The high notchback (the area that used to be known as the rear deck) is more of a cleft, creating a squat rear that is about the only legacy from ghosts of subcompacts past. Except for cursed plastic wheel covers (we did some curb-polishing on two in the first 60 miles of city driving) on the Deluxe Sedan. It remains a major mystery of our time why manufacturers continue to see these scuffed Frisbees as an improvement on even the steel wheels of bargain basement models.
But the fat, wraparound body moldings and body-color front grille add dashes of the '90s and upscale style to the Deluxe Tercel. It also was satisfying to see narrowed body seams that tame the car's slipstream and reduce wind noise to the interior.
That interior is practical, functional, unobtrusive, definitely uninspiring and clearly assembled by designers who know that inexpensive elaborations on basic equipment is an open invitation to tackiness.
Our Blue Metallic test vehicle came with power steering that clearly is a $250 extravagance. With a curb weight of 1,975 pounds, the car is light enough. With power steering added to a suspension softened more for commuting than cavorting, the handling gives a sense of float.
Even in this relatively low-powered front-driver, knowing exactly what the front wheels are doing--particularly in the wet and winter slipperies--falls squarely beneath the heading of critical information. Power steering was developed to provide assistance, not anesthetize.
On the road, the Tercel is highly maneuverable. The acceleration won't bring tears to your eyes, especially with the automatic. But the pace is adequate, albeit directly reflective of a driver's skill with the five-speed manual.
Brakes: Discs up front and more than enough.
Speed: Sufficient to surprise those who thought they had their minds made up about feeble subcompacts.
Comfort: To compact car standards.
Engines in the smaller sedans of yore, were traditionally noisy little things rattling on basic mounts until the inside of the car felt rather like a working beehive.
In the new Tercel, the crankshaft has been rebalanced and weighted to reduce the thrashing. Fire wall and dash are made from a metal sandwich that contains acoustical insulation. So mechanical noises remain and even become intrusive when the engine is working hard. But they have been drastically reduced.
No air bags are offered on the Tercel. The best sound system on its option list comes with only four speakers. Seat belts are manual. There are no illuminated vanity mirrors nor power windows nor rear spoiler nor climate control . . . .
It's also also missing a $15,000 window sticker.
1991 TOYOTA TERCEL DX COST: * Base $7,798 * As tested $9,583 (including air conditioning, power steering, sound system, 60-40 folding rear seats, California emissions compliance). ENGINE: * Four cylinders, 1.5 liters, 12-valves developing 82 horsepower. TYPE: * Front-wheel drive, two-door, subcompact sedan. PERFORMANCE: * 0-60 m.p.h. (as tested), 10.9 seconds. * Top speed (estimated) 110 m.p.h. * Fuel economy, EPA city-highway, 29-35 m.p.g. CURB WEIGHT: * 1,975 pounds. THE GOOD: * Low price, high fuel economy. * Looks small, feels large. * Light and maneuverable. THE BAD: * Power steering creates air cushion car. * Engine noise. * Middling acceleration. THE UGLY: * Plastic wheel covers.