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Junkyard Gem: 1996 Toyota Tercel with 360,459 miles

While the highest believable odometer reading I’ve ever seen on a discarded car during my junkyard travels was a 1990 Volvo 240 with 626,476 miles, I spot so many junked Toyotas with better than 300,000 miles that I don’t consider them very noteworthy. However, nearly all of those soon-to-be-crushed 300K-plus Toyotas are Camrys and Previas, with the occasional Corolla thrown in for variety. And, of course, owners of the beloved 1983-1988 Tercel 4WD wagon tend to rack up plenty of miles on their cars. The ordinary Toyota Tercel of the 1990s, however, was a bargain-basement cheap econo-commuter that wasn’t worth enough to fix when it got old and broke something expensive, and you won’t find many junkyard examples with big miles (in fact, just the opposite). Today’s Junkyard Gem is one Tercel that beat the odds and came quite close to the 400,000-mile mark before a crash ended its career at age 24.

That’s more than 13,850 miles per year during the course of this car’s life, or the distance of 14½ trips around the Earth’s Equator.

It would have kept driving, too, but then it got sideswiped (probably while parked) and a two-door sedan with half its doors nonfunctional is a big hassle to live with. This damage would have been worth fixing on a 1992 Lexus LS 400, but not on a lowly Tercel.

In 1996, the Tercel was available as a two- or four-door sedan (the last model year here for the hatchback version was 1990). The MSRP for this car was $10,348, or about $19,890 in 2022 dollars. That year, you could get the miserably stripped-down Honda Civic CX hatchback for $9,890, the wretchedly tiny Geo Metro hatchback for $8,380 (its Suzuki Swift twin was $8,689), the equally tiny Ford Aspire hatchback for $8,790, a primitive Dodge/Plymouth Neon two-door for $9,495, a still-a-Colt Mitsubishi Mirage two-door for $9,989, or a generic-as-it-gets Hyundai Accent hatchback for just $8,079. How about a Kia Sephia four-door for only $8,895? I think I’d have bought the Civic CX or maybe even the Accent (though it was not yet clear that Hyundais were pretty decent cars by the middle 1990s), but the Tercel offered a lot of build quality for the price.

I’ve owned and daily-driven several 1983-1988 Tercel wagons plus a 1990 hatchback, and I thought they were no fun at all to drive but admirably well bolted together and easy to work on.

This one has a 1.5-liter (actually just barely over 1.45-liter, but we’ll round up) 5E-FE engine, rated at 92 horsepower.

An automatic transmission was available (for an extra 700 bucks, or $1,345 today), but that seems like a frivolous expense for such a cheap car. Believe it or not, the base transmission in the 1996 Tercel was a four-speed manual, making it the very last four-on-the-floor car available new in the United States. I’m not sure how much this five-speed upgrade cost the original buyer of this car, but it couldn’t have been much; it’s possible that late-model-year ’96 Tercels got a five-speed at no extra cost.

Believe it or not, there’s both air conditioning ($900, or $1,730 now) and the combination cassette/CD player deck (a staggering $914, or $1,755 after inflation). Why not just get a Corolla (though it’s possible that someone swapped in junkyard-obtained audio hardware later on, as I’ve done many times)?

Pinstripes!

The body filler on the hood shows that some owner cared about this car enough to get some dents repaired.

The Tercel remained available in the United States through 1998, after which it was replaced by the Echo. These are the times. This is the car.


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