From the January 1980 issue of Car and Driver.

Ask yourself this: If the world's best­selling car were rolling smartly off your assembly line into the eager clutches of millions of happy customers each year, would you gamble success and play the market with a totally new and different automobile? Say no and the competi­tion will grind you under its front-wheel drive and spit you out flatter than a sail kitty. Say yes and you're faced with one of the all-time toughest dilemmas of the auto biz: how to build a better (read, more successful) Corolla.

Toyota certainly mulled this very problem over as the old Corolla steadily edged toward obsolescence year after year. But two energy crunches and a decade of raging inflation have stam­peded plenty of buyers back to basics, making the Corolla more popular than ever in the process. It became the Bee­tle of Japan with practically no help from the engineering department—a universally recognized benchmark of basic transportation.

1979 toyota corolla tercel sr5View Photos
Richard George|Car and Driver

Leaving the Corolla alone all these years gave Toyota two distinct advan­tages: plenty of time to plan a new one, and plenty of justification for waiting another year to thrust it upon the world. Now that the day of reckoning has finally come, it's obvious what a dilemma Toyota's gone through. Last year's Co­rolla is well and truly gone, but now there are two replacements to fill the old girl's shoes. Apparently the split be­tween conventional and front-wheel­-drive forces runs deep through Toyota City, because both factions have suc­ceeded in bringing a new Corolla to market. The front-engine-rear-drive version requires no explaining; it's the same Corolla that's been such a hit in steno pools and with high-school sen­iors over the years, repackaged with a host of improvements. The Corolla Tercel in this test is the antithesis of those diehard traditions. It may look weird, but it's the first Toyota designed to be the best possible economy car in­stead of just another miniaturized American sedan.

Before we dig deep into the Tercel's soul to find out how it was all done, consider a few bottom-line facts about this car. In stripped-down, twelve-inch­-tire, rubber-floor-mat trim, it's the cheapest Toyota money can buy, in fact the second-cheapest new car in Ameri­ca, at $3698. The Tercel is also Toyota's fuel-economy star, racking up 29 to 33 miles for every gallon (depending on transmission) in EPA tests. Plenty of technical sophistication has been built in: a new overhead-cam engine, front­-wheel drive, and all-independent sus­pension. And even though the Tercel is the smallest Toyota on the outside, it's bigger than the biggest in several key dimensions inside.

1979 toyota corolla tercel sr5
Richard George|Car and Driver
1979 toyota corolla tercel sr5View Photos
Richard George|Car and Driver

While the Tercel's looks are "unique" in a way that will take more than the usual amount of getting used to, you can love the hard parts under its strange skin right off the bat. Subaru, Honda, and Datsun all struggled through rather miserable first attempts at front-wheel drive, but Toyota has left its false starts in the lab. The Tercel is a front-wheel­-driver that works, further justifying the "last-out, best-dressed" strategy. The steering feels rear-wheel-drive "nor­mal": There's no torque steer, not much understeer, and just enough lift-throttle oversteer to keep hard drivers amused. Oddly enough, there's not much evi­dence in the hardware to suggest how all this was accomplished. The front suspension is a conventional MacPherson strut design, the back wheels hang from an iso­lated crossmember on pure trailing arms, and the engine is right where you'd expect to find it in a rear-driver. Though the rest of the world's carmak­ers have almost universally accepted the Alec Issigonis system (1959, Austin Mini) of transversely mounting the en­gine to drive the front wheels through a transverse transmission, Toyota's gone its own way with a resolutely fore-and-­aft design. The engine is merely elevat­ed a few inches to make room for a dif­ferential mounted under the number-­four cylinder. This makes the transmis­sion a rather bizarre, four-shaft affair that takes power in at the top, turns it around inside, and spits it out below into a fairly conventional hypoid differ­ential. A pair of half-shafts run power out to the front wheels.

1979 toyota corolla tercel sr5View Photos
Richard George|Car and Driver

Toyota claims that serviceability was the prime motivation for this vertically stacked powertrain. It's true that spark plugs and ignition components are easi­er to get at than if they had been squeezed between a transverse cylinder head and the firewall, but the real rea­son is more likely a simple case of economics. The Tercel's parts are a lot more like rear-drive components than they would be if the engine were turned 90 degrees in the car, and therefore somewhat cheaper for an old-line, rear­-drive builder like Toyota to tool up for. As it turns out, this does penalize the design somewhat. Jacking the engine up in the car to clear the drive components hurts both handling (higher center of gravity) and fuel economy (a taller hoodline is necessary to clear the en­gine, slightly increasing aerodynamic drag and fuel consumption). But the strangest sacrifice of all is Toyota's use of a hypoid-bevel-gear final-drive in the Tercel. Engineers love to avoid this power waster if at all possible. (GM an­nounced that eliminating a 90-degree transfer of power with the X-car's side­winder design improved overall efficien­cy by 3 percent). Hypoid bevel gears originally came into popular use because they allow an offset between input and output shafts, facilitating a low drive­shaft tunnel in rear-drive cars. The pen­alty is lots of sliding friction, which most FWD designers to date have been all too happy to eliminate. We can only guess that Toyota swallowed the hypoid pill in the Tercel in order to use a few more parts (or tooling) that already existed.

1979 toyota corolla tercel sr5
Richard George|Car and Driver
1979 toyota corolla tercel sr5View Photos
Richard George|Car and Driver

There is one last big plus in Toyota's favor in the great East-West-versus-North-South engine-layout debate. With the transmission where it has end­ed up in the Tercel, the shift linkage is short and sweet. While cars like the Rabbit have what looks like an Erector Set under the hood to bell-crank motion from a remote shifter to the transmis­sion, the Tercel has one highly polished shaft sliding smoothly inside an alumi­num casting. You don't have to be a safecracker to feel all the snicks and clicks that Japanese transmissions have been so good at delivering over the years; a light flick of the wrist produces the right gear every time.

The slick-shifting transmission is one of the few traits that have been saved from old Corollas for the new Tercel. In contrast to the dark-tunnel mood of the old car, the new interior is as bright and airy as a phone booth. The cloth-cov­ered bucket seats in our top-of-the-line SR5 test car are a new record achieve­ment for Toyota. They're firmly pad­ded and shaped to fit a person's back­side. The lateral-support cushions could use some plumping up and the recliner mechanism is a little coarse in its adjust­ment, but otherwise, these seats are ready for long bouts on the road. The back bench is undoubtedly the best rear seating Toyota has ever built into a car with fewer than four doors. Two six­-footers fit comfortably with room to spare, and the backrest is split to maxi­mize potential combinations of people and cargo.

1979 toyota corolla tercel sr5View Photos
Richard George|Car and Driver

Color coordination rules the interior decor. Razzmatazz is thankfully at an all-time low, so you really get the feeling you're in a nice, simple car and not a Japanese pachinko parlor. The instru­mentation is neatly arrayed within the visual bounds of the steering wheel. Readouts are highly telegraphic, and di­rectly illuminated at night with soft, white light. The A/C equipment is inte­grated into and hidden behind the instrument panel, so no center console is necessary to cover plumbing and soak up legroom. Two things do stand out in their absence: there's no dock and not a single gimmick in the gas-flap-release, trunk-opener, and rear-window-flipper ilk that virtually all new Japanese cars have spoiled us with lately. The Tercel comes straight. What Toyota's done is sacrifice gimmicks and also convention­al good looks to build a rather uncon­ventionally roomy interior. Wheels are relegated to the far corners of the car, and the roof is almost as long as the wheelbase. The plan went awry on only one count: what's left after four passen­gers are seated is more like a golf bag than a steamer trunk. The cargo hold's opening is small and waist-high, and the space available is almost as deep as it is long and wide. So think not of the Ter­cel as a mini station wagon, but more as a Scirocco with headroom.

Just don't let your thoughts be swept away with dreams of Scirocco-like speediness. The Tercel is slow, in fact downright turtle-like, the way Corollas have always been. Our test car never saw the blurry side of 85 mph, and churning up to 65 mph in the quarter-­mile took more than twenty seconds. No doubt this has purposely been designed in so Corolla customers won't miss all the gas stations they'll be driving by.

1979 toyota corolla tercel sr5View Photos
Richard George|Car and Driver

The Tercel does break with boredom in handling. Turn the wheel and it charges after apexes with a vengeance. There's less understeer than Toyota's ever dared to build into its sportiest Celicas, and if you're willing to horse around with the throttle and steering wheel, you can produce quite a nice sideways view of the world in the Ter­cel's windshield. The steering is a little wooden-feeling at times—too slow, a bit too heavy, and slightly numb to the touch—but any front-driver that can be cajoled into oversteer is all right by us.

The Tercel does have one strength that supersedes handling, however: It's already selling like crazy. The Toyota dealer up the block from us is sold out for six months. By now the word is out that Toyotas don't break down every time it's raining and you happen to be late for work. Furthermore, recession buyers are checking window stickers first and worrying later about the weird taillights and the fact that a Tercel looks nothing at all like a roadgoing rapier. Its 29–33-mpg EPA rating has the uncanny ability to lash out and snag innocent customers right off the sidewalk. The big five (and occasionally a four, or even a three) next to the dollar sign has them reaching for a checkbook before the salesman even utters "front-wheel drive." All because the Tercel does ex­actly what the world's-best-seller Corol­la did. It keeps the basic in basic trans­portation.


It took Toyota a bunch too many years to get into the front-wheel-drive business. As good a basic transportation module as the Corolla has been, it's been showing its technological staleness from the mo­ment the Rabbit and its string of copiers showed up. But now there's the Tercel with its unique front-wheel-drive engine­-transmission layout, its weird styling, and its wheels-at-the-far-corners chassis—its own formula for success. And that's what I'm predicting for it. Lots of huge big piles of success. The Tercel is going to be just perfect for umpteen thousands of buyers who are looking for small and cheap and economy and couldn't care less about anything else. Enthusiasts will be looking elsewhere. Like the Corollas before it, the Tercel is about as exciting as mold. But really good mold, mind you. —Mike Knepper

1979 toyota corolla tercel sr5View Photos
Richard George|Car and Driver

Toyota's success is the result of building one good car after another. Not great cars, not exciting cars, not cars bursting with personality—just good ones. I can't think of a Toyota I've ever driven that was horrible—or one that really rang my chimes, for that matter. The Tercel is no different; there's nothing bad about it.

If Toyota had said the Tercel was the next generation of rear-drive Corollas, I might have been fooled. It has no nasty fwd manners, no rough edges, and it goes about its business almost unnoticed­—more like a travel appliance than a car. It has the kind of power and room and trim you'd expect in a low-roller econobox, and seems well worth its price. Most of all it's familiar, another middle-of-the-road, durable, economical, reliable, well-built Toyota sedan—only with front drive.

Which is why I don't expect anyone to be shocked or dismayed or thrilled or as­tounded by the Tercel. But I do expect vast hordes of mileage seekers to suck up every Tercel that lands here. And I expect they'll like it just fine. —Rich Ceppos

Well, friends, with this Tercel I think Toyota has hit the economy-car nail smack on the head. It is not spectacular­—economy cars don't need to be, remem­ber?—but it does everything you could reasonably request of it. I find it very comfortable, and ensconced behind the wheel I can see all the gauges and touch all the controls without having to move one tiny little bit in the pleasantly plaid seat. There are nice, big windows all around to watch the scenery rise up, slip by, and fade away. In back is enough car­go room to pack home an office chair—I tried it—and underneath a neat and tidy independent rear suspension that con­tributes to a surprisingly good ride. The engine won't ravage much asphalt, but it is responsive and willing and seems hap­pily free of most of the buzzings, thrash­ings, and dronings so typical of the species econoboxus. I don't know if you will ever fall in love with this car, but I'm cer­tain you'll always like it. For a wallet-sav­er, what else is there? —Don Fuller

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1979 Toyota Corolla Tercel SR5
Vehicle Type: front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 4-passenger, 2-door hatchback

Base/As Tested: $4848/$5658
Options: air conditioning, $520; aluminum wheels, $215; rear wiper, $75.

SOHC inline-4, iron block and aluminum head
Displacement: 89 in3, 1452 cm3
Power: 60 hp @ 4800 rpm
Torque: 72 lb-ft @ 2800 rpm 

5-speed manual

Suspension, F/R: struts/control arms
Brakes, F/R: 8.9-in disc/7.1-in drum
Tires: Dunlop SP4 Steel

Wheelbase: 98.4 in
Length: 160.0 in
Width: 61.2 in
Height: 52.8 in
Curb Weight: 2010 lb

60 mph: 16.2 sec
1/4-Mile: 20.3 sec @ 65 mph
80 mph: 41.7 sec
Top Speed: 85 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 212 ft 

Combined (est.): 31 mpg