Style over substance has always seemed to be Toyota’s motto when producing the Celica over a 35 year lifespan. The sports coupe was always eye catching but was lackluster when it came to performance excluding of course the GT4 models and final incarnation. I’ve lived with a 96 Celica for three years now and it is the perfect example of a car that is all show and no go.
During the 90s the Celica was far from a Japanese Mustang like what it started out in the 70s and so the sports car was no longer desirable especially among men. Being labelled as a “hairdresser car”, the Celica was front wheel drive and powered by the same engine used in the ever so exciting Camry. You can easily see why the majority of buyers were women and that the Hyundai S coupe outsold the Toyota. Not all is bad however; the exterior which shares styling clues with the Supra and Soarer has ages surprisingly well, still to this day the design is enough to make someone standout in a crowd flooded by hatchbacks and SUVs. Sadly this doesn’t carry over into the interior where the Celica suffers just like ever car produced during the 90s does. The cabin is littered with incredibly bleak, back and grey plastics, you feel as if you’re stuck in a black and white movie, even the dials lack creativity besides the speedo which is slap bang in the middle with the tachometer, fuel and engine temperature gauge being positioned around it. If there are any positives to take away from the dull interior, it would be the seats and the wrap around dash. The bucket seats sit low to the ground and provide the perfect driving position while offering a surprising amount of support and comfort. Combine this with the warp around dash and you feel very cosy.
As already mentioned, the performance isn’t exactly a highlight. Here in Australia we only got the one engine, the 2.2 litre, 4 cylinder which produced 100Kw and 196Nm of torque. Even during the 90s this power figure was laughed at by many and managed to record an 8.7 sec run to the 100 mark in manual form. This particular Celica has the four speed automatic which puts down a time of 9 secs. While not the ideal transmission choice, the slushboxes are more common to come across as they were sold in higher numbers. This results in a predominantly boring drive but at least the gearbox is reliable while the gear changes are always on time. There is a power/sports button that improves the shifting times and holds onto the gears longer to get the most out of the engine but there is no chance anyone is going to notice the difference.
Handling wise, the Celica doesn’t completely live up to the sports car title yet I wasn’t totally disappointed by the ability it displayed. Sure the suspension setup is bias to the soft side of things but the vehicle is low slung and relatively light. Coming in at a tad under 1.2 tonnes (1196kg) the Celica is skinny when compared to its rivals which are all well over that weight. Combine this with redesigned McPherson struts, light but direct steering and 205/55 R15 tires, this car floats through the corners with next to no body roll. By far the biggest standout are the brakes that can make anyone feel confident behind the wheel. Brake fade is simply never an issue, trust me, I’ve worked my discs considerably hard before.
Back in 1996, a base SX Celica cost $34,980 and for that you got absolutely nothing in the form of equipment, even air conditioning was an optional extra. Thankfully the person who bought this new ticked all the option boxes besides the one for airbags and god who knows why. Today the Celicas are trading somewhere between $2,500 and 5,000 and for that type of money you can buy a Honda Prelude, Ford Probe, Mazda MX-6 or Mitsubishi FTO. These are more serious sports cars and will provide a better smile per gallon, making the Celica the sensible choice, especially seeing as the Toyota will run forever without a hiccup.