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1996 Toyota Tercel : To fix or not to fix

I just bought an automatic 1996 Toyota Tercel with 117K miles. I have read that these cars are economical and last forever. But, the car needs a new steering rack, quoted at $800, new struts and shocks, another $800, and probably timing belt.
I am leaning toward fixing it all since I have heard such good things about them, but wanted to ask if anyone has had similar experience or just advice to offer.

This is a 20 year old vehicle and no matter what you may have heard none of that matters now. You could look at Kelly Blue and decide if the repair amount and what you paid for it make sense to you and you only.

What’s wrong with the steering rack?

As far as the struts/shocks and timing belt, these are normal maintenance items so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they need replacement at that mileage.


Right. The struts/shocks replacement is to be expected. I think they’re the originals. The power steering fluid is leaking.

Before replacing the rack, give this product a try.


As light as the Tercel is, I’d be tempted to loop the lines and just live without power steering.

What you describe are normal wear items. If this Tercel was properly maintained and not beat on, it should have many more miles left on it. Big emphasis on the “if”.

Sincere best. I always liked the Tercels.

Thanks everyone for your suggestions so far! The lucas power steering fluid seems like something that I might regret later?

I’ve used the product in many vehicles over the years and would say it’s 80% effective.

I’ve had a lot of people come into the shop with leaky racks where they didn’t want to or couldn’t afford to replace the rack.

And if it doesn’t work, you end up replacing the rack anyway, or live with the leak.


Interesting. Thank you for the suggestion!

Are you sure the rack needs to be replaced? Is the fluid coming out the ends by the tie rods? It could just be the return hose needs to be replaced.

Why do you think the strut needs to be replaced?

Any record of when the belt was last changed?

The fluid is coming out of the drivers side tie rod. It’s a bad leak. I didn’t ask the mechanic about the return hose but I trust him and think he would tell me if it was just the return hose. Is it worth asking?

Two different mechanics have said the struts are old/totally worn. (Though I haven’t noticed any bouncing while driving)…

I unfortunately don’t have any of the records for the car, but I’m thinking about trying to get in touch with the former owner. The mechanic just told me he saw some oil near the timing belt which he thought could be serious, but he didn’t give details…

OK if it is coming out the ends of the rack, then you will need a new rack, or someone who can disassemble it and replace the seals. Probably cost the same either way.

I wouldn’t worry about the struts for now if the car is handling OK for you.

This car has the 4A-FE engine. All 4A series engines have issues with the front seal. It is easy to change when the timing belt is being changed. Just remove the lower timing gear and pick out the old seal. Grease up the lip on a new one and slide it into place.

When this seal leaks, it can last for several years before it lets go, but you don’t know how long it has been leaking. When they let go, it is sudden and catastrophic. You will dump all your oil in minutes. Other than that, it is a tough reliable engine.

Are you thinking that is what the oil might be near the timing belt?

+1 to Keith’s post.
When you get the belt done you should also get the water pump changed. It’s driven by the belt, and at its age it’s good preemptive maintenance. When the mechanic is changing the belt, changing the pump is little extra work, since he’ll have it right there in front of him, and if the pump goes out it’ll take the belt with it and you’ll end up paying for the whole job over again.

The oil doesn’t get on the timing belt because the timing gear is in the way, at least not when it is just dripping oil at the typical rate of 1 qt or less per 500 miles. The oil drips down behind the gear and out a weep hole at the bottom of the front cover. If the seal tears, which it will eventually do, then oil goes everywhere, fast.

BTW, these can leak for many years before they let go. But again, you don’t know how long it has been leaking.

This engine has an external water pump, it is not driven by the timing belt so it does not need to be done with the belt change.

My early 90’s Corolla sports the 4AFE engine and has proved reliable to 200K miles. I’ve had to replace the valve cover gasket a couple of times over the years to address oil leaks that drip into the timing cover area. That’s a simple job. If the timing belt has never been replaced, now’s the time. It’s supposed to be replaced at 60K miles. There’s some debate over whether this is an interference or non-interference, but best not to test it by allowing the timing belt to break and see what damage ensues. Instead, replace the timing belt now. And the shop can replace the front engine seal, the front camshaft seal, and the belt tensioner all at the same time. Probably a good idea to replace the water pump too while that stuff is all taken apart.

My Corolla sports a manual 5 speed transmission, Toyota’s M5, which has also proved reliable. Can’t speak to the reliability of the automatic though, if you have that version.

fyi, here’s some problems which might crop up with this car, some I’ve experienced on the 4AFE Corolla.

  • If you live in a strict emissions testing state like Calif, getting the engine to pass the HC part of the test is a chore.

  • I’ve had some repeat problems with the starter motor solenoid contacts going bad. If you get a click but no-crank problem, that’s probably the culprit.

  • My Corolla has a small power steering leak where one of the hoses connects to the rack. It’s had that leak for years. It’s such a small leak to address it I just check and top off the PS fluid once a year. Those hoses get stressed and flexed a lot when you turn the wheel against a curb, or against the steering stop, and when that happens over time they can spring a leak in the connector area. Suggest to ask the shop to clean that area on top of the rack and then watch over the coming days for any signs of power steering leaks returning. A UV dye can be put into the fluid too to expose the source of difficult to find leaks. It would be a shame to replace the rack only to find the leak was coming from a hose connector. Best of luck.

  • Edit: You’re probably close to needing a new radiator.

OP’s 1996 Tercel does not have a 4A-FE engine

It has a 5E-FE engine

Different engine series entirely

db, you are right, my bad.

I believe the 5E-FE might be the last of the E-series engines . . . ?