Not even the Tercel's world-class quality could make up for its spartan furnishings, and this car never lets you forget you're in the economy class.

I could not see myself driving a base model Tercel each day - though I could and would drive either an Accent or an Escort.

For starters, the Tercel came with a set of heat-absorbing vinyl seats, which were painful to sit on when first entering the car on a hot day. Worse, even after the heat was dissipated, the vinyl made me sweat. But the seats provide enough padding to be supportive.

The Tercel was the only one of the cars that didn't have a right door-mounted mirror. I'm so used to having a door-mounted mirror on that side that it was disconcerting not to have it.

To its credit, the car was put together with Toyota's usual fervent devotion to quality. I heard no rattles or squeaks. The dash was as simple and plain as they come, and the stalk-mounted controls for the lights and windshield washers were easy to reach and use.

The Tercel's air conditioner was the best of the bunch. It cooled the car very quickly.

The car was the only two-door of the three, but it was fairly easy for an ave rage-sized person to flip the Tercel's front seats forward and get into the back. Rear-seat passengers are likely going to be find enough room to be comfortable.

The Escort also proved to be a comfortable and user-friendly subcompact, but several of its interior parts look dated - especially the square plastic trim where the ends of the dash meet the leading edges of the inner door sills. The controls and switches also are not as well-designed as those in the Tercel.

A strong air conditioner is an important feature in vehicles that travel Central Florida's roads. Accent's air-conditioning system didn't deal well with recent 90-degree heat, taking much too long to begin to cool the car. However, once the lever-operated unit got going, it did a reasonable job of cooling.

I would rank the cloth-covered bucket seats in the Escort as the best among the three cars. They are, in fact, close to great. They have generous padding and are comfortable on long trips.

The Hyundai's seats also were good,although it was sometimes hard to find a comfortable driving position. I felt the seat was either too far from or close to the pedals and dash.

Of our three test cars, the black decorative upholstery in the Accent was the most attractive.

What wasn't attractive were the rattles I heard in the Accent. Frankly, I thought Hyundai was past that, but over bumpy roads I heard some squeaking coming from plastic trim parts. The other two cars were quiet.

All three cars came with very basic analog gauges for fuel, temperature and speedometer. The Hyundai's gauges can be obscured by glare, and the gauges in the Ford are not well lighted. The Toyota's are flawless - they are cleanly designed and clear, but a little boring.

Visibility in the Tercel and Accent is excellent, but the Escort has a very thick rear pillar that partially blocks side vision.

I found the Escort five-door offered the best combination of comfort, utility and space. With the rear seats folded forward, the Escort can swallow a box big enough to hold a full-size bicycle.

Trunk room in the Accent is a bit on the short side. The car has a very stubby rear end and a fairly small trunk. The Tercel, on the other hand, has ample trunk room. The rear seats do not fold forward on either car - something to think about if you need a car that can hold large items.

The Escort came with electric side mirrors; the Accent offered intermittent windshield wipers, and the Toyota had nothing extra to distinguish it from the pack.

    See also:

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