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CLASSIC ROAD TEST: TOYOTA COROLLA AE86

CLASSIC ROAD TEST: TOYOTA COROLLA AE86

Posted by Matt Bell on 6th December 2019

Made famous by motorsport, immortalised by Initial D and the go-to in the modified car scene; the Toyota Corolla AE86 has enjoyed quite the life, but what’s it actually like to drive?

Depending on what era you were born in, the Toyota Corolla AE86 will resonate differently. For those born in the eighties, nineties and then on, like myself, the AE86 was made immortal by its appearance in the Manga series Initial D and then again in the film remake in 2005.

Those older will most likely remember the Toyota Corolla AE86 for its motorsport heritage. In either instance, the AE86 is a memorable car and one that is held in high regard in Japanese motoring. Known as the drifters’ delight, it was the weapon of choice for the Drift King, Keiichi Tsuchiya, the chap responsible for the creation of the competitive drift series. The story goes that Keiichi would win each race with relative ease so one day he decided to switch things up a bit and drift the car around corners to lift the crowds.

While the production car was in its own rights successful, it was boosted by its presence in motorsport both here in the UK and of course in Japan.

Toyota Corolla AE86

Motorsport

While the AE86 became famous in Japan for drifting, in the UK it became famous for winning back-to-back titles in the British Touring Car Championship in 1986 and 1987. Compare the AE86 to a modern BTCC and you’ll mistake the Corolla for being a regular track-day car.

Featuring no aerodynamic extremities, underneath the livery was a bone stock Toyota Corolla AE86 body. As per the rules during the Eighties, the bodywork had to be the same as the production car, thus in theory promoting the regular production car much more than a BTCC car could do today.

Under the bonnet was the regular Toyota 4A-GE engine, a 1.6-litre twin-cam motor with TVIS but with upgrades. Power was up to 190bhp, with the road car figures coming in at a lowly 123bhp.

Toyota Corolla AE86

Despite not being the most powerful car on the grid, it took on those with much more powerful enginesbecause it was that much lighter and better balanced than its competitors. Weighing in at a tiny 800kg, 190bhp suddenly propels you down the road a lot more sharply than expected. Couple that with the front-engined rear-wheel drive layout, balance is perfected across the axles making it a brilliant car in the corners. The great thing about the production car, though, is that this balanced profile is continued into production and so is the weight saving. OK, the race car does away with all luxuries, but with a kerb weight of 975kg, the road version is still very light.

Away from circuit racing, so to speak, the AE86 was the weapon of choice for Keiichi Tsuchiya, and of course many drifters thereafter. His signature green racing suit, aggressive racing style and white Trueno has spurred on a generation of drifters to a point that internationally it has become recognised as a competitive motorsport discipline, with a global following. For something that started off as drifting through the mountains in Japan, drifting has come a long way, with the AE86 Trueno at the heart of this movement.

Toyota Corolla AE86

Despite all this, a third aspect dominates its status today and that is the Corolla’s appearance at the heart of Manga series Initial D. Set in the mountainous Gumma Prefecture of central Japan, North West of Tokyo, the series told the story of main character Takumi Fujiwara, a student working at a gas station during the summer holidays. Every morning, Fujiwara delivers tofu hops in his dad’s white Corolla to locals, but at night, he uses the car to drift across the mountain roads, driving as quickly as possible and racing others at the same time. For those passionate about the Japanese car scene, Initial D sits in high regard making the AE86 legendary amongst those enthusiasts. The later film adaption made in 2005 was an easier watch and something that all enthusiasts should watch.

How does it drive?

Arriving on the scene in Japan in 1983, it wasn’t until 1985 that the UK market received its first examples. Featuring a beautifully tuneful 1.6-litre twin-cam engine which begged for revs and provided peak power at over 6000rpm, the AE86 was an instant hit with the UK press as it breathed fresh air into an already busy sports coupe sector.

Similar to VTEC, the TVIS (Toyota Variable Induction System) worked by opening up a secondary intake control valve fully at 4650rpm (controlled by the ECU) to feed more air into the engine and in turn produce more power. This is the sort of technological advances that Japanese performance cars were bringing to the market as they coupled economy with performance.

Toyota Corolla AE86

Let me be brutally honest, though; by modern performance hatch standards, this car feels slow. I’m not sure whether that’s because it felt this way in the ’80s or my exposure to other vehicles of similar stature has morphed my opinion, or perhaps that my idea of what the AE86 was like getting into the car has hindered my judgement, but I was somewhat disappointed, initially.

That being said, after five minutes of pottering about, the road opened up and a series of twisty bends presented itself. This, for me, is where the car comes alive and opened my eyes to what this car is all about.

Modern cars are often criticised for obscene levels of power, but with the weight deficit that new cars carry, it counteracts all that power. As a result, some rear-wheel drive cars have huge torque figures which make them a nightmare to control when accelerating out of corners in anything but dry conditions.

Toyota Corolla AE86

A car like the AE86 brings back that feeling of less is more. At no point did I feel that anything other than 100% throttle on the straights was too much (of course forgetting the part when I need to brake for corners). Such is the speed, you’re never really exceeding the speed limit on such twisty roads, and so while you don’t get the same sense of speed, the whole drive is that much more rewarding.

Needless to say, there’s a reason Toyota went racing with the AE86 and why today, drifters and various other professional motorsport drivers opt for the AE86, and that reason is its ability in the corners. It’s beautifully balanced, has a nice turn in, despite being 30+ years old, and gives good feedback through the wheel. The lack of power-assisted steering helps this but also hinders it; any undulation in the road is heightened and at times genuinely snatches the wheel from your hands, which can be unnerving on entry to corners.

Its handling abilities aren’t surprising when taking into account the arguably over-engineering of the whole car, which boasts anti-roll bars, a limited-slip differential and inclined hydraulic dampers. MacPherson struts were used up front with transverse track control arms, as well as ventilated brake discs.

All of this came at around £7000 when new; take into consideration that others with similar performance like the Alfa Romeo 2.0 GTV, Renault Fuego Turbo and the Ford Capri 2.8 Injection were all around the £9000 mark, you were getting quite the bargain with the Toyota Corolla AE86.

Inside, the cockpit is typically ’80s Japanese; plastics galore, blue trim and a big steering wheel. The orientation of the gearbox is odd, while the gearshift is suitably smooth, the positioning is weird, with neutral looking like fourth, and first/third gear looking like neutral. It’s angled backwards and I can’t work out why because it doesn’t aid you when pressing on in any way.

Above all though, it’s a car that leaves you smiling once you get out. It’s instantly recognisable when driving around, as the teens of Crawley screamed out “that’s sick mate!” when I drove by. It’s pretty enough but in today’s market, finding one standard is like finding a needle in a haystack. Most will have been modified, either to an extreme standard, tastefully done, or, if you’re really unlucky, hideously modified.

That being said, the example I drove had been modified, with the only displeasing aspect being the exhaust, which was altogether deafening. On the whole it was a brilliant car that benefited from suspension tweaks to bring with it sharper performance. Do bear in mind that while some may be modified, they could benefit from this.

Period road testers were more than happy about the arrival of the Corolla, too, with many acknowledging its back-to-basics driving pleasure. While it was criticised for its lack of refinement, it was almost excused on two bases; one being its price, the second being its focus on driving. The presence of a properly-located rear axle was to most testers’ liking, although the whine from the gearbox and limited-slip differential was too much at motorway cruising speeds, with reviewers marking it down for long journeys.

On the whole, though, the Corolla was a breath of fresh air into the sports coupe market; cheap, easy to drive, great fun, but above all, an absolute hoot to drive, even today.