Curbside Classic: 1993-1999 Toyota Celica – Those Headlights

(first posted 1/2/2018)       Those. Headlights.

I am sorry ladies and gentlemen. I will get into the nitty gritty about our featured vehicle for today in a minute; but I have to address those headlights before I go any further. They are an all-encompassing representation of the problems I have with this car. They are the only thing I don’t like about this car, actually. The styling itself is an evolution of the super-round styling that was brought on the previous generation with additional influences from the Toyota Soarer/Lexus SC400. A remarkable design. But, as I alluded when the last time that I had a go at a Celica, it seems as though something went wrong in a design meeting.

Someone must’ve decided that pop-up headlights were so…passe. They got stuck in the winter and would occasionally decide that a single light rising up was adequate lighting. Yes, that’s clearly the reason they had to go. However, that leaves the problem of what to do with the front end now that you have to place a fixed light in there. One that is compliant with US minimum surface area for headlights to boot.

For reference, here’s Honda’s solution to that problem from around that same time.

And here’s the Toyota’s again. You can see my point can’t you? Maybe I’m exaggerating. I say maybe because in the past 200 words or so I still haven’t gotten anything about the rest of the car. Just going on and on about how those headlights annoyed me and how they’re so awful when compared to the previous gen. A gen which, need I remind you, I am very much biased for.

So, the rest of the car itself. It’s honestly not that different from the previous gen. A new generation brought, unsurprisingly, a car that was a little bit longer and a little bit wider. The standard equipment was brought up to the 90s with an airbag and ABS. However, on the powertrain department, most of the engines were carried over from the past generation.

The one that wasn’t was the “poverty spec engine”. In keeping with tradition, Toyota made sure that there was a Celica for everyone who was looking for a 2-door, 4-cylinder vehicle. And at the low end, directly opposite from the 239 horsepower GT-Four sat a much more modest 105 horsepower model. Instead of a middling 1.6 from a Corolla, it used a 1.8-liter engine…lifted straight out of a Corolla. If you see one of these with an ST badge, this is what’s powering it. Presumably, they stopped using the smaller 1.6 over concerns of it being too sluggish on this particular application. Especially since the Celica had gone a bit heavy on the tempura and packed an additional 70 kilograms over its predecessor. If you were buying one in North America, you’d probably want to splurge on the 2.2-liter engine (Badged GT), as that was the most powerful engine you could get on this continent.

In a bizarre turn of events, Toyota decided not to bring the 2.0-liter GT-Four (known as All-Trac in the US) for this generation. They must’ve felt the market shrinking. Or, more likely, seen their sales charts. Thanks to that rather unfortunate cheating device, it was also stripped of whatever racing pedigree that would’ve made it attractive to both US Rally fans. Fortunately, people who liked to make choices still could pick from three distinct body styles. A 2-door coupe, 2-door liftback, And the ASC-built convertible for fans of limitless headroom.

However, the same reasons that would cause Toyota to focus on building efficiency and cost rationalization on the rest of the lineup would eventually affect the Celica. Federalizing a body style is very expensive. And you have to do it once for every engine that’s going to go on that body. Every. Single. Year. Do you want a reason why you aren’t able to have 9 different engine choices for a car a la Chevy Nova? Point at demand first, but this is a very close second. So you have five different combinations to federalize (the ST was not available as a convertible) in a market that is saturated and dropping in size. It doesn’t take a team of efficient Japanese accountants bitten shy by the asset bubble to figure out what they could do without some versions. In 1997, the same year the new (and more cost-effective to build) Camry was released and dumped the coupe and wagon from its lineup. the Celica GT Notchback too ceased to exist.

From a differentiation perspective, it’s not a bad move. You have the notchback as the entry-level car with the basic engine, the convertible as the most exclusive offering with a price premium and the big engine as its only option. The liftback acts as the proverbial stuffing in this proverbial Oreo and now you only have four different combinations to manage. Job done. Let’s work on the replacement right?

Wrong, they had another great idea in 1998. Instead of trying to get rid of just a trim, why don’t just get rid of an engine and kill two birds with one stone. No points in guessing which of the engines went. In any case, those 1.8-liters would be a hell of a lot better used to power Corollas, whose standout feature is being able to sell like potatoes (and be just as exciting to behold). Does that mean the notchback was out? Of course not. It was only sensible to bring it back…at least until they realized that they’d essentially gotten rid of just one version that way and they axed it again in ‘99. Leaving only the liftback and the convertible for that final year of production.

Meanwhile, back in Detroit, Toyota was showcasing this. The Celica XYR concept. Better known in hindsight as the Final-gen Celica with a conservative body kit. It and the Hyundai Tiburon would duke it out until 2006 for ever-diminishing returns.

I don’t like this car. But come to think of it, there is only one thing about it that I hate. Even the interior was still very nice and comforting for someone like me who spent quite a sizable portion of his young life being ferried around in Toyotas. If only they had done something…anything else with the front end.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Toyota Curren. A Celica with a much more palatable front end that actually looks good next to that Prelude and not like it’s trying to be a bad imitation of a W210. And now, if you excuse me, I’m going to go shout in the general direction of Japan for a couple of hours.