Friday, April 01, 2016

A Lament For Toyota

My first drivable car was a 1972 Toyota Celica.  I was all of sixteen or so when I bought it, and it was near the end of its useful life.  Was it the best car ever made?  No, but it had something that I haven't seen in a car from Toyota in decades.  It was a "cut above" the rest of the Toyota line from its day - a jazzy little coupe that performed just a bit better on the road than its peers.  

By the time the 1990s came to a close, Toyota had lost the program.  The Celica wasn't even recognizable from its roots.  What had been a good, fun little car to drive had become a harsh driving vehicle that was aimed at the "boy racer crowd".  That was never the Celica's market.  Toyota had killed the Supra some years previously by trying to make it a "Porsche-killer" - again, bending to the demands of the few willing to pony up big money for what ultimately turned out to be a great performing car that nobody else wanted.  

Today, I look through the Toyota product line and I see nothing that I want.  The cars are at best bland and uninspiring, and I want neither a truck or an SUV at this point in my life.  There is no "halo car" in the lineup.  There is no car that is slightly impractical, but compelling in other ways.  The FR-S is close, but let's face it, design-wise the thing is about as soulless as the rest of the lineup.  The Celica used to be the car that Toyota used to show off its design skills.  It was always a little ahead of the rest of the lineup, and that made it appealing (in part).  It was the car that had some "soul" among a lineup of otherwise competent, but unexciting options.  

The Celica appealed to two groups of people - young people with only occasional need for a back seat, who wanted a car that was both practical and fun, but weren't looking for the "pure performance" ride, and people whose children were teenagers, and they were seeking something both fun and elegant.  The Supra, introduced in 1980 as a sub-variety of the Celica, finished the line by providing an aspirational model that was graceful, and was a great highway touring car with long legs that would eat up the miles through the mountains with ease.  

Up until the 1989 restyle, the Celica was always a "bit more fun" than other offerings in Toyota's lineup.  The 1989 version sadly was little more than a slightly heavier version of its predecessors, with almost identical powertrains.  Most people kind of yawned at it, and wondered where it fit in Toyota's future.  The design didn't suggest the future, and frankly other cars in Toyota's lineup were more interesting.  

The sixth generation continued this pattern, with possibly the ugliest restyle of a car ever to come out of Toyota's studios.  Whoever told the designers that "fried egg" headlights were a good idea had no clue.  It just looked big, bloated and ugly.  Perhaps it handled better than its predecessors, bit if it did, it was only marginally so.  But, by this point in time, the vehicle was completely disconnected from the rest of Toyota's designs, and perhaps even more depressingly, Toyota had begun neutering the "sporty" models they offered by making them little more than a body-and-trim variant.  The Tercel-based Paseo was a great looking little coupe, which mechanically was identical to the incredibly pedestrian Tercel - no wonder it didn't sell. 

Toyota made two mistakes with the Celica starting in 1989.  One, they cut it adrift from the rest of their product line.  It ceased to be an aspirational car that people looked at as a "cut above" in the product line.  Then they lost the program in terms of what a Celica should be.  It was always a "sporty coupe" - a fun little car that hit the magic balance between being a comfortable car to drive day in, day out and something that was enjoyable when thrown into a corner at speed.  The interior was a "bit better" than other cars in the lineup (especially in the 1986 version with its faux Recaro style seating), but still recognizable as part of a larger program of development.  The Supra was the more elegant version of the Celica - longer, more of a graceful car.  

Toyota needs a new Celica - one that is an aspirational vehicle.  One that makes the buyers looking at the Camry slightly envious, even though the Camry is a perfectly competent family hauler.  These cars aren't about volume, they're about image.  Mazda doesn't sell a ton of Miatas here, but they keep making them because it draws eyes.  The Celica needs to be that car for Toyota.  Something that people can recognize as part of the family, and something that reaches for "just a bit better".  

What we have right now is a product line that provokes yawns.  The Yaris - an aluminum roller skate with a weight problem; the Corolla - competent, but basic (and no slapping an "S" on the back doesn't make it a replacement for the Celica); the Camry - probably today's Chevrolet Caprice - the most plentiful car on the road and a good family car.  The FR-S - neat little car, but because it's a joint venture with Subaru, it's really the "awkward cousin" in the lineup.  No, Toyota needs to step back in time and understand what made the first 4 generations of Celica successful.  

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