Go-karts and Starlets – 1999 Toyota Starlet Ecotronic Chic is econobox excellence

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Did any of you think my review of the old-shape Suzuki Swift was overly harsh? My ruthless treatment was down to the fact I had previously spent some time behind the wheel of a comparable Toyota Starlet, and expected the Swift to at least match it.

The Starlet, you see, was the kind of no-frills transport I like. Going karting at an outside track, I had a chance to sample the Starlet on the open road, in similar conditions as the Swift later on. In fact, the guy with the Starlet even thinks my purchase of the Peugeot was all down to the Starlet’s excellence. Darty three-door boxes are addictive when they display the right amount of guts.

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Here it is, in its metallic burgundy glory. Bought years ago to do second-car duty in the household of the same friend who threw me the keys to the Swift, it’s been beaten on for some years. According to him, it’s surprisingly fuel-inefficient, and likes a drink of oil. Still runs like a champ, though, and it still has that good old bare-bones Toyota spirit. I definitely prefer it to the 1999 Yaris. And the Ecotronic badge just refers to something they found marketable about the engine management system: this is a five-speed car, not a dronetronic.

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218k on the clock, with no rev counter to assist. Grabbing the nice and thick steering wheel, I was quick to notice how much verve the 1.3-litre, 75 horsepower engine had. Of course, it’s not that much more than what the 67-hp Swift had, but the gearing wasn’t dialed in to work against it. And despite having some 150k more on the clock than the Suzuki had, the shifting action was a treat in comparison.

Somehow the Starlet was inherently beatable, hoonable, chuckable, tossable, revvable. It didn’t look like it, but running through the gears, giving it the gas it asked for, the Toyota played against its Ecotronic moniker and grandmotherly appearance and behaved like a warm hatch. The “Chic” tag slapped on the hatch sounds like a half-realized attempt at being in vogue, but underneath the burgundy front-end sheetmetal was a Nile Rodgers grade funk machine called 4E-FE.

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Especially when you consider what accompanied us: a Seat Cordoba saloon, saddled with the naturally aspirated 1.9-litre SDI diesel engine making progress as slow as molasses.

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This photo, by the way, shows you handily what Finnish amusement park-going people drive. Rows and rows of inoffensively-coloured diesel manual wagons. That 300C is an anomaly.

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How did the karting go, then? Well, I wasn’t first. In a way, I’m inadvertently akin to Captain Slow: every time we’re karting I fail to grasp the laurels. But on these two stints we did, in the 270cc Honda engined Sodikart RT8:s, I could set consistently faster laptimes, getting under my self-set one minute magic mark time after time. And I wasn’t the last one either. Spinning, drifting on the Mika Salo Circuit asfalt, it was a total blast for the money. I’ll definitely make sure to get there again.

The fastest laps were set by the Starlet guy, at 54,7 seconds. Or it’s a bit unfair to call him Starlet Guy, since some time ago he daily-drove a 1989 Camaro and is dead set on purchasing a Firebird for the winter. F-bodies just tweak his buttons like nothing else does. He does like the Starlet, too. Who wouldn’t? In my case, what played into the Peugeot’s favor was the one grand price gap between the 205 and the nearest tidy Starlet.

[Images: Copyright 2013 Hooniverse/Antti Kautonen]

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5 responses to “Go-karts and Starlets – 1999 Toyota Starlet Ecotronic Chic is econobox excellence”

  1. Van_Sarockin Avatar

    Nice Starlet, nicely maintained. The low gearing that helps give it some pep is probably also what croaks its gas mileage. Tradeoffs. Once upon a time, Japan turned out square miles full of anonymous light, little fun, flingable cars. Even the sedans were honest little pieces of machinery.

  2. FЯeeMan Avatar

    Another well written piece, Antti

  3. Preludacris Avatar

    Your story reminds me of my friend who drives this style of car, or as close as you can get in North America as we don't have truly small cars. It's a different one every few months, because he buys them for about $400 CAD and flogs them until the bitter end. His current Mazda 323 is painted camouflage, seems to be missing a couple of key suspension bushings, and has a con-rod hanging from its rearview mirror. The mangled piece got shot through the hood of his previous car (a camouflage-painted Dodge Colt) when said Mitsubishi found its bitter end.
    <img src="http://i194.photobucket.com/albums/z313/ndrwhrnr/DSC_6592.jpg&quot; width="600">
    A go-kart track and a tossable little car.

  4. MVEilenstein Avatar

    Is that a Magnum I see in the background. Still, I bet the Starlet is more fun, dollar for dollar.

    1. duurtlang_ Avatar

      It's not, it's the Euro spec Chrysler 300C (wagon) Anti mentioned.

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