To the uninitiated, the almost iconic Toyota AE86, or as it is known as Japan, Hachi-Roku, which translates into eight-six, may be nothing more than just another lightweight compact car, but nothing could be further from the truth. While the Corolla and Sprinter model ranges may to some extent have been “generic” family cars in their day, they have evolved into something quite spectacular since their release in 1983.
The Legendary Toyota AE 86.
To put this into some perspective, an in-depth, and extensive search in the UK turned up only one example of an AE86 in roadworthy condition for sale in standard trim. The price turned out to be a hefty 11 000 GBP, which translates into USD 17 075.71 at the time of writing (May 2015), which goes to show how popular the AE86 model range still is, even 32 years after its release. To be fair, the search turned up dozens of unroadworthy specimens, most of which had none of the required documentation and tax clearance certificates, but were nevertheless being offered (and sold), at prices that started at 5000 GBP, or USD 7 761, which is another illustration of the almost insatiable demand for standard AE 86’s.
What is the Toyota AE86?
The Toyota Corolla Levin and Toyota Sprinter Trueno models were small, lightweight coupe cars that were released by Toyota in 1983 as members of the 5th generation Toyota Corolla series. In typical Toyota code-speak, the chassis code "AE86" denoted the 1 600 cc RWD variant in the range, where the "A" denoted the engine fitted, which was the 4A series, the "E" represented the Corolla series, the "8" represented the 5th generation, (the E80 series), and the "6" represented the variant within this generation.
The Corolla Levin and Trueno models were essentially identical with the exception of the headlights which were fixed on the Levin, and retractable on the Trueno. Trim levels were similar, as were the curb weights and the driveline layout. Both models were rear-wheel-driven, and represented the last manifestation of this layout in a time when the front-wheel-drive movement was gaining ground at a rapid pace. During 1978, Toyota released a limited edition variant dubbed the “Black Limited” model, which was the swan song of the AE86 before it was replaced with the front-wheel-driven AE92 Sprinter/Corolla platform towards the end of that year.
Nonetheless, the Corolla model designation covered both the Levin and Trueno models in all their variants. However, the two models were exclusive to two different dealer networks in the Japanese market, with the Sprinter Trueno being distributed through the Toyota Vista Store network, and the Corolla Levin through the Toyota Corolla Store.
Interestingly, the model names are derived from the Spanish and Old English languages; with “Trueno”, from the Spanish word for “thunder”, and “Levin”, from the old English word for “lightning”. Thus, Thunder and Lightning, which turned out to be apt descriptions in view of the successes these two variants achieved on the race tracks of the world.
Although the AE86 platform existed in many forms, the most sought after models were without doubt the GT-Apex variants in both the Corolla and Sprinter ranges. However, given the excellent chassis and handling characteristics of the AE86 range, as well as the ease with which both engine and chassis could be tuned for vastly increased performance, it is almost certain that there are no standard GT-Apex models to be found anywhere in the world today. This makes it almost impossible to provide a balanced evaluation of these models compared to other models in their class.
Both GT-Apex variants were fitted with upgraded suspensions and cosmetic changes to their bodywork to distinguish them from lesser models, but since the level of extreme modifications are influenced by factors such personal preferences, available budgets, intended purpose of the car, and the type of competition it is built for amongst others, there exists no standard list of criteria against which to measure a particular specimen or example.
In fact, it would be well near impossible to find two GT-Apex models that share similar modifications, which makes it impossible to compare even two examples- much less provide an overview that could describe the model in a way that would be fair to all cars that carry the GT-Apex badge. The only reliable information on the two models are some technical specs from official sources, which are listed below:
In general terms, the AE86 platform was fitted with a fuel-injected, 4-cylinder twin-cam 1587 cc, 4A-GE engine in Japan and Europe, which was also fitted to the first-generation Toyota MR2 (AW11) platform. This engine developed maximum power of 128 bhp (96 kW) and 110 lb/ft (150 Nm) of torque in standard trim, although it was later de-tuned to 118 bhp (88 kW), and 105 lb/ft (142 Nm).
The AE86 came standard with a 5-speed manual transmission, and later with an optional automatic. All 4A-GE engines fitted to AE86 models as well as the AW11 were also equipped with the proprietary T-VIS, or Toyota Variable Intake System. However, variants fitted with the 4A-U and 4A-C engines used a smaller, weaker 6.38” differential, instead of the much more durable 6.7” differentials fitted to models with the 4A-GE engine. In North America, GT-Apex models can be distinguished by the chassis code “AE88” in the VIN number.
The AE86 in Competition.
Although the GT-Apex models competed successfully in competitions for standard cars, it was in modified form that they really made their mark, and in particular in the Group A, Group N, and rally circuits. In the field of rallying, especially in Ireland where the rules are not so strict as in other countries, the AE86 is still raced competitively today. Losses are made good by purchases from England, and particularly South Africa, where the AE86 range was hugely popular. High quality examples still exist in reasonable numbers, although the GT-Apex variants were never officially sold there.
For rallying, the appeal of the AE86 platform lies in its RWD configuration on the one hand, and the fact that even in standard form, the chassis provides excellent handling characteristics. An added advantage is the fact that the 4A-GZE engines have no known reliability issues, apart from the fact that they can cope with substantial modification without sacrificing reliability.
In Group A, the AE86 platform dominated the lower classes for some years until the advent of the Civic models by Honda, and the front-wheel-driven AE92’s and AE101’s. Nonetheless, the AE86 models raced competitively against these newer, more powerful models. In Finland, where the F-Cup series is very popular, the AE86 platform is even today still raced competitively in a class for naturally aspirated two-wheel-drive cars.
In the street racing culture of Japan, the AE86 is hugely popular due to its low - 2300 lb (950–970 kg) weight, its excellent handling, and the fact that the relatively powerful 4A-GEU engine is easy and inexpensive to tune. Also popular in Japan is the practice of racing down mountain passes, a sport known as “touge”, in which the AE86 excels because of its small footprint.
However, it is in the sport of drifting that the AE86 outshines all others in its class, and thanks to the efforts of Keiichi Tsuchiya , who is perhaps better known as the “Drift King”, the AE86 is still the lynchpin of drifting the world over- with perhaps the exception of South Africa, where several BMW models appear to be ruling the roost- but only because they are easier to find, cheap to purchase, and relative uncomplicated in technical terms.
All things Considered...
Granted, the AE86 may be older than anything else in the average parking lot by several decades, but the fact remains that it is still one of the best examples of rear wheel drive design to be found anywhere. There can also be no doubt that due its near perfect balance, predictable handling characteristics, and proven reliability, the AE86 is the perfect car with which to master (or learn) about the art of rear wheel driving, and despite the fact of its advanced age, it can even today teach some so-called supercars more than just the basics of handling. Add to this the fact that nobody needs to be a mechanical genius to maintain, or modify an AE86, and the reasons for its popularity as a drifting or rallying car becomes clear.
The only problem of course is finding an example that has not been modified up to, and including the roof lining, but as the saying goes- “Search Long Enough, and Ye Shall Find”.