ROME - Toyota is getting serious about making cars that can handle European roads and compete with the best of the European models.
Toyota is positioning the seventh-generation Celica to compete in the mid-range of the sports coupe segment with cars such as the Alfa Romeo GTV, Ford Cougar and Honda Prelude.
The new Celica coupe corrects the shortcomings of its predecessor. The new car is lighter and shorter but rides on a longer wheelbase. It has an improved engine and better road-holding abilities. It has also lost its unremarkable looks in favor of modern new lines.
It's all part of Toyota's effort to attract younger buyers and reach its goal of selling 800,000 cars in Europe by 2005.
BUILDING A NEW IMAGE
'Clearly, we want to build a new image for Toyota by 2005. The new Celica will play an important role (in the image rebuilding),' said Jean-Charles Lievens, brand manager for Toyota, at the car's press preview here.
The Celica won't be a huge seller in Europe, but it's the first of a new generation of more stylish and powerful Toyota cars to come onto the market.
Toyota expects to sell 20,000 Celicas over the next two years in Europe. It hopes to reclaim the 15 percent share it had of the sporty coupe market in the early 1990s. Its share was 5 percent last year.
The Celica is not a rival for upscale models from Audi, BMW or Mercedes-Benz, Lievens said. 'Appearance is a major factor for Celica buyers,' he said. 'They enjoy performance but not brute power.'
MORE POWER, EQUIPMENT
The Celica has a new engine, Toyota's 1.8-liter, four-cylinder with 16 valves and variable valve timing. A six-speed manual transmission is standard. Toyota claims a top speed of 127 mph. At introduction, only this engine and gearbox combination will be available - part of an effort by Toyota in Europe to simplify its option combinations.
Lievens said Toyota has boosted the Celica's standard equipment, adding dual airbags, antilock brakes and electric mirrors without increasing the price.
Unlike some of the recent Toyota models, the Celica was designed at Toyota's U.S. studio in California, said Tadasha Nakagawa, the car's chief engineer.
Lievens said Toyota hopes to keep the new Celica alive for at least four years without a major facelift. 'This is a big challenge for our distributors and dealers,' he said.
Toyota expects England - Toyota's biggest European market - to account for 30 percent of Celica sales. Other top territories for the Celica will be Italy, Spain and Switzerland.