As a kid, and like many kids alongside me, I lusted after the Toyota AE86. The powerful combination of Fast and Furious and Initial D suddenly made the everyday Japanese car an acquirable and endlessly customizable hero. But now that I’m older and slightly less unwise, was it always really what it was cracked up to be? Join me while we see what bits stand the test of time and which ones were more wishful thinking even when it was new.
It’s hard to elude the image that the AE86 has done for itself. Go to meet people with an affinity for Japanese cars and they’ll tell you it’s one of the best. Go to any aficionado of drifting and they’ll tell you it’s perfectly suited for the sport. So perfectly suited in fact that Keiichi Tsuchiya, who has dabbled in Japanese Touring cars, Le Mans and NASCAR in addition to being the Drift King, used it as his main Togue Machine. Ask someone who loves videogames, and they’ll mention Gran Turismo. Anime or Manga? There’s always Initial D. And there is where we can start the analysis.
The Toyota AE86, for those that have been living under a rock, is the sport coupe version of the fifth generation Toyota Corolla. Sold between 1983 and 1987, it was offered as either a 3-door liftback or a two-door coupe, its main difference in comparison to the rest of the E80-series of Corollas was that it retained the rear-wheel drive layout of its predecessors instead of moving to front-wheel drive alongside them. Power-wise you had the 1.6-liter 4AGE engine producing 128 horsepower (112 in the North American version, which was sold as the Corolla GT-S) and mated to a five-speed manual gearbox. An automatic would become available later in the production run.
This wasn’t even the most sport-oriented vehicle to have this engine in it; the MR2 took it and put it in a mid-engine package with perfect weight distribution, even offering a supercharger that would boost the power up to 145 horsepower. Going back to Initial D, the main point of the early parts of the series was that the main character’s skill was so beyond everyone else’s that he could beat everyone in that beaten up tofu delivery car. The car itself was a handicap. Drift King’s AE86 had a very long list of modifications. So why is the AE86 more celebrated than the MR2?
Well, it is endlessly tunable for starters. Like all Toyota drivetrains of the time, the 4AGE and that gearbox was built to a very high level of strength and durability, making it easier to get more power from them. The fact that it wasn’t mid-engined like the MR2 also meant it was easier to work on in comparison. Second, a lot more people would find it easier to rationalize something with four seats, a trunk and an engine in the front than they would a two-seater with a frunk and the engine in the middle. Finally, the drifting scene played a huge part in the AE86’s rise. And I’ve been told by the finest people on the Internet that a mid-engine car is a lot more difficult to drift, so that’s another point against the MR2. The AE86, on the other hand, was the first of what we now accept as the standard “drifter cars”.
The FC RX7 came out two years after the AE86 and the S13 Nissan Silvia three years after that. I suppose that some street racers bought these cars new, but I’m guessing the majority came from used car lots and classified ads. That depreciation curve could very well be one of the key factors. After all, when you’re young there’s no better car than the one you can afford is it? And the fact that it’s rear-wheel drive and it has a manual means that it’s a perfect base for whatever you want to do with it, be it drifting or rallying or circuit racing.
And that’s the most objective way to view the AE86. As the perfect base for its time. A plain white canvas that owners could turn into whatever their imagination and wallets could come up with. Like a 1930’s Ford or a 1955 Chevy or a 1970’s Nova or any Ford Mustang. In that sense, you could make the argument that the AE86 essentially became Japan’s Mustang. By itself already good but easily transformed into something a lot better by the combination of resale values that become indirectly responsible for a thriving aftermarket. But does this mean that the AE86 is undeserving of all the glory that it has been given to it? Well, yes and no.
By itself the AE86 would only be considered “Better than Average”. This is a good thing but not necessarily something that would produce the reaction that the AE86 did. Let’s not forget that he Suzuki Kizashi was also better than average; and as said earlier, for pure driving thrills the MR2 was an improvement provided both vehicles were stock. But it was precisely the right car at precisely the right time. To say it’s not worthy of glory would be to say that something like the 1965 mustang isn’t either because at the end of the day it was just a dressed up Falcon. I say to you CC Commentariat, what do you think? Overhyped? Worth it? Where do you stand on the car that everyone seems to like?