Curbside Classic: 1988 Toyota Celica GT – Oh What A Feeling!

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There was a time when Toyota’s marketing slogan was “Oh What A Feeling… Toyota”. Now it’s merely “Let’s Go Places”. Yes, there was a time when many Toyotas did invoke thoughts of excitement, style, and engaging driving experiences. Those days are gone. “Let’s Go Places”, pretty much sums it up: Today, Toyotas are meant to take you from point A to point B.

Despite visions of Camrys racing each other in Monaco, with the exception of the ho-hum 86 (née Scion FR-S in North America), Toyota does not sell any sports cars or even somewhat sporty cars in North America. From a financial standpoint, one can’t really blame Toyota, as it’s merely catering to what that majority of consumers demand with its current product mix of muted family vehicles. Additionally, this isn’t to say that current Toyotas are bad vehicles. But from the enthusiast standpoint, it’s easy to lament the absence of more exciting vehicles, especially considering Toyota used to offer quite a few more.

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Sold from the 1971 to 2006 model years, the Celica led a long life, with a total of seven generations. Always a sports car at heart, Toyota should be successfully credited with revamping the Celica’s image and demeanor with each generation, responding to the ever changing times and what the market demanded.

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By the time this fourth generation Celica arrived in 1985 (1986 model year in North America), it was a dramatically different car than the original, boasting dramatic, space age styling with wraparound rear glass and retractable headlights which blended in with the grille when concealed. The fourth generation Celica also coincided with a switch to front-wheel drive, with all-wheel drive and an American-market turbo available for the first time.

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Versus it predecessor, the fourth generation Celica rode on a 1.4-inch longer wheelbase and was 1.8 inches wider, yet was 2.2 inches lower and anywhere from 0.6 to 2.7 inches shorter depending on model, making for more athletic proportions. Front-wheel drive allowed for more interior space, though weight was also generally up on all models.

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The Celica employed a MacPherson strut front and rear suspension, both with coil springs, tube shocks, and anti-roll bars. Power steering and power brakes were standard on all models, including standard ventilated front disc brakes across the board. Only the GT-S and All-Trac gained rear disc brakes, as the ST and GT made due with less costly rear drum brakes.

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As with the previous generation, Celica offered buyers with the choice of a notchback, liftback, or convertible coupe bodystyle, 4-speed automatic or 5-speed manual transmission, and eight engines to choose from, market dependent of course.

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Available in ST, GT, GT-S, and Turbo All-Trac trims, this car’s GT trim added amenities such as 4-speaker sound system, dual power remote mirrors, and driver’s lumbar support. Features including power windows/locks, power sunroof, automatic climate control, and heated mirrors were all optional on the GT. GT-S trim added further enhancements such as 8-way power front seats with adjustable side bolsters, rear spoiler, alloy wheels, four-wheel disc brakes, and an optional leather interior.

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All North American-spec Celicas featured 2.0L versions of Toyota’s S inline-4. ST and GT models initially were powered by the SOHC 2S-E, which produced 97 horsepower and 118 lb-ft torque. Beginning in 1987, however, the 2S-E was replaced with the DOHC 3S-FE, producing 115 horsepower and 124 lb-ft torque.

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The GT-S featured the 135 horsepower/125 lb-ft 3S-GELC, while the top-spec Turbo All-Trac featured the 190 horsepower/190 lb-ft torque 3S-GTE and all-wheel drive, for true sports car performance. Top speed on the Celica Turbo All-Trac was 137 miles per hour with a zero-to-sixty time of 7.6 seconds. The All-Trac (called “GT-Four” in most other markets) became Toyota’s World Rally car, taking several championships.

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The mid-range GT-S was no slouch either though, with a 0-60 time of 8.6 seconds. In a December 1986 issue, Road & Track ranked the Celica GT-S liftback a close second to the Acura Integra LS in a four-way comparison test that also included the Mitsubishi Cordia Turbo and Volkswagen Scirocco 16V. Although the Celica received high marks in performance, comfort, and styling, staffers felt it just couldn’t top the “perfectness” of the Integra’s overall refinement.

In any event, the Celica was a competitive car all around, offering solid performance, style, and quality for a reasonable value and sold quite well. The average Celica buyer in this car’s inaugural 1986 year was 30 years old, single, with a college education, and an annual income of $39,000 ($86K as of the publication date of this article). Interestingly, nearly two-thirds of Celica buyers were first time Toyota buyers.

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It would be interesting to see what cars this type of consumer is buying today. The Celica was clearly a car frequently bought by someone who placed a high importance on their image, and something tells me these buyers aren’t flocking to Toyota today, as Toyotas have grown far less exciting in the past few decades.

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From personal experience, my insight tells me that this young professional demographic flocks to cars in the Audi A4/BMW 3 Series/Lexus IS field. As a matter of fact, note what’s parked to the left of it in this Starbucks parking lot, a 2017 BMW 340i (which happens to belong to my friend Sara). Either way, they aren’t buying coupes, though on a personal note, I’m proud to be an outlier.

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However logical it may be for Toyota to focus its efforts on mass-appealing family sedans and crossovers, it is nonetheless disappointing from the enthusiast’s prospective that Toyota does not make bestow us with many sporty offerings. Times have certainly changed, and I guess we just have to accept it. Toyota certainly has.

Related Reading:

1997 Toyota Celica GT