Celica, said a gentleman who speaks for the car, is where Toyota traditionally takes all the gambles.

It should also be noted that a little flutter is a luxury one can well afford when one is the world's largest manufacturer of automobiles and spitting out cars at the rate of one every four seconds.

On the other hand, the Toyota Celica always was a bet that paid off.

It was introduced 20 years ago as a spunky, fastback five-speed that delivered a very serious thumping indeed to the moribund styling and slowing technology of GTs from MG, Fiat and Alfa-Romeo.

The Celica has evolved from four cylinders and 2.2 liters (1976) to six cylinders and 2.8 liters (1981), from rear-wheel (1970) to front-wheel-drive (1986) and always remained about a yard ahead of the pack with its Riverside Raceway presence beneath a Riverside Drive suavity. It clearly became to Toyota what the Mustang has always been to Ford--a durable, relatively inexpensive, reliable staple. But not quite so American cast-iron or hirsute in concept.

Last year--suddenly up to its wheel wells in a new and feisty clatter of sport coupes--the Celica should have been eclipsed. Instead, it retained,by the average of several analyses, about 11% of the sporty sedan category behind large and perennial leader Mustang, the new and enormously popular Ford Probe and the new Nissan 240SX.

Now comes the fifth generation of Celica.

It's a series--four models in all--again risking a bundle on slightly higher technology than the rest of the crowd, and styling that suggests a grinning mako shark in a bucket of French curves.

It's also a miscellany--a full mix of designs, price and equipment, from coupes to lift-backs, from 103 horsepower to 200 horsepower, from front-wheel to four-wheel-drive--to match the quality and performance of any sport coupe on the market today.

And in the Toyota All-Trac Turbo, there's a piece of Porsche's performance (top speed of 140-m.p.h.), a little of Lexus' luxury (leather seats and a chassis-cabin design aimed at maximum reduction of sound and vibration) and an enormous amount of Toyota's talent for simply producing the best you'll ever get at the price. Or double the price.

It is, with neither apology nor argument, a serious vehicle for the earnest and proficient driver.

The suspension is taut enough that it transmits much thrum and thump from standard highway acne and prefabricated freeway slabs. Adjustable lumbar and side bolsters may be considered an essential option in a car built to really hurry around corners.

The Celica message is thus: Consider the softer, less hungry Celica STs and GTs for commuters who want to look smart and drive sportily. Invest in the All-Trac Turbo if you understand the mien and manner of P-51 pilots or bungee-jumpers.

According to a Toyota press release, styling of the new Celicas follows "forms and shapes from fine art." The curved, rounded and slightly pudgy rear-end suggests only one artist. Rubens.

Yet overall, here is a definite departure from cookie-cutter coupes and for that we must be thankful. The vacuum cleaner snout is definitely snuffling for prey and the wide body and squat of the car only supports that predatory image.

Frankly, there's a purposeful beauty to every sweep and arc of the car and, like it or loathe it, you'll certainly notice that it's a Celica whistling past you on the inside or outside of just about any corner or curve in the state.

That is no exaggeration. A sheer wonder of this car is its all-wheel-drive. With a torque-sensing differential, the system allows just about any misalignment, incorrect gear selection, or steering-braking-weight cross-up that the most lead-noggined driver might devise.

Wet or dry or icy. It doesn't really matter. Simply point and power out. Add the anti-lock braking system and only Danny Sullivan's d sh and audacity will get this car going sideways. While the average driver will feel that he is Danny Sullivan.

Credit all-wheel-drive for much of this adhesion. Also a stiffer suspension system, damper struts front and rear and coil springs all around. But save some praise for Toyota's choice of wheels and tires--broad, speed-rated 15-inch radials on 6.5-inch cast aluminum wheels that provide a tire patch the size of Wisconsin.

The engine is turbocharged (that broad air scoop on the hood feeds an enormous intercooler) and functions powerfully and unobtrusively, albeit somewhat noisily when hauling out of tighter turns in lower gears.

But about those gears. Driving the All-Trac smoothly takes more concentration than normal. Blame a grabby gearbox, its long throw (when was the last time you missed first?) and fuzzy feel. And Toyota's four-speed automatic is not an option on the All-Trac Turbo.

Brakes are super. Power steering is speed-assisted and set to transmit plenty of information from the front wheels. The car balances flat and evenly and that optimizes the comfort factor.

Internally--with leather-faced seats and pile carpets and controls precisely where they should be and well within fingertip range--the car is a cuddle. So are the sport seats. Driver's air bag is standard. So is cruise control.

The half-hearted tilt steering (it cants up automatically when exiting the vehicle, but must be pulled down manually when reentering the car) seems a little superfluous.

And the Celica's pop-up headlights can only be viewed with a prayer for their eventual consignment to that purgatory where rest talking cars, digital dashboards and turquoise pinkie rings.

These days, more and more drivers are going European and becoming headlight flashers when in a passing, advisory or semi-emergency mode in daylight. With pop-up headlights, the move becomes about as effective as batting your eyelids.

For anyone questioning the sticker of the fully-optioned All-Trac Turbo, there is one quick way to nip $1,200 off the price.

If such economy be your bent, however, do not listen to the car's Fujitsu AM-FM stereo system.

It comes with a CD, 10 speakers (including silver dollar-sized tweeters buried in the windshield pillars), a graphic equalizer and 220 watts booming from six high-output amplifiers.

Speakers are angled toward driver and passenger, not the windshield and your left kneecap. Base-reflex enclosures are in rear side panels to better handle CD power, and special door and window seals form the entire cabin into an acoustical chamber.

The standard Celicas are on sale now with $12,268 the base price on the ST Sport Coupe. The All-Trac Turbo should be arriving in showrooms at the end of next month.

1990 Toyota Celica All-Trac Turbo

The Good Combinationof big wheels, broad tires and all-wheel drive for traction by Krazy Glue. Striking looks. Serious performance for earnest drivers. Sound system fit for Count Basie and Wagner CDs.

The Bad Mushy gears. Quasi-tilt steering.

The Ugly Bullfrog headlights.

Cost Base: $21,008. As tested: $26,443.

Engine Four cylinders, 2 liters, 16-valves with double overhead cams, developing 200 horsepower.

Performance 0-60 m.p.h., as tested, 7.5 seconds. Estimated top speed, 140-m.p.h. Fuel economy, city-highway average, 21 m.p.g.

Curb Weight 3,272 pounds.