There's something to be said about simplicity. In a world of ever-increasing gadgets and complexity, it's a surprising breath of fresh air to step into a car with almost none of the mod-cons.
The 1998 Toyota Starlet (manual) is just that – simple and refreshing. Yes, it has air-conditioning (which is almost mandatory in our Australian climate, especially in northern states), airbags and ABS, but that’s where the feature list ends. There’s no power steering, no power windows, no power-assisted brakes or stability control. No start/stop, no Bluetooth, no automatic headlights, nothing much of anything, really.
You change gears yourself, wind up the windows yourself, turn on the headlights yourself and roll backwards on hill starts if you’re not careful. Everything is brilliantly manual (including the gearbox on this model) – and it’s fantastic. Call me nostalgic or just out of touch, but there’s something about this car that makes it a pleasure to drive.
Sure, I enjoy driving our other family car with its turbo engine, AEB and radar cruise control, but the Starlet is a different type of drive. A raw, engaging, back-to-the-’90s type vibe. You find yourself smiling, enjoying the drive, without even quite knowing why.
I bought this car purely as a run-about to get me to work and home – a 20-minute commute across the northern suburbs of Brisbane. While I was tempted to look at budget new-car options such as the brilliantly equipped and priced Kia Picanto, I ended up saving my pennies and investing $1500 big ones in the ’98 Starlet. I’m glad I did.
Sure, I’m missing out on a bunch of safety gear, but that’s a call I just have to make. I briefly considered a motorbike for my commute, so in comparison the Starlet is already safer and more pleasurable in poor weather than any two-wheeled options. And I don’t plan to use it beyond my traversing to and from work or the odd shopping trip.
The Starlet predates the Yaris, and the Echo before that. It’s one of Toyota’s more original small car entries, and designed just for the use case I’m employing – ferrying passengers from A to B without all the fuss. Powered by a 1.3-litre naturally aspirated four producing 55kW and 112Nm, it’s not exactly fast, although it feels far niftier due to its sub-one-tonne kerb weight.
In fact, the light weight of the vehicle makes it actually fun. You get a little of the go-kart feel that was much more prevalent in cars of this era than it is now. While I’m unlikely to beat any modern car in a drag race, the light, nifty nature of the car makes me feel comfortable negotiating rapid-action roundabouts or merging into fast-flowing traffic.
The five-speed manual gearbox is great, and even after 260,000km it clicks into every gear with a reassuring 'clack'. The clutch is also light and easy, although the catch point is a little too far away from the firewall for my liking (though I’m unsure if this is common for all Starlets or just mine).
Steering is light and progressive at speed, but dead heavy while idle – a result of the lack of any power assist here. Tight turns in carparks mean putting your weight into the wheel and developing quite some muscle tone while you’re at it – who needs a gym?
Fuel consumption has been great, averaging 5–6L/100km on my short runs to and from work, and I find myself filling up the 40L tank only once per fortnight or so. It also takes dirt-cheap 91 unleaded as a bonus to the hip pocket.
The interior is sparse and utilitarian. Vinyl dash and door trim up front, with plastic trim in the rear (albeit fading and deteriorating after 20 years of sunlight). The seats are firm but comfortable, and a noticeably high ride height in the front (something that was common for cars of this era).
Visibility is unrivalled with large, deep, un-tinted windows on the two-door Starlet making for unobstructed shoulder checks and surrounding views. Likewise, the rear window provides excellent viewing angles while reversing. The whole car feels like a glasshouse with plenty of light and visibility. It’s the antithesis to modern cars’ sloping roof lines and high, sleek windows.
My only gripe – there are no cupholders. The previous owner graciously fitted a vent-mounted cup holder, which to date has held my morning cappuccinos without disaster.
As for infotainment, the original car comes with a tape-deck and little else. My particular model has an aftermarket JVC head unit that plays CDs – themselves already a relic of the past.
This model of Starlet also features air-conditioning, which is plenty cold for the warmer weather, and an ‘e-con’ mode that provides lighter cooling without as much engine drain (something that is handy with an engine of such limited power). Heating is a little slow, however, meaning I’m often halfway to work before the car finally starts to warm up. I’m not sure if this is a shortfall of the model or just a result of a clogged and aged heater matrix on my particular car.
But being an old car comes with its advantages. Firstly, it’s dead simple to service and modify. I’m not talking turbos, but little things like changing the globes behind the instrument panel, or swapping the interior light for an LED one. Things that in a modern car would result in a voided warranty and a thousand mismatched bolts, clips and data cables.
Adding personal touches also goes without fear of breaking something or disturbing the atmosphere of a modern car. Adding a vent-mounted phone mount, for example – something I would never dare do in a new car, lest I cause damage to the vent. In the Starlet, it’s no worries. The vent is stronger, and if it breaks it’s not a big deal to replace.
As a result, with my phone mounted at a pleasing visible level, I can enjoy Android Auto in my 20-year-old Toyota – fancy that (take note Toyota Australia). A good old-fashioned cigarette point charger and AUX cable mean it’s as integrated into the car as I need.
It’s hard to believe there was a day when all cars were like this, and we’ve certainly progressed in terms of connectivity and safety, yet I can’t help but feel we also might have lost something along the way. There’s a strange sense of connection in older cars like this that swells above the pure nostalgia of driving a 20-year-old car.
You can catch glimpses of it between the faint smell of engine oil, the heavy steering and the lack of noise suppression at highway speeds. You can sometimes sense it in the higher seating position and the low, not-even-tinted-one-bit windows. It hovers around the thud of the closing bonnet and the click of the key-operated driver's door lock.
Memories of an era when everything was basic, functional, raw – from the engine to the interior. When cars were light off the line and light on the fuel. Not because their engines were overly efficient, but because the lack of any non-essentials meant the laws of physics smiled favourably on them.