By on July 2, 2011

When we think of Japanese four-wheel-drive station wagons these days, we immediately picture a Subaru product. We often forget that, in the 1980s, most of the Japanese automakers made four-wheel-drive versions of their small wagons. Honda had the 4WD Civic Wagovan, Nissan had 4WD Stanza and Sentra wagons, Mitsubishi had the Mirage and Colt 4WD wagons, and so on. Of all of the non-Subaru 4WD wagons from that era, however, the only one you see with any frequency these days is Toyota’s Tercel 4WD wagon. These things are about as common as the AMC Eagle in Colorado, i.e. you see them all the time.

I’ve owned quite a few of these things, though most of mine were the more economical front-wheel-drive versions. For a couple of years, I had a job near the location of the weekly San Francisco towed-car auctions, and I’d drop by and pick up ’83-87 Tercel wagons for 100 bucks, fix a few things, and then turn them around for a grand. I never bought one that couldn’t be persuaded to run at the auction (in the “Wild West” era of City Tow, bidders weren’t allowed to try to start the cars before bidding, so you never knew what would happen when you attempted to fire up your new purchase), and I ended up keeping a couple for daily-driving use. Absolutely bulletproof little wagon, able to haul ridiculous loads, and very easy to work on.

With no center differential, you can’t use four-wheel-drive on dry asphalt without (allegedly) beating up the car’s running gear. I never attempted any serious off-roading in mine, but I would think that serious mud/grades/etc. would be beyond this car’s capabilities. Snow and ice, sure.

The good old Toyota 3A engine: not a lot of power, but will survive the apocalypse. I do love these cars (and Toyotas of the mid-1980s in general), but we’ve still got enough Tercel 4WD wagons on the street that I don’t worry when I see them in the wrecking yard. I do feel sad when I see a Mazda 323 GTX in the junkyard, which has happened several times now, but they seem to have become collectible enough that the few survivors should be well cared for.

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27 Comments on “Junkyard Find: 1987 Toyota Tercel 4WD Wagon...”

  • avatar

    I love the simple, practical vibe of this car. So I’ll say it first: I wish they still made them. Though our Fit Sport is a reasonable comparison, but much more capable in a 24-years-later sort of way.

    • 0 avatar

      They do… It’s called a base model 4WD Toyota Matrix. The one that everyone says is too boring and outdated and has too much of a practical vibe. People “love” it so much that Toyota might just be discontinuing it at the end of the model.

      • 0 avatar

        @ Canuck129: Haha, you said “vibe”, the Pontiac version of the Toyota Matrix in the US. My neighbor has one and it is a great little hatch. And people also loved the Vibe so much, they discontinued all of the Pontiacs (which were all Australian re-badges at the end anyway).

      • 0 avatar

        Sadly, this is the same Matrix AWD that hasn’t been offered with a manual gearbox in either generation. Between that and the second generation’s questionable visibility, much practicality is lost, at least for me.

        Now, fortunately, most people don’t care – but these people are also more likely to be style-conscious and be less concerned about the utility that the Matrix offers. A shame, really.

    • 0 avatar

      I was the second owner of an 86 SR-5, it was the best car i ever owned, over 500,000 miles before the scrap yard, drove in snow amazingly well, economical, versatile, easy to drive, my only gripe would be not enough power, but then again, you can’t have everything

  • avatar

    In 1995, I bought a 1984 model. In FWD mode, traction was pathetic. In 4WD, it got around on ice and snow better than our Subaru.

    I can’t say that I miss the thing. It served its purpose as a winter beater, but it was so underpowered I had to downshift on highway hills. Although I bought it cheaply enough (less than $2k), it wasn’t cheap to maintain. Repairs over the 8 years I had it cost more than the purchase price.

    • 0 avatar

      ” it was so underpowered I had to downshift on highway hills.”

      You mean you had to drive stick properly? ;)

      I learned to drive on my family’s ’84 Tercel 4WD wagon. I had it drilled into me that top gear is for highway cruising on the flat only, and lower gears for hills. With practice I was able to slip it into and out of 5th at will without using the clutch.

      And with the right tires it certainly could do fine in snow, mud, or whatever. Engaging 4WD locked the front and rear axles, so you had to lose traction at both ends to get stuck, and there was always that super-low gear below 1st, only available in 4WD mode, to get you out. (Answer to the trivia question, what does the Toyota Tercel have in common with the Porsche 959?)

      I had some pretty wild tail-out fun on dirt Forest Service roads with mine, but don’t tell anyone. The late-80s Subaru Loyale we traded it for was a step up in interior space and comfort, but a step way down in coolness and fun-to-drive factor. Understeered like a blue whale and the engine sounded like a VW with an oiling problem from new.

  • avatar

    Looks like someone already got to the cash box in that rear-mount ATM. Good little cars, show us the j-yard GTX’s! I always wanted a Ford Escort wagon with GTX running gear.

  • avatar

    They always have a dent in the right rear next to the tail light.

    Must be some guy with a grudge.

    I drove mine over Cinnamon Pass between Ouray and Lake City.

  • avatar

    4×4 or 4×2 or heck 4×0 if the pulled in unit had been in a really bad wreck but the parts from these critters sold in the yard of dismantling/reclaiming/selling pieces and parts.

    “Keeper cars” we called ’em and in the Frisco Bay area a substantial portion of keeper cars were of foreign origin but back in the 80s ample BIG 3 cars received that title.

  • avatar

    When the Tercel 4WD came out, I immediately figured out what all the manic VW bug drivers were trading for. I rarely saw one of the Toyotas being driven conservatively. There used to be a lot of them around Boulder. Too bad the local dealer service sucked so badly — that may have contributed to the eventual demise of the dealership here.

  • avatar

    Too bad they were made out of compressed rust, with a coat of paint overtop. I’m surprised you found one with little to no cancer, even in Colorado.

    • 0 avatar

      Strictly a salt thing. Out here, they’re everywhere, and no rust to be seen on them:

      • 0 avatar

        Paul, your example at your website seems to have a rust stain running down the driver side rear window…but still, that’s a clean example.

  • avatar

    I had 1 and the prev owner was a girl she dropped $2300 in the car over 2 yrs period, includes steering rack which is exp, and a bunch of brakes, front end etc.
    Somehow one of the diff got to be wong ratio, when i put her in AWD the wheels seems to be out of sync, normally it should not be like that. I have driven other 4WD trucks and it didnt behave this way.

    It also have a extra low gear too, I think u can only access when in 4WD mode, for real low ratio crawling.
    Overall the car was not bad. For some reason the 4th gear like to pop out when u take foot off the gas pedal, so needed to put hand over the shifter.

  • avatar

    Next model (88-92) was my second car. Drove flawlessly for 70K, then gave it to my dad, which finally forced him out of his Moskvich.
    Unlike this 80-series, mine (90-series) was a 5 speed with full-time 4WD, with 50/50 distribution and electric 100% central diff locking. It was almost impossible to get stuck, unless you seriously ground its belly.
    Succumbed to rust eventually, but after 20 years in Moscow it had any right to.

    And it was the only Toyota that I ever drove that was an absolute hoot to drive, despite its very modest 1.6 carb engine.

  • avatar

    I bought an’85 2WD with 84K, and put another 85K on it. Wouldn’t go, stop or turn without drama, and needed its share of repairs; but never stranded me, and was really friendly thru the gears like an old beetle.

  • avatar
    Athos Nobile

    I have seen the 88-92 (or next model as stated above) here quite a few times.

    “I do feel sad when I see a Mazda 323 GTX in the junkyard”

    I have the same feeling when an Isuzu Impulse RS (turbo, AWD) bites the dust.

    I can also see the “vacuum computer” that is attached to the carb. As stated in a comment somewhere else in this site, when one of those goes wrong, drivability suffers. Venezuelan “brujos” were never up to the task of fixing that mess, and so, many hoses got “eliminated” making the patient worse.

  • avatar

    Longitudinal engine FWD/AWD. All but disappeared today outside of Subaru and Audi/Bentley.

  • avatar

    The thing is they still essentially build the same car today, just not for the U.S. Using the the formula(s) Tercel = Yaris > Scion xD = Yaris wagon > Scion xD = europes’s Toyota Urban Cruiser. They sell it with both 4WD and a diesel engine for the EDM market. I think this same recipe would do well stateside nowadays.

  • avatar

    This one looked to be in very nice shape before obviously something catastrophic happened or it may not have ended up in the bone yard.


    I still see these old beasts here on occasion as Seattle doesn’t have the rust issues as elsewhere where salt is used.

    I knew a gal who had a white 88 FWD variant of it back in the late 1990’s but a lack of maintenance did it in if I recall.

  • avatar

    My love for hatchbacks started with my mom’s Tercel from the 80’s. I wish we had the four wheel drive version, but front wheel drive did ok for us. I remember hauling tons of large furniture in that tiny thing. My mom still has a marble and steel framed wood cabinet that we hauled in her old Tercel. And the hatch was closed for the trip down 95. I would need a minivan to haul that thing now. Impressive. I did not find its equal in a tiny hatch, until I owned a late eighties Saab 900 turbo hatch (put a sofa in that one). Today, my modern sportwagon still cannot compete with the space of the ole Tercel (I did fit a large flat screen TV in there and impressed the boys). But I think all that space in the old car, gave way for stronger crash worthy sheet metal. Good trade off I think.

  • avatar

    These cars have a peculiar problem that sends many of them to the crusher. In even a light rear-end impact, the roof easily folds along the stamped sheet metal creases in the roof. Apparently it’s so costly to fix that they just get written off. Since they usually get hit on the left rear corner, there are no clips available to graft on.

  • avatar

    Always thought the off-center license plate/handle pod on these made them look like they should dispense ice cubes.

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