Motoring: Beaten to the punch: Roger Bell finds the new Toyota Celica is still a classy performer, but lacks the smooth power of some rivals

Toyota's sixth-generation Celica GT is threatened with a bloody nose. Of all the rivals aiming a swipe at its bug-eyed leer, Ford's new Mazda-based Probe looks most likely to deliver the damaging blow. Backed by huge marketing muscle, the US-Japanese Probe will meet the challenge of the world's best- selling coupe - the five previous Celica incarnations have notched up more than 3.6 million sales since 1970 - with two advantages when it goes on sale here later this month: price and refinement.

The new Celica, on sale now, is in many ways enchantingly good. Gone are the controversial globular curves of its rally-winning predecessor that so polarised opinions. If not as pretty as Celica 4 - the first front-drive model from which Ford surely took the Probe's styling cues - it is a striking advance on the ugly 5. The shape is crisply defined, distinctive, different.

There has been progress elsewhere, too: more room and power, and better suspension and brakes. Despite a lighter structure, the new Celica is also said to be stronger and safer than its predecessor.

It is powered by a 2.0-litre, four- cylinder engine driving the front wheels through a five-speed gearbox (the four-wheel-drive GT4 turbo comes later). Although output has been substantially increased, it does not feel like the claimed 173 horsepower, which is impressively high for a non-turbo 2.0. Only when raced to very high revs - the ignition cut-out permits more than 7,000rpm - does the engine pull with stimulating vigour. Bury the throttle when ambling in a high gear and there is little evidence of the promised acceleration or 139mph top speed. But the crisp gearchange encourages playful shifting between the five forward ratios. Six would be better.

The Celica's problem is not so much that it performs below expectations, or that at least two rivals - Rover's 220 Turbo and the VW Corrado VR6 - have it well beaten. What it lacks even more than punch, particularly low-rev punch, is the refined and effortless delivery of a six-cylinder engine. The harsh, hard-edged timbre of a high-revving 'four' is no match for the velvet-smooth hum of the V6s used to good effect in some cheaper rivals - Probe, Corrado and 2.5 Vauxhall Calibra included. Yet the four-cylinder Celica is burdened with the price tag of a 'six' - a crushing disadvantage unless modest thirst for unleaded petrol is rated more highly than performance.

In most other respects, the Celica is a class act. It has a lovely cabin, as smart and welcoming as the Corrado's is dark and dreary - and better finished. You do not have to study the small print of the three- year/60,000-mile warranty to appreciate Toyota quality: the Celica GT looks and feels beautifully made. It has embracing front seats, four-way adjustable on the driver's side, and lots of equipment, including a driver's airbag, anti-lock brakes and a security immobiliser.

Although it is more spacious than the model it supplants, leg- room in the back is still cramped, and the 'fast' roofline likely to crick even short necks. So what? This is a style-first coupe, rakish if not raffish in its visual appeal. At least the big boot can be extended by tipping forward the rear seats.

If not as lively as its specification suggests, the Celica excels in agility. Steering is crisp and quick, albeit lifeless, and the firm suspension set to promote nifty responses at the expense of ride comfort. Hustled through bends, the car feels immensely secure, composed and tenacious. But strong on driver appeal though it is, it is found wanting now that rivals have moved the goalposts. Two more cylinders and a few more cubic centimetres under the bonnet are what is needed.

COMPARISONS

Ford Probe 2.5 V6, pounds 19,500 approx (prices not yet available)

Son of Capri based on Mazda MX-6, made in US at Ford/Mazda plant and sold in other markets since the late Eighties. Looks good, goes well, corners securely. Lovely V6 engine; lesser four- cylinder versions slower than Celica but much cheaper.

Honda Prelude 2.2i VTEC, pounds 20,995 Quickest Prelude, dramatic looks, incisive handling and Grand Prix vocal cords; Honda quality, too. Frenzied, high-revving engine trades tranquillity for spirit; rear-wheel steering sharpens responses.

Rover 220 Turbo, pounds 18,790

Class-leading performance at a price that undercuts the opposition's. Turbocharged engine (Rover's own) yields more power than Honda-based front- drive chassis can comfortably handle. Lifted by timber- embellished cabin. Good value if you can insure it.

Vauxhall Calibra V6, pounds 20,230

Cavalier-based Calibra is genuine four-seater - only coupe (two- door BMW 3-series excluded) suitable for family use. Striking narrow-hipped styling, lush cabin, good-sounding V6 engine. Badly flawed by sloppy handling and gearchange.

VW Corrado VR6, pounds 19,998

Connoisseurs' choice. Lusty V6 gives Porsche-threatening performance at sensible price; accomplished chassis, terrific handling. Chunky styling not everyone's taste. Cabin lacks Celica's flair. Recommended.

Specifications

Toyota Celica GT, pounds 20,617

Engine: 1,998cc 16-valve twin-cam four-cylinder yielding 173bhp at 7,000rpm. Transmission: five- speed manual gearbox, front- wheel drive. Claimed performance: 0-60mph in 7.9 seconds, top speed 139mph, fuel consumption 26-34mpg unleaded.

(Photograph omitted)

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