To best appreciate what the 2000 Toyota Celica is, you first must accept what the 2000 Toyota Celica isn't.

Celica isn't a sports car. It isn't a zero-to-60-m.p.h. screamer.

Rather, Celica is sporty looking, much more so than its predecessor, a coupe that behaves very much like a base Chevrolet Camaro, Pontiac Firebird or Ford Mustang.

Celica, like the blue-light-special Camaro, Firebird or Mustang, is a two-in-one car, a sporty little coupe that doesn't look or act like an economy car.

Celica, at first glance, looks as if it can take on all comers, yet it's really a fairly sprightly little high-mileage machine with a disposition to sip rather than gulp fuel.

Want to look good on the road? Celica will provide that pleasure.

Want to stay within the budget when it comes to the weekly outlay for fuel for the commute to work? Ditto the Celica.

But when a Pontiac Trans Am or Mustang GT appears in the mirror, you'll want to give them room to pass.

Celica is a car for young males and females wanting a vehicle to slip into and drive without being intimidated by having to act aggressively to get the optimum performance out of the car.

Celica, which first appeared in 1971, enters its seventh generation for 2000. From Day One, Celica, derived from the Spanish word for "heavenly," was designed for "the young at heart who want more than simple transportation," according to Toyota.

The 2000 delivers on that philosophy, starting with a new design that eliminates what had been a tendency toward the rounded, pudgy look in favor of more streamlined sheet metal with sharply chiseled lines and huge tear-drop shaped headlamps upfront.

Celica looks nice, gets very good mileage (23 m.p.g. city/30 m.p.g. highway), has more pep than the typical economy car and carries a sticker price within reach of gainfully employed youth.

The 2000 Celica has a new 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine developed with Yamaha that generates 180 horsepower in the GT-S and 140 h.p. in the GT. The GT-S comes with a 6-speed manual, a first, or an E-shift transmission that allows clutchless "manual" shifting by pressing buttons on the steering wheel similar to Formula 1 race cars.

We tested the top-of-the-line GT-S. The engine is tuned to focus on those short off-the-line bursts so you move quickly into traffic. Press the pedal hard when you're at cruising speed and the 4-cylinder lets you know its primary function is high mileage.

Springs and struts have been tuned for a step up from the normal rough and unpredictable economy-car ride and handling. Anti-roll bars and anti-dive suspension geometry provide good ride comfort and decent steering response. Optional 16-inch tires ($60) contribute to better handling than in the old model, but don't expect Celica to sit perfectly flat and whip into and out of corners.

This is not a machine that will run an obstacle course without tipping the beverage in its dual cupholders.

A few noteworthy features include uphill shift logic control, which relies on sensors to eliminate gear hunting when going up steep grades; a covered cargo compartment in the center of the dash that will hold loose keys or tollway change; and a fuel-gauge that traces the amount left in the tank with lighted bars, which we found took a long time for each to turn off--and did so grudgin gly bec ause of the car's small appetite.

Celica has a few shortcomings, however. It looks small from the outside and once you slip behind the wheel your impressions of dimensions are proven. The cabin is snug. Overall length has been reduced to 170.4 from 177 inches.

Wheelbase was lengthened to 102.3 inches from 99 inches to upgrade ride and handling, which it did, though it did nothing for the cramped quarters for those who travel in the rear seat.

The low-hanging door opening means dipping the head a little more than normal to slip in without messing the do and the head it rode in on. Even inside, noggin room is at a premium unless you use the reclining seats.

The low-slung roof, somewhat like that on an Audi TT coupe, also makes for limited side and rear vision, especially in back, where the sharp angle of the hatchlid glass offers precious little room to see.

The seats are a bit out of the ordinary too. They are wide and supportive, but with an unusual contour. If your body is shaped like the letter C, you will slip comfortably into the buckets. If your body is shaped more like the letter I, you will find your discomfort level put to the test. Toyota says the seats are designed to prevent whiplash injury in a low-speed rear-end collision.

And we would hope the stylists will make some changes when it comes to the very small glove box, the unsightly air ducts that protrude from the dash like gun barrels and the tiny outside mirrors.

Base price is $21,865. Standard equipment includes power four-wheel disc brakes; color-keyed bumpers/door handles/power mirrors; tinted glass; daytime running lamps; foglamps; rear window wiper/defogger; air conditioning; dual vanity mirrors; center console with huge storage box; power steering with tilt wheel; power windows/door locks; digital clock; AM/FM with cassette and CD player; leather-wrapped steering wheel; and aluminum sports pedals.

Sadly, traction control is not offered and anti-lock brakes are optional, at $550. Other noteworthy options include side-impact air bags at $250, power tilt and slide sunroof at a pricy $880 and a spoiler that adds to the sporty looks at a most hefty $435.

Ask, as we did, about the future availability of a convertible version of the Celica and you will be told that if you desire top-down motoring, check out a Toyota Solara convertible.

At least we asked.

>> 2000 Toyota Celica GT-S Wheelbase: 102.3 inches Length: 170.4 inches Engine: 1.8-liter, 180-h.p., twin cam 4-cylinder Transmission: 4-speed automatic Fuel economy: 23 m.p.g. city/30 m.p.g. highway Base price: $21,865 Price as tested: $24,660. Includes $550 for ABS; $60 for 16-inch alloy wheels;$880 for power tilt/slide moonroof; $250 for side air bags; $435 for rear spoiler; and $620 for leather seats. A dd $420 for freight. Pluses: Attractive, much sportier styling. Very good mileage. Economy car that looks sporty. Admirable suspension. Formula I-like sport shift buttons on steering wheel. Minuses: Not all that potent engine. Cramped cabin short on head room. Limited vision in back and to the sides.>>