2003 Toyota Celica GT-S TRD
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by Laurance Yap

It was the third time that day, the guy standing and waiting for me to pull into the parking space and get out. I wanted to hide, because I didn’t want to hear what he wanted to say.

“Hey, cool car.”

I guess there’s no accounting for taste. Some people really do like this Celica’s huge rear wing, so high that it’s almost in line with the roof. A lot of them like the gunmetal-gray alloys, the tack-on body kit with its shark-like scallops in the side and the godawful “TRD GTS” stick-on badges on the side, executed in a bright yellow on a white background. A lot of them even like the interior, with its bright-blue inserts on the doors, seats, steering wheel, and shift knob. It’s all a bit much, like a muscular guy wearing a tank top three sizes too small: we get it, okay?

The good news is that none of this boy-racer stuff is standard; it’s all part of a $2990 TRD (for “Toyota Racing Development”) package available on any Celica. The TRD name is a bit of a misnomer, because there certainly isn’t any racing hardware here: the suspension remains unchanged, as do the wheels and tires. The wing, the skirts, the gaping front airdam, they all probably add extra drag to reduce the top end. The only really functional addition is a fantastic-sounding, but difficult-to-use, 290-watt Panasonic stereo with MP3 CD playback.

Get a regular-bodied Celica instead. With a gentle facelift for 2003, it’s a better-looking car than ever, with its shark-like nose now hugging the ground even closer (though a wide air intake across the front bumper isn’t as nice as last year’s pointy one), and redesigned lights. Such modifications are about all the car needed: with a pronounced bullet shape, a really shallow greenhouse, and edgy detailing that goes right down to the hollow-point caps in the middle of the rims, this is one car that looks as fast standing still as it does, um, going fast.

2003 Toyota Celica GT-S TRD
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The bullet theme continues inside, with the cabin’s shapes and detailing radiating a sportiness, and a sort of determined thrust, that most Toyotas lack. Regular GT-S models get a standard leather interior and sunroof, which explains why its MSRP is slightly more expensive than the TRD GT-S. The console and centre stack arch out and up to a sharp point, the armrests and door handles are cantilevered aggressively forward, and even the enveloping bucket seats have a sharpness to their design totally in keeping with the image established by the body. The plastics inside the 2003 model seem to have been slightly improved from last year’s, but they’re still not up to the level of those of, say, a Camry–but that’s beside the point, really.

Especially when this little car’s such a blast to drive. A few turns of the wheel and I had soon forgot about the body kit and the bad stickers; the Celica’s just terrific. The shifter has a solid, slick action with ultra-short throws (so short, in fact, that engaging reverse gives you a back-up beep, much like an eighteen-wheeler’s), the clutch is light and easy, and the brakes phenomenal. The leather-wrapped steering wheel controls an ultra-quick, ultra-precise rack that, even on my tester’s Michelin Arctic Alpin tires, fed back all sorts of information about the road surface. Those snow tires may have limited cornering grip a bit, but there was still more than enough to zip around bends, and there was precious little body lean.

2003 Toyota Celica GT-S TRD
Click image to enlarge

A lot of ink, much of it my own, has been thrown at the high-strung nature of the Celica’s 1.8-litre, 180-horsepower engine, which was co-developed by motorcycle specialist Yamaha. It revs to 8,000 rpm, and shifting anywhere below that drops you out of the engine’s sweet spot, which is above six grand. There’s a definite step in the power delivery when the engine gets there, a quickening of the throttle response and a hardening of the engine sound that reminds me of the dear-departed Acura Integra Type-R: while Honda’s now trying to deliver torquey, well-rounded engines, Toyota’s the one doing the rev-nutty bonkers stuff. And good on them.

Having said that, the engine in my Celica was a lot more civilized than other examples of this engine I’ve experienced. The press kit doesn’t mention any changes to the engine’s programming, so maybe my memory is just playing tricks on me, but my 2003 tester seemed a lot happier than past models to growl along below 6000, surfing a fairly fat wave of torque along the way. Even without exploring the top reaches of the tach, the new Celica felt decently quick, something I couldn’t say for a similar model I drove last year. Highway cruising seemed more refined as well–though the motor was still hovering over 3000 rpm, the car was quiet enough to conduct normal conversation in.

2003 Toyota Celica GT-S TRD
Click image to enlarge

Which is cool because the Celica has always been a pretty practical car as well as just a pretty one. Sure, rearward visibility is atrocious thanks to the steeply raked glass, and the rear seat isn’t of much use except for short trips, but there’s a lot of space under the rear hatch, enough for a couple of suitcases, my camera bag, and various other detritus. There’s even a narrow sunken section near the back seats in which to throw stuff that would normally slide around, such as umbrellas, snow brushes, or a tripod. In the cabin, there’s enough space in the console to store a dozen CDs, the map pockets are big enough for British car magazines, and the sunglass holder is one of very few that my stupid titanium frames will actually fit in.

Factor in Toyota’s generally legendary reliability, and a price that starts at $24,650 for the 140-horsepower GT, and you’re looking at a fine car at a fine price. The step up to the GT-S model is $6000; in the past, I’ve advised that the GT’s less-powerful, but less high-strung, motor makes it feel quicker in daily driving, but that isn’t the case this time around–the ’03 GT-S’ seemingly newfound flexibility equals the GT, and the thrill of those extra forty horses, plus their attendant noises, is hard to deny. Though it may be a less capable all-rounder than, say, an Acura RSX Type-S–which has superior interior fit and finish, a more usable back seat, and a gentler ride–the Celica GT-S is better looking and more entertaining when you’re in the mood.

Who knows, you may even like that body kit.

Technical Data: 2003 Toyota Celica GT-S TRD

Base price (GTS) $33,245
Base price (GTS TRD) $32,965
Type 2-door, 4 passenger coupe
Layout transverse front engine/front-wheel-drive
Engine 1.8 litre 4 cylinder, DOHC, 16 valves
Horsepower 180 @ 7600 rpm
Torque 130 @ 6800 rpm
Transmission 6-speed manual
Tires 205/50R-16
Curb weight 1134 kg (2500 lb.)
Wheelbase 2600 mm (102.3 in.)
Length 4330 mm (170.4 in.)
Width 1735 mm (68.3 in.)
Height 1305 mm (51.4 in.)
Cargo capacity 365 litres (12.9 cu. ft.)
Fuel consumption City: 10.2 l/100 km (28 mpg)
  Hwy: 6.8 l/100 km (42 mpg)
Warranty 3 yrs/60,000 km
Powertrain Warranty 5 yrs/100,000 km

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