A letter to poet e e cummings, not the first I've written, but this on test-driving the 2004 Toyota Celica GT-S with "Action Package."

Dear e e:

She being not quite brand new, and perhaps having been abused by drivers before me, was a tad uncooperative in first gear.

She stalled twice, once at an intersection in Northern Virginia and again at a corner in the District of Columbia.

Of course, this was embarrassing.

I thought it was a matter of touch. You know how these things are. No two clutches are the same. No two manual gearshifts mesh quite the same way.

Some, like those in the devilish Dodge Ram SRT-10 pickup truck, require tremendous force of foot and hand. Others, such as those in almost any Honda, are compliant to the point of being the mechanical equivalents of Stepford Wives.

But Celica GT-S (she insists on the suffix) was neither hard nor easy. She simply was untrusting, maybe sensitive. I'll explain.

I went with the heavy foot and quick-shift at first. You know, wanting to get her up to speed and all of that, caring only about how she responded to my input, which I considered expert at the moment. A guy thing. She wouldn't have it.

She started to move. I got excited, prepared to quick-shift to second. But she hesitated, like, "What are you doing? What do you think I am?" Then, she just quit, stopped cold -- left me sitting there with green light turning amber then red at the corner of North Harrison Street and Lee Highway in Arlington.

I cursed her. Then, I begged. She responded to my more humble entreaty. But I was wary of her and tried to avoid doing anything that would upset her further as we proceeded up Lee toward the District.

There were more stoplights, of course; and they caused me tremendous trepidation. It was hard to guess her mood. Should I go hard or soft, quick or slow? I sought a happy medium, gently pressing the clutch with my left foot, but then pushing it in more firmly as my right foot worked the accelerator and right hand found its rhythm on the gearshift knob.

Celica GT-S responded, e e! And, oh, what a joy that was! She is a tight, light, front-drive runner, weighing 2,500 pounds, and extremely well balanced front to rear. She is more sporting than her sister, Celica GT, who is something of a homebody with a mild-mannered 1.8-liter, 140-horsepower engine.

Celica GT-S has way more horses -- 40 more, in fact. And corresponding upgrades to her suspension and braking systems make her far more fun on the run. Curiously, although she demands humility and sensitivity from her driver, she displays none of those qualities in demeanor or decorum.

Instead, at first glance, Celica GT-S seems quite the tart -- a drag-strip tuner if ever there was one. Her front end is outrageously low and seductive and affixed with come-hither headlamps, now available as high-intensity lights for both the GT-S and GT.

Her tail is a high, radically winged thing, which is a part of the mostly cosmetic Action Package that enhances her cost but seems to add little to her overall excellent performance.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Besides, her cabin isn't all that, you know. The materials are second-rate, unusual for a car from Toyota. And I don't at all get what's going on with that dash-mounted center console, the top of which is shaped like a cathedral's ceiling. I laughed at that but probably shouldn't have.

We'd gone all the way to the District, having one heck of a spirited romp along George Washington Parkway and over the Roosevelt Bridge, shifting her six-speed gearbox to third as we exited the bridge ramp that leads to E Street NW. And Celica GT-S was okay with that, really okay. But then we got stuck in traffic; and I looked at her center console and laughed and wondered aloud why anybody would have designed a console that way.

You know, e e, there are so many stupid things we say and do to ruin a good time or spoil a relationship; and I surely was being stupid.

Anyway, traffic started to move. I stomped the clutch, snapped the gear lever from neutral to first and slammed the accelerator. Celica GT-S did a face-slap thing, accompanied by what sounded like a squeal, and stopped.

It seemed like an eternity before we got going again. But I apologized. Things slipped back into gear. We're okay now.

Cheers,

W.B.