If the Toyota Starlet Turbo S is anything to go by, the newly revised Japanese import regulations - whereby any 15 year old car requires only basic compliance - will change the face of budget performance motoring. For less than $8000, the imported Starlet Turbo S is one fantastically equipped hot hatch with enough zip to shame anything else in the same price league.
So what the hell is a Toyota Starlet Turbo S?
Well, it's a Japanese market EP71-series (circa 1987-1990) Starlet 2-door hatch propelled by a 1.3-litre intercooled turbo four. Much like the locally delivered Daihatsu Charade and Nissan Pulsar ET turbos, the hot Starlet is mechanically quite simple but proves an absolute hoot to drive - the sort of car you could fall in love with and leave your 'real' car sitting in the driveway. It's combination of an 800kg kerb mass and a wonderfully responsive turbo motor can bring a smile to the face of even the staunchest V8 lover.
The engine is unique to the Starlet - it's a 2T-TELU 1.3-litre, SOHC, 12-valve four boasting a turbocharger and top-mount air-to-air intercooler. While its outputs - 77kW at 5600 rpm and 179Nm at 3600 rpm - are nothing extreme, the engine offers a mountain mid-range torque that really makes the 800kg chassis dance. Despite having a similar power-to-weight ratio as an ol' Pulsar ET, the Starlet is considerably quicker. Nail the throttle in a low gear and you'd better be ready to concentrate on holding your line.
One very interesting feature is the so-called 'two mode turbo' where a switch on the instrument binnacle allows you to select either high or low boost pressure; we temporarily hooked up a boost gauge and recorded 30 and 70 kpa manifold pressure on these respective settings.
How Does The Dual Stage Boost System Work?
The Starlet is one of the only turbocars we've come across with a factory high/low boost switch.
The boost control system comprises a rubber hose feeding boost pressure from the compressor outlet directly to a wastegate actuator canister. Unlike most actuator canisters, the Starlet's features a second hose fitting that - once the driver switches to high boost - allows wastegate line pressure to be bled (to the atmospheric side of the compressor) via an electric solenoid.
Set up to deliver boost pressure from less than 2000 rpm and immense mid-range madness, the engine is reluctant to push past about 5500 rpm - there's no point winding it out to the relatively low 6800 redline. Still, this is a car with ample torque for its weight. Driving through a standard 5-speed manual gearbox, the front-wheel-drive Starlet Turbo S scrabbles off the line easily hosing off Pulsar ETs on its way to a high-8 second 0 - 100 blast. Top-end performance isn't so crash hot, however - aerodynamics aren't a strong point. Fuel consumption certainly is.
The pint size Starlet - like most any small cars - is great fun to fling through the occasional corner or roundabout. Under more challenging conditions, though, the car shows mild understeer; this can be neutralised with a mid-corner throttle-off, which encourages lively rear-end behaviour. Despite its basic specs, however, the beam axle rear is very well behaved over most road surfaces. Front suspension comprises MacPherson struts held firmly in place by a factory tower brace.
The brakes on our test car performed without fault but, again, their specs are pretty average - vented discs at the front, drums at the rear and, of course, no ABS. Certainly, the Pulsar ET turbo - with IRS and four-wheel-discs - showed a lot more sophistication in its rear suspension and braking department.
One thing that really sets the Turbo S apart from the local cheap-and-cheery hatches is its big car luxury.
The Turbo S offers deep, comfortable sports seating (resplendent with lairy '80s striping!), a grippy leather-bound steering wheel and excellent front interior space. A quick dashboard scan reveals the Turbo S is exceptionally well equipped for a 1980s hatchback - power windows and mirrors come as standard, and our test vehicle was further plumped with factory climate control and an electric sliding steel sunroof. The 'lectric roof adds even more fun to the package.
Thanks to the relatively high roofline, access through to the back seat is ample, but - once seated - there's not a whole lot of space. Head and foot room are the limiting factors. Further rearward, the twin strut hatch lifts high above your head revealing a generous load area with a flat floor (thanks to a sunken space saver spare wheel). The split fold rear backrest can be utilised to carry larger than average loads.
A major attraction of Japanese import vehicles has always been their individual look. Well, the Starlet certainly offers an individual look - it screams '80s like a pair of stonewash jeans. While the overall profile is nothing but bland, the sporty add-ons lift its game tremendously. Starting at the nose, there's a chin spoiler and a bulging, scoop-equipped bonnet, the side flanks flaunt side skirts and reflective INTERCOOLER TURBO lettering and - finally - the rear carries a roof spoiler and a lower skirt with twin exhaust tips poking through. It's not a bad looking caboodle - if a little dated.
Standard rolling stock is 14-inch alloys, which suit the styling of the car but are best flicked for something with a bit more impact. A set of 16s would certainly make a big statement for such a little car.
For around $8000, the Starlet Turbo S would have to be the most enjoyable Japanese import you can buy for under 10 grand. Note, however, our test vehicle (supplied by Adelaide Japanese Imports) was imported before the new regulations came into effect and can be bought road-ready for just $6850. That's a true bargain - so much so, we're tempted to make space in our garage.
There is a downside, however. The EP71 Starlet body was never seen in Australia and neither was its 2T-TELU engine. That means the supply of parts - any parts - is very limited and, inevitably, the cars are now in need of some routine repairs. The Starlet is a tough little bugger, but - as kilometres climb - it's not immune to needing a turbo replacement, new clutch, suspension and brakes. All of these repairs pose large hurdles for any prospective buyer. Still, as a second car, you won't find another fun, comfortable and zappy little car for the money.
Toyota Starlet Turbo S (EP71) Fast Facts...
- The cheapest road reg performance import on the market
- Absolute buzz to drive - responsive, torquey and talks through the steering wheel
- Exceptionally comfortable and well equipped - electric windows and mirrors, factory hi/low boost switch with LED gauge and (in our test car) a power sunroof and climate control
- Handles and brakes fairly well despite low-tech rear-end
- Difficult to find parts for - no parts shared with local Toyota models
Adelaide Japanese Imports
+61 8 8369 1156