Having Your Cake vs. Eating it. Driving the AE86 Corolla GT TwinCam

I don’t have a bucket list. If I was ever to compile one I fear there would be such an inconquerably tall pile of ambitions to remain unfulfilled that my resultant spiral into depression would only accelerate my progress towards the grave. I do have a to-do list though, and driving this car has been on it for ages.
The AE86 Corolla has turned into something of an improbable hero. It is worshipped by legions of loyal supporters and I was never entirely sure they all know what they’re talking about. It was high time I tried to work it out for myself. So, thanks to Toyota UK, I did.

There was never any doubt that the car’s sporting credentials were well documented. The rear-drive Corolla driven by Per Ekland saw its fair share of rally success in the mid ’80s, following a similar factory and privateer backed route as established by the Mark 1 and 2 Ford Escorts which themselves had been promoted to deity status by people like Roger Clarke. The Corolla was similarly sized and of similar mechanical configuration, and so lent itself to use on fast muddy tracks betwen rows of trees and frighteningly unyielding looking scenery.
It was quite a lot more up to date, though, with a wonderfully zingy little twin-cam engine of far greater sophistication than the Escort Mexico and RS2000, at least until the fiendishly clever blokes from SVA or Cosworth got their hands oily.
In the cold light of day, though, competition credibility didn’t translate to runaway sales success. The AE86 was, in England, at least, much admired, enjoyed and endorsed by the motoring press, but its many delights seemed lost on the average consumer who kept buying Golf GTIs and Fast Fords.
Then came the wilderness years. For the last few years on sale the Corolla GT was sold alongside its front wheel drive namesake as the sole rear wheel drive Corolla for sale in the UK. Then for much of the ’90s it all went a bit quiet on the AE86 front.
Things were a lot different post-Gran Turismo. The Playstation racing franchise opened the eyes of a lot of motoring enthusiasts, some of whom were barely out of diapers, to a whole world of cars that we seldom see in the UK. On Gran Turismo the Corolla Levin is one of the most entertaining steers in the game, even if it’s never quite as quick as you want it to be. It can be no coincidence that interest in AE86s has gradually picked up with both well-preserved UK cars and foreign-sourced “grey import” machines becoming sought after. Stop me if you’ve heard this all before.
Toyota knew this and introduced the GT86 to tap into a fevered audience craving the raw driving experience that they had read about in magazines and which had spread by word of mouth and chinese whispers ever since the ’80s. A lot of GT86 customers have, I daresay, never driven its progenitor, but were more than happy to sign up to a car which was hailed as the direct descendent of a legend.
This particular car is owned by Toyota UK and is wheeled out at press events as a reminder of Toyota’s pride in their past. With a temporary vacancy in the driver’s seat I siezed the opportunity to go on a quest to see exactly what all the fuss is about. You see, I don’t like when cars suddenly find themselves in the limelight after years of obscurity on the basis of nothing more than public bandwagon jumping and pot luck. I wanted to experience whether the AE86 i really deserving of the reverence we give it.
The fact that I don’t really fit in this car is barely worth mentioning. Presumably it was a Japanese car designed with little thought for the dimensional extremes of global society- and freaks like me. As a result my left knee became intimately familiar with the windscreen wiper controls and my right knee acted as a structural member linking the steering wheel with the door trim, incidentally muting a persistent rattle while present. It’s amazing how, year on year vehicle cockpits have become more accommodating, a centimetre at a time, but you only notice it as a comparison when you leap into something built a generation ago.
The environment I find myself in is pure, distilled essence of ’80s. A riot of blue velour and a geometric, rectilinear dashboard built purely for function with a metal and plastic three spoke steering wheel as its focal point. Aside from the wheel it doesn’t look especially sporty in here. I could be cruel and point out that it feels pretty dated, too, even for 1986. By then even Ford dashboards had moved onto soft-touch plastics and rotary HVAC controls.
I remind myself that critiquing the soft furnishings isn’t why I’m here and turn the key instead. The warm engine catches immediately and settles to a soft, unthreatening idle but one which is exaggerated horribly by a very silly non-factory exhaust. It booms like a mad thing, no doubt to the great delight of the Playstation generation but to the great detriment of authenticity. I won’t get to hear what these things are supposed to sound like today.
I’ve a suspicion that the right height has been altered, too; those little 14″ Bridgestones are a little close to the lips of the upper arches and make me wonder just how much stock ironwork actually remains. But then, I ponder, just how original are any of the remaining AE86s? And indeed how many of them were left as Toyota intended back when they were new anyway?
It turns out that everything else is stock, which means 128hp if that 4A-GE is still working as it should. Be interesting to find out whether those Japanese Dancing Horses are still stabled securely. So I pushed my butt hard aft into the richly veloured bucket and headed for the track.
And then I drove. And learnt.
I’m struggling to know what to say now. To describe the experience of driving a well preserved and basically unaltered AE86 Corolla GT is like describing the flavour of a classic yet simple foodstuff. Milk, perhaps. Stay with me on this.
This was far from the most exciting driving experience of my life. In some ways it wasn’t even interesting, just educational. If a review of a car is rated by how many superlatives can be thrown around on first acquaintance then the AE86 really doesn’t do very well at all, which surprised me given the elevated status the car commands.
Round and round the track I went, holding the throttle open for longer and longer, braking deeper and deeper into the corners; gradually finding the limits, allowing a little more roll here and there, generally just driving the car, like I would normally drive a car. The more I drove, the more organic it felt. The steering, the gearshift, the pedals, all responding exactly how they should have done.
Not by design, I expect. Probably by happy coincidence. The fact that the AE86 is a normal car means that the controls feel, by default, normal. Familiar. They’re obedient, too, with no strange nuances, none of the trickiness that sometimes characterises stand-out automotive heroes. There’s no hook, no addictive VTEC rush or turbo shove, nothing artificially boosting your fun. It’s just you and the machine.
And, really, that’s all you need.
During the drive there was no “WOW!” moment, just a constant, even delivery of pure motoring pleasure. The 128hp didn’t feel like 128 very big horses, but perhaps the feeling of speed was lessened because it was delivered in such a predictable, undramatic way. The same could be said of the brakes, which it seemed were exactly balanced for the power and weight characteristics of the car. They probably weren’t really, but that was what it felt like. The whole car felt like every single component perfectly complemented every other, even if it by pure coincidence.
Obedience, honesty, purity, immediacy, accessibility. Nothing more. A cold, crisp, fresh glass of milk.
Nobody has ever found a modern-day successor to a glass of milk. The classic cow extract still does something that no other liquid, white or otherwise, quite manages. It tastes pretty much the same today as it did thirty years ago. The same isn’t the same with The Motor Car, yet the AE86 feels as good today as a good car does today, if you see what I mean.
That missing “WOW!” moment came just after I’d parked up. It was a retrospective wow, triggered by my realism that I had enjoyed such a lucid, vivid, memorable drive in a machine which was twenty nine years old and “Just an old Toyota”. The way that we co-existed in such harmony, the way we got on so well, the way we seemed to trust each other. It was an experience somehow addictive in its simplicity. And evocative of a bygone era before power and grip became all things to all men.
I said about how I have driven more exciting cars, and I have. Hundreds of them. Driving the AE86 was extremely memorable regardless. Excitement is overrated, anyway. Ever bought a pair of loudspeakers which blew you away on first audition, only to quickly prove tiring and get traded in after a few months? The AE86 is the opposite. There’s no artificiality to it, nor any other flavour enhancer. Any Type-R will blow your socks off by comparison, but it’s so drenched in mono-sodium glutamate that it ought to. The AE86 is fresh milk to a Type-R’s Red Bull.
Of course, the AE86 is and always was, a blank canvas. In fact that’s just what the rally-favourite rear-wheel-drive Escorts were, too. The potential is there to be unlocked. Play around with the suspension settings, the power, the tyres and optimise it for loose surfaces, tarmac circuits or drifting, it’s an easy platform to work with. The excitement you can derive from the AE86 is limited only by your imagination.
The GT86, by offering more power, more grip, (slightly) more equipment and more aggressive styling is a pale pastiche of its inspiration. A true replacement for the AE86 could never be built on a bespoke sports-car platform, it would need to have a link to a conventional family sedan to feel as wholesome and familiar as the Corolla-based original. The fact is the AE86 can never be properly replaced, only imitated.
So why bother trying? If the AE86 stands tall, a beacon of pure, simple, undiluted sports driving honesty, surely to try and resurrect it is a ticket to disappointment. It would be like making a new DC3 but from composites and with PT6A power. It wouldn’t be a DC3 any more, even if it was intended to do a similar job. Don’t mess with a proven recipe or add any new whizz-bang ingredients. The legions of loyal supporters, the import car fanatics, ALL the AE86 zealots are damn right. It’s a class apart.
There is no single-car current-day AE86 replacement, that much is clear. And if there was, using it as a fuss-free, versatile daily driver would be impossible, like having your cake and eating it, though no doubt if anybody was to prove otherwise it would be somebody hardcore like a member of the hoonitariat.
What you need, what we all need, is an AE86 on stand-by. That way we can keep driving our climate-controlled, twin-turbocharged, luxuriously appointed, satellite navigated long distance flying machines every day, marvelling at how fast and convenient modern motoring has become. Then once in a blue moon we can bust open the garage doors, gingerly pull back the dust sheet and take the AE86 out to remind ourselves what driving really is.
Physicians should make it available on prescription. We should take some on board regularly as a source of special vitamins. Like milk.
(Toyota UK gave me the keys as they were desperate to let me try the AE86, but they kept quiet about it, smug bastards. They knew something I didn’t know. Now I have sampled the AE86 I feel like a more educated man.)

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  1. Andrew_theS2kBore Avatar

    Very thought-provoking piece. It’s interesting (to me, at least) that this car was a contemporary of, and shared a motor with, the AW11 MR2.
    The MR2 starts from a similar philosophy of simplicity and honesty, but the end result is very different, as it seems to be an exercise in proving that a car can be exciting and even terrifying while still having minimal power and a soft suspension. Today the AW11 and AE86 are equally venerated, perhaps proving that simplicity and purity of purpose is the key to all great engineering.
    They also share some interior trim. I’m having blue-tinted flashbacks.

    1. Borkwagen Avatar

      Interesting. I’ve driven quite a few AW11s, and have found all of the 4AGE-powered ones (including ones with 20V swaps) to be disappointingly lacking in power. Like the classic Saab 900’s horribly truck-like shifter, it’s a fatal flaw sufficient to turn me off of wanting one forever. Probably explains why I just picked one up with a 2ZZ swap; with that one element of the car fixed, it’s damn near perfect.

  2. theskig Avatar

    So nice… I can drive it only on Forza Motorsport 🙁