These Tercel 4WD were cool long before Breaking Bad made it really famous as Jesse Pinkman’s ride. In fact, these have been cool around these parts since they were new. These are a quintessential Eugene-mobile: long-lasting, thrifty, reliable, and able to get you back in the woods to your favorite hiking trail or ski slope. This is the predecessor to the Subaru Outback, which took over its role as the more recent ultimate Eugene-mobile (or otherwise the best selling car hereabouts).
And there’s still some around, living up to their legendary Toyota longevity.
It’s in good company on this block, with that hardbody Nissan pickup and gen1 Caravan. Well, yes, the VW Passat too.
These came in FWD versions too, and I wrote one up here years ago. But the 4WD was the one to have, out here in outdoorsy Oregon. A low-gear transfer case is pretty much out of the question for a FWD to 4×4 conversion, so Toyota slipped in an optional sixth gear in the (manual) transmission, a super low 4.71 ratio “stump-puller”. Well, with the little 1.5 liter mill churning out all of 62 horsepower, let’s forget stumps; blueberry bushes maybe.
And it all (still) works like a charm in deep snow, mud or sand. Not on dry pavement, though, because like most 4WD systems of the time, it had no center differential.
The little stick shift is the one that selects FWD or 4WD.
And here comes a gen1 Explorer, which too has to pay homage to the pioneering ways of the Tercel (and Subaru) wagon for hooking Americans on civilized AWD vehicles. It’s a proto-CUV.
And here’s a video of Jesse’s actual Tercel wagon, which was bought at auction for the tidy sum of $4700. These folks borrowed it for an hour and handed out free baggies of blue rock…candy.
One of the most practical cars you could buy in the early 80s. Nimble on the outside, and quite airy, and spacious, on the inside. With the added benefit of Toyota’s reputation for outstanding reliability, and build quality. With a bulletproof engine. They would eventually rust, and that’s probably the main reason why they didn’t remain as prolific, and long lasting, across the US and Canada. They were a near perfect car for Canadian winters. They made more practical, and fuel efficiency sense, than the heavy, and thirsty AMC Eagle.
Probably my favourite generation of Tercel. I found the futuristic look, including very modern graphics and badging, very appealing at the time.
Yes kids, forty years ago, the auto market was filled with remarkable small vehicles. Some were good, some were bad, but all of them strove to find a new auto market where once big V8 powered vehicles used to go.
During this era, folks were convinced that the last tank of gas had been pumped, so we all needed to find the littlest thing that could meet our driving needs. Efficiency was the word and efficiency was the styling. Purposeful was the design. Frugality was the morality.
This Tercel was one of a number of wonder-wagons put together during this era. It was a modern take on what AMC and Subaru was selling well. The Tercel had a new body, while the AMC Spirit, Eagle and Concord, and the Subaru wagons were dated bodies which found new life in 4WD. The Tercel outdid its dated competition with a better designed and more efficient interior and lots of funky design personality. This was also the same era that Toyota repackaged their pick up trucks into the 4Runner and offered a 4WD Toyota box van. AMC/Jeep’s success was a jolt to the auto industry and every manufacturer wanted a piece of the action. The Tercel was the new thing in that niche.
While the writing was on the wall regarding small 4WD vehicles, the Detroit 3 weren’t able to hop into this new field. Instead they were already offering traditional Jeep-like vehicles and it was their trucks that took precedent over cars regarding 4WD. The trucks were more profitable and took less risk continuing to do what they’ve always done.
4WD wasn’t fuel efficient. Compared to FWD versions of the same vehicle, the 4WD wasn’t attractive to the consumers the Tercel targeted because of the added complexity, costs and fuel consumption. Today, we sometimes don’t see around this, but at the time, 4WD wasn’t always a popular option to buyers in this class.
This Tercel wasn’t like the other Tercel. The entry level Tercel was a squared off little runt of a car in the mode that was typical of the times. The original Tercel was an odd looking little car with a longitudinal mounted engine with FWD. So it had a long hood and a rounded hatch. or a long hood with a standard looking sedan rear end. It seemed that the Tercel was Toyota’s name for small FWD vehicles instead of a look or model type. Consequently, there were many types of Tercel during the 1980s.
This Tercel has an asymmetrical design on the hatch for the license plate, grab handle. It also had that long rear window with plastic window molding canted outward with “Tercel” call-out model name, inside the car, yet intended to be seen from the rear windows, an odd touch. The car was quirky at a time when all Subarus were quirky and few could say that the Spirit wasn’t quirky as well.
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I had my ’83 for sixteen years. It was rusting, but not badly when I sold it. It benefited from a lot of pro-active care in that regard. On the highway, it got 38 mpg. Trouble free except the cooling system. But the one thing I learned from the vehicle was when I put winter tires on my ’92 Escort wagon and noticed that they out performed the four-wheel drive with year round tires in every situation except really deep snow. I have never wanted four wheel drive since learning this.
I had an ’83 for 16 years and 170,000 nearly trouble free miles. The heater was not adequate and that is about all. It got 38 mpg on the highway. But one revelation stands out: I installed winter tires on my 92 Ford Escort wagon and found them superior to the year round tires on the Tercel in all but really deep snow. I never again considered four wheel drive
I walk by this car almost daily and I never don’t stare at it, at least for a moment.
I thought the Tercel wagon looked more French, than the similarly sized, and styled, Renault R18 wagon.
Ha! The 18 was a dull, dull-looking thing (and not a very good car, either). It presaged a long era of boring looks for The Regie’s products. Oddly enough, you could get it as a 4WD wagon with a diesel (and quite possibly in brown).
These days, you can buy the cheeky-looking Kangoo van/wagon as a 4WD, and, though rounded, the short and tall rear side window looks not at all unlike that Tercel, so Renault eventually learned from Toyota!
Funny, as the styling of the R18 is what probably appealed most to American buyers when it went on sale in the Fall of ’81 in the US.
As the Toyota Echo was the immediate successor to the regular Toyota Tercel and Starlet series, the Scion xB was the the “spiritual” successor to the Toyota Tercel 4WD Wagon aka the Sprinter Carib.
What I could never understand was this car’s rai·son d’ê·tre. Why would a 4WD enthusiast pick an economy car?
But then I have never been in the market for such a vehicle.
They were popular here in the Baltimore area back in the day, which is considerably different from Eugene, but they had their fans for sure.
For the life of me though, I can’t figure out why Toyota drew inspiration from an ATM for the asymmetric back of that thing, but then there are weirder design elements today, so there’s that.
These were not for 4wd enthusiasts, they were for people that wanted more traction than a FWD vehicle could provide and/or wanted to drive past the chain check points in the passes. So in my area they were quite popular with skiers.
Very popular with folks out West who either lived in, or visited snowy mountain areas. A very common vehicle in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1980’s … the RAV4 of its time. The unusual styling was memorable, but to me it seemed an inferior choice to the 4WD Civic wagon or a Subaru. Now of course, it’s great to see one still in use.
It may not be Pinkman’s, but there are substances growing in the console and gearshift of this Tercel which, whilst not made in a lab, might well be of interest to them for study.
I always saw these as a Matra Rancho done right, i.e. four passenger doors and four wheel drive instead of just looking like it had it.
A blue one appeared down the street from us when these were intro’d, it replaced an early ’70’s brown Impala (?) wagon with mags. The owner was a feisty mom of two and while the Impala fit her style, the Tercel transformed her a bit. She seemed happier.
Good cars that I didn’t think too much of at the time, but which earned my respect a decade or two down the road when I realized they refused to stop doing what they did.
A big selling point for this car was that it was very roomy and versatile, relative to its length and width. I think the spaciousness, more than the AWD, made this and the Honda Civic popular. My sense is that these two cars have among the most obsessively loyal owners of any vehicle, and these people did, and do, whatever it takes to keep them on the road.
I always preferred the Honda, but I appreciated this Tercel back in the day. Very clever car, it’s utility more than compensated for the anemic engine
I agree packaging made them appeal. They all aren’t 4WD, you had that option, but it wasn’t the default.
My father picked up one of these for cheap back in the mid 90’s. Man, I adored that little thing! Probably the reason I love wagons to this day. I just thought it was funky and cool, it sounded racy (probably due to a rusted out muffler) compared to my mother’s Buick, the big windows, along with the sunroof, meant you got great views of the world passing by, and I fascinated by the altimeter, pitch, and incline gauges on top of the dash. I was soo bummed when he sold it after a couple of years to a friend’s teenage kid, I had hoped it would be mine.
I wish more of these survived in the UK but rust killed 99% of them. I really can’t remember the last time I saw one. I would happily have one as a daily hack.