PH HEROES: TOYOTA COROLLA GT
If you want to understand the new GT86 look no further than its dumpy 80s predecessor, the Corolla GT AE 86
Unless it's an AE 86 GT Coupe. Which, to the uninitiated, seems about as likely as Jo Brand getting a cover shoot for FHM.
It's no accident Toyota has invested in this piece of history of course. Because as the AE 86 is hailed as the end of an era of affordable, skiddable rear-drive coupes the GT86heralds a new one. And though only 2,717 AE 86s were sold here in the UK it's a car with a huge reputation among a generation of drivers schooled on Japanese drift culture and Gran Turismo. Over in Ireland the Corolla's rally heritage and general affordable hoonability means it has a much bigger profile too. But here it was on the verge of slipping into obscurity and probably would have done, were it not for Toyota's welcome return - with a little help from Subaru - to building fun cars.
There's no escaping the AE 86 is a bit of an oddity. At a time when most - Toyota included - were embracing front-drive hot hatches the GT's pairing of an impressively modern twin-cam 1.6-litre engine and defiantly old-school live rear axle was ... quirky.
The 4A GE engine is an absolute peach though. Shared with the MR2 and the Corolla GTi-16 that replaced the AE 86 in 1987, this revvy little 1.6 therefore has the quite possibly unique honour (the Fiat/Lancia twin-cam begs to differ! - Ed) of appearing in front-rear, front-front and mid-rear configurations. Pent-roof combustion chambers, a feisty 10:1 compression ratio and a neat twin-tract intake system with additional flaps that open above 4,650rpm mean the lines on the rev counter don't start turning red until close to 8,000rpm.
And it's little details like this that mark the AE 86 out as something a bit different. Which is just as well because, even looking at it generously, it's not what you'd call a particularly handsome car. The nicest thing you can say about the angular lines, long overhangs and two-tone paint is that they're definitely of their time.
Toyota's AE 86 was previously owned by the editor of Banzai magazine and though beautifully original inside and out has also been sympathetically modified mechanically. There's a bunch'o'bananas Janspeed four-into-one exhaust manifold, Apexi induction kit and a Cusco strut brace. It's lower than standard and running chunkier Whiteline anti-roll bars too.
Original or not, it's an absolute hoot to drive too!
Settling down to a busy 2,000rpm idle while cold, the engine has a fabulously twangy response, the improved breathing from the induction kit and exhaust no doubt helping here. It sounds fantastic too, revs rising and falling like a race engine and totally at odds with the dumpy looks.
Getting the drift
The unassisted steering demands a decent heave at the flimsy-feeling wheel at low speeds, but soon lightens up once rolling and, as you quickly discover, plays only a supporting role in direction changes.
Given its modest punch you need to do that too but seeing as it weighs just 970kg it never feels stodgy. In fact, brisk is perfectly fine and that bombproof Toyota build means you never worry about pushing it hard. Low gearing helps too, the GT turning over a busy 4,000rpm at motorway speeds.
But that's not this car's preferred territory.
Hunched down over its rear axle the AE 86 devours B-roads in a way you'd expect of a car with rallying in its genes. At these speeds the steering is fingertip-light, the snappy throttle response and short-throw gearshift encouraging probably gratuitous downshifts - even pointlessly double de-clutched ones from time to time - for no other reason than it sounds brilliant. Redline upshifts, meanwhile, generate the odd pop and bang through the Janspeed stainless exhaust, this uncouth soundtrack an amusing contrast to the grey slip-ons appearance.
Childish but fun
The shorter springs do no favours for the ride and it's clear there's not a whole lot of suspension travel, especially at the back. But the chunkier anti-roll bars mean the turn-in is super positive, no matter how keen the entry speed.
And then you get to your first roundabout. And life suddenly goes a bit Initial D, albeit surrounded by Vauxhall Insignias and alarmed looking van drivers.
It's so accessible and easy it quickly becomes the default. But the AE 86 is more than a one-trick pony and its charisma and sense of fun mean any journey, sideways or not, is an absolute hoot.
And if Toyota and Subaru have managed to come up with something that even comes close then there's every reason to get very excited about 2012 indeed.
1986 Toyota Corolla GT Coupe
Engine: 1,587cc 4-cyl
Power (hp): 123@6,600rpm
Torque (lb ft): 107@5,200rpm
0-62mph: 8.3 sec
Top speed: 122mph