Neurodegenerative diseases involving neurofibrillary tangle pathology are pernicious. By expressing the microtubule-associated protein tau, a major component of tangles, with a viral vector, we induce neuropathological sequelae in rats that are similar to those seen in human tauopathies. We tested several variants of the adeno-associated virus (AAV) vector for tau expression in the nigrostriatal system in order to develop models with graded onset and completeness. Whereas previous studies with AAV2 tau vectors produced partial lesions of the nigrostriatal system, AAV9 or AAV10 tau vectors were more robust. These vectors had formidable efficacy relative to 6-hydroxydopamine for dopamine loss in the striatum. Time-courses for tau transgene expression, dopamine loss and rotational behavior tracked the disease progression with the AAV9 tau vector. There was a nearly complete lesion over a delayed time-course relative to 6-hydroxydopamine, with a sequence of tau expression by 1 week, dopamine loss by 2 weeks and then behavior effect by 3–4 weeks. Relative to AAV2 or AAV8, tau expression from AAV9 or AAV10 peaked earlier and caused more dopamine loss. Varying vector efficiencies produced graded states of disease up to nearly complete. The disease models stemming from the AAV variants AAV9 or AAV10 may be useful for rapid drug screening, particularly for tau diseases that affect the nigrostriatal system, such as progressive supranuclear palsy.