Lamest Classics: Nobody loves the Toyota Tercel

Welcome to Lamest Classics, a biweekly session of hypocritically mocking crappy cars that are now eligible for Antique Vehicle plates in most U.S. states. 

There’s no hiding it: The Toyota Tercel is basic transportation through and through.

It has no sporty equivalent to aspire to. There’s no booming aftermarket community for you to meet with and discuss the color of your eBay coilovers. Nobody’s on the podium at SCCA Solo Nationals with one of these.  Even if you add boost — you can get a turbo kit for the 5E-FE on eBay — no one will be impressed.

A Tercel purchase is what happens when you let only your rational side decide. It was as sexy as the new Kia Rio is today; the very definition of efficient Japanese blandness. On the road, it’s just you and basically 100 horsepower, and — wait, what’s this?

FOUR transmission options!

That’s right, you could get a Tercel with your choice of automatics with 3 or 4 speeds, and manuals with 4 or 5 speeds. Now that’s driving excitement like getting raisins and cinnamon in your rice pudding. What a smorgasbord!

It’s mind-boggling, but the 4-speed manual actually was better for fuel economy in city driving, scoring 33 mpg according to the EPA’s original window-sticker estimate. Both 4 and 5-speeds are good for 39 mpg highway.

There’s no such advantage for the 3-speed automatic, but that’s the kind of minutiae you have to enjoy digging into if you want to be the kind of person who collects Tercels.

While we’re on boring minutiae, I might as well tell you that the Tercel doesn’t even have independent rear suspension. That’s right: It’s a dead axle with a panhard bar, a step down even from the misery that was our first Lamest Classics entry: The Chevy Cavalier.

With a dead axle, you get the bad parts of a rear-wheel-drive Starlet and none of its advantages.

(I’ve seen a tube-frame drag-racing Starlet with a 2JZ. No shit. Or maybe it was actually a Tercel, which might undermine my point not at all. What I do remember is that it had a Toyota subcompact’s body, huge drag slicks, and made an incredible noise.)

Is it better than a J-body?

That’s really the wrong question to ask, since they’re in different segments — the 2000-pound Tercel is a subcompact car, and the Cavalier is much larger. But the bare-minimum 2-door Toyota cost $300 more than the $10,050 Cavalier sedan. A four-door Tercel commanded a $1,700 premium, and that’s even without luxuries such as power steering and a cassette deck.

GM’s compact does have another distinct advantage: It will release you from its shackles of misery (by way of terminal breakdown) much sooner than the Tercel. Even though roadgoing Tercels have looked like they’ve belonged in a junkyard since about 2005, there are still plenty of running examples on the used market. I’ve found many for sale with more than 200,000 miles.

Get yourself a $900 classic.

Which is part of why Lamest Classics exists. The fact is, Japanese cars got a lot more reliable in the ‘90s, leaving so many still on the road today. My high-school economics teacher explained to the class the difference between “rare” and “valuable.” Here at Lamest Classics, I’m channeling Mr. Burris in my effort to drive a wedge between “classic car” and “old appliance.”

So please. Try and find yourself an early example of the facelifted ’95 Tercel, complete with as few options as possible: unpainted bumpers, painfully efficient 155/80R13 tires, no air conditioning, no floor mats, no intermittent wipers, no stereo, no power steering.

With it, you’ll be repping simple Japanese efficiency at the cruise nights in the post-nuclear-apocalypse wasteland, when cockroaches rule the earth.

The Tercel gets a 4 on the Lamestain Index.

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26 responses to “Lamest Classics: Nobody loves the Toyota Tercel”

  1. Sjalabais Avatar

    I wouldn’t even have recognized this blandified Corolla as a Tercel. The older ones receive some respect and have even been knighted with a certain BaT presence. But I imagine this simple appliance is a decent way to move between A and B at low cost and worthwhile dependability.

  2. Fuhrman16 Avatar

    Well, there was a ‘sporty’ version of the Tercel, but it sold under a different name: Paseo.

    1. Alan Cesar Avatar
      Alan Cesar

      Sort of. It was a sportier body, but it was mechanically identical. It’s not like, say, a Suzuki Swift GT, or a Civic Si, or even a Ford (Escort) ZX2.

      Hardly something to aspire to.

    2. Alan Cesar Avatar
      Alan Cesar

      Sort of. It was a sportier body, but it was mechanically identical. It’s not like, say, a Suzuki Swift GT, or a Civic Si, or even a Ford (Escort) ZX2.

      Hardly something to aspire to.

    3. Wayne Moyer Avatar
      Wayne Moyer

      The Paseo really was an odd duck when I was selling. It was just slightly cheaper than a base Celica. It offered less power but better gas mileage. Oh and your savings you a vehicle that could put you to sleep.

      1. crank_case Avatar

        Best description of the Paseo I’ve read – A sports car for people that don’t actually like sports cars. That’s fine though, they made lots of actual sports cars at the time, so why not make a car for people who want an economy car with coupe looks?

        1. Wayne Moyer Avatar
          Wayne Moyer

          I’m trying to think of another car like it. Sure there are other JDM cars like it. Plenty of Kei cars but this was bigger than that. The one I sold was a 2 year old leftover because it had a stick shift. Although I drove manuals quite a few people didn’t. I got the feeling our dealer didn’t order many Paseo’s. So it just sat around. It was so hard to sell that there was a $1500 bonus to sell it. I got $75 on each of the Blackhawks I sold since there was no profit on them.
          True story – I not only sold the left over Paseo. I taught the woman who bought it how to drive a manual.

        2. Lokki Avatar

          Traditionally cars with sports-car style but no performance were called “Secretary’s Cars”. That name has fallen into disuse nowadays for the obvious reason:

          There are no secretaries anymore.

      1. Jeff Glucker Avatar
        Jeff Glucker

        The Sera is SUPER rad

        1. Rover 1 Avatar
          Rover 1

          Peter Stevens, himself, confirmed that the Sera doors were the inspiration for the McLaren F1’s doors.

  3. Wayne Moyer Avatar
    Wayne Moyer

    Alright I’m going to defend this one a small bit. I sold Toyota’s back in 1997. I sold a bunch of Blackhawks and made no money on them. They were all mini deals. With that said let me say that they appealed to college kids. They had metallic paint, decals and spoilers. They appealed to parents because they were cheap and Toyota reliable. Sure they only had 95 horsepower and those nasty transmission choices. Let me remind you that my 95 1/2 Tacoma also had manual locking hubs. Toyota was always behind the times. So what makes it collectible.
    If you put this up against a Corsica it looks a bit nicer and will run for 200,000 miles longer. There is a Blackhawk still on the in my hometown. I haven’t seen a Redhawk or Whitehawk though. Those were far more rare. You see more Paseo’s around than Red and Whitehawks and you just don’t see those. They were tarted up Tercels with 5 speeds and 4 speed autos for a 4k price upcharge. We couldn’t sell them. Although I did sell a leftover one. Once…

    1.  Avatar

      I just bought a 97 Redhawk this afternoon, 5sp manual and it’s in really ok shape! Low milage, for an old econobox too.

  4. Maymar Avatar

    Hey, one person loves the Tercel.

    1. Sjalabais Avatar

      It’s great! Why didnt have Canadian market cars airbags? Love the Mazda-corporate.-routine. I understand completely what he aims at with the 90s-to-today-comparison.

      1. Maymar Avatar

        I had to look this up – apparently they’re not actually required by law, even now (or, well, three years ago). I have to assume that because it was mandated in the US, that effectively meant *all* North American spec vehicles got them, so there was no need for additional regulation.

    2. Alan Cesar Avatar
      Alan Cesar

      Oh my lord I’m so tired of his talking about the totally meaningless parts that were replaced (right front brake caliper, great to know, thanks. o_o) and I can’t watch Mr. Regular’s videos without spotting at least one enormous factual error. Like how the Tercel is still widely available partly because its excellent gas mileage means it wouldn’t have been eligible for Cash for Clunkers trades, or how the Tercel’s spiritual successor, the Yaris, actually does beat the Tercel in fuel economy (and has more airbags and is roomier and quieter and safer and better at the same inflation-adjusted price).

      Uuuuugh. I loved his videos years ago. He was funny, so I overlooked his problems with facts or with actual mechanical understanding of cars. I realize he couldn’t have kept the schtick going forever, but it’s evolved into something now with so few redeeming qualities.

      Sorry for the Two Minutes Hate.

      I like the Tercel. It’s honest and hardworking and reliable (and ugly). It’s not pretending to be anything except what it is. And like Mr. Regular says, it’s a great buy at a thousand bucks. I just think it’d look haha-funny with classic plates next to somebody’s overwaxed GTO.

      1. Maymar Avatar

        I get that – I still enjoy it, but like anything that runs weekly without stop, it can get formulaic. Every now and then, he’ll come up with a neat take on something, but if you’re worn out on it, no point in trying to find that.

        And I suppose my stance is informed by living in the rust belt – *anything* minty and 25 years old is novel, and given the certain sameness a lot of car shows can take on, something mundane is great to break it up a little.

        1. Sjalabais Avatar

          This is where I am, too. The video above is his first in quite some time that I have enjoyed, and I am not mechanically literate enough to spot the mistakes. At least not all of them.

  5. crank_case Avatar

    In Ireland, almost any piece of old jap scrap gets some love, so this would too.

    Though there are a few grey imports, the Tercel wasn’t really a big seller here, I’m not sure if it was even offered officially new. The main reason being that we got the car the Tercel/Paseo/Sera were based on – The EP82 Toyota starlet, a favorite of pensioners and nuns at the time, now sought after by autotesters (like gymkhana but nerdier), because that manual gearbox is damn near indestructable.

    During the tiger era, hundreds of EP82 Toyota Starlet GT Turbos (and similar EP92 Glanzas) were imported into Ireland and were a favorite of certian kinda knuckle dragging young lad that’d probably drive a Camaro if he were stateside, the main appeal was cheap insurance until insurers started figuring out these had a fair bit more poke than the pensioner specials. The motoring equivalent of rocket skates, it was quite easy to turn up the boost on these 1.3 Turbos to make well beyond the stock 130bhp, but they handle terribly, being very crude chassis wise compared to other hot hatches. Lots ended up in ditches.

    If you wanted to build a total sleeper, an EP82/92 motor goes into a Paseo, so it should go into a Tercel..

    Edit – speak of the devil, this just popped up on speedhunters:

    1. Sjalabais Avatar

      First ever I hear of hot Starlets. Wow.

  6. desmo Avatar

    This is the worst copy of an E36 that I ever came across.
    I like it. It’s absolutely brilliant.

  7. Peter Tanshanomi Avatar

    Count me in on Team Tercel.
    My mom bought a first-gen ’81 Tercel stripper 2-door sedan, which I ended up with as a hand-me-down car. She liked it enough that she later got a 4th Gen 4-door, I believe a 1992 LE. The tin worm got the best of the ’81 too soon (118K) but the later one was unkillable. When the motor finally went in 2007, it had about 230K on it.

  8. Smaglik Avatar

    In high school, a friend of mine had the two door boxy, no passenger side view mirror version. We called it the terchit.

  9.  Avatar

    My 95 tercel has power steering, floor mats, A/C, and painted bumpers lol.

  10. Bob Avatar

    Still have my lamest 95 Tercel today in 2023. So many PO’s have told me never to sell as it was their most reliable car! Gas and tires and it just keeps going and saving at the pumps!

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