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Thursday 15th December 2011


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


Having people stop, whip out camera phones and mouth "nice car mate" is, probably, fairly usual if you drive a supercar around Kensington. It's not, however, a typical experience for the driver of a mid-80s Toyota Corolla.

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 oil painting, that's for sure
It's no oil painting, that's for sure
The AE 86 is a true cult car. And having driven this one, loaned to PH by Toyota GB's classic garage, it's easy to see why.

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.

Revvy twin-cam is an absolute peach
Revvy twin-cam is an absolute peach
Old-school rules
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.

Mmm, velour...
Mmm, velour...
And it's the same on the inside, which is a rhapsody in blue velour and plastic. There are some neat touches though, the integrated headrests and rotary, binnacle-mounted controls for lights and wipers among them. Mainly it's very 80s Toyota, though the low-slung seats and beautifully dished, three-spoke steering wheel do give a sporty feel. The skinny rim is delicate to the touch too, though the rock-hard plastic doesn't exactly exude tactile delight.

Subtly enhanced
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!

Plastic fantastic interior with 'futuristic' touches
Plastic fantastic interior with 'futuristic' touches
The numbers don't sound like anything to get especially excited about, Toyota's accompanying fact sheet showing 124hp, a 0-62mph time of 8.3 seconds and a top speed of 122mph. But it's the way they're are delivered that counts.

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.

Corolla in rare not sideways moment
Corolla in rare not sideways moment
The short wheelbase - nearly 200mm less than a Clio 200 - means it's not shy of changing direction either. But the initial pleasure comes from letting that engine really sing and eking out every one of those rpm for maximum effect.

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.

No wonder they were popular with rallyists
No wonder they were popular with rallyists
Turn-in is positive but that's only the start of the story and on fast sweepers you can feed the power in very early and just begin to sense a shift in emphasis rearwards. You feel it first through your hips and then a slight lightening in the steering and tightening of line. And the harder you push the more noticeable it becomes.

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.

Short wheelbase means great agility
Short wheelbase means great agility
The transition to oversteer in the AE 86 is so natural and progressive it's actually hard not to go sideways. And even with that modest amount of power you simply squeeze the throttle, feel weight transfer rearwards and the next thing you know you're spotting your exit through the passenger window and grinning like an idiot. The fact it'll do this in the dry and at the same speed as the rest of the traffic just makes it even more hilarious.

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
Weight: 970kg






Author: Dan Trent