Aren’t you ever kept awake at night by the thought of a high-revving four-cylinder Toyota? I most certainly am, just like I keep getting sucked into Craigslist dreamscrolling. That’s like doomscrolling but instead of reading the news, I’m looking at cars I don’t have room for. Lately, I keep seeing seventh-gen Celica GT-S in my feed, and after watching some 8,000 RPM-pull videos with these cars, I’m starting to feel their pull myself.
The last Celica was a big departure from its predecessor. It was a product of the absurdly named Toyota Project Genesis, an effort from the historically stuffy company to attract The Youths. Let me tell you, it took 20 years, but this car sure has sucked me in now.
[Chris is a writer at Car Bibles, a sister site to The Drive that focuses on decoding car culture and providing automotive DIY tips. Click here to check out the rest of the site.]
Toyota offered this final Celica in one body style: Three-door liftback coupe, sharp edges all over the place. Arriving smack-dab in the middle of the Fast and Furious revolution, the car was immediately subjected to the early-2000s aftermarket scene. I remember living in LA around then and seeing these cars poorly modified, adorned with Altezza lights, bad body kits, underglow, and exhaust systems that sounded more like exhaust leaks.
You know what I would do with that mental image? I would get home, fire up my original Xbox, plop in the Need for Speed: Underground disc, buy a Celica GT-S, and mob out on some distasteful mods. I thought that stuff was the coolest thing ever. Presumably, Project Genesis had some budget aside for video games, and it definitely seeded something in my brain early on. Even the original Forza Motorsport games had the Celica SS-II, a version of the high-revving GT-S.
Believe you me, when I learned about what the Celica GT-S really was, it was a revelation. “I could have a Honda… but, like, a Toyota?”
The 2ZZ-GE four-cylinder engine that the GT-S (and Corolla/Matrix XR-S) got was something like a specially designed motorsport engine with some work done by Yamaha. This engine was even famously used in the Lotus Elise, so it could be called a Lotus engine, but its DNA is ultimately Toyota/Yamaha which resulted in a mesospheric 8,200-RPM rev limit.
The 2ZZ-GE got an especially unique feature in variable valve lift. Normally, most Toyotas have VVT-i, which is just variable valve timing. The 2ZZ has VVTL-i, which is variable valve timing and lift with intelligence.
Basically, this Celica has VTEC. How is that not cool? I love Hondas, I’ve owned three. But, my heart is with Toyota. A Toyota was my first car, and my two Lexuses were the most fabulous cars I owned. If I could have a zingy, fun, manic Toyota like my Hondas, that’d be perfect.
The strawberry on the parfait here is the appropriate six-speed Aisin C60 manual gearbox with tightly wound ratios—a good antidote to the engine’s admittedly deflated powerband below 6,000 rpm. Though the VVTL-i changeover happens late in the rev range, it means you work for the power, which I love. Life has gotten much too easy for me with my 2.0-liter turbocharged GTI. I need to feel urgency again.
As far as the handling, I’m not sure what to expect. I’ve heard that these cars are shockingly great handlers. The facts say that they’re light and the engine needs to be kept at its boiling point for any results to be had. But even if it didn’t corner exceptionally well out of the box, there’s plenty of aftermarket support for the car as well as a catalog of old TRD parts that should solve most handling problems. My only point of worry is that I’ve never driven an early-2000s Toyota with steering feel that I would call “good.” I’m not sure that the Celica’s would set a new trend.
Maybe I’m just being a contrarian after years of owning Hondas, but something about the Celica GT-S is suddenly appealing. Perhaps the early nostalgia of the thing?
The shape of the car itself has aged well. I remember thinking it was kind of long looking when it was new, but where we’ve landed in automotive design has certainly flattered the simple coupe shape of the Celica. I mostly can’t forget about that engine. Whenever Yamaha is involved, something exceptional is created, like the Lexus 5.0-liter V8 or the LFA V10 or the cylinder heads for the JDM 1JZ-GTE. The biggest point of them all: it’s less than half the price of any comparable Honda Civic Si, Integra GSR, or RSX Type-S. It might just be the last great shitbox sport compact value proposition left!
I’m buying one tomorrow. I’m almost not kidding.
Car Bibles is a sister site to The Drive that focuses on decoding car culture and DIY car owner tips that are fun to read. You’ll see more stories like this over there and there’s fresh material every day. Click here to check it out!
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