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Second-hand: Toyota Tercel

You may have never have sat in a Toyota Tercel, but your pizza undoubtedly has.

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You may have never have sat in a Toyota Tercel, but your pizza undoubtedly has.

Nobody’s done a formal survey, but Toyota’s smallest and most affordable offering has long been a delivery-car favourite.

In a job that requires frequent short trips made in haste — with little waste — in all kinds of weather, the Tercel has carved a somewhat unique slice of the market for itself.

Toyota will tell you that the purpose of an economy car is to establish brand loyalty among firsttime car buyers, so as their earnings rise (unless they pursue journalism) they’ll eventually

return to drop a wad on a new Lexus.

The problem is, Tercel buyers are still trying to wear out their first purchase made 12 or 15 years ago.

Like most Toyotas, these cars simply refuse to expire.

The Tercel (we looked it up: it’s a male hawk) was introduced to North Americans in the fall of 1979 as Toyota’s first front-wheel drive model.

It spanned five model generations before being replaced by the Echo for the 2000 model year. Every Tercel was assembled in Japan.

The first-generation car was so ugly, it was a wonder the cars did not leave the ship in brown-paper wrappers.

Regardless, the Tercel sold well. It had a relatively long wheelbase for such a small car and the Audi-like longitudinal engine orientation raised the prospect of four-wheel drive.

That would come with the second generation, introduced in 1983. Re-skinned to be more boxy (hence, spacious), this Tercel added a funky station wagon to the lineup. The highboy wagon,

with an elevated roof, was available with four-wheel drive in a nod to competitor Subaru.

In 1987, the third generation arrived. Considerably trimmer and sleeker, its generous greenhouse took more of a cue from Honda than Toyota would have liked to admit.

The previous-generation wagon continued to be sold beside the new hatchbacks, but the 4WD wagon concept was eventually moved upmarket to join the Corolla line, where it was priced out of reach of many.

As a consolation prize, Toyota added a two-door coupe to the Tercel family.

By 1991, Toyota had seen the writing on the wall: hatchbacks were dead. So the fourth generation was simplified to offer only a two and four-door sedan.

The new sheetmetal, while aerofriendly, echoed the conservative styling of other Toyota models.

The final iteration in 1995 was a refinement of the same design. CONFIGURATION

The first two generations were powered by Toyota’s 3A-series engine, an unremarkable 1.5 L four-cylinder which produced 62 hp and 76 lb.ft.

The third and fourth generations received the 12-valve (two intake valves per cylinder) 3E engine, positioned transversely. Horsepower was raised to 78 (and later, 82 hp), while torque was

elevated to 87 lb.ft.

The fifth generation received the 16-valve engine from the spunoff sporty coupe, the Paseo, making 93 hp in the sedan.

Four and five-speed manual transmissions were equally popular; in fact, to maintain the low entry fee, Toyota kept the four-speed manual in production longer than many manufacturers

(read the numerals on the stick carefully before you buy).

A four-speed automatic transmission joined the options list in 1995, alongside a tried-and-true three-speed slush-box.

Dual airbags also appeared with the 1995 redesign, but as an option in Canada. ON THE ROAD

The Tercel was first and foremost an economy car, with no sporting pretensions.

A 1992 model with a four-speed manual transmission and the 82-hp engine reached 100 km/h from a standstill in 11.5 seconds noticeably slower than the class target of 10 seconds. Be

forewarned: an automatic Tercel is considerably more glacial.

In terms of stopping distance, the same model hauled itself down from 120 km/h to naught in 63 m — average for an econobox. Where the Tercel shined was on the skidpad, generating 0.76 g impressive, considering the test car was wearing skinny 155/8013 rubber.

The car was lauded for its smooth powertrain and light clutch and steering. It was not hard to imagine that some of the engineering had indeed trickled down from Lexus. WHAT OWNERS SAID

Tercel buyers are cursed with ownership long after their cars have become eyesores.

Why? Because they just don’t stop running. Abuse’em, smash’em, run’em without oil and they just sit there idling, waiting for more.

Tercels enjoy all the longevity of a bad credit rating. So much so that the cars are frequently handed down from generation to generation by families too guilty to dispose of a perfectly

good set of wheels.

“It has seen two teenage sons through learning how to drive, been away at college, and has come home to retire. I now use it to commute to work,” wrote one exasperated owner on the

Internet.

“Good car. You’ll get sick of it long before it quits on you,” relayed another Web user, quoting his mechanic.

“At one point in its life, my wife drove the Tercel for four days without any oil in the motor! Despite the lack of oil, five accidents and winters in Minnesota and North Dakota, the Tercel

and my marriage are still going,” posted another amazed owner.

Reader Dawn Avdichuk runs a 1992 five-speed with 280,000 km on the clock. She still enjoys the use of the original clutch and front rotors. “I keep the anti-freeze, air filter, transmission

oil and that all-important timing belt looked after.”

Alan Pink outlined the repair records of his ’93 automatic. To wit: replaced one front wheel bearing, brake rotors (machined only), water pump — and the light on the floor shift console.

“The Tercel lives up to Toyota’s reputation for quality, which is why we bought it.”

As bulletproof as the Tercel is, it has at least two faults.

Prior to the 1991 change to fuel injection, Tercels came with carburetors that were notorious for carbon buildup — especially the unusual variable-venturi carb used in the 1987-90 Tercel.

Many are now at the point of requiring a complete rebuild — an expensive proposition. If your budget allows, shop for a fuel-injected model.

The other shortcoming is rust. The hatchbacks were particularly prone to rot, which, by themselves, have managed to make duct-tape manufacturers wildly profitable.

Again, look for a fourth-generation Tercel (1991) or newer. Or go way back. Pick up a 1984 hatchback for $400 and, with enough tape, you’ll have a reliable go-kart to ferry you about

in no style whatsoever.

Just remember the curse.

As one impassioned owner expressed on the Net: “Nothing like a paid-off Toyota to make you wish you bought a piece of junk that would force you to replace it with something new and sexy!”

WE NEED YOUR FEEDBACK: We would like to know about your ownership experience with the following models. Please note the deadline dates. Ford Crown Victoria/Mercury Grand Marquis, by June 15 Honda Prelude, by June 29

Send your letters and comments to Second-hand, c/o Wheels section, Toronto Star, One Yonge St., Toronto M5E 1E6. Fax 416-865-3996. Email: toljagic@idirect.com

Mark Toljagic, a freelance Toronto writer, contributes Second-hand every other Saturday.

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