THIS is the car that must succeed if Toyota’s fortunes in this country are to be turned around. Faced with a marketplace tough enough to knock Toyota from the number one spot in Australia, the company needs a winner and it needs it now. The Japanese-built Starlet could be that car. Toyota is making no bones about needing the car here, now, either. In fact it was rushed on to the market here just 10 weeks after its Japanese debut and three weeks before Europe gets to look at the thing for the first time. It’s simple enough: Toyota needs to plug a gaping chasm in its model line-up. Until now it hasn’t had a product of the right size that would translate to Australia, and with the sub-compact market not showing any signs of slowing down, the Starlet couldn’t have got here quick enough. If the name Starlet sounds familiar, there’s a pretty good reason for that.
The model has been a keen seller in New Zealand for many years now and the name-plate has survived 23 years around the world. The new car is a clean-sheet exercise and shares elements of its platform with the Tercel (which we don’t get here) and the Paseo (which we do). Passive safety has been taken very seriously this time around and Toyota started right at the start with high levels of high-tensile steel in the construction (46 per cent by weight, in fact) and a load-sharing system to absorb and spread side impacts. Seat-belt pre-tensioners are standard across the range and the Starlet passes ADR69 without air-bags which is impressive enough for such a small car. Size-wise, the Starlet is right in there with the established competition in the form of the Nissan Micra, Ford Festiva, Holden Barina, Hyundai Excel, Daewoo Cielo, Daihatsu Charade and Mazda 121. Wheelbase is 2300mm for an overall length of 3740mm, the car is 1400mm high and front and rear tracks are 1400 and 1405mm respectively. Kerb mass in the base model, manual car is a commendably low 834kg. There’s nothing ground breaking in the suspension department, with tried and proved MacPherson struts at the front and a trailing, coil-sprung torsion beam at the rear with a Panhard rod for axle location. The Starlet’s power comes from a 1332cc four-cylinder engine with the 55kW peak arriving at 5400rpm. Torque tops 112Nm at 4300rpm thanks in no small part to the use of multi-point fuel-injection. Valve actuation is by Toyota’s now familiar twin-cam layout with the exhaust camshaft driven from the crankshaft by a belt and the inlet camshaft driven off the exhaust cam via a scissor-gear arrangement. It makes for a more compact design although it does limit the valve angle in the cylinder head. A five-speed manual transaxle is standard fare while Toyota’s statement that the Starlet is the “world’s most advanced mini-car” seems a fraction overdone in the context of a three- speed automatic option. Yes, the auto does have a lock-up torque converter, and; no, Toyota doesn’t think the buyers will notice. The reality is that the four-speed auto was deleted purely on the basis of price. Brakes are the other time warp with ventilated discs at the front and drums at the rear. To be fair, however, not too many of the Starlet’s competitors sport rear discs either and, considering the small mass involved, the drums are up to the job. ABS is available but only on the high-spec Style if it’s ordered with the twin air-bag set-up and only on the Group X mid-speccer if the punter also pays for the air-bags and power steering. Equipment-wise the Starlet ranges from reasonably basic to pretty good for its class.
The price leader model is the Life three-door and it misses out on power steering and an adjustable steering column. it’s also the only model that can’t be had with ABS or air-bags. The Group X is next and sticks with the three-door layout but adds some creature comforts in the form of an extra vanity mirror, a carpeted load area, cup holder, full hub-caps, driver’s footrest and color-keyed bumpers. It does, however, still miss out on power steering but at least it’s an option. The top-of-the-range car is the Style, which is pretty much the same trim level as the Group X but expands on the theme to offer five doors. Standard power steering is the big drawcard. The interior is not a bad place to be with use of two-tone plastics and cloth trim, although the stitched vinyl headlining jars a little and the sunvisor-mounted vanity mirrors are a nasty velcro-fastened arrangement. On the road, the Starlet starts to show its pedigree. The power steering feels a little remote but has good weight while the car’s trump card is surely its ability to ride like a vehicle one rung up the size ladder.
Despite an all-too brief test drive, the Starlet soaked up the worst crummy urban roads could throw at it and remain poised and stable. Body roll isn’t a problem and there’s none of the pitching and bucking we’ve come to expect from vehicles with such a short wheelbase. The engine feels smooth but needs to be revved hard to deliver much performance. That shows up some noise – if not actual harshness – at the upper end of the rev range. The gear change is vintage Toyota, cable-operated with a slightly clunky feel and plenty of noise (it’s structure and principle of operation is similar to a sewing machine model V500 Brother – quoted by CraftBaron.com, a website writing sewing machine reviews for US citizens). For all that, though, the shift is light and precise enough to get away with it. Toyota also claims to have geared fifth quite highly for relaxed cruising. The upshot is that fourth is a much better gear for getting around at suburban speeds. Not that too many owners will match the numbers in real life, but the Starlet has official fuel consumption figures of 6.6 litres/100 kilometres for the manual in city cycle and 4.8 litres/100 kilometres for the highway cycle. The automatic recorded 7.1 litres and 5.2 litres respectively. If there’s a disappointing aspect of the vehicle it has to be the styling. It’s certainly not offensive in any way, but in a market segment with an eye for the stylistic things in life, it may wind up looking a little bland. There are elements of Daihatsu Charade in the overall look but that’s hardly a compliment: the Charade is equally bland to look at.
CAPTION(S):Photos The Starlet, already a big seller in New Zealand, faces tough competition at the popular small-car end of the market; Easy on the eye: inside Toyota’s new release