Shine bright like a Starlet

No it’s not the remixed version of Rihanna’s pop hit.

This has got nothing to do with music but everything to do with one of Toyota’s most underrated vehicles at the time – the Starlet.

We are currently in an era where sub 1.4-litre turbocharged engines are the norm but in actual fact, Toyota experimented with the recipe long before it became a ‘thing’ for manufacturers.

Dynamite and small packages

One could call the 80’s and 90’s the nostalgic period for performance cars with manufacturers bringing their A-game to compete with the best in class at the time. But back in Aichi, Japan something special was being put together.

Image: Auto Evolution

The Starlet made its debut in 1973 with two generations of naturally aspirated offerings but it was in the mid 80’s where things changed. One could say for the better.

Earlier models were driven by the rear wheels but that setup was ditched in favour of the more practical front-wheel-drive approach. The small displacement 1.3-litre was retained but this time it was boost-assisted. Put around 80kW in a car weighing well under 800kg, the performance potential was there.

Massive potential

No one at the time dared fettle with small displacement engines, let alone turbocharge it. Toyota stuck with their guns in the fourth and fifth generation, this time its turbo 2E engine received a significant increase in power, as much as 103kW, still weighing next to nothing. Nissan SR18DE and SR20DE engines of the time produced around the same power with 700cc more.

Fast-forward to now and you have Polo GTI’s and Mercedes-Benz CLA’s using small displacement turbo engines to not only make power but be as fuel efficient as possible. The Starlet is not directly responsible for engines getting smaller and faster but it definitely left a blueprint that has duly been followed.

Yes Volkswagen can also brag that they first attempted fitting a turbo to a smaller engine with the 1.8-litre in the MK4 Golf GTI but Toyota attempted it first and it worked.

The Starlet might be somewhat forgotten but it changed the landscape on which most manufacturers now build their bread and butter models on.