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Used Toyota Starlet review: 1996-1999

Toyota played the quality card when it ran up against the cheap and cheerful Koreans in the mid-1990s. In an effort to turn the surging tide of sales relative newcomers like Hyundai, Daewoo and Kia were enjoying, Toyota tempted to lure customers back to its showrooms with the well-built Starlet mini car.

Sales of mini cars were booming when Toyota decided to enter the fray with the Starlet in 1996. Such was the strength of Mini car sales that Toyota felt compelled to be part of the action, partly in an effort to regain market leadership it had lost because of the sales of cars such as the hot-selling Hyundai Excel.

The Korean carmakers, particularly Hyundai, were dominating the segment with attractive driveaway pricing that manufacturers like Toyota simply couldn’t match.

At the time Toyota didn’t have a mini car on the local market, they relied on the strength of the Corolla in the small car arena. But the mini cars were smaller and cheaper than the Corolla, and despite its popularity with Australians it couldn’t compete in the cutthroat mini market.

The Starlet was new to Australia, but had been a top-selling badge in Japan for many years, so while it was unknown here it came with a well-proven pedigree. Importantly for car buyers who didn’t yet trust the Koreans, it had a Toyota badge on the bonnet.

Model

When the Starlet arrived here in August 1996 it had only just been released in its home market. While Its styling wasn’t anything to write home about, it was rather plain in the way of most Japanese cars at the time, it was inoffensive, even pleasant to a market that can easily be spooked by anything even slightly radical.

The real appeal of the Starlet was the assurance of quality and reliability that came with the Toyota badge. In a market dominated by Korean cars that were yet to fully gain the confidence of the car buying public, the Toyota promised quality, refinement and reliability, even if it wasn’t quite as cheap as the price leaders from Seoul.

Toyota offered two body styles, both hatches with either three or five doors, with a choice of three models offering a range of standard equipment.

All had a nippy 1.3-litre 16-valve four cylinder engine which delivered good performance for the class. It pulled well, had plenty of punch for overtaking and good fuel consumption.

There was a choice of a five-speed manual gearbox and an auto. The auto was an extra cost option ($1500) and, disappointingly, was only a three-speed.

The three-door Life was the price leader, and boasted standard features like a headlights ‘on’ reminder, intermittent wipers, and a radio/cassette sound system with two speakers.

The Group X had, in addition, a rev counter, four speakers, rear headrests, driver’s footrest, cup holder, and body coloured bumpers.

At the top of the model range was the five-door Style which, as well as the Group X features, had power steering with tilt adjustment for the steering column.

Options included air-conditioning, dual airbags and ABS.

A new model, Max Life was introduced in 1998 with 13-inch alloy wheels, a CD player and a rear sun shield as standard equipment.

There were few criticisms of the Starlet when it was launched. The rear seat room was thought to be insufficient, suitable for a couple of kids or smallish adults. It would definitely be too tight for a couple of brawny wharfie types, but then it was unlikely you’d ever find a wharfie in the back seat of a car called a Starlet.

There was also some criticism of the size of the boot, which was said to be too small, but apart from those complaints the Starlet was quite highly praised.

The renowned Toyota build quality shone through. Doors closed with a solid ‘thunk’, panel gaps were even, and the paint finish was deep and lustrous. Inside the quality was equally obvious with the fit and finish of the plastic trim components.

On the road the Starlet drove with the assurance of a much bigger car, with a comfortable ride and secure handling. Performance was on a par, or better, than the competition in the class, with impressive low down grunt that made for zippy response in city traffic, and effortless cruising on the open road.

In the shop

Start with the usual suspects when looking at a Starlet. Uneven body gaps, overspray and mismatching paint on adjoining panels are signs of body damage.

Look for signs of abuse or lack of attention. Being relatively new still there is little likelihood of major wear showing up on interior trim, but look anyway. Check driver’s seat, which will be worn more than the other seats due to greater use, and the carpet under the driver’s feet.

Check for a service record. As evidenced in the recent revelations about stolen cars being easily rebirthed, a service record becomes even more important, particularly if you are buying from a private seller. A service record can give you a picture of the mileage accumulation of the car.

Mechanics record the mileage of the car when they service it so the record will show the pattern of mileage through the life of the car. It can be quite reassuring to see that the mileage has grown at a steady rate that would take it to that shown on the odometer at the time you inspect it.

A service record also gives you some clues on who to talk to when you find out more about the life of the car you’re about the spend your hard earned cash on.

Mechanics have a high regard for the Starlet, and report few faults with it. Serviced according to the Toyota recommendations, mechanics say a Starlet will do 300,000 km-plus without any major problem.

Major service item is the cam-timing belt that should be changed every 100,000 km. As the engine is a free-spinning design no internal damage will occur if the belt breaks in service, but of course you will be left stranded on the side of the road if it does.

Look for:

• renowned Toyota build quality

• robust and reliable mechanical package

• refined road manners

• quality interior trim and plastic components

• zippy performance with miserly fuel consumption

• boring but inoffensive styling

Pricing

Year Price From Price To
1999 $2,310 $4,070
1998 $2,310 $4,070
1997 $2,310 $4,070
1996 $2,310 $4,070

View all Toyota Starlet pricing and specifications

Pricing Guides

$3,190
Based on third party pricing data
Lowest Price
$2,310
Highest Price
$4,070

Range and Specs

VehicleSpecsPrice*
Group X 1.3L, ULP, 3 SP AUTO $2,640 – 4,070 1996 Toyota Starlet 1996 Group X Pricing and Specs
Life 1.3L, ULP, 3 SP AUTO $2,420 – 3,850 1996 Toyota Starlet 1996 Life Pricing and Specs
Style 1.3L, ULP, 5 SP MAN $2,640 – 4,070 1996 Toyota Starlet 1996 Style Pricing and Specs
Graham Smith
Contributing Journalist

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