Driving an icon – the Toyota AE86


Chris drives a Corolla...

The Toyota Corolla was not, with the best will in the world, an exciting car.

If someone says Corolla, you can easily be forgiven for thinking of octogenarians, dawdling speeds and fourth and fifth gears that have literally never been engaged (because of the dawdling speeds). You don’t think ‘fun’, you don’t think ‘exciting’ and you certainly don’t find yourself hankering to slide into the driver’s seat.

So why, then, am I here writing about it? Well, there is an exception to the rule. You might think I’m about to go on and laud the Corolla for being reliable, or for being the world’s most produced car with over 40-million sold, or perhaps for that one time Carlos Sainz drove one in the World Rally Championship. I’m not though. I’m here to tell you what it’s like to drive the most truly exciting, iconic and engaging Corolla ever built. Oh yes, I’ve had a go in the AE86.

AE86 on road

The car in question was very generously loaned to me by Toyota itself. It has a warehouse full of cars for the press to use, and while there is some other heritage metal like Celicas and MR2s, the bulk of it is new stuff. But even so, in a sea of Aurises… Auri… not sure what the plural is, Hiluxes and Lexus, the AE86 stands out. Its distinct silver over graphite colour scheme grabs you, then the rest of it pulls you in.

If you know anything about cars, you know the AE86 is a legend. And that’s what makes it so captivating. Plus, there’s something of a giddy thrill that comes from seeing one that hasn’t been molested with crude alloy wheels, rock hard suspension (though this one does have coilovers) and ‘SICK DRIFT, BRO’ stickers. This one is just how Toyota intended. Nice.

The name, AE86, comes from Toyota’s internal coding. The A refers to the 4A-GE engine. It’s a 1,600cc double overhead cam affair with electronic fuel injection. The result is 124bhp, which may not sound a lot, but this sucker only weighs 970kg. The E is internal coding for the model, so Corolla in this case. The 8 denotes this is a, confusingly, fifth generation Corolla, while the 6 signifies the variant within its generation. Some nerdy stuff for you, there. Or you could just be cool and call it the Hachi-Roku, which means eight-six in Japanese. Yes, better.

History aside, let’s get to the driving. That’s why I’m here after all.

When you get in the AE86, you’re low. And that’s good, because the lower you are, the faster it seems you’re going. The interior is awash with both blue velour and blue plastic – there is no denying this is a product of the ‘80s. But even so, it feels solid and well screwed together. The steering wheel is thin and delicate, but wonderfully tactile with it. The gear knob falls easily to hand. It just feels right.

Turn the key and the 4A-GE barks into life without hesitation. And man alive, it’s chatty. This is a car that sings, and when you put your foot into the carpet, shouts. But it does so happily. The exhaust note is brash and unforgiving, but that just adds the experience. The occasion, if you will.

Out on the road, we spend a few miles getting familiar before finding a national speed limit road and opening it up. When we do, we’re surprised. Modern cars, with their vast weight brought about by safety systems and electronics feel stunted, slow in fact. The AE86 does not. Foot down, it goes. The revs climb and then the cams do their work. The second one kicks in; the engine note changes and the speed goes up. Clutch down, next gear, do it all again, bliss. This thing is an absolute riot.

But surely, when I get to a corner it’s going to spit me into a bush, right? No, actually. The AE86 is famous for drifting, what with its RWD layout and near 50/50 weight distribution, but that doesn’t mean it’s a handful. It’s actually composed and accurate. The steering feeds back what’s happening on the tarmac. The brakes pull the car slower without drama or concern, and when you stick the whole thing into a corner, it grips.

On my way back to Toyota’s workshop, however, I have to put the limited-slip differential to the test. And the roads of an industrial estate with their distant, truck-allowing curbs are the perfect setting. I think about a clutch kick, but then decide against it as the roads are wet. Instead, I drop a cog, give a liberal dose of power and off she goes. But with no drama or histrionics. The tail breaks free and I control it on the throttle, bringing it back in line when I say, not when a curb has to intervene. Just perfect.

Driving this car, I can see why it was so popular. I can see why, in fact, it still is. To quote Ferris Bueller, if you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up. It is so choice.

Tech spec:

Engine:   1.6-litre 4A-GE, twin overhead cam with EFI

Kerb weight:   970kg

Power output:   124bhp

0-60mph:   8.3 seconds

Top speed:   122mph