower and staid-looking Audi Coupe, the biggest challenge comes from Mazda with the RX7 — directly comparable on power, performance, and price, though perhaps lagging in interior room.

Both have similar power characteristics, the Mazda’s rotary smoothness being a plus, but where the RX7 will understeer to the end, the Celica can be pushed through to a final, if rather sudden, oversteer, a characteristic I personally prefer.

Building a car like this for the relatively small sports coupe market is an expensive business, especially as standards of sophistications rise, and those manufacturers who find it viable tend to polarise into small specialist firms such as Porsche and Lotus, and the huge Oriental conglomerates such as Toyota.

Gone are the days when it was cheap to offer an Ascona or Cortina with a Manta or Capri alternative for volume sale; yet with Volvo’s recently announced 480ES sports coupe, we can look forward to at least one European product which will be priced this side of the basic Porsche. GC

Model: Celica 2.0 GT.
Importer: Toyota (GB) Ltd, Surrey.
Type: two-door four-seat coupe.
Engine: 16-valve twin-cam four, 1998cc (86 x 86). 147bhp at 6400rpm, 133Ibft torque at 4800rpm. Sonata electronic engine fuel injection and engine management system.
Transmission: Front-wheel drive, transverse engine and five-speed transaxle, single dry-plate clutch.
Suspension: (Front) Macpherson strut, anti-roll bar. (Rear) Macpherson strut with dual lower links, anti-roll bar.
Steering: Rack and pinion, speed and load-sensitive power assistance.
Brakes: Dual circuit, servo assistance; ventilated 258mm front discs. solid 269mm rear discs.
Wheels and tyres: 6JJ x 14 light alloy rims with 195/60 VR 14 covers.
Performance: 0-60mph, 8.3sec, 30-50mph, 3.2sec. 50-70mph, 5.3sec. 70-90mph, 7.3sec. Max speed, 131mph.
Price: £13,739, plus £164.45 for Duotone paint.
Summary: More inspiring to look upon than many, quick and practical. Fine chassis let down by straight-line nervousness, but comfortable and exciting to drive.