A splash of brute

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While waiting for the WRC debut of the Group A GT-Four, you can always try one on the road. . .

Toyota has recently clinched the World Rally Championship with a five year-old car. Without any works Lancias, Toyota’s serious opposition consisted of Subaru and Ford. As we have reported previously, even such modest manufacturer support for the WRC seems uncertain in the short term, the governing FIA having seen fit, allegedly for the good of the sport, to ban four-wheel-drive Group A cars after 1996. It is by no means certain that Toyota will continue a full onslaught, as it has no two-wheel-drive rally machine to speak of. Ford has already announced its withdrawal as a works team from the 1995 World Championship, though selected private teams will receive support.

Toyota only recently gave the sixthgeneration Celica its debut on the 1000 Lakes Rally, after a lengthy test and development programme. Naturally, the competition machine was based on the GT-Four; of the 5000 examples required for homologation purposes, a mere 100 or so will reach UK shores this year, making it a very rare beast indeed. And it is a beast. Its visible aggression and brutish power signify far more intent than its bulbous predecessor ever could.

Developed in conjunction with Toyota Team Europe and derived from the Celica GT (MOTOR SPORT, June 1994), it is distinguished by grilles, ducts and scoops which have spread like measles over the bonnet and front spoiler. It also boasts a rear wing of such ludicrous proportions that it makes its big brother Supra look tame by comparison. Only the infamous Escort Cosworth ‘tea tray’ has it beat for absurdity. Mercifully, the spacers that contribute to its daft maximum height can be removed.

But such idiosyncrasies form the essence of many modern performance cars. Though there are exceptions, the elegance and grace of sports cars gone by has been replaced by ugly projectiles anonymous saloons with bolt-on boils. The Japanese seem to be as guilty as anyone else, despite the fact that their cars are now conceived with more passion than ever before, at face value at least.

The GT-Four is by no means the worst offender. Like its lesser brother it has a stylish coupe body (lighter yet stiffer than before) with a very distinctive twin-cowled headlamp arrangement making it one of the most distinctive around.

This, however, is cosmetic trivia. In short, this GT-Four is Toyota’s latest attempt at giving us a no-nonsense Escort Cosworth mincer, with added equipment and refinement. It is thus far removed from its rather limp-wristed predecessor. Two litres of twin cam, 16-valve turbocharged and intercooled motor still provides the motive power, but there are substantial modifications to intake and exhaust valves and ports, the result of which is a 35 bhp power hike to 239bhp.

The five-speed transmission is all new, as is the sophisticated multi-link ‘Superstrut’ MacPherson type front suspension (though it is not as exotic as that of the hitherto temperamental rally version). Drive to all four of the pretty 7.5×16 alloy wheels is via a viscous centre coupling and Torsen rear diff, which constantly varies torque delivery in proportion to the available grip front and rear. An advanced lateral G-sensing ABS system, similar to the Supra’s, has huge ventilated discs which modulate each wheel independently while hauling down speeds. Look at the specification alone and the dizzy cocktail of technical innovation and driver considerations propel the new GT-Four into a different league to its predecessor, and that’s before you take on board the improved power to weight ratio of 168bhp/ton.

The promise of the specification sheet is realised on the road. In performance terms, a claimed top speed of 153 mph and an ability to sprint from rest to 60 mph in a whisker under six seconds is proof enough that the latest GT-Four has altogether more spirit than its antecedents. It also has more torque, and the majority of the 223Ib ft maximum is accessible from as low as 2500 rpm, which endows the Celica with the sort of mid-range acceleration that is hard to find this side of most recognised supercars.

That the GT-Four ‘goes’ is not the point. Toyota wants you to know that it’s the way it goes that matters, and to this end more feel and weight has been dialled into the steering. But, what you are told and what you are given are not necessarily the same.

True, there is some life in the system — it writhes and offers resistance, kicks back and is super-quick (with 2.9 turns lock to lock), but it feels somewhat artificial and only offers adequate feedback at higher speeds.

There’s a precariously thin line between prodigious grip and none at all. And if anything it’s the complaining tyres, rather than the steering, that alert you of impending difficulties. With power biased towards the front axle, cornering in the GT-Four normally requires the application of more lock to counter the build-up of natural understeer. The extremely rigid chassis will let go gently at the rear with major provocation (by lifting severely, or braking), but the quick ratio steering provides swift corrective balance in such situations.

In everyday usage, mid-corner bumps do not fluster the suspension unduly and the car continues to corner neutrally and calmly, with little drama. Its agility is a particularly strong point as turn-in is sharp, so it can be thrown around enjoyably, and safely, when the mood takes you (or if you happen to be contesting the 1000 Lakes).

The GT-Four involves the driver to an extent — and certainly more so than any previous Celica — but rarely to the same degree of satisfaction as the lamented Lancia Delta integrale, to cite one example.

Power delivery is smooth and strong, but if you lapse off-boost with any regularity then there is a measure of turbo lag which can make point to point driving a little disjointed, and irritating. You need to maintain a respectable number of rpm and the stubby gear lever requires constant stirring — it’s just as well that the ‘box has a slick, firm action. When all is said and done, driven with common sense and your wits about you, the GT-Four is one of the quickest machines you could take down deserted B-roads in poor conditions. The brakes are impressive in their power and feel, should you get carried away.

If there’s a particular department where this machine betters its direct opposition, it is the level of comfort, even when pressing on. None of the controls are unduly heavy for such performance and there’s no Cosworth-like roughness here to cause aural aggravation. The suspension is supple despite its primary purpose, and the ride is comfortable as a result.

The GT-Four has luxury items not normally associated with rally cars: air conditioning, an audible brake pad wear indicator (!), a snazzy stereo, air bag, immobiliser alarm and electric everything bar the wellcontoured and supportive seats. The GT-Four is practical, too. An ergonomically sound driving position is easily attainable, and you get a clear view of the simple, neat yet comprehensive array of instruments adorning the swooping dash. Unless the driver is a professional basketball player, three passengers can be made quite comfortable. There is a modest amount of luggage space and a range of up to 400 miles is possible from the 15 gallon tank. We recorded an average test figure of around 26 mpg.

Verdict

The wild-eyed Escort Cosworth would be eating the GT-Four’s dust if looks enhanced performance. But they don’t, and the Escort not only accelerates faster than the Toyota, but it’s almost £5000 cheaper. That said, the GT-Four is just as versatile and less tiring when driven hard for any length of time. There’s no doubt that the GT-Four is a complete and solid a coupé as you could imagine. It comes so close to being a great car, but the front-drive bias removes a little of the sensory pleasure and, at, the £29,235, it isn’t exactly the bargain of the year. R.R.B.

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