Curbside Classic: 2000-06 Toyota Celica – Ending On A High Note

(first posted 11/27/2017)       Toyota North America’s average buyer age was ticking up in the 1990s, coinciding with the gradual disappearance of their more exciting, youth-oriented models. The Supra was gone after ’98, the Corolla came only in sedan form, and the cheaper Tercel and Paseo were about as thrilling as a dentist appointment. The company needed a fresh approach to targeting younger buyers, and it came with the three cars of Project Genesis. One of these was a new generation of Celica, and sadly proved to be the final generation of the venerable nameplate.

The other two were the Echo sedan and the MR-2 Spyder, which should further tell you how successful Project Genesis was. Officially, the project died in 2001 and Toyota shifted their marketing efforts into the Scion sub-brand which launched in 2004.

Project Genesis was a great idea in theory. Spearheaded by Toyota Motor Sales president Yoshimi Inaba and Chief Operating Officer Jim Press, it focused on more trendy product and more advertising on the internet and on cable TV networks. Alas, the Genesis team didn’t engage with customers enough: the Echo sedan was far dorkier than the hatch not offered in the US, while the MR-2 was a roadster and therefore had a strong appeal to slightly older buyers.

The car that came closest to meeting the project’s brief was the Celica: it was both more affordable and more fun-to-drive than its predecessor. A pity, then, that the compact coupe segment was contracting as buyers of all ages embraced more versatile vehicles.

Despite the sagging market for coupes, the Celica’s sales figures did resurge to early-1990s levels, if only briefly. The sixth-generation was the only Toyota that was getting absolutely decimated in sales by a Mitsubishi (the Eclipse), in some years being outsold 6-to-1. The seventh-generation brought the Celica nameplate back to parity, even outside of North America—Europe, for example, embraced Celica 7 much more than Celica 6.

It makes sense. While Celica 6 was competent dynamically, it wasn’t hugely exciting. Celica 7 changed that. Firstly, the car went on a diet, losing around 100 pounds for a curb weight of around 2500 pounds. The wheelbase was 2.4 inches longer but total length was down 4 inches. The notchback and convertible variants were no longer offered, the Celica was exclusively available as a hatchback coupe.

Secondly, the old 2.2 four-cylinder was ditched in favour of a new 1.8 with variable valve timing. The Celica’s new power plant was available in two states of tune, depending on trim level. The smaller engine size was felt in the reduced torque figures, however even the standard 1.8 produced as much horsepower as the old 2.2. In base Celicas, the 1.8 produced 140 hp at 6400 rpm and 125 ft-lbs at 4200 rpm, up around 5 horses but down a good 20 pound-feet. Despite this, about a second was shaved off the 0-60 time.

Top-spec Celicas had a huge bump in horsepower to 180-190 hp, depending on the market, thanks to a Yamaha-designed head and intake system. However, torque still fell short of the old 2.2 by a few pound-feet. The more powerful version of the 1.8, known as the 2ZZ-GE, also came with a six-speed manual transmission instead of the base model’s five-speed. Both versions of the 1.8 could be had with a four-speed Tiptronic automatic with steering wheel-mounted shift buttons. Enthusiasts were better off with the manual, as it was a better fit with the peaky four. With the manual and the 2ZZ-GE engine, the Celica could hit 60 mph in 7.3 seconds.

It wasn’t just the heightened sense of urgency from the manic 1.8 that made the Celica 7 feel different to drive. You sat sports car low in grippy buckets. The ride was firmer – perhaps a little too firm for some – but the handling was sharper. This was a genuinely fun car to drive, tauter and more focused than any Celica before except perhaps the old GT-Four/All-Trac.

All of this was wrapped in edgy new styling almost identical to the 1999 XYR concept, designed by Toyota’s CALTY studio in California. The organic, curvy look of the old Celica was completely discarded. In its place were sharp lines and a dramatic crease down the side. The quad headlights of the old model were replaced with dramatically upswept lights. The Celica looked smaller and more ferocious.

The interior was a breath of fresh air too. The ergonomic design of the old model, with controls angled towards the driver, was replaced with a flowing center stack. Circular air vents and new materials further elevated the Celica interior—it didn’t look like a regular compact interior anymore.

The most tantalizing change for the Celica, particularly to the younger buyers Toyota was targeting, was an MSRP more than $4k lower than the old model.

Although Celica 7 enjoyed a sales resurgence, it was short-lived. Sales declined each year, as would be expected in a fashion-conscious and shrinking segment. But Toyota had expected to shift 40,000 Celicas a year in the US and, although it beat that in the first year of production, it never met that target in any subsequent year. In 2003 Toyota announced both the launch of the Scion brand and the planned discontinuation of the Celica. In North America, the Celica was effectively replaced by the Scion tC. In other markets, there was no direct replacement.

In many markets, the Celica had acquired a bit of a hairdresser’s car reputation by the late 1990s. While the seventh generation didn’t meet sales targets, it helped restore the Celica’s credibility as a sports coupe and offered buyers a much more exciting and dynamic package. It’s a pity the Celica had to die after three decades, but at least it went out on a high note.

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