The Toyota Starlet Comes Full Circle

The colourful history – and future – of the Toyota Starlet

Images: Stefan van Niekerk

Looking at the quite demure and somewhat modest styling of the latest facelifted Toyota Starlet, it is rather difficult to believe that this nameplate was carried by the first subcompact car from a Japanese automaker to offer a high-performance variant.  

The Starlet name – revived for South African models only on the first product to come out of the brand alliance between Toyota and Suzuki – is still revered by many overseas motorsport enthusiasts despite its heyday having been over 40 years ago. Now it has come full circle… in a very roundabout way. 

Local enthusiasts will remember the Corolla SR5 and Corolla Liftback TRD as the first performance cars from Toyota, but in Japan and Europe it was the Starlet that established the Japanese brand’s performance credentials. 

Slotting in under the Corolla, the subcompact model was first produced 50 years ago as a replacement for the Publica (interestingly, the only Publica model ever sold locally was the KP37 pickup, known here as the Toyota 1200 bakkie) yet it retained the ‘P’ code and generation numbering of the Publica. 

This is important, because those familiar with Toyota chassis numbering will appreciate the lineage of the ‘P’ chassis code – with the five model generations of Starlet (none were ever available in South Africa) succeeded in 1999 by the XP10 and later the XP90 Yaris, as well as the latest GXPA16 – yes, the superhot GR Yaris…  

Star Performers

The first-generation Toyota Starlet

The wedgy shape of the first-generation Starlet, produced from 1973 to 1978, was reminiscent of the Corolla coupé, and in Japan it was often referred to as the baby Celica. This KP40 series was not freely exported, but the second-generation 60 series was extensively sold outside Japan and thanks to the supermini boom in Europe, this model was very well received. 

The Sprint derivative (KP61) of the Toyota Starlet generation

The Sprint derivative (KP61) of this generation (the last rear-wheel drive model range) delivered sprightly performance, but it was the thirdgeneration front-wheel driven EP71 Turbo S model (1986-1989) with turbocharged 2E-TELU 1.3-litre three-valve engine delivering up to 81kW that authenticated the hot hatch status of the Starlet. 

The third-generation front-wheel driven EP71 Turbo S Toyota Starlet model

These models also sported active suspension technology called TEMS, and the Japanese market-only Ri and Turbo R models were lightweight models specifically designed for motorsport. An EP81 Starlet participated in the WRC Acropolis Rally in Greece and won the A5 class. 

Starlets also competed in Caribbean rallies, the Indonesian Touring Car Championship and in the Starlet One Make Race series in Japan. The fourth-generation 90 series Starlet was introduced in 1990 with the sporty Gi and GT Turbo variants equipped with sports front seats and a rear spoiler, as well as different bumpers, headlights and tail lights from the normal models. 

The fourth-generation 90 series Toyota Starlet was introduced in 1990

The 4F-FTE engine used in the Japan-only GT Turbo model produced up to 103kW and 157Nm of torque, making it the most powerful E series engines ever produced. This engine was also used in the Starlet GT Turbo’s successor, the EP91 Toyota Glanza V, produced from 1996 to 1999, and could propel the lightweight model from 0100km/h in 8.2 seconds. 

Starlet Reborn

In 1999, the Starlet was replaced by the Vitz in Japan (it was sold as the Yaris locally and in most international markets) and the nameplate disappeared for two decades before it was revived in 2020, now appearing on the Toyota derivative of the Suzuki-developed Baleno hatchback (known in India as the Toyota Glanza). 

While it has now lost the ‘P’ code bloodline, the new Starlet stays true to the ethos of the original as a compact, efficient and value-focused sub-B segment contender. Replacing the Etios, it immediately proved popular in South Africa, garnering 1,372 sales in August this year. 

Also, Toyota Gazoo Racing South Africa (TGRSA) brought back the Starlet name to motorsports last year, developing a bespoke derivative to play in the dirt – the rally stages – like its illustrious predecessors did, and recently we took a top-of-the line Starlet Xr derivative to meet its racing cousin at the NTT Tzaneen Rally, participating in rounds 5 and 6 of this year’s National Rally Championship (NRC). 

Although displaying some resemblance to the road-going Starlet, including the classic hatchback profile, V-shaped front grille with centrally mounted insignia, LED headlights and daytime running lights, the rally version exhibits extensive changes inside and outside. 

Besides the eye-catching red and white livery, the exterior of the rally car sports a wide-body kit with white painted OZ rally-spec wheels. The original LED rear lights are retained, but the exhaust is now centrally positioned, with an entirely new exhaust tunnel underneath the car. 

Inside, everything is stripped out, with the dashboard, door panels and seats making room for a roll cage and race-specific equipment, including a spare wheel and fire extinguisher, and the driver’s seat is positioned on the left (similar to most European R5 and R4 rally cars) with a long-reach sequential gear lever and handbrake. 

The road-going Starlet is endowed with a 1.5-litre K15B engine delivering 77kW and 138Nm for decent but unexceptional performance. In contrast, the rally car packs a MOTEC-controlled 3S-GTE turbocharged four-cylinder 2.0-litre engine with up to 191kW of power, driving all four wheels via a sequential gearbox, giving it scintillating performance. 

Last year, Guy Botterill and co-driver Simon Vacy-Lyle, competing in the top NRC1 class, finished runners-up in the championship by winning four rounds. This year, Botterill has taken over the team manager duties, with Jono van Wyk and Nico Swartz in the one car and Mandla Mdakane and Kes Naidoo in the other.  

The Tzaneen Rally posed considerable challenges in terms of mechanical issues for the team, yet despite the adversities faced, Mdakane and Naidoo showed remarkable resilience and tenacity, finishing second in their class, a testament to their skill and the commitment of the TGRSA NRC team. 

A GR Starlet?

Although the locally developed Starlet rally car isn’t a bespoke Gazoo Racing model, the possibility of a pukka GR Starlet being developed in future cannot be excluded, as the new head of Gazoo Racing in Japan, Tomoya Takahashi, has stated that his dream is to revive the Starlet. 

Speaking to the publication Best Car, he made it clear it is a personal wish, and not necessarily a direction for Gazoo, yet his infatuation with Starlet (he has owned three of them) may direct his philosophy at GR. It will be interesting to see whether the nameplate that offered the first performance variant in a subcompact car from a Japanese automaker will take its rightful place in the GR realm… 


On the eve of her birthday, Miss Soweto Ludina Ngwena was handed the keys to a shiny new Toyota Starlet to enjoy during her reign.