I DON’T KNOW about your formative years, but my Saturday morning entertainment comprised of X-Men and Wacky Races. In the Nippon, however, they have a different take on cartoons, Initial D for instance. You won’t find Dick Dastardly-style races here, instead an old Toyota Corolla honed for both tofu delivery and touge racing. That’s touge as in ‘mountain pass’ in Japanese. Our protagonist, Takumi Fujiwara, a mere high school learner, has been subliminally race-trained by his obsessive street racing dad. To cut a long (and great) story short, he then proceeds to whip seasoned hands in greater machinery into the dust with his downhill-mastering Corolla, an AE86 to be specific. And so a cult star is born.
The new 86 has big racing boots to fill, despite being the first car to officially go by the title. You see, the original car was an AE86 by model designation only, the actual badge was either Trueno (pop-up headlamps) or Levin (fixed lights). Both were essentially Toyota Corollas and came in coupe or hatchback shapes and, critically, all came with Toyota’s celebrated 1.6l 4A-GE in-line four-cylinder engine. The new car gets a D4-S 2.0-litre flat-four from Subaru – a compromise purists are loathe to accept. I’m a bit more forgiving, but that could be because I have the keys to a shiny new 86High Spec, steam pouring out its twin exhausts as the boxer motor burbles in anticipation.
It’s a familiar shape by now, having had its entire gestation period watched by the motoring world on the Internet, but still manages to surprise and delight. It’s tiny, intrinsically Eastern in its design despite having several styling cues reminiscent of other cars – most notably the Mk.4 Toyota Supra – and I’m not blind to the BMW Z4 rear lamps either. This top spec model gets the two-tone 17-inch alloys although the base model’s sixteens are a sweet prospect too. And then there’s that pert little rump, tidy and purposeful – it’s almost certainly my favourite angle as the morning sun dances hither and thither across the gleaming metal of the car, parked pointed eastward.
Made in Japan
OK, more like pointed north-east along the N1 to be precise, with the mountains of Ceres as a backdrop and playground for our fake Japan pilgrimage. Here I would find a mountain road with a very authentic ring to its name – Gydo Pass. Hillclimb enthusiasts from the Cape will remember this as the site of the annual King of the Mountain event some years back, a high speed touge assault that was eventually closed after two rear-wheel-driven beasts fell off it. Gulp So, with my heart in my throat and a rising sun ahead of me, I rumbled out of the sanctity of the N1 picnic stop area and the moment the loose gravel surface gave way to grippier tarmac, project Nippon Express was underway.
The 147kW/210Nm engine is a naturally aspirated item benefitting from Toyota’s direct fuel injection system. Here at the coast, performance feels perky despite throttle response being hampered by an auto transmission. That’s right, an automatic – not exactly the purist’s choice but since it’s based on the box of cogs in the Lexus IS-F, I was not about to send it back. The sound emanating from the front (overpowering what comes out the pipes) is distinctly un-Toyota-like, and rises satisfyingly in pitch right up to its 7200rpm red line where a lethargic cog shift in normal D (Drive) mode squishes up another gear. Selecting S (Sport) makes shifts a more brutal experience, the transmission now downshifting more aggressively with firm input on the brakes. I do miss that delicious interplay between the clutch pedal and the rear wheels and the modularity it gives you mid-corner, but once you get past the omission of a left pedal, climbing and dropping gears via the steering column-mounted paddles become second nature. I wanted an authentic Japanese experience but as we carved through the Hex River Pass nothing could have prepared me for what lay ahead.
Picturesque peaks blanketed with thick mounds of snow, each reminiscent of Mount Fuji itself, lay in stark contrast atop a bed of rocky mountains. A wildly meandering ribbon of asphalt cuts appreciably through them, cambered and wide and begging to be taken at pace. The 86 and I oblige with a giddy (if somewhat nervous) snapper, Marc, in tow – after the usual regime of shutter button pressing. In here, it’s a dual prod of the Sport mode (ironically, the third setting is Snow) and the VSC switch for some light, safe horseplay. With the weapon primed, I proceeded to attack the horizon. This is where the tiny Toyota shined fiercest with its low kerb weight, even lower centre of gravity and a driving position that has your bottom scraping tarmac without the need to peer over your upturned nose to see pass the bonnet. That’s a perk afforded by a flat engine, by the way.
Steering, though electric, feels just right. It’s heavily weighted but in a manner that genuinely feels authentic – and is certainly not stingy with feedback. I’d place it somewhere between the Porsche Cayman R and the Nissan 370Z, two of our favourite helms. A rhythmic dialogue between car and snugly-seated (in an Alcantara-upholstered bucket) driver ensued as each corner was dispatched. At each turn a rising metallic thrum would zing against the canyon walls, growing louder till the rev limiter was hit. A snappy shift would follow, then a sudden drop in crescendo followed once more by a glorious march to the red line, truncated only by the chirrup of tyres as 1260kg is reined in by firmly fed brakes. Clipping points may as well have been massive bull’s-eyes – so easy are the front wheels to place. As I triumphantly crested Gydo’s summit I was tempted to turn back and do it again (and again), but as luck would have it lensman Marc and I pressed on a bit further to the Witzenberg turn-off. After ascending the zig-zagging tar of this rocky berg then diving down the other side into its lush green valley we found IT – our own Orient.
The flat-four zing dropped mercifully to a mild burble once more as I trundled through the many hair-pinned roads that followed. Snowy peaks peered back at me, and cherry-blossom sakura trees, still bare, flanked the road. The 86 had never looked quite as at-home as it did here. Beyond the occasional blip of the throttle or scramble through the odd hairpin, I’m loathe to cane it through this almost hallowed landscape. If anything it provides the perfect location to reflect on the 86, an unusually enigmatic machine from usually so-predictable Toyota.
It’s not perfect of course. The spartan cabin won’t win over any hot hatch enthusiasts with its simple surfaces and geometric media player, which are identical to the units you’d find in a Hilux. Then there’s that other aural source, the engine. While zingy and perky as you like, it lacks the drama you find in a boosted powerplant. And if only Toyota offered a beefier set of stainless steel lungs as an option instead or mere TRD exhaust tips. Nor will the 86 convert hot hatch-ists to rear-wheel drive with what is lately regarded as a low power output. Indeed, most turbo-powered VW GTIs, Ford STs, Opel OPCs and Renault RSs will humiliate the 86 from robot to robot. That though would be missing the essence of a car where it’s less about the destination and more about the journey.
Forget that point-and-squirt nonsense you’ve gotten used to in your hatchback: here is a level of engagement you’ll not experience in a front-wheel drive car. If you can get your head around the concept of a car being more enjoyable to drive at the loss of a half a second over the quarter mile, then the 86 is for you. As a successor to the original Corolla AE86 though, its credentials are flawless. It’s affordable and fun, balanced and nimble, an absolute driver’s car, especially when selected with a manual transmission – in fact, it’s imperative. Just like its predecessor did during the 1980s, it will do battle against the popularity of FWD hatchbacks – a battle I reckon it has already won if the Toyota’s runaway sales lead us to believe. Truly, as I stand here beneath Mt Fuji (please keep the illusion going), I reckon we’re ready for the rear-drive revival. Ippon!