What is so special about the Toyota AE86?

The Toyota AE86 comes from an era of iconic Japanese automobiles that were over-engineered and where no expense was spared in producing the best

If there was ever a “golden age of automobiles,” especially concerning Japanese cars, one can argue that the 1980s was it.  During this time, we saw the Toyota Supra, the Toyota 2JZ-GTE, the Lexus LS400, and the Toyota AE86. But, for our older readers and European car fans, you are likely asking, “what is a Toyota AE86?”

What is the Toyota AE86?

The Toyota AE86 was marketed as the Corolla Sport GT-S in the United States from 1983 to 1987 in coupe and liftback configuration.  It was the high-performance version of the fifth-generation Toyota Corolla. It was a small, front-engine, rear-wheel-drive sports sedan amongst front-wheel-drive cars that gained a vast and loyal cult following.

Toyota Corolla GT-S 18


Why was the 1980s so good for Japanese cars?

In the 1980s, Japan was the economic envy of the world.  They had both the capital and the skills to make the best ideas a reality. As a result, many items from this era were often over-engineered.  The Lexus LS400 and the 2JZ-GTE engine were examples of this.

During this same time, a team within Toyota was busy working on a replacement for the dependable and aging 4th generation Corolla.  Except for the two “sportier” variants, the AE85 and AE86, the 5th generation Corolla retained all of the elements that made the fourth generation Corolla, namely front-wheel-drive utilitarian reliability.  Fortunately, an exception was made for a “sporty commuter” Corolla that was over-engineered like other Japanese automotive icons from the era.

Toyota Levin 02

What is the history of the AE86?

The term AE86 comes from Toyota’s internal code for the 1,600 cubic centimeter (cc) displacement, rear-wheel-drive model from the fifth generation of the Corolla during development. Thus, the “A” denotes the car’s engine (4A series), the “E” designates the Corolla, the “8” means the fifth generation (E80 series), and the “6” represents the variant within this generation in Toyota’s code language.

The AE86 in the Japanese market was available in two body styles: the Levin (fixed headlights) and the Trueno (pop-up headlights), both in hatchback and coupe versions. Trueno was derived from the Spanish word for thunder, while Levin is derived from the Middle English word for lightning.

The cars were light, inexpensive, and easily interchangeable, making them ideal for amateur racers.  In Japan, they were prevalent in amateur and professional racing as they came largely equipped for competition.  A stock Toyota AE86 left the factory with a five-speed manual transmission, optional limited-slip differential, MacPherson strut front suspension, a high-revving, twin-cam engine with oil cooler, a near perfect 50/50 weight distribution, and a front-engine/rear-drive layout.

Toyota AE86 16

What was the engine powering the Toyota AE86?

The heart of the AE86 was its engine, the 4A-GE. Like many of Toyota’s best engines, Yamaha had a hand in designing the iconic engine as it designed the head.  As a result, it was high-revving and made a glorious sound.

The A-Series engines are a family of inline-four cylinder internal combustion engines with a displacement of 1.3 to 1.8 liters.  They had cast iron engine blocks and aluminum cylinder heads and were developed as a replacement for Toyota’s K engine.  Their goal was good fuel efficiency, performance, and efficiency with a modern design.

The 4A-GE was Japan’s first mass-produced double-overhead-cam (DOHC), four-valve-per-cylinder engine.  The last two generations of the 4A-GE had five-valves-per-cylinder.

Toyota 4A-GE 17

How many versions of the 4A-GE were produced?

The 4A-GE was available in 16-valve (16V) and 20-valve (20V) versions.  Every generation of the 4A-GE is identified by the color of the text written across every engine’s valve cover. For example, the first, second, and third generation of the 16V 4A-GE was identified as a “Blue top,” “Red & Black Top,” and “Red-Top.”  The most potent and desirable engine of the 16V variant producing 115 to 128 horsepower at 7,600 in stock form.

The fourth and fifth generation of the 4A-GE was the 20-valve variant and were known as the “Silver Top” and “Black Top”, respectively.  The most desirable of the two was the “Black Top” variant that produced 160 horsepower, at 7,800 RPM in stock form.  This was the engine that was a very big part of the Japanese Drift scene with a wide number of high-performance parts available.

Toyota Corolla GT-S 4A-GE

Why is the AE86 legendary amongst car fans?

The features that made the Toyota AE86 legendary amongst car fans were that it was light, weighing in at around 2,500 pounds, came equipped with a limited-slip differential, and a MacPherson strut front suspension with a live rear axle.

The live rear axle is significant.  Many sports cars have an independent rear suspension because it provides for the most grip.  In contrast, a live rear axle, such as in the AE86, can experience a loss of traction when cornering, making it ideal for drifting.

Toyota AE86 21

From “commuter” sportscar to cultural icon

Because of its success as a drifting platform, the AE86 has become a cultural icon of sorts becoming the vehicle in the main character in a long-running Japanese manga and anime series, “Initial D“.  Because if this popularity, it has been prominently featured in several video games such as including NFS Underground 2, TXR Forza, and others.

Despite being out of production for over 30 years, the Toyota AE86 is still the vehicle of choice at Japanese amateur drifting events and competitions.  As a result, they sell for a lot of money.  As of July 2021, Classics.com shows an average price of $18,786, with the highest sale price of $63,663.  Keep in mind that this is for a 30+-year-old Toyota Corolla that costs less than $12,000 when new.

Photocredits:  Bringatrailer.com, carthrottle.com

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