Toyota Tercel 97 having smoke problems... ring job, overhaul, buy new engine?


My Toyota Tercel 97 is giving me trouble with smoke. It has almost 200K miles and is burning a substantial amount of oil. How do I know if a ring job is enough, or if I should rebuilt it, or just buy another engine to replace my current.

Any advice will be greatly appreciated.


Have you done a compression test? It might not be the rings. But if it is, I guess I’d be looking for a newer engine, or one from a reputable rebuild shop.

At that mileage you probably have wear on many engine parts, not just rings. Although this engine, with proper maintenance could go 200,000 miles without using oil, that “good maintenance” seldom happens. You can get a mechanic to do a compression test, which will show if you have bad ring and/or bad valves.

With an engine this old and a car with a resale value of about $1000, I would find a decent used engine, IF the rest of the car is in very good shape.

As was said, all of those years and all of those miles have undoubtedly put substantial wear on the engine, and you may well have to install a used engine.

But…before you go to that expense, I suggest that you try something that is incredibly cheap, and could possibly yield some improvement:
Install a new PCV valve, and clean out the hose leading to it with an appropriate solvent.
That just might cut down on the amount of oil consumption.

Yes, the rest of the car is in good shape. I am just the second owner the car has ever had, I don’t want to get rid of the car because it has been good to me, it has taken me back and forth between California and Virginia several times. That, and I do not have budget for another car, plus it still gives me 35mpg, which I feel with the gas savings, any repair pays for itself.

Last time we checked the compression, one of the four pistons had low compression, the other three were fine. I haven’t checked the compression since I changed the timing belt (6 mo. ago maybe?).

I agree with @VDCdriver - try it and see, it’s cheap. How many miles per quart?

I’ll give it a try, but don’t know how much will it do for the fumes. This morning the amount of smoke was pretty bad. I still think I either will have to rebuild or buy a new engine.

If I go with working with my old engine, should a ring job be enough, or am I better off with an overhaul. What’s the difference?

This is one of those “If you have to ask, you probably don’t want to try it” questions. Every rotating/moving part in your engine is pretty worn, so an overhaul involves inspecting and repairing or replacing them as needed. First on the list are ring, cylinder bores, and all the bearings in the engine. Have you done this before?

No no, I would tell my mechanic to do so, but want to inform myself before going to him.

I don’t know what the best option would be. I would think that if I work on my old engine, then it will have another 200K miles of life, and I would start at a better place than buying a used engine which I do not have an idea of the history it has had (I found one for $600 @ 100K miles). I don’t know if I am looking at it the right way though.

Not many mechanics have all the skills, tools, and time to do a good rebuild. This used to be much more common, but these days, with engines often lasting the life of the car, they’re very uncommon. Your mechanic may be one of the rare ones, but how many engines do you see around his shop in the stages of being rebuilt? It’s a major time (money) sink.

So you are suggesting its better to place a different engine than rebuild the original one?

He is, and I agree with him. Installing a rebuilt engine is better than having a shop rebuild the existing one. And often less expensive. The reasons I believe it’s better is that engine rebuild companies have the experience, facilities, and equipment to do a much better job than most shops. They have the dip tanks, the xray equipment, the machining equipment, the laser measuring equipment, the fixtures, the benches, and the processes to rebuild engines consistantly and in a production line fashion. These factories do this all day long to detailed and defined processes, the same way the original factory did.

On a '97 Tercel you may even be lucky and your shop might be able to find a boneyard engine.

But before you do any of this, get the diagnosis done. Have the wet/dry compression check. Find out of the engine is, in fact, shot.

+1 for having a rebuilt engine installed, versus having your local mechanic rebuild your engine.
In addtion to the likelihood of a lower price, a speciality rebuilding company will probably do a better job.

For a human-level comparison, think about the surgical skills of your family physician and compare them to the skills of a surgeon who performs surgery on a daily basis. Would you rather have your family doctor perform complex surgery, or would you rather have an experienced surgeon do it?

It’s not that a decent mechanic does not have the ability to re-ring your car. It’s more a matter of customer expectations and liability than anything else.

An engine with 200k miles on it likely has cylinder walls out of spec (maybe even scratched) along with crankshaft rod journals. Installing a new set of rod bearings and rings on an out of spec component may, or may not, work well over the long term.

If the new bearings and/or rings start to become a problem within the first 500 or even 5000 miles the customer may have a tendency to blame the mechanic when it’s not the mechanic’s fault; other than consenting to do a halfway repair in the first place.

An engine out proper overhaul can get very expensive so the best option is to find a low miles used engine and say a little prayer that the used engine is in good shape.

Great advice, thanks to all. If there are recommendations on where to buy engines, that would be great.

I was looking at Southwest Engines (, but according to the Best Business Bureau they are not a good business (

Google “rebuilt Japanese engines”

Yes, Castillo83; Starting an overhaul will cost you at least 2.5 times what the car is worth before you are finished. As advised, if your mechanic can finds an easy fix, such as the PVC valve and reduce the oil consumption, you can just keep driving the car and get a few more years out of it.

Or a used engine might be a good fix if the oil consumption cannot be correctd. DO NOT WASTE YOUR MONEY on an expensive overhaul.

Before you spend a lot of money on an engine, you better get the unibody frame inspected where the suspension is attached to it, i.e. around the control arm attachment points and the rear trailing arms and panhard rod.

This is Toyota’s throw away car. They were exceptional values, very reliable and very economical, but they had weak frames. They were very prone to rust, and would flex under load which would cause cracks to appear in the sheet metal around the attachment points, even when there is no sign of rust. They become undrivable and it can’t be fixed.

+1 @keith - the other issue is the transmission. I’d hate to put big money into the engine, then have the trans give out a couple of months later.


I suspect your cylinder has low compression because your valves are too tight . . . in other words, check and adjust them.

Tight valves ARE NOT noisey, by the way.

DON’T start looking for another engine until you’ve checked and adjusted the valves. After you do that, check compression again.

Besides the PCV valve, other causes of oil consumption are:

Tight valves
Valve stem seals
Valve guides
Worn cylinders, rings and pistons

Valve stem seals are a common repair and can be done without removing the head.