Toyota Celica Review

Toyota Celica Review

Few cars can claim to have made it through 35 consecutive years on the scene, but the Toyota Celica was such a survivor. Between its birth under Nixon and its death under Dubya, the Celica underwent several changes to powertrains, competitors and buyer demographics but never wavered from its mission as Toyota's entry-level sport coupe.

Arriving fresh on America's shores in groovy 1971, the earliest Celica was mostly memorable for having rear-wheel drive -- a tradition that lasted three generations. A major design shift came when the fourth-generation Celica adapted front-wheel-drive, Camry-based engineering in the mid-'80s. Toyota diversified the Celica even further in the '90s by releasing it in coupe, convertible and hatchback body styles.

Driving enthusiasts complained that these Celicas weren't very sporty, however, so Toyota tried a different approach for the new millennium by introducing a far racier machine. This most recent Toyota Celica restored some bang-for-the-buck to the Celica line, but the appeal of this high-strung, stiffly tuned sport coupe was limited. Ultimately, the company decided to take a different tack in this segment by replacing the Celica with the less athletic Scion tC, whose more relaxed nature, roomier cabin and high feature content are more in line with mainstream automotive tastes.

Someone interested in a used sport coupe or convertible will almost certainly want to take a look at the Toyota Celica. But know that the car's virtues vary with the time period. The most recent models were entertaining, offered good gas mileage and had decent space for cargo (if not people). Excellent reliability was another draw. On the downside, styling was always a bit experimental, and many versions weren't nearly as fast as they looked. In addition, high pricing, even on the used car market, makes the Celica a questionable value proposition alongside less expensive, oftentimes quicker, competitors.

Most Recent Toyota Celica

The Toyota Celica's last lifetime was easily its best. Sold for the 2000-'05 model years, this hatchback sport coupe, when compared to older Celicas, offered fresh engines, a lighter chassis, a new double-wishbone rear suspension for improved handling and a thousands-lower price. The new Celica debuted to tripled sales figures and much acclaim from speed-crazed car critics.

The standard Celica was the GT, whose 140-horsepower 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine moved this sub-2,500-pounder easily. A five-speed manual transmission was standard and a four-speed automatic was optional. Still, most of the praise fell upon the GT-S. Its 1.8-liter engine, equipped with variable valve timing and lift (VVTL-i) technology, gave a 180-hp kick in the pants, albeit at a lofty 6,400 rpm. Other GT-S upgrades included disc brakes all around and a six-speed manual transmission, plus the power windows and locks, cruise control, alloy wheels and better stereo that were optional on the Celica GT.

Any Toyota Celica from this time period was fun to toss around thanks to highly responsive steering, a well-sorted suspension and strong brakes. Ride quality was tolerable given the car's impressive handling capabilities, but compared to rivals like the Acura RSX, Mitsubishi Eclipse and VW GTI, it was less compliant over bumps and expansion joints. In addition, as rewarding as the Celica GT-S could be when running at high rpm, it took a patient and motivated driver to get the most out of it. Its minimal low-end torque (126 pound-feet at 4,200 rpm) could be a hassle in traffic, while the six-speed manual's notchy shift action and closely spaced gates made it easy to grab the wrong gear.

There were other flaws in the Celica's interior, which was victim to an inhospitable backseat, poor rearward visibility and cheap-looking plastics on the dash. Ergonomics were mostly sound, at least, and the front bucket seats were well-shaped despite their limited adjustability.

Toyota changed the Celica little over the years. An all-cosmetic "Action Package" joined the options list in 2002, and 2003 brought some styling changes inside and out, plus a newly optional JBL stereo and HID xenon headlights.

In any year, the GT-S is the Celica of choice for buyers seeking a true sport coupe experience. However, buyers merely seeking an affordable, sporty-looking coupe will find the standard Celica GT a decent performer.

Past Toyota Celica Models

The sixth-generation Toyota Celica of 1994-'99 was a decidedly tamer animal. Compared to its successor, it was bigger, heavier and less nimble, and got its propulsion from two lazier engines borrowed from the Corolla and Camry. This Celica kicked off its first year with coupe and hatchback body styles available in ST and GT trim; a GT convertible with a power-operated top joined the party by year two. A five-speed manual and four-speed automatic were the transmission choices for all Celicas.

Toyota made a few changes over the years, starting with the addition of some styling touches and sound insulation in 1996. In 1997 the GT coupe variant went AWOL, though it returned to life in 1998, when all ST models vanished. In 1999 Toyota killed off all coupes, leaving only the GT hatchback and GT convertible for the sixth-gen Celica's last year.

Generally, we recommend that used car buyers skip the Celica ST, whose 110-hp 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine makes for one dull daily driver. Attaining respectable acceleration entails a step up to the Celica GT and its 135-hp 2.2-liter four, which also had lots of torque for around-town punch, four-wheel disc brakes and more standard amenities such as power accessories and a tilt steering wheel. Among the GT models, consumers should feel free to choose whichever body style suits their tastes, though hatchbacks had exclusive access to an optional sport-tuned suspension that provided better handling.

In reviews at the time, we commented favorably about the car's functional and comfortable interior and typically high Toyota build quality. Still, no Celica of this generation was long on sport. In addition to just-adequate power, the engine felt rough, the shifter had long throws and the steering offered little road feel. Despite its tepid performance, resale value has typically been high for this generation of the Celica, making it pricey even as a used car candidate. Unless you want a convertible, the equally reliable Acura Integra offers better value.

It's a similar story for the fifth-generation Celica of 1990-'93. Largely similar to its successor, this generation used many of the same parts and came as an ST coupe, GT coupe, GT hatchback and all-wheel-drive All-Trac Turbo hatchback. A GT convertible was added for the second year. For this Celica, a five-speed manual was standard and a four-speed automatic was optional on all models except the All-Trac. Like later Celicas, standard equipment was sparse; this was the last Celica to have only a single airbag. Changes were concentrated in 1992, when all Celicas got a restyling and more standard equipment and many models got bigger wheels and/or better brakes.

The ST coupe was powered by a 1.6-liter engine with meager 103 hp. More emblematic of the Celica's sporting intentions were the GT and GT-S, as each had a 2.2-liter engine with 130-135 ponies. This Celica had obesity issues, with the GT-S model weighing nearly 3,000 pounds. As a result, the Celica failed to break 9 seconds in the 0-60-mph run, making it slower than nearly every sport coupe of its day, and slower than Celicas of the '80s as well. Yes, it still had high comfort, a stylish interior, strong reliability and all that other good Toyota stuff, but low power, hefty weight and a high price were three strikes that took it out of serious contention as a sport coupe/hatchback.

However, those looking for something unique might want to hunt for the rare Celica All-Trac Turbo. As the name implies, this Toyota Celica used a turbocharged 2.0-liter engine to send 200 hp to all four wheels, doing zero to 60 in about 7 seconds and putting up a good fight against the Mitsubishi Eclipse of the day. While it never would have outrun the final-generation Celica GT-S, the All-Trac proved entertaining by virtue of its turbo-induced rush and all-wheel-drive traction.