Curbside Capsule: 1986 Toyota Tercel – Eugene-Mobile of Yesteryear

(first posted 5/26/2023)    When we think of this second generation Tercel (L20) the tendency is to focus on the wagon, especially the 4WD version. We’ve covered it here and a few other times too, and it has become rather iconic. But its hatchback sibling has gotten short shrift hereabouts, so it’s time to give it a bit of Eugenian love. And I can assure you, there’s plenty of love for these hereabouts, or was, as even these little cockroaches are starting to get a bit thin on the ground.

The Tercel was of course Toyota’s cheapest car, analogue to its successor, the Yaris (AKA Echo, briefly). We have given proper homage to the first generation Tercel here, which was also Toyota’s first FWD car. And unlike GM, it was hale and hearty and good for the long haul from day one. In fact, the Tercels quickly developed the rep of being as absolutely bullet-proof as it got, along with its bigger stablemate, Corolla. Ever hear of anyone complain about a Tercel? I mean in terms of reliability and durability; its comfort, accommodations, and amenities are obviously not stand outs, although perfectly competitive in its class.

All this made Tercels highly desirable as cheap used cars, as those in the know knew it was literally the cheapest way to drive. A 15 or 20 year old Tercel could still give astonishingly reliable service, and of course great mileage to boot. All this made them commodities in Eugene, as we have lots of folks who only one cars because they need to, to get to the woods or beach on the weekends, while the daily commute is done on a bicycle. A vehicle of necessity. And if you’re not buying a car for love or passion, you want it to suck as little of your under-employed dollars as possible.


That’s not to say those were the only Tercel buyers; some enthusiasts found them to be quite serviceable as a back-roads bomber-beater. Especially a basic hatchback with the stick shift; the 3-speed automatic gets a pass, for the most part, not because of reliability issues, but because the little 63 hp 1.5 L four pot just didn’t have any extra ponies to sacrifice to a torque converter, which invariably converted some of that torque into heat, or some other force other than forward acceleration.


Eugene’s economy is humming, like so much of the country; our unemployment rate is right down to some 4%, and that largely doesn’t account for the booming cannabis business. Folks who once drove these are now sporting Tacoma 4×4 crew cabs, or Subaru, or Tesla, or other bigger things. This poor little stripper Tercel is a symbol of Eugene the way it once was, but is quickly leaving behind. But given its longevity, it might well be around to be appreciated during the next downturn.