Home » West Coast Wagons: 1987 Toyota Tercel vs 1995 Buick Roadmaster Estate

West Coast Wagons: 1987 Toyota Tercel vs 1995 Buick Roadmaster Estate

Sbsd 10 30 2023

Good morning! It’s time to kick off another week of bargain-basement motoring madness, and today, we’re looking at two station wagons from opposite ends of the size spectrum – and opposite ends of Interstate 5. They both have their followers, for different reasons, and while neither of these is perfect, they’re both intriguing enough to find buyers, I imagine. Before they do, we get a chance to check them out and decide for ourselves which is the better deal.

But first, old business. On Friday, we pitted the entirety of the week’s winners against one sad little Nissan Versa. How did the voting turn out? Exactly the way you would expect.

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Some of you accused me of stacking the deck by choosing that Versa over some “better” option. But I really didn’t. Lots of folks who just want a car go to Carmax every day, and pay outlandish prices for subpar cars like that. That’s kind of what I was trying to point out, and maybe didn’t succeed: a little knowledge about cars can save you a lot of money. Unfortunately, a lot of knowledge about cars can end up costing you a lot of money, because you know the pitfalls – and then buy the sketchy money pit anyway, because it’s cool. But at least forewarned is forearmed.

Now, new business: One of the items still on my automotive bucket list is to drive one of the major US Interstates from one end to the other. It’s a thought that came to me when I used to live in Duluth, Minnesota, just a few miles from the north end of Interstate 35. It ends at a stoplight, if you’re curious, where it joins up with Minnesota Highway 61, which used to be US Highway 61, which some guy sang about. There’s a Perkins restaurant right at the end of it, which I always thought was cool. No matter what time of day you get to the end of the Interstate – bam. Pancakes. I always wondered what there was to eat at the other end, in Laredo, Texas.


Anyway, this week, I’m going to look for cars at or near opposite ends of major interstates. So today, we have a car in San Diego, and a car outside Seattle. Let’s check them out.

1987 Toyota Tercel SR5 4WD Wagon – $4,200

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Engine/drivetrain: 1.5 liter overhead cam inline 4, six-speed manual, part-time 4WD

Location: Kent, WA

Odometer reading: 176,000 miles


Runs/drives? Yep

This delightful little 4WD box is a car we’ve discussed before, and there are all sorts of little details to obsess over, if one was so inclined. But the broad strokes are good enough for our purposes: it can carry a ton of stuff, it can go all sorts of places, and it gets good gas mileage doing it. Normal garden-variety Toyota Tercels are sturdy but uninspiring little cars: slow and cumbersome, but they’ll rack up a zillion miles with only minimal maintenance. But somehow, add part-time four-wheel-drive and some funky styling, and it’s still slow and cumbersome, but cool.

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These little Tercel wagons were all over the place when I lived in Minnesota. They’re absolutely made for snow, almost impossible to get stuck, and if you do somehow manage, that granny-low gear is great for getting unstuck. The seller claims this one has “never been off-road,” and I don’t know how many of these have been taken off-road, but that’s not really its forte anyway. This is a foul-weather friend. It has no horsepower to speak of, but the little 1.5 liter four gets great gas mileage for a 4X4.

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This Tercel, at 176,000 miles, is just getting broken in. I’ve seen these cars with three or four hundred thousand miles on them, rusting away to nothing, but still chugging along through foot-high snowdrifts like they aren’t even there. Rust isn’t a concern here; this one is clean. There’s a sizeable wrinkle in the left front corner, and it looks like the side marker light on that corner has gone missing as a result. But the inside is clean, and it’s got those cool white steel wheels.

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This one includes aftermarket roof bars, which would be the first thing to go if I were to buy this car. I know they’re all fashionable now, but I’ve driven around cars with roof bars before, and the wind noise is atrocious.

1995 Buick Roadmaster Estate – $3,000

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Engine/drivetrain: 5.7 liter overhead valve V8, four-speed automatic, RWD


Location: San Diego, CA

Odometer reading: 220,000 miles

Runs/drives? Sure does

Tercel too small for you? Well, this car is five feet longer, weighs twice as much, and has an engine with nearly four times the displacement that puts out nearly five times the horsepower. It’s a big car. It’s the last of its kind, a large body-on-frame rear-wheel-drive station wagon with a V8 and room for eight passengers. Eight, you say? That’s right; it has the fabled “way back” seat, the one we always fought over as kids.

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This seat folds flat into the floor when not in use, revealing a cavernous cargo area. Like the seat, the tailgate itself has two modes: it can either open like a door, as shown, or fold down like a truck tailgate. It’s a neat trick, but it’s not as cool as the power clamshell tailgates of earlier GM wagons. But then again, mechanical systems are more likely to still work on a 28-year-old car with over 200,000 miles on it like this.

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In fact, it sounds like just about everything works on this car. It’s a bit scruffy here and there inside, and the outside has a mismatched fender, but for the price, none of that should be a concern. It does have a little rust, uncharacteristically for a California car, but it’s up on the roof where you can keep an eye on it, at least.

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The real story here is underneath that great big hood: an LT-1 Chevy small-block V8, good for 260 horsepower. This engine gives the Roadmaster fifteen-second quarter-mile capabilities, as well as a towing rating of 5,000 pounds, both impressive numbers for a “Family Truckster.” Who needs an SUV with a beast like this?


Both of these wagons are approacing classic status, and both have a strong following. I doubt there’s much overlap among fans of these two, but I can honestly say I like ’em both. But we are here to choose between them. So what’ll it be – the tiny wagon that scoffs at snow, or the big wagon that hauls ass?

(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)

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Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
7 months ago

The only car that would beat a Buick Roadmaster wagon is a Chevy Caprice Classic wagon of the same era.

Ariel E Jones
Ariel E Jones
7 months ago

As everyone else has said, this is tough. Probably the closest shitbox showdown for me yet. The idea of a six speed manual, 4 wheel drive eighties wagon tickles my “so rare and weird it makes me want it” button pretty good. But then there’s that land yacht with a Corvette V8 that can tow as much as a midsized truck and haul 8 people and get pretty damn good MPG doing it. The general really made something special with those cars. I went with the Yota, but if you asked me tomorrow it might be different.

7 months ago

The Tercel wins by default.

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