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2022 Toyota Corolla Cross isn't as new as you think: How Tercel and Corolla 4x4 paved the way for the all-new crossover decades ago

The Corolla Cross may be due on sale in Australia in late 2022, but its origins are decades old.

With a huge buzz surrounding the forthcoming Corolla Cross small SUV (due in late 2022), you could be forgiven for thinking that Toyota had invented a new niche within the brand’s model hierarchy.

In fact, the concept of a Corolla crossover is at least three decades old, and almost four decades if you can get your head around some semantics.

Way back in 1983, Toyota introduced Australians to the Tercel; a front-drive-platform-based vehicle with slightly higher ride height, part-time all-wheel drive and a tougher-looking station-wagon body that was aimed squarely at those searching for a lifestyle accessory as much as basic transport.

Sound familiar?

Even though it wasn’t based on the Corolla chassis (the Tercel’s platform was sized between the Corolla and the Starlet of the day), the Tercel was a similar size when compared with the AE71 Corolla station wagon.

The Tercel was higher thanks to its high-roof layout and had a bit more track width, but was within 30mm of the Corolla wheelbase (the Tercel actually had a dab more distance between the axles).

The overall length told the rest of the story, and the Tercel was a full 135mm shorter overall than a Corolla wagon.

But what gave the Tercel its mojo – and it’s similar to what will define the Corolla Cross – was its slightly higher ride height and ground clearance, and the offer of all-wheel drive.

The Tercel was introduced to Australians in 1983.

While the Corolla Cross is expected to be front- or all-wheel drive if you choose the hybrid version (as with the just-released Yaris Cross light SUV), the Tercel gave buyers all-wheel drive as standard (in Australia, at least).

Like the Yaris Cross’ system, it was a part-time system, the difference being that the Yaris Cross automatically selects all-wheel drive when it needs it, while the Tercel driver had to tug a second gear lever to engage all-wheel drive.

But even though it was old-school in that regard, the Tercel didn’t have a two-speed transfer-case for those super-low off-road ratios.

Instead, Toyota fitted it with a five-speed manual with a super-low first gear (for a total of six forward ratios) that was only available when all-wheel-drive was selected.

 

When those planets aligned, the Tercel suddenly had a first gear with a ratio of 4.714:1 versus 3.667:1 in the car’s conventional first gear.

It wasn’t as good as a full set of low ratios, but it was better than nothing and reflects the fact that, back in 1983, buyers of any vehicle with all-wheel drive had vastly different expectations than they do now.

Meantime, you would have needed about $13,000 to get behind the wheel of a brand-new example of the base DLX version (the SR5 was about $1500 more).

Off-road, the Tercel possessed similar capabilities to a Subaru 4X4 wagon and, back then, that was enough.

On the road, the Tercel’s meagre power and torque limited its abilities and it would struggle to keep up with modern traffic as well as requiring plenty of driver input via the gearshift.

But in terms of laying down the ground-rules for crossover vehicles like the Corolla Cross yet to come, the Tercel was the real deal.

It was also the father of another all-wheel drive, this time pukka Corolla-based car, which can equally claim to have influenced the whole modern compact SUV scene.


Sold from 1988 to 1992 in base XL and ritzier SR5 trim (with prices starting about $22,000), the Corolla 4X4 used the station-wagon body and the underpinnings of the same AE95 Corolla, albeit with full-time all-wheel drive thanks to a single-speed transfer-case and a centre differential.

The 1.6-litre, DOHC engine was now fuel-injected and made 76kW of power and 140Nm of torque – better than the Tercel, but still nothing special, even back then.

Yes, you could now get a four-speed automatic (which blunted performance further) and the trim was better than a Tercel’s vinyl furnishings, but the concept – a little more ground clearance and a lot more grip – remained.

Lacking the Tercel’s super-low first gear meant that the Corolla 4X4 couldn’t jump out of creek beds as well, but that was never the point of the car.

It was sold as the alternative for the Corolla buyer looking for an activity vehicle that didn’t forsake all those Corolla virtues of low running costs, convenience and reliability in the pursuit of lifestyle options.

Corolla Cross, anyone?

David Morley
Contributing Journalist
Morley’s attentions turned to cars and motoring fairly early on in his life. The realisation that the most complex motor vehicle was easier to both understand and control than the...
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