I was promised noise, and my word I’ve got it. I find myself sat inside a JDM icon in the early hours of the morning, the streets of central London empty for once as I crawl towards my favourite set of tunnels. With the first coming into view, the road drops away to take me beneath the Thames. I unwind the window the old school way and drop into second gear.
As soon as I cross the tunnel’s threshold, I put my foot to the floor and the revs slowly rise with the noise. Then, at 4600rpm, everything changes. As the Variable Induction System kicks in the noise doesn’t just turn up to 11, it pushes past 15, amplified by the walls passing closely either side of me. I’m not going quick by any means, but I’ve got a massive grin plastered across my face.
Ever since we booked this Toyota Corrolla GT Coupe (AE86, to you and I) in for the week, I’ve been pretty excited. This car is a genuine icon; the car at the centre of drifting’s origins and immortilised by Initial D. The uneducated cannot understand why I’m so enthusiastic about driving an unassuming family car that’s as old as I am, but these people don’t know the legend of the hachi-roku.
Once I’ve had my fun in subterranean London, it’s time to focus on why I’m behind the wheel of this 80s hero.
Back in 2009, Toyota revealed the stunning FT-86 concept at that year’s Tokyo Motor Show; a quick, easy to modify rear-wheel drive, affordable sports car that was to be built in conjunction with Subaru.
Aside from the Subaru collaboration, each of those characteristics were also what made the AE86 a working class hero when it came to market in 1983, so this new car was to be considered the spiritual successor to the old Corolla; the ‘86’ in its name a direct nod. Fast forward to 2012 and the Toyota GT86/Subaru BRZ/Scion FR-S triplets burst onto the scene to critical acclaim.
We loved the GT86 when we ran one on our long-term fleet, and we’ve been waiting for a good excuse to take it somewhere special with the AE86 Toyota has on its Heritage Fleet. So when CT reader Ollie tweeted us to say he’d just purchased a clean 1988 Toyota MR2, it seemed like the perfect opportunity.
The AW11 MR2 and AE86 share the same engine, as well as a few other parts, and with Toyota interested in a feature we decided to up the ante and bring along a GT86 as well.
With the sun beginning to rise through the window of the AE86, I glance up into my mirror to see the GT86 following close behind. I can’t help but smile to myself every time I remember what an iconic little convoy this is, and the frustration I feel everytime someone splits up our duo really rams home the importance of these two cars.
If I’m honest, over the next three hours of motorway driving a mild disliking for this old Corolla begins to creep over me. This particular model is about as close to an unmodified example as you’re ever going to find, and in its 26 years the 124bhp 1.6-litre 4A-GE engine has only completed 40,000 miles.
Despite that, it does have a few aftermarket parts, and it’s the HKS intake and Janspeed four-one stainless steel exhaust manifold and exhaust system that are starting to grate. Remember how I said the streets come alive with the sound of AE86 past 4600rpm? Even below that the noise is all-consuming; my cruising speed is dictated by being below that magic number of engine revolutions and still I’m deafened! Later, it is revealed that while I took Ollie for a spirited drive, the rest of the crew could hear the 86’s scream echoing through the valleys for ages.
We arrive in Wales shortly before lunch and meet the rest of our Toyota convoy - Ollie in his AW11 MR2 and Eliot from Toyota GB in a Mk3 run-out edition MR2. After a coffee and a bite to eat, a plan is hatched to head along the simply stunning B4391 towards Bala, a picturesque town in the hills that will provide us the perfect scenery for our photoshoot.
The road to Bala is incredible. Twisting its way across the moors, dipping and diving, turning back on itself haphzardly and clinging to hillsides, it provides the perfect place to stretch the AE86’s legs. Suddenly all that noise makes sense. With the revs rising and dropping, the exhaust note changing all the time, caning this car becomes an awesome full on experience. It’s a lightweight beast at 940kg, so the low power isn’t quite so noticeable. Sharp changes of direction require you to prime your biceps (no power steering here) and throw everything in. It just soaks it up, never jittery.
In an age where computers do all the hard work for you, it’s refreshing to drive something where there’s nothing between you and the road.
Aside from the exhaust system, the only other modifications this hachi has are front coilovers and uprated rear springs and dampers by Leda, as well as anti-roll bars and Panhard rod by Whiteline. While the exhaust system might have turned the volume up to the kind of levels reserved only for 1.0-litre Corsas in supermarket car parks, the rest of the modifications are restrained and purely aid the car’s ride and handling.
The car rides superbly, and despite its reputation as a drift monster, the back end doesn’t snap out at the merest hint of throttle like the internet would have you believe. Naturally, given the fact we’re on tight roads that leave no margin for error I’m not chucking the thing around with abandon, but exiting low speed corners at high revs in second coaxes the gentlest, manageable slides you could imagine.
What’s more, there is absolutely no mechanical interference between you and the driving experience. The soft suspension soaks up the worst potholes and uneven surfaces the Welsh hills can throw at it. When I drove the Vauxhall VXR220 the way that fed back the road surface was uncanny - the AE86 provides similar confidence but goes about it in a completely different manner. The softer suspension and large wheel with unassisted steering make the front feel stuck to the tarmac, even up here where it rains perpetually.
Jumping into the GT86 is almost surreal. The firm bucket seats support you, the cockpit cocoons you like a proper sports car. The small, chunky, leather-clad steering wheel sits perfectly in your hand. As I engage first, the gear change is short and solid - it’s only now that I realise how much I was stirring the old car’s stick about in search of a useful cog.
While the MR2s are getting their photos taken, I take my opportunity to have some fun. The main complaint levelled at the GT86 and its 2.0-litre Boxer engine is that it’s not powerful enough. That kind of misses the point of this car, and while we discovered that slapping a supercharger on improves things, the standard car’s 197bhp is more than enough up here.
The skinny Prius tyres are designed to make the car easier to slide, but that doesn’t mean it’s a handful all the time. After the AE86 this thing feels like it’s got endless grip, and it takes me a while to adjust to just how much speed I can carry. Even spirited driving on this slippery tarmac results in oodles of grip if you’re smooth and direct. Chucking the car into a corner and planting the throttle will result in a small, juddering, traction control-limited rear end kick - turn off your aids and sharp throttle inputs could easily result in a spin for the unwary.
Naturally, it would be ridiculous to even begin to compare the two. They may sit on the same branch of the Toyota family tree, but they are worlds apart in realistic terms. After a few hours in the AE86, jumping into the GT86 was a huge relief. The seats were more supportive, the engine was quieter, the steering was precise and I felt like I could take any corner at any speed and the thing would just stick. I could actually put the radio on, control the temperature of the cabin and tether my phone via Bluetooth to access Spotify and make calls.
But the AE86 has charm and character. It’s an old cliche that motoring journalists like to use, but this noisy old Corolla just felt special. It was slow and made an awful racket on the motorway, but I couldn’t care less at the end of the day. Alex filmed it before he dropped it off to me, and when handing over the keys he was excited for me; that I would also get to experience what he’d just enjoyed. Literally five minutes after leaving for this shoot, an old Merc with three young lads inside pulled up alongside me to chat about the car - they were genuinely excited to see one on the road.
It’s easy to understand how the AE86 became an icon, and affordable performance is perhaps more relevant in 2014 than it has ever been. The simplistic approach is also appealing; in an age where computers do all the hard work for you, it’s refreshing to drive something where there’s nothing between you and the road.
The GT86 gets about as close to the Corolla’s spirit as can be expected today, considering all the safety regulations and emissions control manufacturers have to work around. For a daily driver the GT86’s modern accoutrements make it the obvious choice, but if you want to live out your tofu delivery driving dreams, the AE86 is all the car you’ll ever need.
They say you should never meet your idols. I disagree.