Metro Weekly

Last Call

The overstyled Toyota Celica earns respect with performance and value

The Toyota Celica is a difficult car to love, because it so obviously wants to be loved. I’ve long maintained a kind of love-hate relationship with the Celica, a car which over the years has debuted striking automotive design schemes that skate the line between just right and too much.

The current generation Celica continues that tradition with its striking combination of swoops and angles. Just try to find a section of the Celica bereft of some stylistic twist or ornamentation. Some elements work — the sharp wedge of the front lends an aggressive stance, while the boxier back end adds a muscular touch.

Less successful are the distinctive, elongated headlights that look too much like a Joan Rivers eyelift (although they work better on the Celica than they do on Toyota’s other sports coupe, the Solara). Looking over the body you can’t help but feel you’re seeing a bunch of great ideas pressed together in metal and glass that don’t quite add up to more than the sum of their parts. Design-wise, it simply tries too hard.

On the bright side, something that tries a little too hard to please is generally a better bet than something that doesn’t even bother. Meaning that, despite the visual gewgaws that bedeck the Celica, I can’t help but be pulled in by the sporty exterior that looks like what I expected a future automobile to look like back when I was a sixth-grader doodling cars in my notebooks.

For a brief time, Toyota ran television ads where an older man yelled “Slow down!” at a Celica parked on a bucolic suburban street — the idea was that the car “Looks fast.” Fast looking is great, but what about fast moving?

While the Celica’s four-cylinder, front-wheel drive approach isn’t going to earn it a place among the muscle-cars of the world, it’s actually pretty peppy in the city and on the highway. You won’t find any problems performing everyday beltway passes or on-ramp merges.

The five-speed manual transmission that came with our test car had a nice, short throw from gear to gear, but too often balked when shifting. Reverse was a particular chore, and I was chagrined one evening during an attempted parallel parking when one of my neighbors told me to “find ’em or grind ’em.”

Not my butchest moment behind a wheel.

Still, with fuel economy reaching into the upper twenties or lower thirties, the Celica has a lot to offer someone in the market for a balance of performance and economy.

That same middle ground applies to the interior, a comfortable place for those in the front bucket seats that hold you firmly in place through twists and turns. Less comfortable are the back seats, which can only be comfortable for the shortest of passengers. It’s doubtful your friends would submit to more than a short jaunt across town while doubled up in back.

Sitting low to the ground feels great when speeding along, but getting in and out can be an adventure for the less coordinated or older jointed among us. If you lean toward skirts and high heels, it’s going to take some practice.

2004 Toyota Celica GT
$19,355 MSRP base
EPA est. MPG: 28 city/33 highway (5-speed manual), 29/36 (4-speed ECT automatic)
Highlights: Good mileage, strong performance, distinctive look at reasonable price
Lowlights: Overly-designed exterior tries too hard

Overall, if you’re looking for a sporty yet frugal, youthful yet responsible, flashy yet easy-on-the-wallet car, then the Celica is a good bet. Toyota’s reputation for quality sings through the Celica, which feels completely solid from front to back. If you’re a new car buyer who’s gone beyond the entry-level world of Scions and Foci, but isn’t quite ready to jump into the pool of Lexus and Infiniti, you’ll feel quite comfortable here.

But you won’t have the chance much longer — Toyota just announced that production of the Celica, along with the MR2, will cease with the 2005 model. It’s a shame to see Toyota’s remaining sports cars join the Supra on the retirement list. Be sure to take a spin while you still can.

Sean Bugg is Editor Emeritus for Metro Weekly.