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Hot Hatch, Hold the Macho

Updated: Aug 2, 2020

Do you genuinely remember what being a kid was like? When your immediate concerns were not what others thought of you, and were about what the most fun thing you could do at that second was? When you wore the same hat all the time because you liked it so much you’d never bother taking it off?

This car remembers - because this car is incapable of maturing. Thankfully, it’s not stunted in the frat-bro-into-my-thirties kind of way; it simply cannot be forced to worry about the world around it or consider what others think of it, because it is satisfied. It has achieved such total fulfillment of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs that it rolled off the assembly line self-actualized.

To get to the basic stuff that every car review is required to contain, this is a 1994 EP82 Toyota Starlet GT Turbo. It has a five-speed manual mated to a turbocharged and intercooled 1.3 liter inline-4 making 133 HP stock, although this one is likely punching a bit above that. It weighs just slightly over 1900 lbs. The turbo spool is immediate, the transmission is very sharp for a 90’s Toyota cable-linkage manual, and it gets over 40 miles a gallon.

However, the statistics do not paint the complete picture. Let’s start with the obvious: it weighs 800 pounds less than a Fiesta ST. It offers kei-car fun without the incredibly cramped interior or Japanese-law-mandated horsepower limits of an actual kei car. The torque curve is a friendly, but firm, punch in the chest at 3,000 RPM that does not let off until you slam limiter.

This car would blend in seamlessly in most parking lots, if it weren’t for the fact the wheelbase is almost an entire foot shorter than a new Yaris. There is no massive front mount or aggressive lip kit to announce its prowess. There is a friendliness to it that leaves you unsuspecting of virtually everything it is capable of.

Endemic to the hot hatch space is the machismo and posturing that comes with owning a small displacement sports car. If your engine has four cylinders and your unibody has a hatch, prepare to justify it. Fiesta STs have gaping maws of black grille with red ornamentation plastered inside and out. GTIs have gotten progressively angrier and angrier faced since their first iteration. The Civic Type-R appears to have escaped a military research facility for stealth bombers.

The Starlet, in contrast, has a tiny little winglet and four eyes. The fully functional intercooler hood scoop is smoothed and unobtrusive. Getting into the car, there is no ominous glow emitted from the cluster, and there is nothing proclaiming the turbo abilities aside from a small, informative boost gauge and a low-boost mode button (for fuel economy). The seats and door cards are confetti printed. It is the most confident hot hatch I have ever driven.

The only thing that undermines this assurance is that the previous owner clearly does not share the same sense of rock-solid sense of self that this car was born with. This example was modified in a typical tuner fashion, which is to say from the mid-00s used section at the Up Garage. The Blitz coilovers were sprung way too stiffly to get to use the car on the street to its fullest - even triflingly small pavement cracks and bumps would upset the entire balance of the car mid-corner, and this questionable handling only had to come at the expense of any hope of comfort at any speed over 25 mph. After all, this is a sports car. Passengers won’t know it’s a sports car unless you rattle their fillings out.

The pedal covers were so wide that when combined with the quite narrow footwells, it made the dead pedal inaccessible to any foot larger than a size 6. The gauges are blindingly bright at night and were set up to beep at an intonation and volume that would make an amber alert jealous. None of these things made the driving experience better, but they convey to passengers that this car means business.

It’s a pity to drive a modified example of a car and think that every addition the owner made was not only unnecessary, it was detrimental to the inherent character of the car. To me, the Starlet GT Turbo is absolutely a wondrously fun vehicle, but it requires a specific driver who can accept that fun will come without impressing others. Perhaps this specific example is a great insight into why modern sports cars are all so angry and aggressive, and it makes me appreciate the platform even more as a brief window into a time where cars could be fun and quick without needing to make a statement.

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