1991 Toyota Tercel
It's because Toyota, Japan's largest carmaker, made its reputation building many of the world's best small cars that I am stunned by the shortcomings in the new Tercel. The car is good in many ways, but it has some problems that are very un-Toyota like. Now that Toyota has made a successful move away from depending solely on economy cars with such vehicles as the MR2, Lexus LS 400, Camry,and Previa van, I wonder if the company's best engineering talent was brought to bear in the development of the new Tercel. Or was it being used to develop more profitable vehicles? Actually, the Tercel is only three major improvements away from being a fine small car. It desperately needs a more powerful engine, a better set of tires and a seat belt system that makes sense. Two other similar small cars recently tested, the Saturn SL2 and the Mercury Tracer LTS, eclipse the Tercel in these areas. This may not mean that Toyota is slipping - it might mean that other manufacturers are closing the gap, and in some cases, surpassing Toyota. ENGINE, PERFORMANCE If you bought a new Tercel and drove it around town you'd probably never discover the car's biggest flaw: performance, or the lack of it. I covered about 1,000 miles in one week with the test Tercel LE. A round trip from Orlando to Key West accounted for about 800 of those miles. On the highway, at speeds of about 55 mph, passing slower traffic is nearly impossible - unless you have a long stretch of traffic-free pavement ahead. That lack of performance undermines driver confidence. However, in city driving the Tercel is a different animal. It excels in heavily congested places, where getting around quickly takes a back seat to getting there comfortably. The test car transmission, a five-speed manual, is a smooth-shifting affair with widely spaced gears. The test car did not have the optional tachometer, so it was not possible to determine how many RPMs the engine turns at 65 mph. In any case, the 12-valve, four-cylinder, 82-horsepower engine is quiet until called upon to move past slower traffic. Then it protests - loudly. The car idles smoothly in broiling traffic jams with the air conditioner blowing strong. Quick stops and fast lane changes present no problem for the Tercel. It's only on the highway that the Tercel really is disappointing. But I can't help but feel that if you spend $11,000 for a car, it should perform well all the time. Fuel economy, however, is one area where the new Tercel did extremely well. Highway mileage with the air conditioner on averaged about 36 miles per gallon. The cruising range is well over 200 miles. I got nearly 28 mpg in city driving. STEERING, HANDLING, BRAKING Undoubtedly, Toyota has mastered the fine art of engineering cars that ride and handle superbly. Every Toyota I've driven in the last year has excelled in this area, and the test car was no exception. The suspension, McPherson struts up front and a trailing torsion beam set up in the rear, is unusually tight for a small car, but that doesn't take anything away from the quality of the ride. The Tercel slices through the tightest of curves with finesse. The suspension does a masterful job of gliding the car over rough roads without transmitting much of the turbulence to the interior. However, an unacceptable amount of road noise finds its way inside. I believe the Toyo brand radial tires are to blame. Perhaps a different tread design on the 155 SR 13 tires would eliminate this noise. The power disc/drum brakes seem ideally matched to the Tercel's fine suspension system. FIT, FINISH, CONTROLS The dash and gauge layout is a monument to simplicity. The standard gauge package contains a fuel and temperature gauge on one side and a large speedometer on the other. Warning lights alert the driver to any abnormalities. Stalk-mounted controls for the lig ts and windshield wipers and a button on the dash for the rear window defroster round out controls for t he rest of the car's vital functions. Controls for the radio and air conditioner are located in the center of the dash, less than an arm's length away. Toyota must take the award for designing the nicest-looking, easiest-to-use, small-car interior. The dash has four large, round air conditioning registers that not only work well, but look nice, too. There's a cup holder below the radio, a large glove box and pockets in each front door. But without a doubt, the seat belt system needs work - lots of it. Like most other small Japanese cars, the new Tercel is not equipped with an air bag. To comply with the government-required passive restraint law, Toyota opted for a set of manually operated seats belts - and they could tax the patience of a saint. Part of the belt pulls up from the hand brake area and connects to a buckle mounted in the door. The other half pulls across the lap. The driver has to remember to buckle up not once, but twice. The rear seats fold forward to allow access to the trunk, which is cavernous for a small car. The Tercel's foot-, leg-and headroom is not the best in its class, but it's pretty darned good. A 6-footer would be comfortable riding in the back seat. As soon as Toyota beefs up the engine, eliminates the excessive road noise and fixes the seat belts, the Tercel will be a viable competitor to the new Saturn and Mercury cars. The styling is there and so is the ride quality.
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