ROAD TEST

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Toyota Celica Supra

OVER the past few years Japanese cars with a sporting flavour have improved quite dramatically, combining their already established reputations for providing a high level of basic equipment with extremely competitive pricing against their European rivals. But many of them have still had question marks hanging over their handling and adhesion, so this sort of shortcoming has frequently spoilt what might otherwise be an excellent package and sent buyers elsewhere. Machines like the Mazda RX7 and, more recently, the turbocharged Colt Starion have gone a long way towards making up for these deficiencies and a recent spell spent with the 2.8-litre Toyota Celica Supra confirms that this improvement is being sustained. Even Toyota, in their press hand-out material, will acknowledge that their products haven’t been ideal as far as road manners are concerned. In their release extolling the virtues of the new Celica Supra they claim “handling, grip, ride and roadholding which would have seemed impossible in a Japanese car even a few years ago“. At least they’ve got the honesty to concede their earlier shortcomings. But just how good was the Celica going to be? The writer approached his task with a measure of scepticism: after all, if one’s every day staff car is a 2.8-litre injected Capri there’s no doubt you’ll be expecting a lot from any potential market challenger. Thus, with a great deal of fascinated interest, we approached this new Japanese machine.

Before assessing the Celica Supra’s road manners, it’s worth complimenting Toyota on the appearance of this sporting hatchback. In common with many other scribes, the writer always felt that the Honda Prelude was the first Japanese “sporty car” to invade the UK market offering acceptable standards of ride, comfort and handling precision. Please ignore the RX7 rotary-engined coupe (which I think is so superbly European that I can hardly believe it is Japanese!) while we’re considering this subject! Toyota’s recent range of Celicas have always given the impression of offering solid, relatively stylish value-for-money even if they’ve been a little on the garish side. But, well-equipped or not, I have never regarded any Celica as a machine to be hurried through fast bends on count, roads — particularly in the wet. Memories of low-geared steering and annoying understeer plagued my mind as I approached Toyota’s latest offering. It would have to impress me a good deal to match up to that Capri. Five hundred miles later I returned the car to Toyota’s care with genuine regret; the Celica Supra has launched its manufacturer down an ambitious path against several highly-regarded rivals. And I have to say that I was almost totally captivated by the car: unquestionably, it is a major step forward that will impress many potential buyers.

The new Celica range was introduced to the British market six months ago and the 2.8-litre Supra is based on this much-improved coupé. We have yet to drive one of the 2.0ST Celicas, but the Supra combines all their well-balanced lines with refined front-end styling, even better aerodynamics, longer wheelbase and wider track. Japanese EFI electronic fuel injection contributes to the responsiveness of the quiet and refined, 2,759 c.c. (83 mm. x 85 nun.) six cylinder engine which powers this Toyota. In effect a high performance version of the single-camshaft unit which has recently been installed in the Crown Super saloon, the Supra’s power unit develops 168 b.h.p. at 5,600 r.p.m. On first acquaintance this is the single most impressive aspect of the car: it starts at the first turn of the key, warms up quickly without any stuttering and runs with silk-smooth precision. Only when revving it hard — beyond 5,500 r.p.m. does this Toyota’s engine begin to feel just slightly coarse and out-of-breath: in that respect it doesn’t match the Capri for sheer crispness of response, but it’s far smoother and just as flexible at lower revs.

For practical purposes there’s no point in exceeding the 6,500 r.p.m. limit at any time, maximum power coming up at 5,600 r.p.m., and anything much beyond 6,000 r.p.m. simply resulting in increased noise and fuel consumption for very little return. With a 0-60 m.p.h. time of just over eight seconds, the Supra is adequately quick without touching the really high performance bracket, but it’s the whole demeanour of the can which is so truly impressive, the way in which it delivers its performance, that one can’t help recalling.

For those who bemoaned the long-throw gearchange featured in many earlier Toyotas, relief is at hand with the Supra. The change controlling the five-speed box is taut and precise — every bit as good as a Capri for feel and with the added benefit of a nice long fifth ratio as well. Torque figures are also impressive, the Celica Supra peaking at 169 lb./ft. at 4,600 r.p.m. — it’s possible to run down to 22 m.p.h. in the relatively high ratio fifth (22.61 m.p.h. per 1,000 r.p.m.) and then edge away without a murmur or a shudder, easing back up towards the car’s claimed 130 m.p.h. maximum.

This torque enables the Supra’s flexibility to be enjoyed in smooth silence: gentle country motoring can be carried out without ever using anything but third or fourth once one is on the move. It is only when one comes to hurling the Supra around on medium speed corners or through tight lanes that awareness of handling shortcomings enters one’s mind. Suspension follows the same lines as the Celica ST with MacPherson struts at the front and semi-trailing arms and coil springs at the rear. Anti-roll bars are fitted front and reamed the chassis specification is rounded off with 14 x 5.5J light alloy wheels fitted at the factory with Michelin 195/70 VR 14 high speed tyres.

For those who have reservations about power steering, the Supra should hold no worries. Speed sensitive power steering is fitted as standard and it offers just the right amount of feel; it’s responsive and pretty precise without being over-light. The ride is firm, but not harsh, and it’s pleasing lobe able to relate that this Japanese challenger rides bumps and potholes without the spine-jarring thump that the writer recalls from some of its compatriot machines. Under normal driving conditions handling is commendably neutral, but when pressed hard there’s a reassuring touch of understeer. And when pressed really hard one becomes aware that the Supra is a little on the soft and spongy side to deserve the title of sports coupé— sports limousine might be a better tag by which to describe it. The Michelins do a good job of hanging on, even in the wet, but should you need to back off suddenly in the middle of a medium speed corner, or worse still, brake, the Supra is instantly unsettled and lurches into a sudden oversteer. The ventilated discs on all four wheels, with tandem vacuum servos and master cylinders, were beyond reproach, though.

When I recounted to a colleague just how impressed I’d been with the overall Celica Supra Package, he replied suspiciously, “Ah, but what about the interior? I suppose it’s like Las Vegas as usual!” I have to say that I understand exactly what he means. Many Japanese cars of recent years have seemed to specialise in providing over-ornate “gimmicky” interiors with over-complicated controls. But while the Supra’s trim and equipment is certainly lavish, and too plasticky for many people’s taste, I didn’t find it ornate or over-done.

Through the upper half of the two-spoke steering wheel the driver is faced by a distinctive instrument cluster providing a 140 m.p.h. / 220 k.p.h. speedometer on the left and a rev, counter red-lined from 6,500 r.p.m. on the right. Ranked below these two main instruments, from left to right, there is an oil pressure gauge, water temperature gauge, commendably accurate digital clock, fuel gauge and battery charge indicator. From either side of the steering column sprout rather frail-feeling plastic stalks, on the left controlling the three-speed wipers and washer, while those on the right control side lights, flip-up headlights and main / dipped beam. In order to flash the lights it is necessary to raise them first and this takes a couple of seconds. On either side of the main instrument binnacle, two hideous, cheap looking, rotating controls (reminiscent of an early Hillman Avenger) control the rear screen wash / wipe facility and the demister (left) and the standard equipment cruise control (right) which I, personally, have always felt is a mandate for bad driving and have only used on one occasion.

I thought that the individual front seats were absolutely outstanding. Not only are they adjustable for seat back angle and thigh support in addition to moving in the normal fore-and-aft plane, but they incorporate a novel tri-bladder air pressurised lumbar support system by means of which you can inflate the lower region of the seat back for maximum comfort, something which will prove an absolute boon to anybody suffering with any sort of back troubles, such as a slipped disc or lumbago.

The Celica Supra comes equipped with an excellent radio / stereo unit and the air conditioning system proved a boon during the recent spate of scorching weather we enjoyed in England throughout late July and early August. There are sufficient fascia vents to get a worthwhile through flow of air and an electrically operated sliding roof (again, as standard equipment) added to the overall appeal from this point of view. Electrically operated windows are standard but, surprisingly, not central locking.

Visibility all round is excellent through tinted glass, although drivers who are on the short side may find that it is difficult to judge the bonnet width as it slopes away quite dramatically. Outwardly, the car’s appearance is enhanced by impact-absorbing bumpers front and rear, with a rubbing strip mid-way between window level and the door sills, while the large counterbalanced hatchback lifts up to reveal a more than adequate luggage compartment. Other extras that will please buyers who relish value for money include seat belts front and rear (plus an occasional belt for a third passenger in the back) and the way in which the front seats slide forward to aid access to the rear when their backs are tipped forward.

All in all, the Toyota Celica Supra is a dramatically well-equipped car for its £9,898.17 tax-inclusive price tag. There have been occasions in the past when certain Japanese models have been touted as highly competitive propositions simply on the basis of their high level of auxiliary equipment: apparently secondary considerations such as road manners and performance have not been focussed on, and with good reason in many cases. But the Toyota Celica Supra will appeal to British and European tastes. It’s well finished, well equipped and handles quite respectably but, most of all, is powered by a really splendid six-cylinder engine which returned an average 26.1 m.p.g. while in our hands. Reflecting on how we hustled the Celica Supra, that’s not bad at all. Toyota have made great progress with this car and should be rewarded by ready acceptance in their overseas markets.

A.H.

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