What is so unique about the Toyota AE86?
Toyota has produced a number of famous and iconic vehicles during the course of its existence. Together with other “everyday sports cars” like the MR-2, Celica, and Supra, you have hyper exotics like the 2000GT and the Lexus LFA.
Therefore it’s a little odd that a liftback based on a little economy car could be compared to such vehicles. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the AE86, so it’s a good opportunity to examine its past and determine why so many people think well of it.
A fateful decision
Toyota had a unique strategy for the product line when it introduced the fifth-generation Corolla and Levin in 1983. It was the first year the Corolla was available with front-wheel drive, but Toyota continued to offer the coupe and liftback models with rear-wheel drive.
Whoever persuaded the Toyota board to maintain the Levin and Trueno rear-wheel drive merits praise regardless of the motivations behind it. There would be no narrative to tell today if Toyota had chosen to build the whole fifth-generation Corolla lineup with front-wheel drive.
Not quite the sports car recipe…
Did Toyota make an extra effort to create a unique chassis for the AE86 (and AE85)? Okay, no. Contrary to popular belief, the 85 and 86 are mostly built on the E70 Corolla from the previous generation. And if you’re wondering what the E70 Corolla is, it’s the boxy “DX” model that was available from 1979 through the middle of the 1980s. Hence, despite the fact that the 85 and 86 appeared futuristic and swoopy (by 1980s standards), the car was actually created in the middle of the 1970s.
It’s not like the Levin and Trueno’s chassis had any magic. With struts up front and a live axle in back, the suspension configuration was quite straightforward. Well, that was the standard in the 1960s and 1970s, but by the 1980s, independent rear suspension had become increasingly common. Even the engine lineup lacked much intrigue. The US versions were restricted to 110hp because of strict pollution laws, and the lowest models didn’t even produce 90hp.
…But it worked
It therefore had a suspension system from the 1960s, a 1970s-era chassis, and horsepower figures that don’t exactly scream performance. The AE86 did, however, have a few tricks up its sleeve that made it a reliable option for both amateur and expert racing drivers.
The first option was to have a factory limited-slip differential installed. The second is the 1.6-liter twin-cam engine with up to 128 horsepower, which was designed by Yamaha. It engine, also referred to as the 4A-GEU, contributed to the AE86’s legacy.
A star on the track, and on the screen
The AE86’s drawbacks on paper actually worked beautifully to its advantage. Its older (and simpler) mechanicals made it inexpensive to purchase and simple to repair. Also, thanks to the suspension tuning, the live rear axle didn’t turn out to be a liability. The fact that the 4A-GEU was sturdy, dependable, and simple to tune also helped.
A rally, a touring car race, an autocross, and, uh, the occasional’spirited’ drive up and down a Japanese mountain route would all soon see the AE86 as a familiar sight. And let’s not overlook the AE86’s role in popularising drifting, along with that of Keiichi Tsuchiya. Oh, and Initial D, an anime, very much entrenched the AE86 in popular culture.
Happy 40th birthday, AE86. Remain renowned.