Review: 1986 Toyota Corolla GT-S (AE86 Trueno Liftback)

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Some say you should never meet your heroes….but I have.

“So how long can I have this for?”

“For awhile.”

“Hmm. How about I give it back after one week?”

“OK sounds good. See you in a week.”

And so begins my journey with a car that I have dreamed of driving since I was a child. No, its not a Ferrari F40 (although that WOULD be welcome), but something as humble and simple, and yet stirs at my soul as….well…a Corolla.

No AE86 markings anywhere, but the GT-S sticker is a sign.

No AE86 markings anywhere, but the GT-S sticker is a sign.

Yes. You read that right. A Corolla. But not just any Corolla, a rear-wheel propelled Corolla. Liftback. With pop-up headlights.

To most, this car is NOT a looker. It is definitely born of the 80s (already a period shunned by most) and the damaged paint, rusty fenders, and peeling trim don’t dissuade non-believers. But to my eyes, there is something quite classic about its proportions that separate it from the many liftback shapes of that same era.

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Mmm liftback butt.

Underneath the hood lies the somewhat legendary 4AGE motor that revs all the way to 7500 rpm through each successive 400cc displacement of its cylinders. No, there isn’t direct injection, variable valve timing, an electric powertrain, or an unicorn underneath, but what it lacks in displacement it makes up in sheer character. More on this later.

This car uses all 1600cc's to the absolute max. What an absolute gem.

This car uses all 1600cc’s to the absolute max. What an absolute gem.

When this particular example first left the Toyota dock back in 1985 it had all of 130hp, which was then suffocated down to 112 thanks to those Californian emissions regulations. Factor in losing roughly 1HP per year of existence and it doesn’t take much to realize the irony of its Trueno (meaning “Thunder” in Spanish) name. That being said, the car is pretty light by modern standards at 2300lbs.

Its all a bit strange to have to use your key to open doors these days so its refreshing to see this is the case. Grip the door and tug, and it opens after a suction cup sound before swinging wide. Scooch your bum into that 80s seat of carpet and fake leather, reach down to the hand pump by your right hand to adjust the amount of lumbar support, adjust the steering wheel and seat position, and you are ready to go.

Twist the key in the ignition and wait while the engine….no….wait. its still turning. And….still turning. Ok now the engine is flooded.

Sit back and marvel at the very 80’s interior. To some, this is a crude use of plastics influenced by watching too many episodes of Star Trek, but I am just gushing at it.

Three spoked steering wheel had exposed metal. Thats like from a race car right?

Three spoked steering wheel had exposed metal. Thats like from a race car right?

The thin three spoked steering wheel has a natural dish to it and feels lovely in my hand, and the exposed metal on the spokes is a nice touch. Racey…kind of. There is a what looks to be a single chopstick on the left representing turn indicators, and on the right… there is nothing? Instead, the windshield wiper controls are a knob nicked from a TV of similar era, just to the right of the instruments. Speakers are represented by panels of plastic that could double as a really crude sieve (and by a sieve I mean its got a bunch of holes drilled in it).

Pull the sun visors down and they exhale a puff of disintegrated foam from within which leaves you coughing for awhile. To be honest, I’m not sure if some of that foam has ever left my lungs. A gift from the AE86 to me.

Dial on the right of the instruments controls the headlamps. Those very very cool headlamps.

Dial on the right of the instruments controls the windshield wipers.

Surprisingly, all the electrics work (but then again, this is a Japanese car).

Ok time to try that engine again.

From a tick over idle until about 4000 rpm the engine is a cacophony of gear whirs and induction breathing noises. After 4000rpm this note hardens to sound vaguely like a frustratingly constipated and heavily ‘rhoided weightlifter. Its an angry sound and I absolutely adore it. It reminds of a 90’s Honda B-series motor, but with a slightly different yet very distinctive tone to it. Sigh. If only new age 4 cylinder cars could sound this good!

Instantly there are some things that bother me. The seat, while comfortable at first, creates an itch on my back like bed bugs have found a home there, the large glasshouse and moonroof tag team to create an environment capable of growing marijuana, and there is a linkage right above the middle pedal that seems to interfere with my braking motion – Not that that is important or anything.

Ahhh yes but what is it like to drive? To step into to this 30 year chassis and near stock suspension and expect it to drive like a FRS is surely asking too much no?

The headrests felt great supporting my neck. Until I went over a bump and smashed my head on the roof.

The headrests felt great supporting my neck. Until I went over a bump and smashed my head on the roof.

Visibility certainly isn’t a problem. The thin A, B, and C pillars combined with vast expanses of glass mean visibility is excellent, and with the equally thin doors, allows you to place the car where you want. A stark contrast to today’s modern cars which have huge pillars and seemingly very thick doors. For safety… or some garbage like that.

The gearshift. Ohhh the gear shift. It looks a bit like a recycled accordion, but the throws are wonderfully smooth, although you don’t forget that it is ultimately a Corolla – like a finely tuned row-boat.

Yes, you command the steering wheel like public transit’s finest but there are too many turns lock to lock, meaning that you have to shuffle your hands for any turn resembling 90 degrees. There also isn’t quite enough feel from it despite the hydraulic assistance so you find yourself see-sawing a bit mid corner to feel for grip. Turn into a corner, and as with many older cars you have to wait for the suspension to load up before you can carve the arc you desire, which is not great for rapid direction changes. The damping and spring rates seem a bit mis-matched, so mid corner bumps unsettle the chassis, and yet the car leans a fair bit in corners. Lean too much weight to the outside wheel and the lack of a LSD makes itself apparent by squirreling away the power on the unloaded inside wheel. Boy this car needs a slippy diff.

Row boat meets accordion. Love it.

Row boat meets accordion. Hand pump lumbar support can be seen in this photo as well. Love it. Love it ALL.

The net result of all of these things is that you find yourself very conscious of the car’s weight transfer, and the need to drive the car smoothly to extract the most from it. Fantasies of power oversteer are not really possible with this car (as-is) despite its reputation.

But….find this car on a good, smooth road with nice long well-sighted turns and it drives beautifully. The suspension which bucked in corners now maxes the grip of those 14″ wheels, and weight transfer allows you to communicate well with the chassis. No, there still isn’t a ton of steering feel but the soft velour-like seats communicate to you what the rear wheels are doing.

But is this enough to justify the legend of this car? Was I wrong to meet this car I had dreamed of driving all those years?

Yes and no (respectively).

I giggled every time nightfall came, because that meant I could turn the dial to get those pop up headlights to come up.

Headlights go up, headlights go down.

Headlights go up, headlights go down.

I looked for every opportunity to drive the car so that I could rev that engine beyond 4000 rpms, moonroof and windows open, to fully take in the beautiful noises emitted by that wonderful 4AGE motor, wondering why more cars didn’t sound this good. I NEVER EVER listened to music in this car.

I took every opportunity to show my friends this awesome car…and most of them were unimpressed. “What is this thing? It looks…uhh…interesting.”. Yeah who gives a flying fridge what they think right? RIGHT?

I even showed up at a Miata meet with this car. Yes. I showed up WITH THE WRONG CAR. And no, I didn’t get booed or egged, people came over to see it up close, and they ooohed and ahhed over the handpump lumbar support.

In short, I completely fell in love with it. Although Toyota’s marketing department would like us to believe that this car is meant to be the spiritual forebear of the Scion FR-S/Subaru BRZ/Toyota 86, this car highlights everything that is wrong with the new version – a lack of character. No, the dynamics are not perfect, but you accept them for what they are and just enjoy being in it, with it, and driving it. And isn’t that how cars should make us feel?

Breath. So now I find myself perusing ads looking for an AE86 for myself. Has to be white or black I think. Trueno. Liftback.

“Hey…do you think I could hold onto the car for a bit longer?”

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Special thanks to Francis Ng for loaning out a car that may or may not be yours.

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