At the start of 2020 I had an urge to get a ‘weekend’ car. Something I could have a tinker with and not rely upon for everyday drudgery through traffic. It had to be relatively cheap (around 10 grand), somewhat unique, and something that I could maintain and modify easily without breaking the bank. After spending numerous hours online over the course of a few weeks I eventually stumbled across this car and jumped on it.
This particular seventh generation Celica (1999-2005) seemed to be a good fit for my needs. It was unique, had a shape that has aged well, and was combined with some genuine engineering. I believe this car was put together to take some sales away from the Honda Civic Type R. Unfortunately for Toyota, they did not build a Type R slayer… instead they made an excellent GT tourer with handing, performance and style that was far better suited for road use than the track-focused Honda.
This Celica has an engine that was part of the 100hp-per-litre club back in its day. This was a rarefied club at the turn of this century and is still impressive to me in 2020. A 140-kilowatt package that weighs just over a ton (1155kg) means it feels light on its feet. The close ratio 6-speed manual shifts positively and quickly, making lightning changes an easy proposition. Its stretched wheel base combined with short overhangs make it sit square on the road, much like a go kart. The long frameless doors, gleaming red duco and low slung demeanour had me excited before I’d even turned the key.
This car is fitted with the 1.8-litre, 2ZZ-GE engine. It was co-developed with Yamaha - the people who make motorcycles, and not just pianos. Regardless, this engine hits a high note every time it sings. By that I mean it really makes some good noises when the tach needle passes 6000rpm. The engine comes alive and pushes hard all the way to its 8000+ rpm cut out. It’s a narrow band of performance, but one that’s fun to explore.
When pressing the accelerator, you can actually feel the car surge forward with some energetic enthusiasm. It has a bit of character and bares its teeth on demand. The top end rush to redline is simply a delight, making the car feel quicker than its specification sheet suggests. Having a naturally aspirated sporty engine is a welcomed change from ‘normal’ cars of today with their low blow turbos, meaty mid-ranges and no fizzle at the other end of the tach.
Pushing any car to eight thousand revolutions per minute would surely be a short-lived experience for most common vehicles, whereas this near twenty year old Toyota pulls this trick off time and time again with ease. When exploring its limits, one needs some form of restraint to stop doing it because it can become a little addictive. When working the car to its full potential, it demands constant attention to keep it on the boil.
After a search through my library of old magazines, I found some copies of Wheels and Motor magazines from 1999-2001 that fortunately had some articles and details about the car. Reading the reviews I discovered this car could pull just over 7 seconds to a 100km/h and would pass the quarter mile in mid-15’s. Not bad for what was considered to be a hairdresser's car. Those numbers align nicely with some old injected 5-litre V8 Holden’s that I used to have and currently own. In fact, those numbers are not too far off many modern performance hatches too.
Below 6000rpm, the engine is docile and placid, giving no hint to what lies above this operating range. It is easy to live with and potter along without hiccups or hesitations. I find that I can cruise in sixth gear at 80km/h pulling 2500rpm without protest. Economy is also impressive - I am averaging between 7-8 litres per 100 kilometres around town.
When the need or urge arises, a quick excursion to the upper end of the tach unleashes the other dimension to its personality, almost begging you to tag the limiter and push its sharp chassis through some bends at speed. These two talents are traits that I value… and come to think of it, maybe you would too.
After a couple thousand kilometres of ownership, our relationship has almost gone to the next level. Being scared to say it out loud, I have almost blurted out the ‘L’ word in public and amongst friends. This petite oriental beauty has really grown on me. Being cheap to buy, run and own are all pluses. The fact that it easily whips past millennials in traffic - who pretend to be focused, but are wandering across lanes because of their phones - is simply “oh what a feeling” entertainment. I have yet to do the Toyota jump as portrayed in their advertising campaigns for fear of exposing a middle aged gut on anyone with vision. Am I happy? Hell yes. Do I care that it's old, not that fast and could be mistaken for a mid-life crisis car? Not at all.
This car has made me look at hot hatches with a new perspective. I had never considered these types of car until now. I mean, real men don’t drive hatches with a motor that’s smaller than a carton of milk... or do they? Did I miss something all these years? Clearly my one-eyed loyalty to local products from both the red and blue corner may have clouded my judgement.
Moving forward, my perspective has changed, and I can see the virtues of cars of this ilk. Being small, economical and effervescent means drivers can have some fun without breaching too far astray from the speed limit. I find that after bashing the limiter in the first three cogs, the car is just over 100km/h and is easily brought down to speed to keep Officer Plod off my back.
The steering is very direct and precise. It changes direction extremely well and is a revelation compared to the heavy clumsy sedans I have owned in the past that were once thought to be performance cars in their day. Being front-wheel drive, it can be provoked into understeer when you overload it with physics, but if you have some finesse, you can really make it fly through a bend with a decent turn of speed. I think I could even make it oversteer with some mid corner lift off as the front end track is wider than the rear. How fun would that be?
The suspension is firm but not obtrusively so, as my old body does not get belted around on a long drive through the hills. The brakes are fine and can pull the car up well, causing me no issues at present. The tyres came with heaps of tread but have the kind of grip that would only be familiar to a cat trying to run across ceramic kitchen tiles. Being well over the 5 year mark in age they are hard and dry and will need to be changed before winter hits.
Air-conditioning, heating, electric windows, cruise control and the CD player all work (thank god). Even the headlights have a projector style lens and give a decent amount of light at night to make driving safe. To put things into perspective, I absolutely needed stronger bulbs in my recent 2018 Nissan X-Trail purchase as the factory lights were so dim I was almost reaching for a Labrador the get additional vision support.
Behind the wheel, I feel like I’m gripping an old school ‘Momo’. It feels okay and is somewhat thinner than today’s modern cars, but still does the job nicely. When you climb inside, you realise this car is low. You fall into the seat (literally) whilst holding onto the windscreen pillar for support. Your legs are stretched outwards to make you think you are entering an old school super car. Pedal placement is excellent, and so too is the wonderful left footrest that allows you to genuinely stretch out when you tire of banging on the clutch… which you will do often in this car.
Interior fit and finish is acceptable – nothing spectacular here. The analogue dials are a good size, and being able to watch the needles bend is entertaining compared to the digital readouts of today. The fact that redline is at 7800rpm gets my pulse elevated. The large speedo reads to 260km/h and it makes me want to explore what the top speed potential of this old girl truly is.
Having no Bluetooth, reverse camera or sat-nav makes you realise how far the world has moved forward. Despite the lack of connectivity, it’s been a pleasure to actually put old CD’s into the player and enjoy music I have not listened to in ages. My solution to audio streaming and hands free conversations is a cheap Bluetooth speaker – audio quality varies depending on where it lands through the bends.
Boot space is a pleasant surprise for such a small hatch back. It is quite spacious and does not mind the odd bit of IKEA shopping when the rear seats are laid flat. While on the subject of the boot, I decided to pull out the spare the other day and use it when doing a quick wheel rotation. Upon closer inspection of the tyre I noticed the build date was 2001. Wow… this car has its original spare, and it looks perfect, sporting more nipples than a Sydney Mardi Gras.
Inside, the seats look good but feel cheap to me. My body struggles to blend (bend?) into their shape and I could do without the lower back ache from time to time. The dash layout is clear, the orange font on the dials and lighting colour at night is period Toyota. I like the porthole air vents and the shape of the dash, which looks inspired by Darth Vader to my eyes, making me ponder what the stylists were thinking when trying to differentiate this car from everything else at the time.
Many of the Celica’s created over its 35 year history were simply a rehashed two-door Camry for the most part. This car is anything but a Camry beneath the skin. It has independent suspension all round, a decent diameter exhaust system, huge intake runners on the engine, combined with VVTL-I (Toyota’s version of VTEC). I feel there is enough engineering and thought put into this car to make it a little bit special.
Being a Toyota means it should be reliable and dependable. So far, I have not experienced any issues and I don’t think I will judging by the number of these for sale online with well over 300,000km and still running strong. For me, cars have never needed to be the latest, greatest, or fastest to be fun. They just need to make you smile. Recycling this old classic is a great way to keep money back in our country (where it belongs) and it’s certainly a cost effective way of enjoying motoring without breaking the bank. See you in traffic.
MORE: Everything Toyota