All right, all right: You’ve put up with some real nightmares from me recently. Time for some less frightening cars. Today we have a pair of Japanese mid-sized sedans that are both more than old enough to drink, which is convenient, because they’re both wine-red.
But first, let’s see which stray you took in yesterday:
Yep, that would be my choice too. I don’t expect that Fiero to stick around long; it’s a great cheap project that could be really rewarding for the right person. The BMW, well… as one commenter reminded us, “There is no such thing as a cheap BMW.”
All right. Let’s look at something nice and reliable. In the 1980s, while Ford was introducing us to the Taurus, GM was GMing, and Chrysler was still wheezing out K-cars, two Japanese four-doors were quietly taking over the US. First came the Honda Accord, which sold like hotcakes but the early ones dissolved like wet tissue paper, and then Toyota came along with the Camry, a dowdy but undeniably practical car that quickly gained a reputation for competence and longevity. The two battled it out for decades, and they’re still at it today, though both now take a back seat to their respective companies’ crossovers.
These two – the third-generation Accord and second-generation Camry – are the ones that really took off and filled suburban driveways and parking lots at a staggering rate. Choosing between them, then as now, comes down to the little details. Let’s dig in.
1988 Honda Accord LXi – $1,250
Engine/drivetrain: 2.0 liter inline 4, 4 speed automatic, FWD
Location: Portland, OR
Odometer reading: 169,000 miles
The third-generation Honda Accord is, to me, just about the ideal everyday car. Not too big, not too small, efficient, comfortable, not a complete snooze to drive, good-looking, reliable, and durable. It just does everything well, and it’s a four-door sedan with pop-up headlights. I mean, come on.
Even better, this is the LXi model, which features a fuel-injected version of Honda’s A series engine. Carbureted Accords are plenty reliable as well, but if you can choose the easy starting and drivability of electronic fuel injection, always do so. This Accord is an automatic, which I know will immediately cause a number of readers to reject it out of hand, but cheap manual Hondas that haven’t been mangled by the Fast & Furious crowd are getting harder to come by, and personally I choose condition over pedal count.
And this car is in nice condition. Suspiciously nice, actually; either there’s something wrong that the seller isn’t disclosing, or they have no idea what it’s worth and someone is going to score a hell of a deal, possibly by the time you all are reading this. It does have dealer plates on it in the photos, though, so a good thorough once-over is mandatory.
But if all is as it seems, this is a screaming deal. Hell, if I weren’t flat-broke at the moment, I’d be looking at it myself; this is a whole lot nicer than my beat-up Corolla.
1989 Toyota Camry – $1,500
Engine/drivetrain: 2.0 liter inline 4, 4 speed automatic, FWD
Location: Seattle, WA
Odometer reading: 290,000 miles
Runs/drives? Sure does
As nice as that Accord is, however, this is Shitbox Showdown. I can’t just show you one car and call it a day. Luckily, a natural competitor to the Accord is also available nearby, for close to the same price, albeit with more miles. So here it is, the car that needs no introduction: the Toyota Camry. Love it or hate it, it has been part of the American automotive landscape for 39 years now, and will remain so for a long, long time to come, because a new one sold today will probably still be on the road 39 years from now.
The second-generation Camry features Toyota’s essentially eternal 3S-FE four-cylinder, displacing 2 liters. Despite its seemingly racy twin-cam spec, this is a workhorse engine, perfectly happy to live out its days sending power through an overdrive automatic transmission, as in this car. The transmission in these has a switch to choose between two shift modes, labeled “PERF” and “NORM,” for Performance and Normal. It’s telling that Toyota used the term “Normal” to denote the everyday mode, rather than “Economy” or something; it’s as if they’re saying that wanting more performance is somehow abnormal.
Boring or not, a Camry of this vintage is a consummate daily driver, every inch the equal of the Accord, and possibly a bit more comfortable and smooth-riding. Toyota’s design department in the ’80s definitely took “form follows function” to heart; the Camry’s interior works, but not with any flair. And sadly, it also has these monstrosities to deal with:
How do I hate thee, motorized seat belts? Let me count the ways.
Really, passive restraints aside, you can’t go wrong with either of these cars. The Camry has a ton of miles on it, but still should have a good chunk of service life left. The Accord has fewer miles, but even here on the west coast, it should be checked carefully for rust, Honda’s Achilles heel. These two rivals are very similar; I fully expect a few “they’re the same picture” comments, but boring competent cars do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to the simple business of being a car. They deserve a little respect for that. These two have aged well; it’s up to you which one to add to your collection.
(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)
In my opinion, mouse belts are one of the biggest negatives you can have on a used car. I’m SO GLAD I didn’t own a car with them. Two of my brothers did.
Call me crazy, but I don’t mind them. I don’t love ’em, but they don’t really bother me.
If I lived in Portland I’d have already bought that Accord, just because. And they’re one of the best Hondas ever.
POP-UP HEADLIGHTS PLEASE.
That and a Nissan Maxima once tried to strangle me when I had the audacity to lean down while the belt retracted, causing it to wrap around my neck.
And pop-up headlights rule. There is no greater form of automotive front lighting.
Having owned that same gen Honda Accord it was Honda all the way. Fewer miles, no stupid auto seatbelt, and peak Honda. Loved that car.
As an aside I will note that it’s not too hard to spend more money than either asking price for certain bottles of aged Burgundy.
Camry because: I own one
: Parts on these were used up until the xv20/30 Camrys and are this abundant
We had a blue one. Among many other Toyotas. Have to go with the camry. Voting Honda would be like voting Ford when you are from a Chevy family.
Wow, what a choice. I mean that. These are both my era and both cars I love. I’ve owned both and for regular DD function, the Camry is hard to beat. Those things will pull mid to high 20s in town all day and the interior is a very, very nice place to be. For a taller, broader guy like me, the seating position in the Camry is superior, but those miles put me off a bit. The Accord is NEARLY as nice as the big T, but seems to be in far better shape, lower miles, etc…as long as there’s no red flags. I think most folks will vote this way, but the pull towards the Camry was stronger than I expected. That, I think, is the real surprise in this showdown.
Literally just bought a burgundy 1990 Toyota Camry DX for $1500! Mine is a manual and has 306,000 miles which all came from one family of drivers. Bought it from the son who showed me a picture of him as an infant with his parents at the Toyota dealership. I have already had offers to buy it when I want to move on.
I’ll keep an eye on those vacuum lines!
The “peak Honda” takes are not wrong. I developed such a strong love for Honda during this period that I eventually had a garage full of them. I even still drive a beater 2008 Honda just because it’s super cheap to maintain and I don’t drive often. But even though it’s beat up and HAS MORE MILES THAN THE 1988 FEATURED HERE, it still drives “like a Honda.” If you’ve driven enough of the peak era Hondas, you know what I mean. Honda today is not what it was, but this is a cheap trip down memory lane to their greatest period, which still seems shockingly modern. The design cues for that Camry feel ancient. Easy win for the Accord.
Accord. Significantly lower mileage and I’ve always found that era of Honda design to be aesthetically pleasing.
My Aunt had a Camry of that vintage, until she rolled it. Then she got the next generation Camry, until my cousin rolled it. I’ll take the Honda.
I had a 89 Civic that I rolled. Several flips lots a dents walked away unharmed and car started right up. So Honda
“Camry: because wanting more performance is abnormal”
The Accord is an easy win, assuming the rust concerns are not borne out. Fewer miles, pop up headlights, no auto belts, looks like it was designed by someone who maybe *likes* cars or at least understands that some people do.
This gen Camry at least is still aesthetically neutral. Each subsequent generation has gotten less attractive to my eye. I can’t fault anyone for wanting a transportation appliance they don’t have to give any thought to, but the equivalent Accord always stuck me as the same, just a shade more interesting
While I loved this generation of Accord, this is 2022, and we’re talking about two 35 year-old cars.
No question the Honda was a better car when they were new, but in any showdown this aged, the Toyota always wins, because it’s a Toyota.
That Accord is suspiciously cheap. I have no doubt the seller could get at least twice that amount if they hold out for a Honda stan. Since we can’t see any monkey business over the inter webs though, I have to go for the Accord.
Honda because of the popup headlights and fewer miles, but I do love the red interior in the Camry
Dissenting opinion: pop up headlights suck. They often don’t pop up, and when they do, the quality and quantity of light is inferior to fixed headlights. They also don’t look particularly cool, up or down. If pop up headlights are so great, why did they go away? I know pedestrian and other safety standards made them impractical, but if they were genuinely superior to fixed headlights, manufacturers would find a way to fit them to new cars.
Aside from the pop up headlights, that Accord is a nice car, though. Heck of a deal for $1250.
Mostly kidding but I’ve never had a car with pop ups so I still think it’s cool
The Honda is cheaper and has lower milage. What was the question?
Accord – pop-up headlights, fewer 120K miles.
Camry – mouse belts and a steering wheel that appears to be 90 deg off.
Mouse belts are entertaining the first time you get into a car with them. They will never be entertaining again. Ever.
mouse belts are also great for closing the door without having to shift your weight or lean. Not so great when closing the doors like this eventually break the little power wires.
I predict that although this is, by appearances, the most closely matched comparison perhaps in the history of the ‘Showdown…it will also be one of the most disproportionately in favor of one vehicle over the other (the Accord).
As another commenter said: “This is peak Honda” right here. On paper (and in photos) these cars are the same….but I expect the Honda to give the Camry a thrashing here. It’s way more of a fun car. Accords were tossable until they went and moved up to the midsize category.
Plus…..POP UP HEADLIGHTS! C’mon, man!
Also, I should add that this is the era that Honda established its bona fides as a reliable, FUN car, whereas the Toyota was establishing its bona fides as a reliable, BORING car.
This is near peak Honda, like New England foliage in late late September. It is also the absolute perfect color for any car, “Honda Red”, not burgundy, it’s called Honda Red.
Yeah really, this is the best era of Honda, they were fairly untouchable at this point. They had a better reputation than anyone, their cars were a great mix of practical and fun, and they just really knew what they were doing
There was amazing design language across the whole lineup in this era as well. I second all “peak Honda” takes.
I voted the Honda, because I had that car in grey, and it was great.
More importantly, bravo on the title of this article.
I’ll take the Accord! Both are great options. But motorized seatbelts are the worst so luckily it made my decision easier.
My best friend’s mom had a similar Accord when we were growing up, chose the Honda on purely nostalgic grounds.
Honda b/c 2 things – pop ups are right below manuals in terms of what I like about cars, and the gauges of that generation are some of my all-time favorites…such a clean and legible design. I haven’t been in a Honda of that era since the ’90s, but I still recall them clearly.
Almost every day I worked at Pep Boys, I worked on a 1989 Toyota Camry. Where they got their reputation for reliability, I have no idea. In my book, they rank among the Taurus and and the K-Car.
The Honda, on the other hand, is bullet proof.
not really back then, the mess of vacuum hoses on the intake system is a constant nightmare with time and miles. This one has both.
To be fair though, you were working on Camrys whose owners were so cheap and clueless as to take their cars to Pep Boys for service.
Both are good oh crap I need transport or a backup beater. Either one would work, clicked Honda.