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
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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.

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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

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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

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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?

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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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Sid Bridge
Sid Bridge
4 months ago

Compelled to vote Toyota as I’ve had a NEVER AGAIN experience with an LT-1. GM just tried to hard to over-engineer that engine. Prone to several key problems and don’t get me started on the “OptiSpark.” I was almost scared off by the dent in the Toyota, but the rest of it looks so good, even at that price. I would say “long live the Tercel” but that’s not a wish, just kind of a statement of fact.

Squirrelmaster
Squirrelmaster
4 months ago
Reply to  Sid Bridge

Having owned serval LT1-equipped vehicles, I’m still voting for the Buick (I do like the Tercel, just not at that price). My first thought on the Buick was “spend $800 and do the coil-per-cylinder swap”. The killer on the Optispark was moisture fouling the ignition contacts, and swapping to the Bailey kit (https://www.bailey-eng.com/product/ltcc-lt1-coil-per-cylinder-converter/) just uses the Opti as a cam position sensor. Not as good of a kit as a Holley offers, but way cheaper and fixes most Opti problems for normal daily drivers. Granted, the Buick is still saddled with those “I love heat soak” iron heads, but you can’t win them all.

Soso Tsundere
Soso Tsundere
4 months ago

Thanks to family roadtrips and moving across the country to escape Michigan, I have travelled the length of I-75, I-80, I-94, I-69, as well as shorter ones like I-84, I-96, I-76 and I-66. Probably more, but those are the ones I specifically remember because we had to stop for pictures on each end. We used to organize trips around the highway we took, thankfully in a nice cushy conversion van.

JDE
JDE
4 months ago

The Buick has potential and with patience the faded fake wood can be heated and pealed so the rest match that front repair panel. I always wanted on of these, the LT1 engine is kind of it’s major achilles heal for me though. I would want to upgrade to 1999 LS based version immediately.

StillPlayswithCars
StillPlayswithCars
4 months ago
Reply to  JDE

There is no LS version. The B-body died in 1996, 2 years before the LS was introduced. Also you can’t just peal the vinyl as the aluminum frames are held in with mounting pegs that will remain once removed.

JDE
JDE
4 months ago

Oops, yep the LS1 engine in 1999. LT1 was 2013 and newer, but designated LT instead of LS

Alan Christensen
Alan Christensen
4 months ago

This is a coin toss for me.

Cyko9
Cyko9
4 months ago

I love the Tercel wagon, but the Toyota tax is steep! The Buick is a whole lotta car for $3k.

Geoffrey Reuther
Geoffrey Reuther
4 months ago
Reply to  Cyko9

the price per pound difference is amazing.

Drive By Commenter
Drive By Commenter
4 months ago

Master the road, thanks. Speaking from experience riding in the Caprice predecessor, that V8 isn’t terribly quick but makes good noises and propels that boat seemingly effortlessly. That interior is also a comfy place to spend time. A few bolt-ons and a tune should wake up the LT1. 300 hp should be easily done.

Col Lingus
Col Lingus
4 months ago

I like to eat gummies. And fender dent just an average Monday for me.
Toyota wins again.
(BTW strike is over and I called the end correctly.)

Jack Beckman
Jack Beckman
4 months ago

If you’re looking to go cross-country, the Roadmaster is the one (it’s right there in the name, fergoshsakes!). If if you’re just going to be local, don’t you want to be The RoadMaster?

W124
W124
4 months ago

Buick for me! Just add some fresh woodgrain-vinyl to the sides and it’s ready to haul some serious bunch of asses!

DDayJ
DDayJ
4 months ago

Prices are a bit inflated for both, but that seems to be the way it is these days. I like em both. In the end I love these giant GM wagons, and I’d love to have an LT1 model as a track car tow vehicle, but I can’t fault anyone for taking the Toyota either.

Greg Winson
Greg Winson
4 months ago

Those Tercel wagons were spunky, to quote John Davis. Fun fact: the inclinometer was only accurate when the car was stopped. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eNKAGRHJi7Y

Luxobarge
Luxobarge
4 months ago

You gotta be kidding me. A tiny little Toyota versus the wagoniest wagon that ever wagoned? If my wife wouldn’t kill me I’d buy that Roadmaster today.

Richard Odenweller
Richard Odenweller
4 months ago

Very hard choice. In the end I went with the Buick. And that was even after factoring in another $2K for the rust repair.

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
4 months ago

No inclinometer on the Tercel?

BOOO!!!!

Man With A Reliable Jeep
Man With A Reliable Jeep
4 months ago

I want to go on the record that I like both of these wagons, but neither of the “know what I got” prices.

Toecutter
Toecutter
4 months ago

That Roadmaster is a fine choice, thanks to the V8. With some aeromods, more than 30 mpg highway is possible, although it will still do mid-20s stock. Wagons are made for hauling things, and this one is made for hauling ass.

Cheats McCheats
Cheats McCheats
4 months ago

Wait, a 6 speed???

Nycbjr
Nycbjr
4 months ago

this was my thought lol

Cheats McCheats
Cheats McCheats
4 months ago
Reply to  Nycbjr

I am so confused, everything I look up, the Tercel had 4 and 5 speed transmissions. But I also see a few forums talking about 6 speeds.

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
4 months ago

Its a 5 speed with an extra granny low in 4WD, hence 6MT

Sandshadow
Sandshadow
4 months ago

My Tercel 4WD had a 5 speed manual with a extra low gear that you can only use when 4WD is engaged.

Cheats McCheats
Cheats McCheats
4 months ago
Reply to  Sandshadow

Thanks, This confused to snot out of me.

Isis
Isis
4 months ago

I want them both. Went roadmaster so I can toss a tercel in the trunk if I spot one on the way home.

Parsko
Parsko
4 months ago
Reply to  Isis

Me too! I was 50.00000001% Roadmaster. Both rock!

XLEJim700
XLEJim700
4 months ago

This is a tough one–but that six-speed!

Slow is cool, and cool is vast!

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
4 months ago

The Tercel still vibes fresh; the Roadmaster Estate is more Uncle Phil from the “Fresh Prince.” Toyota, today.

Col Lingus
Col Lingus
4 months ago
Reply to  Canopysaurus

And big old GM seems to retain old person smells much more than Toyotas do.

Boxing Pistons
Boxing Pistons
4 months ago

No mention of the “vista” roof? Come on, Mark! This was no contest. Modern Vista Cruiser with the LT1 and blue interior for me! Long and low > short and tall.

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
4 months ago
Reply to  Boxing Pistons

Did the short-lived Oldsmobile version at the time offer one? I kinda think no, but I can’t really be sure as the Custom Cruiser was soooo rare.

Uncle Cholmondeley
Uncle Cholmondeley
4 months ago

Maybe someone from Laredo can chime in and confirm, but if Google Maps can be believed, right at the south terminus of I-35 is El Gym Taqueria & Snacks. Also open 24 hours!

10001010
10001010
4 months ago

It’s been 30 years since I last visited but I remember parking at the outlet mall and walking across the border into Nuevo Laredo where we found this awesome Chinese/Mexican restaurant next to a plaza.

Mr. Canoehead
Mr. Canoehead
4 months ago
Reply to  10001010

Chexican!

MaximillianMeen
MaximillianMeen
4 months ago
Reply to  10001010

In the late 80’s my college roommate and made a few tequila runs from Austin to Nueva Laredo. I don’t recall a Chinese/Mexican restaurant on the Mexican side, but plenty of good, cheap Mexican food.

FloridaNative
FloridaNative
4 months ago

If ever there was a time for a “both” option, it would be now!

StillNotATony
StillNotATony
4 months ago

You sonova…

I cannot choose. Great gas mileage AND AWD! V8 power AND a tailgunner seat! Both even appear to have AC!

HOW DO I CHOOSE?!?

CPL Rabbit
CPL Rabbit
4 months ago
Reply to  StillNotATony

Not to mention the Toyota has the rare-ish manual. This one is tough.

StillNotATony
StillNotATony
4 months ago
Reply to  CPL Rabbit

I know, right?!?

Toyota – six speed!
Buick – Vista roof!

Why can’t one have pop-up headlights to give one the advantage?

Fuzz
Fuzz
4 months ago

A rust free Toyota AWD Tercel? OK, I’ll overlook that it isn’t red, but who cares about the dent, that thing is grail territory.

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
4 months ago
Reply to  Fuzz

Nothing a few rattle cans and a cheap aftermarket fender won’t fix.

Last edited 4 months ago by Cheap Bastard
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