As soon as you drive a car off the dealership lot, it’s going to lose value. That is, unless you’ve driven off in a Toyota AE86 between 1984-87. This volatile vehicle, also known as the Toyota Corolla Sprinter, has become a cult classic for street racers, drifting enthusiasts, and anime fans alike. To see why this little old hatchback would claim as much as a retro Ferrari, let’s have a look at what made the Toyota AE86 a car legend.
The nimble handling, responsive steering, and peppy engine of the Toyota AE86 made it perfect for Japan’s mountainous landscape and narrow winding roads. Its sporty maneuvering made it a star in one of Japan’s most successful mountain pass racing scenes. But when that was no longer entertaining enough for the fans, Toyota AE86 driver Keiichi Tsuchiya, best known as the Drift King, wanted to spice it up by pushing the car around corners. When it turned out to be a crowd-pleaser, drifting took off as motorsport of its own, and the AE86 became an emblem of the drifting scene.
Specialties of Toyota AE86
In several respects, the Toyota AE86 was Toyota’s evolution of the RS1600 Escort. Of necessity, it was a little more modern with disc brakes all over, more gears and coils than cart springs at the rear, but much of the hardware was the same: the MacPherson strut front suspension, the live rear axle with four-way longitudinal location, and the Panhard rod, the limited-slip differential. Yeah, and the ‘4A-GE,’ all-aluminum, 1.6-litre, 16-valve, twin-cam engine that some felt was striking.
But with all its many racing achievements, there is another explanation why the little Toyota AE86 is right up there in the pantheon of legendary Japanese cars. It is right alongside the GT-Rs and Supras, Evos and Imprezas, the NSX, and the LFA. It’s because of a guy named Keiichi Tsuchiya, aka the Drift King. Unable to afford to drive in his teen years, Tsuchiya honed his car management skills on Japan’s sinuous mountain passes on the (fast twirling) wheel of his AE86 Sprinter Trueno – the JDM edition of the Corolla. His dedication to a gratuitous, prolonged oversteer case won him the admiration of his fellow street racers, who proclaimed him Drift King. And there’s every reason to think that Initial D’s AE86-Sliding Hero, the cult Japanese anime cartoon series, was based on him. He was definitely assisting with the analysis.
Tsuchiya raced and eventually toned down his exuberance to enjoy an outstanding career; he only missed the top step at Le Mans in 1999, but his talent of drifting is more likely to be remembered as his motorsport legacy. As the success of the sport increased, respect for the Toyota AE86 just grew. So, what’s this iconic coupe like? Tiny even compared to the new Fiesta, slim and even narrower tracked, its dinky 14-inch alloys and plump 185/60 tires, sheltering deep in the arches. It doesn’t say ‘AE86’ anywhere on it, just ‘Corolla’ and ‘GT twin-cam’ on the tailgate, almost unreadable on this car, because the sticker and the paint are so identical in tone.
How Toyota AE86 is different for drifting compared to similar cars?
It’s still fun to go back to a familiar time and wonder at how easy vehicles were back then. Within, the Corolla is small and sparsely packed. There’s not much sportiness in the blue velour-trimmed ‘football seats,’ and the thin rim of the steering wheel seems a little mean, but when the 1.6-liter ‘twink’ is captured, everything seems to be better. When you squeeze the throttle, then roll forward, the Corolla sounds full of promise, there’s an edgy, snuffy bark. The unassisted steering is shockingly hard at city speeds, but lighter and full of feeling beyond that, the gear lever has a light, optimistic movement, and the ride is more versatile than expected.
By mid-80s norms, the 16-valve engine of Toyota AE86 had a respectable bhp-per-liter output, while Toyota extracted 123bhp at 6600rpm from the 1587cc in-line four. And if the Corolla is a featherweight – with a weight of 970kg, it is 133kg smaller than the current Alpine A110 – the engine is still very light torque to today’s standards. Giving the throttle a mild push and there’s an enticing bark from the engine and a nice kick, so at first, it seems like the little coupe is going to handle OK, even though there are just 107lb-ft delivered at a heady 5200rpm. But when you come to call for real action, for an overtaking, say, and you pin the throttle to ‘just’ 3500 rpm or so, there’s not much resistance. A lot of noise, indeed. It looks like 200bhp, but it doesn’t like it.
Sheerer than the sausage, then. In reality, it’s the period modifications fitted to this car that is likely to over-sell results. It has a Janspeed four-in-one tubular manifold and stainless-steel exhaust, plus an Apexi induction package. Together, these may have tickled the horsepower a bit, but not significantly, and not quite as high as they had boosted hopes.
There’s a lot to like about this very ‘analogue’ vehicle, particularly how it feels; it’s refreshingly tactile, and I like its body rolled, taking an attitude when you direct it to the corners. There are more time modifications to note: much fatter front and rear anti-roll braces, lowered Leda suspension, and strut support between the front suspension turrets. Yet it doesn’t feel rigid, begging the question of how soft was the regular set-up? It’s at the same end of the stiffness continuum as the loose-limbed A110, but it all fits well, the turn and roll speeds matched, the weights well-balanced, front to rear. It’s a homogeneous dynamic efficiency.