LOS ANGELES - In slowing imports of the Japan-built Tercel to a trickle, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. has all but abandoned the basic small car segment that initially made the company's fortunes in America.
To be sure, Toyota still offers a loaded two-door Tercel priced at $12,690, including $420 destination. But sales have tumbled to barely measurable levels from a peak of more than 100,000 in 1991.
Some dealers disagree with the decision to squeeze out the Tercel, saying it leaves them without an entry-level car for first-time buyers. But Toyota executives, noting that most entry-level buyers are loyal to neither brand nor dealership, insist there are several sound business reasons for dialing back on the car.
'Tercel didn't fit in our model line. It didn't have the right content or pricing,' said Don Esmond, Toyota Division general manager.
'We're still looking at the basic-small category. You have to. But there's not a lot of profit in it. And if there's a dealer out there who would rather have fewer Camrys and more Tercels, let me know.'
George Peterson, president of AutoPacific Inc., a Santa Ana, Calif., consulting firm, says most shoppers with $10,000 to spend on wheels would rather drive an off-lease Camry than a new Tercel.
Ken Hunt, general manager of Toyota's largest dealership, Longo Toyota in El Monte, Calif., points out that Tercel also suffers from being priced too close to the better equipped Corolla.
'The Corolla and Tercel are so closely priced, the Corolla is a better value for the money,' he said.
'That's not to say Toyota doesn't need or couldn't benefit from an entry vehicle priced significantly less than Corolla. But the way it is now, the Corolla CE isn't all that much more.'
Not everyone is happy with the move, however.
Al Hendrickson Sr., co-owner of Hendrickson Toyota in Coconut Creek, Fla., said Toyota is making 'a crucial mistake' in cutting the Tercel and its assembly-line twin, the Paseo.
'Tercel has been the first new car for a lot of my Corolla and Camry customers,' he said.
'It's been a good seller for us, about 30 or 40 a month. Plus, Tercel came in a two-door, which is good for the young people who want a little more style,' Hendrickson said.
Jim Lewis, co-owner of four Toyota stores in Kansas, said Toyota needs to have an entry-level car, but the Tercel was not the right answer.
'The styling for Tercel was never hot. It's never been the leading edge design or look compared to the Civic or Cavalier,' Lewis said. 'Maybe it never really was designed for the American market. I didn't see kids running out and buying it.'