Hoodwinked

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134

Toyota’s Celica cabrio certainly looks the part, but it struggles desperately in the value-for-money stakes.

For a long time now, I have had this inner turmoil, trying to decide which type of car I’d select should I be forced to own one, and only one. Only those who relish being permanently miserable or wear ill-fitting toupees (which amounts to the same thing), could disagree about the desirability of a convertible for liberating the spirit, blowing away the cobwebs and releasing the tensions after a tedious day.

Personally, I’ve never been truly satisfied with any vehicle that cannot attain Warp Factor Six and pull a lateral G of at least four, all with razor-sharp responses. No convertible yet produced could supply all of these elements; even a Caterham Seven would leave Star Treks Scottie woefully disappointed.

It is indeed, a tricky problem. but in an ideal world it would have to be a single seater Formula One car of the pre-turbo era when they also had suspension movement and aerodynamics played less of a vital role in cornering — one from the early seventies perhaps. But not only do I have driver’s licence and family to consider, but in spite of my addiction to Gs, I still have friends to transport too.

My only consolation is that new rag-tops are popping out like peas from a pod, and as the march of time is generally commensurate with progress (despite some notable exceptions), upon my eventual, theoretically enforced purchase, I may at least be able to afford a not too disappointing compromise.

In the real world, and at the more attractive end of the rag-top market, Toyota has recently introduced its latest convertible — and its most tempting effort so far — the latest generation Celica GT.

Its immediate and prime asset is handsome, individual lines, being one of the few convertibles with better looks than its tin-top counterpart, while retaining its individuality. Based on the American GT-spec anti-corrosion sheet steel body, the conversion is executed by ASC. Its very high quality hood is fully automatic and is raised or lowered in a matter of seconds with a dashboard switch. When lowered, a smart one-piece tonneau can be clipped neatly into place.

Naturally, the Cabrio’s chassis has received the stiffening required to compensate for the lack of a solid roof. Strengthening around doors, front pillars, roof stowage area and front and rear suspension sub-frames ensure that scuttle shake is better controlled than most tin-top conversions. However, unless a chassis is designed without a roof, this phenomenon will never be utterly eliminated.

Sensibly, Toyota has opted for the ‘If it ain’t broken don’t fix it’ policy, so the convertible retains virtually the same spec as the reasonably competent 2 + 2 coupe on which it is based (tested, MOTOR SPORT June 1994). To recap; the motive force is supplied by a front-mounted transverse 2.0-litre twin-cam 16-valve, 173bhp 3S GE engine driving the front wheels. Whist not the smoothest four-cylinder on the market, it is far from the roughest, but the convertible’s weight handicap ensures that its claimed performance remains adequate rather than sparkling. Zero to 60mph in 8.5 sec and 134 maximum will not raise any eyebrows, never mind pulse rates.

MacPherson struts all round are supplemented by front camber control arms and bracing rod, while dual links and longitudinal strut rods assist with control at the rear. As usual with most exterior transformations these days, the convertible’s interior is almost indistinguishable from that of the coupe, and even from the monster turbopowered GT4 version. Nonetheless, its fussfree design is comfortable on the eye and ergonomically sound, though the tiny rear window renders bad three-quarter vision with the hood raised.

Disappointingly, and contrary to the press blurb, refinement isn’t wonderful with the hood raised either. Despite the attempts of the design department to maximise sealing efficiency, the combination of wind noise about the B-pillar and tyre roar can be a drag on motorways. More rattles than you would expect for such perceived build quality are also annoying. In fact, driving with the hood lowered is an altogether less irritating experience, with more of the right sounds swirling round the lugs. The exhaust note, which sounds as though it has been acoustically tampered with, is mildly pleasing.

It would sound even better if the car wasn’t so long-legged and you could play around with the box just for fun a little more often. As things stand, not only is the outright performance a trifle disappointing, but the way in which the Celica Cabrio achieves the manufacturer’s claims is even more so.

With an engine which responds only to high revs, it is strange that fifth gear feels almost an overdrive, and one gets an inkling that the maximum speed could almost be achieved in fourth. On the continent, when the need arises, acceleration in fifth from 80mph-plus could be embarrassing. Surprisingly, Toyota claims the sister coupe’s performance to be similar, but the Cabrio, for some reason, feels much slower.

We had hoped for the compensation of exciting handling, but suspected otherwise as soon as we experienced the excellent ride. Supple and forgiving, its softness betrayed a lack of sharpness that subsequent hard cornering confirmed. As with the coupe, the chassis design is basically competent, but the Cabrio’s inherent looseness magnifies its shortcomings.

That’s not to say that its unpredictable. Quite the opposite in fact; understeer is abundant but never gets out of hand. Responses to sudden changes of direction are adequate if not stunningly quick. Lateral grip is nothing special, but the chassis always transmits SOS warnings well before either end (and it’s usually the front) lets go.

You will not be frightened mid-bend by undulations or poor cambers, nor will you be worried about understeering off, or by trying to control a rear-end slide when you’ve just lifted off. The Celica Cabrio is an easy car to drive pretty quickly; but you won’t be inspired. The steering sees to that.

At least the coupe’s more rigid shell retains a modicum of sharpness, but the woolly speed-related steering doesn’t help that car either. Driving what ought to be a fun car is thus is rather uninvolving and soul-less. Even the brakes could do with a little more progression and less pedal travel. In other words, this is no sports car. Fuel consumption figures consolidate this. The Cabrio is, mercifully, no gas-guzzler, returning a reasonable 29.6 mpg on our test.

Verdict

What does the Celica Cabrio offer? Smashing looks. A bit of exclusivity; only 250 are to be imported this year. Very comfortable seats which are supportive enough in all the right places not to get unbearable on long hauls. A great driving position and feather-light controls, including a slick gearchange and competent brakes. Suitable accommodation for two adults, two little ‘uns and not unreasonable luggage room for all, providing you leave the tonneau at home.

It also has a level of equipment lacking nothing which is considered necessary these days, save air conditioning which is available as an option. Toyota’s usual warranties and excellent service intervals. It’s good news until you get to the most staggering of the Celica’s ‘attributes’ — the price. It costs a whopping £27,975.

The only good news for Toyota is that the similarly priced TVR Chimaera has only two seats and is in short supply. With such a cars tugging at the heart strings, it will come as no surprise to tell you that the Celica Cabrio will not add to my inner turmoil whilst I continually update my short-list of compromise cars. A GT4 Cabrio? Now there’s a thought. R R B