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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Zelda Bumperthumper
Zelda Bumperthumper
4 months ago

I suppose the Tercel has a certain appeal, but for my tastes this is like being asked to choose between pizza or cat food for dinner. LT-1 B-body > everything else.

Opa Carriker
Opa Carriker
4 months ago

Truthfully, I’m surprised at the number of votes the Tercel received. The Roadmaster is an acknowledged “Holy Grail” as has been noted by numerous online entities as well as print resources. If I could find a place to store yet another car I would be interested in a roadtrip to pick this one up. The door and any other loose ends would be an easy fix. With the nice solid bones of this car even a fair amount spent on renovations wouldn’t be out of line.

88CieraXC
88CieraXC
4 months ago

I’m a bit biased, i own a 1993 Roadmaster. Best car ever.

Freelivin1327
Freelivin1327
4 months ago

I’ll take the Roadmaster…Master of the Road

Stephen Reed
Stephen Reed
4 months ago
Reply to  Freelivin1327

Master of the road, taking on the miles
Ready with a downshift and an open throttle…

Grimy Ghost
Grimy Ghost
4 months ago

I’ve driven I-90 from Boston to Seattle and it was, well, an experience. I’d take either one of these over the 24 foot Penske truck that I drove (including up to Mount Rushmore and then back down – FRIGHTENING).

If you’re going to do it then plan for late August and stop at the Minnesota State Fair for a day on the way.

World24
World24
4 months ago

Even if it’s a granny gear, hearing about a factory 6 speed outside of a 959 from the ’80s seems so…. odd to me.

Myk El
Myk El
4 months ago

I have what I feel is a fairly rational affection for those Toyotas.

OrigamiSensei
OrigamiSensei
4 months ago

I haven’t done the full mileage of a country-crossing interstate highway all the way, but I have done I-10 from Santa Monica fully out to a bit east of Beaumont, and patchily to Mobile.

I have also covered I-80 from Pennsylvania to Salt Lake City and San Francisco to Truckee, maybe Reno, I-95 between Boston and Daytona Beach, and I-15 from San Diego as far as Pocatello.

For the choice, Roadmaster all the way. Build that LT1 and let the fun commence! I like the Tercel as well but the collision damage is concerning.

Elhigh
Elhigh
4 months ago

Tall, slow and 4WD? Gimme that Tercel wagon all day, every day. Even at the higher price point, it’s the better buy.

Is there a secret handshake I don’t know about? I don’t see a voting box.

Last edited 4 months ago by Elhigh
ProfessorOfUselessFacts
ProfessorOfUselessFacts
4 months ago

I’d only vote the roadmaster if I could do a rear engine swap with a Pratt & Whitney R-2800

Inthemikelane
Inthemikelane
4 months ago

I love just the thought of this.

Wolfpack57
Wolfpack57
4 months ago

Why stop there? I say put a turboshaft in it and run the exhaust through the hatch.

Camp Fire
Camp Fire
4 months ago

Hands-down the hardest showdown decision yet.

Long-roofs for the win!

Spikedlemon
Spikedlemon
4 months ago

I voted the Toyota as a daily-driver, and a smiles-per-mile ratio.

But thinking about it more: the Roadmaster, with some heavy work, would be a wonderful tuned ride. Build up that V8 drivetrain, some better suspension, fresh paint/bodywork, and a bit of an internal cleanup – it would be a whole different smile.

Geoffrey Reuther
Geoffrey Reuther
4 months ago

Ah yes, time to turn the USS Roadmaster into the wind and launch fighters…

Phyrkrakr
Phyrkrakr
4 months ago

I-35 is a brutal, brutal road. Between Des Moines and, say, Guthrie, OK, there is nothing good on that interstate. You are going through the worst parts of Iowa, Missouri* and Kansas, at least, and the traffic circle of hell in Kansas City, specifically.

*the Ozarks are technically worse, but I-55 and I-44 are still better drives than I-35.

Also: Roadmonster. Gimme dat Buick that can hold another, smaller car in the interior.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
4 months ago

Definitely fan of both but need snow power over cargo area so Toyota. Also as a kid spent days in the way back seats. Not roomy enough then at 58 pounds I surely would not enjoy at 258 pounds.

Last edited 4 months ago by Mr Sarcastic
Shop-Teacher
Shop-Teacher
4 months ago

Actually, if it has the tow package, the tow rating is 7,000 pounds! I miss my Roadmaster wagon so much, and this is a great price for a not rusty one. Doubly so if the AC still works.

IRegertNothing, Esq.
IRegertNothing, Esq.
4 months ago

I went with the wagon.

Thomas Metcalf
Thomas Metcalf
4 months ago

Ugh. I don’t know. Can I have both?

Michael Beranek
Michael Beranek
4 months ago

After I read the intro for the Toyota, I thought “six-speed? No freakin’ way!”
Then I zoomed in on the photo. Yup, it has 6, or at least the knob thinks so.
Anyway, the Buick totally wins.

Squirrelmaster
Squirrelmaster
4 months ago

I have lived in four major cities along I-35, and have driven it from me end-to-end several times. Parts of it are beautiful, but overall, you aren’t missing much.

Also, Buick.

Arrest-me Red
Arrest-me Red
4 months ago

Please send my Roadmaster to…..

Datanerd
Datanerd
4 months ago

I had an ’83 Tercel wagon. I’d pick it every day, except holy smokes we’ve got us a Roadmonster. I picked it because I could get out of my own way in that.

ColoradoFX4
ColoradoFX4
4 months ago

Normally I’d go for the Roadmaster, but the Tercel brings up so many memories of my youth. It felt like there were as many Tercel 4WD wagons running around as Subaru Leone wagons. So I’ll take the cockroach Tercel, throw an old Yakima or Thule ski carrier on that rack, and (very slowly) head up the hill to the slopes.

IanGTCS
IanGTCS
4 months ago

Tercel all the way. Great for getting to the slopes all winter. Of course my local hill is on the Niagara escarpment and its all well maintained major roads on my way there but I’d still go with it. Plus it already has the rack for my skis and board.

Captain Muppet
Captain Muppet
4 months ago

I’ve had 5 Toyotas and I don’t even know what the second car is (no one knows what a Buick is in the UK) so half way through this was going to be an easy Toyota win.

But then I read about how much space and engine is in option 2, and now I need them both.

I don’t even like wagons. What has this site done to me?

Aaron
Aaron
4 months ago
Reply to  Captain Muppet

(no one knows what a Buick is in the UK)

That just makes it an exotic.

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