(first posted 3/24/2014) “Will you take a picture of me with the car?” taunted the local teen, walking home from school with some of his cohorts. As much as I’d have preferred to, I couldn’t stifle laughter at this joke made at my expense. There was no ignoring it: taking glamor shots of a car like this really is the height of dorkiness (and not in the hot-nerd way).
Toyota’s Tercel was sold for nineteen years and lasted through five distinct body styles, refreshed more often than its larger siblings on a rapid four-year cycle. While its popularity faded in its final years, after the baby boomers and Gen Xers who made it popular moved on to bigger models, this shoebox was an institution of Japanese motoring in North America for its first ten years on the market.
This final generation car must have been quite challenging to bring to market. Decontenting was the order of the day for Japanese manufacturers, and even cars like the LS400 and Q45 weren’t immune. Still built in Japan and serving as Toyota’s cheapest car, designing the Tercel must have been an unrewarding task. To that end, it hung onto the chassis architecture ushered in with the 1987 model, when the longitudinal engine layout and rear semi trailing arms were replaced with a transverse layout and dead beam axle. Two redesigns later–on a four year cycle–this freshly renewed car found itself competing in a very different macroeconomic context, with a strong Yen and cheap oil. Even at a time when interest rates were lowering and credit was opening up, a low price was still more of a draw than economy and bringing it to dealers under $10,000 was crucial.
Regardless of all the effort its makers went through to bring such a car to buyers, the practices of Toyota dealers who slathered every piece of golf plated badging, vinyl graphics and adhesive wood trim they could get away with inflated the price. There were multiple instances in which this sort of arrogance pushed my parents into Mitsubishi and Nissan showrooms and it’s surprising more people didn’t react the same way. Either Toyota’s reputation was too strong or people just knew quality when they saw it, but judging by all the late ’90s Corollas I see with spoilers and cracking, faded wood appliques sitting one centimeter above interior trim bezels, it was probably the former.
This car is either a 1995 and 1996, as indicated by its DX trim level designation, which was swapped for CE in 1997. For $1,000 more, the DX received such extravagant features as a fifth gear ratio, cloth seating surfaces, a passenger side mirror, trunk lining and the availability of a four-door body style. A radio wasn’t standard in many cheap cars in those days, and Toyota was especially stingy, so if you wanted to listen to Savage Garden or Sarah McLachlan on your way to work, it would cost you more than just your dignity. Like many lower level cars, ABS was begrudgingly made optional, but good luck finding a Tercel so equipped today.
Once fuel injection and sixteen valves were added to cars of this size and weight, the result was surprisingly fun, and, when combined with slowly increasing safety requirements, was free of the flimsy feel which used to characterize them. It worked very nicely; there was little to criticize in regards to the way the littlest Toyota conducted itself; with only four-speed (which still needed two shifts to get to sixty), a contemporary Car and Driver test saw it reach sixty in about nine seconds, despite needing two shifts to get there. And even on skinny 155/80R13 donuts, it achieved .75G on the skid pad.
The Tercel also carried forth Toyota’s odd practice of fitting a standard anti-roll bar in the rear while making a complementary item in front optional. A wise way for Toyota to cut costs was to rationalize platforms and that meant the Paseo’s twin-cam sixteen valve engine was revised for a broader torque curve and installed in the Tercel, making it one of the first cars with OBD-II. As with other small Toyotas of the period, this cut power (some car makers could do this without compromise). In cars like the Corolla and the 4-cyl Camry, performance was lacking compared to some competition and even though this wasn’t necessarily the case with the Tercel, it was becoming clear that maintaining quality would be impossible without either cutting equipment or postponing development.
There was still fun to be had in the domestic market, however, where the Tercel-based (and unfortunately named) Starlet Glanza was available with a multitude of accessories and a turbo engine. While the domestic market initially continued to produce fun cars in the absence of US demand, it is a lot less exciting these days, where homegrown enthusiasm is weaker than in years past. So we see that even in Japan, cars like this represented an old way of doing business.
This final Tercel, then, represents the essence of Japanese carmaking of the mid nineties. Quality was still the overarching concern and cutting corners was avoided where possible. Wowing customers with new tech or a lot of features for the money was no longer as viable, but solid dynamics and reliability were abundant. If you compare the final generation Tercel to contemporary cars higher up the food chain, say a Protege, Maxima or Prelude, you notice a similar trend, with high quality of assembly, traditional three-box proportions, and sometimes, poor value for money. There was a general sense of blandness; Japanese cars were still competent, but they were no longer ambitious.
The good thing for many Japanese car makers was that thorough, state-of-the-art engineering in the very late ’80s and early ’90s allowed them to make minimal revisions to new cars, exorcising the flaws of outgoing models while cutting costs. Still, these cars mark the end of an era, especially for Toyota. The nicely defined plastic moldings seen here and generous cloth-trim on the door panels would soon be gone and the switch in name from Tercel to Echo underscored the change the Japanese auto industry was going through. Most other models retained their names (with the exception of Mazda’s line-up), but like Toyota’s subcompact, many would become very tall, with low perceived quality and a lack of distinction.
It was around this time that VW began making a name for itself once again, with generous standard features and very well finished cars, although poor reliability shows it came at a price and today, it’s the Koreans and Ford who successfully peddle desirable mass-market cars (though quality is still lower than with the best rivals). When Japanese makes first became popular in the US, people liked to say that the era of fun motoring was over, and that cars weren’t built as well as they’d been previously. To many of us too young to remember the days of leaded, hi-octane performance, though, there’s a sense that the Japanese imports of the ’80s and ’90s represented a certain kind of automotive utopia. This bottom-feeder mid ’90s Toyota, as mundane as it is, is one of the last embodiments of this wholesome ethos. If there were some way I could communicate this succinctly to the bratty teenagers who saw me photographing this Tercel, they would understand why this is soon to be a classic.