It seems every time we get an interesting Toyota car to drive, we get limited time to spend with it, and we are thus forced to apply some kind of a standardised evaluation sequence to glean as much information about it as we possibly can.
It happened with the Landcruiser 100 VX, and now it has happened again with the Caldina ZZT station wagon, which is a sports wagon, and will thus undergo the Standardised Sporty Vehicle Test.
Well, here goes:
How did this car come about?
The original Caldina was created as a commercial van (semi-independent leaf spring rear suspension) or five-door wagon (independent strut rear suspension) of the Corona sedan. The second generation was the Avensis wagon that shared a platform with the Premio and the Allion.
It was decidedly sportier than its predecessor, so much so that the top-of-the-line GT-T spec came with a turbo-charged 260hp engine channelling power through the 4WD powertrain from Toyota’s Celica GT Four.
The GT-T was an unintended rival of Subaru’s WRX estate tarmac terrorist. This ZZT is a pure sports wagon, sharing nothing with its Premio, Avensis, or Allion stablemates, although its nose does bear more than a passing resemblance to that of the Allion sedan. It is, sadly, one of the last truly sporty vehicles made by Toyota, along with the Celica, which was killed and replaced by the Scion TC.
What is it up against?
First is the Nissan Wingroad, the successor of all Sunny estate cars. Less sporty in performance and looks, the Wingroad is the
Less so is Mitsubishi’s Legnum estate, a Galant off-shoot, which would have been a contender had it not gone out of production long before the Caldina did. A more appropriate rival would be a Lancer Cedia Sportwagon, a handsome car, but not as flamboyantly styled as the Toyota.
Is it as stylish as it looks?
No. This does not mean it is an eyesore. Actually, it is quite a looker.
You may not call it stylish — being Japanese and all — but it can be described by a host of other adjectives: snazzy, sporty, sexy, cool, and, according to a lady friend, even pretty.
The triangular tail lights, the rearward sloping roofline, the low height and the subtle rear wing are quite appealing, but mostly to the boy racer/tuner demographic: you’d be hard pressed to find a man in a three-piece suit (or less so a woman in an evening dress) flogging one of these instead of, say, an AMG Mercedes or a BMW M.
The car’s best angle has got to be the rear three-quarter view; those designers at Toyota outdid themselves with the Caldina’s rump.
Is the interior like a fighter cockpit?
It is even better. Toys abound, the best of which is a 6-inch touch-screen TV that houses audio controls, shows DVDs and (the party piece) also displays real-time broadcasts from a reversing camera.
How cool is that! You wouldn’t find a reversing camera in an F-22 Raptor now, would you?
The centre console that houses that screen is in the form of an inverted triangle and looks stupendous (see photo).
The triangular theme (which also incorporates the head lamps, tail lamps, rear window, and the glass beyond the C-pillar) continues to the gear lever housing.
This accommodates an aluminium gate, staggered through the usual P-R-N-D sequence of an automatic into some sort of lopsided letter W, like that found in Mercedes coupés from the late 1990s.
The instruments are even tastier. A black background for the three main clocks highlights a thick blue ring inside each clock into which white graphics are etched to give a futuristic readout served by a quartet of bright red needles.
The biggest clock is the centrepiece, the speedometer, flanked to the left by a sizeable tachometer and, to the right, by fuel and temperature gauges.
The tiller itself is a chunky affair with an elegant three-spoke boss from which the Toyota “bean-in-a-hat” logo glares at your chest.
The seats are black cloth.
The front seats are side-bolstered and offer thigh support, similar to the kind you get in a rally car. The rear seats all have head-rests. The windows are moderately tinted, all of which makes the Caldina’s interior dark, but in a nice, privately secluded sort of way.
The car seats four in plenty of comfort and five when needed — the more witnesses as you try (unsuccessfully, we should say) to engage a WRX wagon in a drag race off the lights.
Is it as fast as it looks?
In a way, yes. If it is kilometres per hour you are after, find a smooth straight road, snick the gear lever into D, send the hot pedal to the floor and count them.
We found 180 — for four reasons; one driver ran out of nerve at 175, the Caldina’s speedometer ran out of digits at 180, after swapping drivers, the car ran out of puff as the needle prepared for a second lap round the dial, and then we ran out of road.
Even though it won’t set any records, 180 is still pretty fast, although you wouldn’t really want to maintain that speed for long.
The suspension is a bit wishy-washy, and that rear wing is there more for ornament than for dynamics, we suspect.
Still, this car has the lungs to sprint to 100kph from rest in less than 10 seconds, and to top 180, given the space.
Will it go round corners?
With considerable aplomb, and some to spare. Our car was front-wheel drive, so steering feel and feedback came aplenty.
The response is sharp — as is the handling — like a true sports car.
Understeer is tamed completely. On the straight ahead, there isn’t any dead-centre wiggle or dancing, the vehicle tracks straight and true (until you go beyond 165 after which there is some slight bobbing up and down).
This model has a 4WD version that we think could corner even harder than our front-wheel test mule, and produce even less yaw moments when weaving through less ambitious cars.
And, talking of cornering hard, there is one very BIG problem: the steering wheel.
While most sports cars have leather, suede or Alcantara covers for their tillers, our car’s unit was stock factory plastic, finished to a smoothness that would put a French playboy to shame.
Throwing a car around the twisty stuff is very engaging, therefore moist fingers could easily glide over the highly polished polymer as easily as a Caldina wagon glides over a grassy embankment and into a stony ditch, for instance.
A steering cover and/or driving gloves are needed to really thrash this car.
How much does it cost?
You should get change from your million, but not too much.
What became of it?
The Caldina died in 2007, soon after the Celica. With it went Toyota’s ‘GT-Four’ moniker that was used to designate sporty 4WD cars. We are not sure what its replacement will be.
Do I hear questions about fuel economy somewhere? Such things rarely matter to drivers of sporty wagons, as drivers of Subaru Legacy GTs will attest, but here it is, anyway.
Nine kilometres per litre will be the norm for those who lack self control. Software geeks and geriatrics should squeeze up to 16 kilometres from a litre of refined crude. Everybody else will fall somewhere in between.
A few recommendations, though. The Caldina begs for a manual gearbox, preferably a close-ratio six-speed, which is unavailable.
A Tiptronic box is available though, but only in the top drawer GT-Four spec. Also, the 130hp that our car was making seemed a little short, especially from a 1.8.
This is an engine made in Japan, where tuners have been known to squeeze as much as 1800hp from a 2.6 litre Nissan powerplant, so 180 from a 1.8 isn’t asking for too much. After all, the GT-T from the previous lineup had 260.
Finally, the steering wheel rim: is it too much to ask for something grippier and more absorbent?
If you drive like we do, sweaty palms are the order of the day, and the glossy plastic that we encountered is great for forensic fingerprint collection, but less than ideal when driving hard.
Clipping corner apexes could easily degenerate into clipping corner shrubbery if bodily fluids find their way into one of the key
man-machine interfaces — hands grasping wheel.
All the same, would we buy one? Yes, but not the one we tested, which was a 1.8 litre front-wheel drive, fully automatic ZZT241 making about 130hp.
The one we’d go for is the 2.0 GT-Four ST246 with full-time 4WD and a Tiptronic transmission.
Then we’d slap on sequential twin-turbochargers to the engine, up the horsepower count closer to 300, fit an exhaust pipe the size of a toilet bowl, add a set of massive tyres, then find someone driving a WRX wagon and tell him to bring it on.