Curbside Classic: 1997 Toyota Celica GT – The Beginning Of The End

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Toyota, among other automakers, tends to receive a great deal of criticism from enthusiasts and non-enthusiasts alike over the general lack of excitement across its lineup. This is largely due to the fact that Toyota does not sell anything remotely sporty beyond the minimally-promoted Scion-branded FR-S and tC in North America. That’s not to say that Toyotas are bad vehicles. They generally offer above average levels of safety, reliability, and affordability, which alone is enough to get many new-car shoppers excited. But in terms of generating an genuinely emotional response, Toyotas have largely come up short in recent years.

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Although little more than distant memories now, Toyota was in fact, once a maker of some exciting and non-appliance-like cars that combined sporty looks with actual performance. A far cry from today’s sporty Corolla S and Camry XSE, there were cars like the 2000GT, Supra, MR2, AE86, Soarer, and, the longest-running of them all, the Celica.

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The Celica’s long and storied history began with the 1971 model year, when it was introduced as a small and sporty personal coupe. Riding on a taut 95-inch wheelbase and weighting around only 2,000 lbs. for most versions, the Celica was powered by various sizes of Toyota’s long-running family of R-Series longitudinal straight-four. The performance-minded Celica GT also featured relatively uncommon dual overhead cam engines, although North American models would not be equipped as such. Available as both a 2-door pilarless notchback and a 3-door liftback, the Celica could be loaded with options such power windows, air conditioning, and a full-length floor console, features rarely seen on a car of its small size at this time.

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Redesigns would come for 1978 and 1982; during this time the Celica would see increasing levels of power, as well as an aftermarket targa-top convertible and later a true folding soft top convertible. The Celica was also responsible for spawning the higher-performance six-cylinder Celica Supra, and the four-door Celica Camry, which would both soon become models of their own, dropping the Celica moniker.

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The biggest changes in both engineering and styling came in 1986, when the Celica switched to front-wheel drive and in true dramatic Eighties fashion, now rocked “aero” styling. Despite its switch to front-wheel drive, beginning in 1986 the Celica would be available with an advanced full-time all-wheel drive system, marketed as the GT-Four in Japan and as All-Trac Turbo in the U.S.

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Still available in coupe, convertible, and liftback form, the Celica would once again be significantly redesigned for 1990. While it retained the pop-up headlights, the Celica now wore very rounded sheet metal that would soon lend its way to other Toyotas, including the 1992 Camry and Corolla. The range-topping GT-S, with its turbocharged 2.0L I4 now made 200 horsepower, making it the most powerful Celica ever sold in the U.S. By now, the Celica could be equipped with lengthy list of premium features, such as leather seating, anti-lock brakes, premium audio system, and automatic tilt-away steering wheel for easy entry/egress.

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This also brings us to our featured sixth-generation Celica, introduced in late-1993 as a 1994 model. Up a smidgen in length and width, the Celica was still relatively compact, with its wheelbase just under 100-inches. Gone were the pop-up headlights, a Celica hallmark since 1984. In their place were recessed quad round headlights, a thoughtfully retro element that hadn’t been featured on a Celica since 1979.

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As a whole, styling was more aggressive, especially on the 3-door liftback, that borrowed many cues from the now almost supercar-like 1992 Supra, as well as the MR2. Coupe and convertibles were a bit tamer-looking with their more upright rooflines and attractive, but friendlier-looking taillights not shared with the liftback body style.

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Yet, as much as its looks said sports car, in actuality it was quite the contrary as far as the North American Celica was concerned. While Japan, Europe, and Australia were treated to the 3S-GTE 2.0L turbo I4 that now made 239-251 horsepower (depending on region), for North America, all-wheel drive, turbo power, and the GT-S model all disappeared. Rather disappointingly, this left the Celica GT with its 135-horsepower 2.2L I4 as the most powerful Celica stateside.

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This decision likely wasn’t because Toyota wanted to turn its back on performance, but primarily for budgetary reasons. Coupe sales in general were down, and high-performance compact coupes simply weren’t high-demand vehicles. Eliminating slow-selling models and focusing on the cheaper, better-selling, and broader-appealing ST and GT models just made more sense financially. Besides, Toyota still had the MR2 and Supra to its name, both of which had successively increased in size and performance over previous iterations.

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Interior-wise, there was also clear influence from the Supra in the sixth generation Celica. The somewhat cluttered instrument panel of the fifth generation were replaced by a cleaner and more gracefully curved center stack, slightly angled toward the driver. Like most Toyotas of this vintage, fit-and-finish was generally good, although there were areas such as the all-plastic door panels, that at least to the eyes, came across as cheaper when compared to the previous Celica.

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Commemorating the car’s 25th anniversary, in 1996, a special “25th Anniversary Limited Edition” decor package was available on U.S.-spec Celicas. Mainly just exterior and interior badging, plus embroidery on the front seat backs, the package continued on Celicas the following year as simply “Limited Edition”, minus the seat embroidery. This particular car is a 1997 GT convertible with the Limited Edition package. It also sports a wood-trimmed interior, which I believe was a dealer-installed accessory. 

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Beginning in 1997, Toyota would begin thinning the Celica line even further in the U.S. to cut down on overhead. The GT notchback was the first to go, followed by base ST models, and then all notchback coupes. I don’t even have rough numbers, but I’m willing to bet that Celica sales had been on a downward trend for some time anyway.

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The year 2000 would see an all-new Celica for the final time. Now just a single liftback offering, styling was, for better or for worse, new, with lots of sharp angles as opposed to its predecessor’s rounder shape. Once again however, North American models would be deprived of the most powerful engines and performance upgrades offered elsewhere. Still, one could say that the 2000 Celica was an improvement, as power output was up and weight was down, making for more a spirited driving experience.

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Predictably however, sales were disappointing. This is beginning to sound like a broken record by now, but by like so many cars of the 2-door variety from the late-1980s-onward, the Celica’s death was largely due to the fact that the demand for coupes simply wasn’t there when compared to sedans and SUVs. With little fanfare, Toyota stopped exports of the Celica to North America in mid-2005. The Celica would be discontinued for good the following year. By this time the Supra was long gone, and the MR2 was also in its swansong season, leaving Toyota without anything remotely sporty in its North American lineup (and no, the bloated Camry Solara wasn’t sporty by any means).

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Serious power and handling may have already been a thing of the past, but the 1994-1999 Celica still possessed a decidedly sporty and fun persona, qualities that would all but disappear from Toyotas in the ensuing years. Collectively speaking however, mainstream automobile brands lack the amount of dedicated sports models they once used to. A sign of changing tastes, most brands do offer “sporty” trim lines of popular family vehicles, although they are usually much more for looks, with little to no performance upgrades. And while grandma’s 2015 V6 Camry will easily rocket past this Celica at the drag strip, it lacks the Celica’s fun-to-drive nature and overall sporty character.

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The average driver may not care, but to enthusiasts of all levels, it’s a real shame that today’s Toyotas possess none of the qualities of its long-gone sports cars, which we once looked upon in excitement. It’s an even greater shame to think that younger drivers such as myself will likely never get to experience a truly fun-to-drive Toyota, and in general, have so few choices today when it comes to buying exciting, yet affordable new cars.

Related Reading:

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