Soul seeker

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Not on the heels of Toyota’s overstated Supra comes the rather more subtle, but equally desirable, sixth generation Celica GT. The controversial predecessor’s bulbous form has evolved into a sleeker, more accessible shape which looks simultaneously modern and, strangely, retro. Pop-up headlamps are replaced by more conventional units, which gives the frontend a distinctive ‘face’, while the raised hip aft of the B-pillar is reminiscent of the MkIII Cortina or Vauxhall Viva HC.

Not only is its styling easier on the eye, but the Celica is now 10 per cent lighter and 20 per cent stiffer. Available in GT guise only (until the introduction of the GT-4 in the summer), the Celica continues in the front-wheel-drive coupe mould established by previous models, though it is slightly longer, wider and taller. This accounts for more leg and head room, and with the larger glass area, the Celica’s interior no longer has the rather claustrophobic nature of its Immediate forebear.

Virtually the whole car has been modified (if not entirely redesigned), and it comes as no surprise to find that the familiar 2.0-litre, twin cam, 16-valve engine has had a power hike. from 154 to 173 bhp as a result of a higher compression ratio and reworked valves and ports. Torque is unchanged. at 137 lb ft, but the delivery curve is flatter, which improves flexibility. New sub-frames and modified suspension and brakes (vented at the front. with ABS) allow greater cornering and stopping potential, though the refined ride quality, which is supple without being soggy, is retained.

Toyota’s smooth 3S GE four-cylinder engine ticks over at little more than a whisper and seldom intrudes. Wind noise and tyre roar levels are acceptable, too.

In fact you need to take the Celica by the scruff and show it some ‘real roads before there is any real evidence of sporting manners. At a modest pace, the ‘hunt-free’ engine characteristics, the featherweight steering and the almost switch-like gearshift make driving effortless.

It never becomes hard work, even when pressing on along tricky roads. Sadly, most effort is mental gaining confidence (trying to ascertain exactly what those front 205/ 55R15 Michelin Pilots are doingl by decoding the secrets of the incommunicative, speed-related steering. It is sad that ever more so-called sporty cars are going down the lifeless steering path; all the moreso in that the Celica has a genuinely nimble chassis that could really be exploited if it offered more feedback.

That said, the steering has been improved. The chassis turns-in sharply and understeers gently if really pushed. It will tighten its line or hang out its tail under various degrees of lift-off, but it is never hysterical, and torque-steer has virtually been eliminated.

The Celica was unfazed by the bumps and yumps of demanding, river-strewn Scottish roads, nearly all of which were negotiated in torrential rain, The spinning of an inside front wheel or pattering from the ABS were only occasional protestations. As a result of this relentless display of foul weather (even by UK standards), it was hard to ascertain how much grip would ultimately be available, but it felt good in the conditions.

Cabin ambiance is ideal for long-distance work, The driving position is suitably adaptable and the tilt steering column is a bonus. The instruments are now as clear, near as dammit, as Europe’s best, and minor controls have been simplified and tidied up.

Mercifully, the Celica is devoid of unnecessary equipment, but it doesn’t lack for much. Air conditioning is the only option. It’s an environment far removed from Japanese cars of old; the dashboard plastic, for instance, actually exudes a hint of quality.

There’s no doubt that the Celica can cut it with the best coupes on the market. It has the speed 0-60mph in 7.9s and a maximum of 139 mph. It looks distinctive, handles competently and stops well. While it is enjoyable to a degree, it’s no thriller. Nor is it cheap, at £20,xxx, though Toyota should certainly sell its quota.

One can’t help wondering why, with such an important car, the Japanese couldn’t have added a splash more soul? — R R B

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