2005 is the last year for the Toyota Celica; after 35 years, its being discontinued. Bummer. The latest (and last) iteration of the car is, I think, the best looking Celica ever made, and while it's not perfect, it's a great sports car. The Toyota Celica GT model starts at $18,210; the more powerful Celica GT-S I drove starts at $22,875. My fully-loaded test car stickered for $27,660. Warranty is 3 years/36,000 miles bumper-to-bumper, 5 years/60,000 miles on the powertrain.
The early 1990s was the heyday of Japanese sports cars. Creatures like the twin-turbo Nissan 300ZX, 300 horsepower Mitsubishi 3000GT, and all-wheel-drive Eagle Talon brought a new level of speed, handling and refinement to North American drivers. Sadly, it only took a few years before sports cars were out and SUVs were in. Today, the Toyota Celica GT-S stays true to the characters of those high-tech Japanese sportsters. The styling stands out like a clown suit at a funeral, and a heady dose of high-tech wizardry gives the Celica the moxie to back up its appearance. It goes as good as it looks.
In the Driver's Seat
The driver of the Celica sits low, with his or her legs almost straight out. Over-the-shoulder visibility is the pits. On my way to pick up the Celica, a guy in a Taurus tried to change lanes right into my rear bumper; it was close, and I was pretty rattled. Driving the Celica immediately after, I was almost too nervous to change lanes. Here's the process: Check the mirrors, look over your shoulder, pray that there isn't a small car in the big blind spot, then make your move slowly. If you don't hear a crunch, you've made it. Because of the poor sightlines, it's vital to keep an eye on traffic and know what's around you at all times. Rear vision isn't much better, particularly at night. The GT-S has a spoiler that bisects the rear window; the car sits low enough to be right in the path of most cars' headlights, which are blocked by the spoiler. As the car bumps up and down, the headlights dance above and below the spoiler, creating a flashing strobe effect that is both mesmerizing and annoying. Aside from that, I found the Celica quite comfortable, with nary a flaw in the ergonomics. The back seat is typically tiny, but the hatchback body and huge trunk make the Celica a surprisingly good cargo hauler.
On the Road
The heart of the GT-S is a 1.8 liter 16-valve 4-cylinder engine that delivers 180 hp to the front wheels. This engine's variable valve timing (VVTi) is set up for a burst of high-RPM power. Rev past 6,500 RPM and the magic begins: The engine's buzz turns to a vicious snarl and the car takes off like a scared rabbit, pulling hard right up to the 8,200 RPM rev limiter. What a ride! Most small high-RPM engines feel as limp as wet spaghetti at low RPMs, but not this one. Lazing around town, the GT-S burbles along happily in almost any gear. The 6-speed shifter feels so good I found myself looking for excuses to change gears. It has the tight, direct feel one expects to find in a rear-wheel-drive car, where the shift lever often is connected directly to the transmission. (With the transmission way up front, front-drivers usually use cables or rods. Some feel decent, but most feel awkward.) Manual Celicas get a 6-speed transmission. Reverse is located to the left of 1st, so to avoid confusion (shifting into reverse when you want first) a beeper sounds when reverse is selected. It's incredibly annoying, especially if you park in reverse--it won't shut up until you turn the car off.
Purists will tell you that proper sports cars are rear-wheel-drive. This is true--a front-wheel-drive car can't speed up out of a corner as well as a rear-driver--but unless you're on a racetrack, that doesn't count for much. The Celica GT-S handles about as well as any stock front-wheel-drive car. Driving as fast as I dared on public roads, I barely even tickled the Celica's handling limits. The ride is firm but not uncomfortable, and the steering is well weighted though a bit vague off center for my tastes. Front- vs. rear-drive aside, the Celica GT-S sure plays the part of a proper sports car well: It looks great, goes fast, drives well, and the high-RPM power surge is a guaranteed smile-generator. I have just one gripe: The price. Once you add sporting must-haves like side airbags, antilock brakes, bigger wheels and a sunroof, the GT-S' price creeps up towards $25 large. For the price of my test car, I could (and would) get a rear-drive Mazda RX-8. The sub-$20k GT lacks the GT-S' gem of an engine but it has the looks and the road manners. It's too bad that Toyota is discontinuing the Celica, but at least it's going out in style.