A short primer on the AE86 – by Chris Migs
The Corolla GT-S, otherwise known as the AE86 by its chassis code, has been a major player in the automotive world since it’s introduction in Japan in 1983. Sold in over a dozen countries and in North America from 1985 through 1987, it is the focal point of a culture observed by those addicted to Japanese vehicles from generations past, often referred to as “oldschool”.
With the endless barrage of sports cars being added to the market, the Corolla GT-S’ popularity never waivers under the pressure of their all-round superior characteristics and shows no sign of doing so in the future. Lately evidence would show its popularity is even growing despite the wishes of auto manufacturers pushing the sales of their newest models.
This report analyses the contributing factors that have given birth to a legend in the automotive community and spawned a rebirth for the love of the simple sports car to a new generation of enthusiasts.
Creating the affordable sports car
17 years ago Toyota built a Corolla and adorned it with the “GT-S” badge. At first glance there was nothing much to see. It was after all a Corolla like the others, designed to follow the legacy of almost legendary quality left by its predecessors; Small, lightweight, useful, reliable, and fuel efficient all in one package. To the trained eye, it was much more. The first generation of Corolla GT-S featured amenities one would find in any sports car at that time but never before seen in any sub-$15,000 car, let alone a Corolla. A leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, aluminum wheels, stiff suspension, 6-way adjustable driver’s seat, four-wheel disc brakes, front and rear spoilers, rear-wheel-drive, and of course, the revolutionary engine.
The 4AGE was one of, if not the first 4 valve-per-cylinder engines introduced to the consumer marketplace, utilizing a design that, until its introduction in the AE86, had been confined to the racing circuit. With the help of Yamaha, it was engineered for high revs and feather light throttle response. It was unlike anything ever before seen in a passenger car, and the thrill of hearing it scream to it’s incredible 7500 rpm redline is still a sobering experience to many drivers.
>> In the Toyota engine lineup, the sports-type twin-cam engines are the ones designed to allow the driver to enjoy sporty driving through an emphasis on high-end output and superior response. They utilize a DOHC 4-valve-per-cylinder configuration, but it is a very simple and reliable one in which the camshafts act directly on the valves. These engines are designed and built for high output and quick response, as sports-type engines should be. Low friction loss and improved combustion combine to result in excellent fuel economy. Further, the simplicity of the valve-train mechanism results in superior reliability as well as ease of maintenance. << (W1)
Much like the engine, the car as a whole was very basic in both design and implementation. It featured the widely used MacPherson strut assemblies in the front with a live axle rear end available with an optional limited slip differential. The car was quite low in weight at approx. 1000 kg, and the 4 wheel disc brakes provided more than enough stopping power as a result. Sharing the layout of the majority of sports and race cars the world-over, the AE86 split the duties of steering and power output between the front and rear wheels respectively. Using the rear-wheel-drive configuration allowed a greater amount of control and agility at speed, as opposed to the often under-steering tendencies of a front-wheel-drive setup. The aspect of reliability can be further explained by Toyota’s inclination to over-build their parts, or in other words make them stronger than they need to be. This is one of the fundamental factors that have given Toyota the undisputed reputation of one of the world’s foremost quality auto manufacturers.
The learning tool
Due to its basic and simple design, the AE86 is largely agreed upon as the ultimate learning vehicle for anyone aspiring to master true driving skills. In an extreme sense, when compared to other more expensive and powerful sports cars, the AE86 only differs in terms of power, weight, and price. The way a RWD vehicle reacts will more or less be same in any situation, and that means one doesn’t have to drive a $60,000 BMW to get the feeling of real sports car. A Corolla GT-S can usually be had for $1000-3500 CAN, which is considered to be a fantastic bargain to those who are already well aware of what it has to offer.
It’s ability to mimic the feel and response of other far superior vehicles is only one of the learning aspects to be found with the ownership of an AE86. Once again, with the emphasis that was placed on its simplicity, the car is incredibly easy to repair, maintain, and modify. This gives the owner the unusual opportunity (by today’s standards) to actually work on their vehicle themselves with little to no previous automotive knowledge.
Use of potential
From the factory, the Corolla GT-S was presented to the market as a slightly de-tuned version of itself. Toyota seemed to designed the AE86 more as a race car, but it had to be useful in every day driving and diverse climate conditions seeing how only few would be sold for immediate use on a racetrack. Thanks to 17 years of support by suppliers of aftermarket performance parts, the Corolla GT-S can easily be modified to become a major contender in almost every major form of automotive competition. The AE86 has quite literally become a piece of clay able to be molded into the desired form of the artist. From autocross, to road racing and rallying, there are few areas where the AE86 has not been seen and made its mark.
One type of driving spectacle in particular, known as drifting, has attributed a great deal of fame to the AE86. In simple terms, drifting is the highly technical skill of making a car slide sideways under full control of the driver. Because of its light weight, rear wheel drive, and highly responsive engine, the AE86 is regarded as one of the best “drift” cars made to this day. In places like North America where drag racing, the sport requiring very little actual driving skill is observed as a major automotive sport, drifting is a refreshing new idea being taken to by many young enthusiasts.
Other sources to success
In case drifting wasn’t enough, a few years ago a cartoon entitled “Initial D” was created in Japan. Its star is a 17-year-old young man who delivers tofu through narrow mountain roads in none other than an AE86. While doing so, he gets caught up in the world of street drifting due to his uncanny ability to drift better than anyone else. This anime series alone increased the already surging demand for the car in Japan, and ripples from its introduction have already been felt here in North America. When the series officially makes its appearance on our shores, many predict the AE86 will increase in value substantially.
Internet based clubs like Club4AG (USA) and Dori-Kaze (Canada) are key to the prolonged success of the Corolla GT-S since they promote educated decisions and assistance to AE86 owners all over the world. Many owners would have abandoned their cars long ago had it not been for the words of wisdom provided at these online gathering places.
All the aspects that contribute to making the Corolla GT-S the success it is today evolve around one key element; the experience the driver has behind the wheel. If it didn’t provide an experience so enjoyable, so real, giving the driver full control of every aspect of the ride, everything else would be meaningless.
>> Balance, responsiveness, light weight, and a communicative chassis are the most important factors in making a car that is enjoyable to drive. You want a car that does what you tell it to do, and in turn tells you what it is doing. You want a car that involves you in driving rather than distancing you from it. Why drive a less-involving car at over 100mph, when I can be enjoying myself more in an involving car at 80mph? – Jesse Fairbank AE86 owner.
A true sports car should not lessen the enjoyment and control the driver has over the vehicle, nor should it be weighed down or robbed of power with luxuries such as heated seats, cruise control, or power locks and windows. People have been successfully brainwashed by auto manufacturers into believing a sports car is all about looks, hype, and horsepower when nothing could be further than the truth, much like the AE86 proves to this day. What they don’t want the buyers of today to realize is that with each technical enhancement, each computer operated function added, the driving aspect in the definition of “driver” becomes increasingly vague.
The AE86 had no anti-lock brakes, no over-bearing safeguards, no impressive sound system, little horsepower, and a simple if not archaic suspension setup, but what it did have was the makings of a real sports car.
Toyota Motor Corporation. “Toyota Engine Technology” September 1989: W1.
Limited slip differential A type of differential which avoids loss of usable power by directing it to the wheel with the most traction