The Tercel is a subcompact manufactured from 1978 to 2000 across five generations, in five body configurations — sized between the Corolla and the Starlet. Manufactured at the Takaoka Plant in Toyota City, Japan, and sharing its platform with the Cynos (aka Paseo) and the Starlet, the Tercel was marketed variously as the Corolla II — and was replaced by the Echo in 2000. It was also known as the (Japanese: Toyota Corsa) and sold at different Toyota Japan dealerships dedicated to particular core models.

Tercel was the first front-wheel drive vehicle ever produced by Toyota, establishing a layout and frame that was later used in popular Toyota models. For example, Toyota Corolla E80's frame is almost similar to AL20 Tercel's frame. Also, Toyota designed a new A engine for Tercel, attempting to achieve good fuel economy, and performance as well as low emissions at the same time. Choice of body styles increased as well, with the addition of a four-door sedan.

The name "Tercel" derives from the Latin word for "one third" as the Tercel was slightly smaller than the Corolla — much the way "tiercel" refers to a male falcon, which is one-third smaller than its female counterpart.

First generation (1978–1982)

The Tercel was introduced in Japan in August 1978, Europe in January 1979[2] and the United States in 1980. It was originally sold as either a two or four door coupé, or as a three-door hatchback. A version marketed in parallel through a separate distribution network in Japan was called the Toyota Corsa. In the United States it was named as the Corolla Tercel, hoping that the Corolla's reputation — long known for quality and durability — would bring buyers to the new model. Models sold in the US were powered by a 1,452 cc SOHC four-cylinder engine producing 60 hp (45 kW). Transmission choices were either a four- or five-speed manual, or a three-speed automatic available with the 1.5 engine from August 1979 on.

In the Japanese market, the 1500 engine developed 80 PS (59 kW) at 5,600 rpm, while the lesser 1.3 liter 2A engine, added in June 1979, offered a claimed 74 PS (54 kW). In Europe mainly the smaller 1.3 version was available, with 65 PS (48 kW).

In this new front-wheel drive design, the first for Toyota, the engine was mounted longitudinally. The transmission was mounted under the floorpan, as is the case in a rear-wheel drive car. Unlike a rear-wheel drive car, the transmission had a ring and pinion gear on the front part of the transmission, underneath the engine. Halfshafts then extended from the transmission to the front wheels.

In August 1980 the Tercel (and Corsa) underwent a facelift, with considerable changes to the front and minor ones to the interior and rear. The 1A engine was replaced by the 3A of identical displacement but now with 83 PS (61 kW)

Second generation (1982–1986)

Due to disappointing sales of the first generation Tercel, Toyota redesigned the Tercel for May 1982. The "Corolla" part of the name was dropped, becoming simply "Tercel" in all markets. This, the L20 series, was a more modern and angular shaped model. The second generation Tercel was available in three- or five-door hatchback models or a four-door station wagon, and also as a four-door sedan in Japan. The station wagon, known in Japan as the Sprinter Carib (Japanese: Toyota Sprinter Carib, short for "Caribou"), was introduced in August 1982.

The wagon was also available with four-wheel drive (front wheel drive wagons were only available in select markets). In Japan, a four-wheel drive sedan was also available, it too remained in production alongside the wagon version even after the introduction of the third generation Tercel. Standard front-wheel drive vehicles (and four-wheel drive wagons not equipped with the six-speed manual transmission) came with either a three-speed automatic or a four or five-speed manual transmission. The four-speed manual was reserved for the very simplest version in North American markets.

As only the first two generations were sold officially in Europe, this was the last generation of the Tercel series available there, with either the hatchback or station wagon bodywork. In Japan, power outputs were as follows:

  • 1,295 cc 2A-U: 75 PS (55 kW) at 6,000 rpm
  • 1,452 cc 3A-U: 83 PS (61 kW) at 5,600 rpm (9.0:1 compression, 82.05-86.05)[10]
  • 1,452 cc 3A-U: 85 PS (63 kW) at 5,600 rpm (9.3:1 compression, 86.03-88.02)[10]
  • 1,452 cc 3A-HU: 86 PS (63 kW) at 6,000 rpm (variable venturi carburettor, 9.3:1 compression, 82.05-84.08)
  • 1,452 cc 3A-SU: 90 PS (66 kW) at 6,000 rpm (twin variable venturi carburettors, swirl intake version, 84.08-88.02)

North American Tercels all received the 1.5-litre engine, producing 63 hp (47 kW) at 4,800 rpm. In Europe, both the 1.3 (65 PS/48 kW at 5,400 rpm) and the 1.5 (71 PS/52 kW at 5,600 rpm) were available.

The four-wheel drive models (chassis code AL25, only with the 1.5 engine) could be equipped with six-speed manual transmission, and could be shifted from two- to four-wheel drive without coming to a stop. The sixth gear it carried was an "Extra Low" (EL) first gear, a standard transmission gear with a very low (4.71:1) gear-ratio. The EL gear generated a 17.6:1 final drive ratio, giving the driver the torque needed to extract the vehicle from conditions which otherwise may have trapped it. Because of its low gear-ratio, it was suitable only for very low-speed use on loose or slippery road surfaces (such as snow, gravel, or sand). Also included with better equipped four-wheel drive models is an inclinometer above the radio/air conditioner that measures the tilt of the car.

The new Tercel 4WD was built from existing pieces in the Toyota inventory. The engine, transaxle and front wheel drive system was from the existing Tercel. The coil-sprung rear axle was taken from the Corolla. The only part specifically designed for the new Tercel 4WD was the transfer case, built into the transmission. This gave the driver greater versatility than was possible on a purely front-wheel drive vehicle, as it provided three different power arrangements. Normally, the car would be operated with front-wheel drive. When the driver pulled the 4WD selector lever back into four-wheel drive, or pressed a button on the gear selector for the automatic transmission, the power was split 50/50 between the front and rear axles via a direct mechanical coupling. There is no conventional center differential, so the four-wheel drive system could be used only on loose or slippery surfaces; otherwise the drivetrain would experience severe wear, and handling would be compromised. The third power option (which was only available on the six-speed manual) was low range. This isn't the same as the low-range power option found in a truck or conventional SUV, as the Tercel lacked a high-range/low-range transfer case. When the lever was placed in four-wheel drive mode it became possible to down shift the vehicle from first to EL (extra low).

1985 saw minor changes to gear ratios and to the grille design, and the interior was updated in 1986. The Tercel wagon (and four-door sedan in Japan) continued with the same design until February 1988 (when the Sprinter Carib was replaced by a larger Corolla based design), while the coupé, sedan and hatchbacks moved on to the newer design

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