Upgraded from a car with about 100hp less, and was automatic. I don't remember what made it stand out... Probably part of the NFS2 crew. I wanted something with a decent base (any platform to build on), was fun to drive, and was manual.
Oh, and the car was cheap lol. Major plus for an at the time college student
In the price range for sporty fwd reliable cars it was either clapped out gsr's, clapped out preludes, duratec 2.3 focus, or e36 328is.
The celica a newer design and safer than all of them except the focus, and the focus's interior really put me off. Also the celica gts has a decent upgrade path in terms of basic bolt-ons while keeping the cat in (ported header).
Was looking for a stick and there was a guy in the area who needed a new car in a bad way. Car may not be super fast but I fell in love with how eager and peppy it is. Fuel economy is great, too, and I can haul a ridiculous amount of gear in the back, be it multiple Star Wars costumes, or a crap ton of medieval armour.
Back in 1999, my dad got a new celica. He was one of the first people to get it. He got a red GT-S. When we would drive around, everyone would stare at it, it was their first time seeing it before, and people my age will remember how eye popping the design was when it came out.
A year and a half later I was ready to buy my first new car, and I loved his so much I got my own. Except I got the 6 speed, and spec blue.
13 years, and 170,000 miles later, i'm still enjoying it. I don't have any plans on getting a new car until the celica is dead. Too much sentimental value. It's still fun to drive, it still looks great, it still gets good gas mileage. And I lucked out that the 7th generation is still the latest generation.