A slick and sporty coupe in a sharp-dressed body.

by Albert Hall

Base Price (MSRP) $16,985
As Tested (MSRP) $24,455

Think of the 2001 Toyota Celica as a motorcycle on wheels. It's light on its feet, compact, racy looking, and loves to rev its energetic engine. Heck, you can even equip a Celica with a SIX-speed transmission. We found the Celica almost as entertaining to drive as some of those hyper-horsepower-screaming bikes.

The Celica has all the goods if you're looking for a fun and affordable sports coupe. It's not muscle-bound like a V8-powered Chevrolet Camaro or Ford Mustang, and it's not suave and cool like an Audi TT or Acura CL. Instead, the Celica provides a straightforward driving experience that's heavy on the fun and light on the wallet.

Since the Celica was redesigned for 2000, there are no changes for 2001.

Model Lineup

The Celica GT-S leads the lineup with distinctive styling, nice handling and an impressive 180-horsepower 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine developed with assistance from Yamaha. The GT-S retails for $21,455.

Most buyers will opt for the more affordable 140-horsepower GT, which retails for $16,985.

Naturally, the two models vary in standard features: The GT gets a six-speaker stereo with both cassette and CD, power windows, power mirrors and air conditioning. The GT-S adds two more speakers and amplifier power, fog lamps, drilled aluminum sport pedals, power locks, a leather steering wheel and shift knob, cruise control and alloy wheels with wider tires. The GT-S evaluated here had nearly all the options, including a sunroof, leather seats, a rear spoiler and 16-inch alloy wheels with lower profile speed-rated tires. In place of the GT's five-speed gearbox, the GT-S comes standard with a six-speed gearbox. Either model can be ordered with a four-speed electronically controlled automatic that adds $800 to the GT, $700 to the GT-S.

Walkaround

Toyota had three key objectives for the seventh-generation Celica: less weight, more power, and a lower price.

The 2001 Celica weighs nearly 100 pounds less than the previous model. And even though the new engine is smaller (by 400 cc), it boasts a 5-horsepower edge over the last Celica powerplant. The new GT-S is expected to beat the old one's 0-60 mph times by a substantial two-second margin, while improving fuel economy by 22 percent. Toyota said it held down the cost of building the Celica through increased production efficiencies and by sharing parts with other models.

The new Celica is based on Toyota's XYR concept car (for Xtreme, Youthful, Racy), which made the rounds at major auto shows a few years ago. Its 102.3-inch wheelbase is 2.4 inches longer than the previous model's, yet the new car is nearly four inches shorter, with a lot less overhang front and rear. Designers at the company's studio in southern California took inspiration from Toyota's CART auto-racing program. The channel down the Celica's hood is supposed to recall the needle nose on an Indy car. The long, vertical headlights are intended to remind us of the endplates on a formula racecar's front wing.

Maybe, maybe not. What's clear is that Celica deliberately mixes round organic shapes with sheer and angular ones. The contrasts aren't necessarily clean or elegant, but they are dramatic and by no means ugly. Celica's striking headlights make it look expensive. It's a fairly large, bold step by Toyota's usual conservative, edgeless styling standards.

Under the hood, Celica offers a choice of two all-aluminum inline four-cylinder engines. While both displace 1.8 liters, each has its own block and bore and stroke measurements. With twin cams and four valves per cylinder, the base GT engine makes a respectable 140 horsepower and 125 foot-pounds of torque, both at 6400 rpm.

The GT-S inline-4 was developed jointly with Yamaha, which also does final engine assembly, and it employs a number of high-tech tweaks. It's the first Toyota-badged engine in North America with variable valve timing, lift and duration (called VVTL-i). For the buyer, that means higher revs, better engine breathing and more horsepower for the engine's size. The GT-S powerplant is one of a few non-turbocharged production engines that boast 100 horsepower per liter of displacement. With its high 11.5:1 compression, it produces 180 horsepower at 7600 rpm and 133 foot-pounds of torque at 6600 rpm.

The Celica GT comes standard with a five-speed manual transmission. The GT-S gets a six-speed. The GT-S is also available with the E-Shift semi-automatic shift program from the hot Lexus GS 430 sports sedan. This optional four-speed automatic can be shifted manually via buttons on the steering wheel spokes.

Interior Features

As expected, the new Celica offers tight quarters -- intimate for average-sized people, perhaps cramped for larger folks. Yet the rear seat has a surprising amount of space for a 2+2 with more headroom than before. The front seats allow height adjustment, but they lack variable lumbar support. A toe-operated lever on the front passenger seat allows it to slide forward for easier access to the rear.

Celica's dashboard starts with a simple, clean, cross-compartment design. The gauges have orange script on a black background. Switches are easy to find and operate, particularly stereo controls. The center console has a storage rack for eight CDs or 10 cassettes. The rear seat folds to expand cargo space. The optional leather seats had rich, high-grade upholstery.

Occupant safety remains a priority for Celica. In addition to side-impact beams, it offers optional side airbags that deploy from the front seats. The seats have a one-piece back frame designed to limit whiplash injuries, and many interior trim pieces are deformable to soften head impacts. The Celica is the first Toyota that shuts off its fuel delivery system if the airbags deploy.

Driving Impressions

My first impression of the Celica GTS is that it has a high-strung, high-tech engine that loves to run. There's adequate throttle response through about 6000 rpm, then Toyota's VVTL-i kicks in like an on-off switch and the Celica squirts forward with real urgency. The GTS should manage 0-60 mph runs in the upper seven-second range, but the true satisfaction comes with working the shifter and keeping the engine spinning full bore. The red area on the tach starts at 7800 rpm, but there are another 500-600 revs to the limiter and the engine keeps pulling strong, without flattening out, the whole way.

The only problem is that when this engine is turning in the sweet part of its power band it's loud. There's an abundance of intake and valve noise, made more noticeable because the engine feels so smooth.

The GT-S shifter works very well by front-drive standards -- smooth, accurate, direct. The E-shift automatic is equally impressive. E-Shift's shift buttons work intuitively. Pressing one of the buttons on the front of the steering wheel upshifts, while pressing the buttons on the back downshifts. Better still, the electronics do very little thinking for the driver. E-Shift holds its gear, even with the engine bouncing off the rev limiter and shifts sequentially up or down at the driver's discretion. It works as well as similar systems on some of the most expensive cars in the world.

Celica's seats are comfortable and grippy, and the pedals, in both placement and operation, work well. Enthusiast drivers will appreciate the perfectly placed dead pedal because it allows them to brace themselves with their left leg during energetic drives.

One of the best things about the Celica GT-S is that it corners nicely, and relatively flat, without a harsh, small-coupe ride. The upgrade 16-inch tires are sticky. Steering is quick and accurate, and the feel through the wheel gives a good idea how much grip is left in the front tires. The Celica GT-S tightens its path through a curve when its driver lifts from the gas, and it takes the harshest, most abrupt maneuvers to unsettle its rear end. Overall, it gets high marks for chassis tuning.

Celica also gets high marks for build quality; there were no creaks or rattles in the unitbody or trim panels. In all, the 2001 Celica makes a well-balanced, sporting coupe. With the exception of the peaky GT-S engine, no particular component stands out, yet it all blends together very nicely.

The same thought applies to the base GT, which we've sampled as well. Its tires aren't as grippy as the upgrades, and its 1.8 four is not as smooth. Yet there's just as much torque through three quarters of the engine's rev range, and unless you're constantly pushing the tach needle into the red zone, you might never notice the difference.

Final Word

There was a time when the mid-priced coupe market was one of the hottest in the auto industry--when automakers, including Toyota, offered 200-plus horsepower turbocharged engines, all-wheel drive and other high-tech performance gadgets. Yet coupe sales have declined steadily over the last 11 years as buyers shift from cars toward pickups and sport utility vehicles. Some manufacturers have given up on sporty coupes. Credit Toyota for reinvigorating its Celica.

There's a solid sporty coupe beneath the Celica's new-wave skin. Potential buyers taken by the edgy styling will get more than enough car to go with the looks.

© New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

Copyright © 1994-2009 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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