The cars we loved.
Today the Toyota is sparring with GM for bragging rights for the world’s largest car company. For Toyota’s part, its long term strategy seems to have been to build cars that people will want. Those people usually treat cars as a means to an end like a washing machine or lawnmower. Just a tool to reliably get a job done. The process of creating focus group centered cars has yielded high levels of customer satisfaction by people who value reliability and efficiency above fun and aesthetics. Cars like the Camry and Corolla are tops in their class, but where’s the passion?
Twenty or even as little as ten years ago, Toyota made some exciting if not interesting cars. They were not upmarket items reserved for the Lexus brand, which has just recently has taken excitement seriously, but cars like the MR2 and the Celica. These were affordable everyday performance machines.
While the demise of the Supra and MR2 signal Toyota’s fall from the performance pedestal, it was the Celica that once represented affordable and practical performance for everyone.
The Celica has long been Toyota’s version of a pony car, except that it was usually front wheel drive and was solidly built and dependable. The final Celica had entered its seventh generation for the 2000 model year. Like many recent Japanese products, the new Celica was designed at Toyota’s Calty Design and Research Center in California. As Celicas go, the new wedge shape was a striking departure from the previous design. Toyota was certain that the cab forward approach borrowed from some of its race cars would appeal to a younger demographic than before.
That was all well and good, but Celica prices had crept upward and as GT cars, they had some of the highest resale values on the market. These price pressures underscored the fact that the Celica was often packed with advance technology, often found in more expensive cars. Never mind that technically it was a generation ahead of some coupes it competed with like the Cavalier LS or even the Mitsubishi Eclipse.
In an attempt to reign in costs, Toyota engineers focused on making only one type available. Gone were the convertible, and notchback coupes of the past. No turbos or all-wheel drive either. The last Celica was keeping it real by building in light weight as a hatchback coupe only. The lightest of which weighed in at an astonishingly low 2398lb. The low weight made for sprightly performance in the base car, while the GT-S was something of a rocket, making it a early press favorite for its combination of handling and power.
The Celica was a favorite of the motoring press almost as soon as it was peaked to the public at the Detroit Motor Show in 1999. As a concept the XYR closely resembled the final product, save for the front and rear bumpers. By the time the production version reached the Frankfurt show later that year, the Celica would go on sale in Japan, America and Europe. Out the gate sales were strong. The new car’s longer wheelbase with short overhangs was shorter overall than the car it replaced. Its ride was improved, but its suspension strayed little from previous Celicas: front McPherson struts and a double wishbone rear with stabilizer bars at both ends. European and Japanese market cars featured an optional Superstrut suspension system that sharpened handling, but made the ride firmer. This option never made it to The States, where GT cars were moving in the direction of the Monte Carlo (softly sprung highway cruisers).
The lightest cars likely never made it to America, as nearly every model sold in the States, be it a ST, GT or GT-S would have air conditioning and increasingly a four speed automatic transmission. In fact the 7th Gen Celica offered more optional equipment than any Celica before it. No NAV systems, but occupants could be entertained with one of the last Toyota factory radio/CD/Cassette stereos. There was one engine available in two states of tune with four transmission configurations.
You could have your 1.8-liter four cylinder with a basic 16 valve dohc configuration (SS-I) or a fancier version with Toyotas variable valve technology called VVTL-i (SS-II). The former engine produced nearly 190 hp vs. the base engines 145. There was a standard 5 speed manual or 4 speed automatic for the base cars, while the GT-S with the VVTL-i engine got a 6 speed manual or a modified version of the 4 speed automatic. Plenty of options, yet most ended up with automatic transmissions.
Because Celicas were so well optioned, it could be difficult to distinguish the GT-S from lesser models due to optional 16 inch wheels. Later the Celica would offer a ground effects package in 2002 called the “ Action Package” in an attempt to boost sales with 90s Pontiac-like cheesiness. Few substantial changes occurred during the course of production. A mild facelift in 2003 changed bumpers by altering the air dam for a slightly more aggressive look.
In many ways the Celica was like the rich kid who tried to fit in with the kids of working class parents. The target market often could not afford the loaded GT-S versions. Although a mid-level car, the good breeding inside where Toyota ergonomics had raised the Celica to near Lexus standards of fit and finish. Some interiors suffered from too much grey plastic, especially in lesser models. In all versions the controls were simple and well placed and everything about the design suggested quality and attention to detail. In the GT-S, leather seats, a moon roof and higher quality interior accents gave the impression of being in a Lexus, or a sportier version of the Solara.
However good the Celica was, it was doomed like another high quality coupe from Honda, the Prelude. Sales were at their highest in 2000 at over 50,000 units sold in America when the model was fresh. It would steadily drop as prices went up and the market for coupes seemed to go the way of the dinosaur. By 2004 only 5,836 were sold, prompting Toyota to announce the end of US sales in 2005. That year less than 2000 were sold in the United States. Sales continued shortly after in Europe and Japan until the plug was pulled for good in 2006.
The Celica was a victim of changing demographics, a poor economy and its own high resale value. At about the time hurricane Katrina struck and the war in the Iraq was taking center stage, the announcement of the end of the Celica was hardly noticed at all. In fact, mid-priced two door sport coups would drop off like flies, with cars like the Cavalier/Cobalt hanging on while the Eclipse held on for dear life. The Celica’s most direct competition, the Honda Prelude had already succumb to the knife.
Toyota would later conclude that the youth market cared more about looks than performance, giving birth to the Scion brand of often ugly but sometimes trendy cars. With a new and potentially fun Corolla around the corner, Toyota suddenly seems to be into fun again. While the Celica is down, it may not be out. Maybe there’s room in Toyota’s future for the Celica after all.