Curbside Classic: 1996-99 Toyota Starlet – It’s a Car!!

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When the 2012 Yaris was released in America, it was decided that it should have a lavish marketing campaign. Unfortunately, when it came to actually do it they came upon the realization that there was absolutely nothing to actually say about the car apart from the fact that it was a car. And this being the same people that later brought you “Grounded to the ground” they decided that was good enough, so the slogan for the Yaris became “It’s a car!”. I wonder if they could’ve done much more with the last Starlet. Probably not.

In 1984 the Starlet bid farewell to the American shores, leaving the Tercel to hold down the subcompact fort. The new Starlet was much closer to the Tercel, they were similarly-sized, front-wheel drive and available as either a three or a five door hatchback. It wouldn’t make sense to sell both models in America, where the market was moving towards bigger vehicles and the Americans could only send so many cars a year. In other markets the Starlet lived on providing reliable, if uninspired transportation.

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There were a couple of exceptions, like the Toyota Sera had Starlet underpinnings but was made into a retro-futuristic driving pod complete with projector headlights and butterfly doors.

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Or the pocket rocket Starlet GT Turbo with its 135 horsepower engine and active suspension.

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But for the most part they were essentially motorized shopping trolleys for people that had already drank the Toyota Kool-Aid and weren’t particularly concerned about driving dynamics. With that in mind, nobody should’ve been surprised when they saw the 90-series Starlet was released and was a completely inoffensive and conventional package. If you wanted something with pretty looks in that segment at the time the Peugeot dealer would’ve gladly sold you a 106. And if you wanted something that was thoroughly modern then there was always the “New Edge” Ford Ka.

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For power, you had a 1.3-liter gasoline engine providing 99 horsepower, or for thriftier buyers there was a 1.5-liter Diesel. But with 54 horsepower on tap you’d probably want to set off a couple of minutes earlier than usual. It was a Toyota engine, it would get you there; but it wouldn’t get you there quickly.

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Now, interiors of city cars in this era are nothing to write home about but I feel as though we have to show it here. Having said that I’ve noticed that in this picture the ‘90s Corolla LCD clock is missing. At a glance, it seems that the interior is the same dashboard they used in the Tercel. With a different steering wheel because the Tercel had to comply with airbag regulations.

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So as you can see, what we have here is…a car. Replace it with the Yaris in Toyota’s “Brilliant” marketing campaign and it wouldn’t make the least bit of difference. Sensible and practical. With just the right amount of styling to stop it from looking extremely dull. To use the old simile: if it was a vegetable, it’d be a potato. Add a bit of patina and a couple hundred thousand miles to have it develop some character and call it a day right? No. We’re not done yet, because like its predecessor, if you were in the right place (Japan, obviously) you could add some hot sauce to your potato salad.

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For starters, the hot hatchback version was back, now called Glanza. There was a faux-hot version (called Glanza S) that had the bodykit and some badges but without any engine upgrades. The Glanza V added a turbocharger which meant a power bump to 133 horsepower and a 0-60 time of 8.3 seconds according to Toyota. That’s all well and good, but what if you wanted one that looked like it could go off-road. Nowadays this segment is populated by the likes of the Opel Adam Rocks and the Volkswagen Cross Polo. The objective is not so much them being able to go off-roading, but make them more suited to inclement weather and all the potholes and open manhole covers that the concrete jungle can throw at them.

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Meet the Toyota Starlet Remix. It has “SUV Style” but don’t expect SUV capabilities.

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There was also a Toyota Starlet Carat, which had a different hood, grille and taillights for a more “Clasic” appearance, it didn’t work.

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One version that I didn’t see anywhere was the Starlet van, it was essentially a basic Starlet without any back seats or rear windows. I used to see them running around the Toyota complex near my house as parts haulers, company cars and emergency assistance vehicles. This is the only picture I could find that proves its existence and it’s the wrong generation. If you can find one and snap a picture, you bet it’ll get at least an outtake.

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The end of the Starlet was also completely unremarkable, it was just its time. As subcompacts became ever more stylish and modern, the Starlet found itself lagging behind the competition. It was no longer time to stick to the safe route and evolve.

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It’s successor was in development at the same time that the Starlet was released to the public. It was a much more modern design, inspired by the Toyota Funtime conept and penned by Greek Designer Sotiris Kovos. It had a funky interior with central-mounted instruments and a whole new range of engines.

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It was the Vitz! Better known to you and me as the Yaris (or Echo). It was nothing less than an inspired design. But history has a habit of repeating itself and in time the Yaris became dull when compared with the competition, until their marketing department could think of nothing good to say about it apart from “it’s a car!”.