Toyota Tercel recast as fun-to-drive hatchback coupe, sedan
Date Posted: 5/10/2005
Inventive Toyota squeezed a squirt-size commuter car out of its price-conscious Corolla series back in 1980 and called this gas-miser the Corolla Tercel. Stripped of fancy performance features and comfort perks, Tercel promised high fuel economy numbers and a low price tag.
It was, simply put, a cheap set of wheels.
Successive models attached more mechanical hardware to improve driving response and occupant safety. With the fourth generational design of 1991, Tercel began to behave in a friendly fashion in terms of its driving attitude and even its stock of standard comfort fittings.
By 1994, after 1.5 million sales from 15 annual models, Tercel had acquired a reputation not only for low prices but the quality of its components and the way all parts fit together to form a tight little subcompact package. Last year's Tercel, in fact, led its class in the J. D. Power consumer opinion survey of vehicle initial quality.
Then, last fall at the Miami Auto Show, officials of Toyota introduced a fifth generational successor to Tercel styled as either a 2-door hatchback coupe or 4-door sedan.
Tercel for 1995, we who watched its unwrapping were told, would wear smooth new exterior lines, pack a new twin-cam powerplant and carry new systems for safety and comfort.
Yet there was more to Tercel's promise: This would be a set of cheap wheel that's actually fun to drive.
How can one car be both cheap and fun? For that matter, since cheap usually means boring and fun on wheels often costs beaucoup bucks, don't these term virtually contradict each other?
For an answer, I had to wait multiple months until Toyota finally let me drive a Tercel sedan across rolling ranch lands of east Texas. To season the test, my first ten miles in this tiny car with its eensy-weensy engine would traverse Houston's crazy, crowded maze of freeways.
The intended route -- over three freeways through various interchanges and multiple lanes filled with hordes of Houston commuters -- would require quick accelerations and sure-footed lane change maneuvers, so I was prepared to add power of my own, if only Tercel provided bicycle pedals.
Right out of the parking lot, though, I discovered this new Toyota engine applied feisty torque against Tercel's two front wheels. After flooring the accelerator and rapping through bottom gears, I found it difficult to believe such lively action flowed from a plant which generated only 93 horsepower.
Toyota engineered Tercel's new 1.5-liter 4-in-line engine to produce a kick, particularly at lower speeds for city driving situations, but at the same time achieve superior fuel economy numbers.
With four valves in each cylinder and an electronic fuel injection system as gatekeeper, Tercel can run up to 39 miles for every gallon.
It hits the highest ratings when this engine combines with the 4-speed manual transmission that comes as standard equipment on Tercel's price-leading 2-door coupe. The optional 5-speed manual, by the way, hits the same highway fuel economy figure of 39 mpg.
In addition, Toyota offers two automatic shift options -- a 3-speed variation for the least costly coupe, or an electronically controlled 4-speed for coupe or sedan with DX trim features.
My little DX sedan rigged with 5-speed box zipped up the Houston on-ramp, easily reached cruise speed, then leaped crisply into and out of various lanes as I wove through all that traffic. To my surprise, I even found myself backing off the pedal at times just to keep it legal.
On less crowded Texas highways, we began to play.
Make quick cuts on the steering wheel and Tercel takes a tight curve set with the agile attitude of a racy thing, thanks to rack and pinion steering.
The suspension, pinning a MacPherson strut at each front wheel, feels stiff, almost sporty, and in a hard corner checks the car's natural body roll.
Running up and down the gears, Tercel complied aggressively on demand. Eager is the word I used during that first test to describe the new personality.
Did I have fun driving it?
Yes, I must admit, I did.
Two more months passed before I acquired a production Tercel for a week of driving trials on familiar home routes.
That's when I realized Tercel goes beyond the initial rush for fun driving and becomes a car that's easy to live with -- it's easy to enter, ease to load with groceries, easy to operate with automatic shifter, easy to reach the controls and view analog dials, easy to peer out of with the bold display of windows. In short, it's easy to drive.
Often during home trials I develop frustrations with the car I'm testing and look for excuses to climb into my own treasured vehicle instead. With Tercel, I never concocted excuses because my time at the wheel felt good.
So let me revise my previous comment to say Tercel is at first blush fun to drive and over time, still likable.
Thank Toyota's designers for devising an interior environment that's friendly and comfortable, especially when judged against some entries.
Even the price-leader -- Toyota's least-expensive model -- contains comforts, beginning with two high-back front bucket seats with reclining feature and 2-way adjustments. The rear bench has two sculptured spaces to make rear riders more comfortable, and seats on this base model wear vinyl upholstery while floors merit carpeting.
Safety systems on all Tercels include dual airbags and new steel beams in doors to dampen forces from side impacts.
Above the base Tercel 2-door, the DX coupe and sedan have seats upholstered in cloth fabric, plus adjustable front shoulder belt anchors, assist grip handles, a couple of cupholders and, for sedans, childproof rear door locks.
Options start with air conditioning ($900) and anti-lock brakes ($825), but extend to the automatic transmission ($710), power steering ($260), plus a $330 package of additional conveniences like intermittent wipers, a digital clock, dual remote exterior mirrors and 60/40 split/folding rear seatbacks.
Tercel's Standard Coupe lists for only $9,998. A DX sedan nicely equipped adds up to about $13,000.
1995 TOYOTA TERCEL
| Vehicle Specifications:
| 1995 TOYOTA TERCEL Specs
||Subcompact coupe, sedan
| Model Options:
||Subcompact coupe, sedan
| Overall Length:
| Engine Size:
||DOHC 1.5-L I-4 16v
||ST: Manual/4, Auto/3
DX: Manual/5, Auto/4
| Gas Mileage:
||M/4: 33/39 mpg
A/3: 31/35 mpg
M/5: 31/39 mpg
A/4: 30/39 mpg
||$ 10,000 to $ 14,000