Smoke is billowing from under the bonnet, and my mind is trying to remember if there’s a fire extinguisher under the passenger seat.
A lyrebird chirps from among the bright lilac ferns nearby, while I try to convince myself that the slow-rising smoke is coming from the brakes.
Brakes that smell, in particular, like a bushfire. Hardly used brakes while hammering upward in this underpowered 1986 buzzbox while trying to keep up with a new Toyota GR86.
As we approach the top of Dona Buang Road east of Melbourne, the smoke seems to have cleared as we lift the heavy steel bonnet to discover a rusted eucalyptus leaf between cylinders two and three. Trying to self-immolate by tearing himself apart. 35 year old cast iron exhaust manifold. The leaf is removed, and rested.
Today, no cars are burning to the ground, but it’s a fiery move none the less: we’re comparing new vs. old, the 1986 Toyota AE86 Sprinter GTV vs. the 2022 Toyota GR86 GT. The goal: to see if Toyota added more AE86 DNA to the second iteration of its rear-drive sports car.
The first version, as released in 2012, was more of a direct descendant of Toyota’s cult classic AE86. Both the Toyota 86 and its Subaru BRZ twin were impressive in their own right – enough to win. The wheels Car of the Year 2012, no less – but failed to rekindle the original spark of the 1980s.
That is, under the bonnet, the FA20 2.0-litre boxer four-cylinder titillates in the way that a new dishwasher can: undoubtedly useful, initially interesting too, but ultimately more of a function than aspiration.
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For the recently released ‘second generation’ (more or less a massive facelift) of its rear-drive coupe, Toyota says it has fixed this problem.
Under that aluminum bonnet, an 8mm bigger bore increases capacity from 1998cc to 2387cc – and power from 152kW to 172kW.
Torque has also increased – up from 38Nm to 250Nm – and there is an earlier peak in the rev range (3700rpm vs 6600rpm), which addresses a major complaint of the previous model. Along with a new, much more elegant cabin, there’s now an internal engine noise speaker, which produces a sweeter sound (even if it’s more stevia than sugar).
To properly understand the new car, however, we must first understand the old one. On the surface, the AE86 is just a rear-drive Toyota Corolla from the 1980s – inspired by brilliant advertising. But forget its massive cult following and you’ll discover something special – a Japanese BDA-powered Ford Escort.
From the driver’s seat, the AE86 is light and airy thanks to its slim pillars and large windows. The interior is classic 1980s Toyota, a tub of cheap plastic, urethane and vinyl. There is a slight tobacco smell like seemingly every other Japanese imported car from the eighties and nineties.
Weighing just 950kg and the charms of rear-drive are obvious enough, yet it’s the 4AGE engine that’s the AE86’s real secret sauce. In the 1980s, a twin-cam, 16-valve 1587cc inline-four – revving from the factory at 7700rpm – was something to celebrate (even if it only had 96kW and 149Nm to show for it).
It also does not like to rush to develop this power. While stationary, a flick of the elegant cable throttle produces an angry spike of revs – like a motorbike, which makes sense that Yamaha had a hand in developing the 4AGE. But on the move, in second gear and beyond, the 4AGE patiently winds through a long arc of revs, making quite a song in the process.
On the move, in second gear and beyond, the 4AGE patiently winds through a long arc of revs, making quite a song in the process.
Call me biased – it’s my personal car – but the AE86 is a joy to drive. Refreshingly mechanical, the whole car hums with feedback. It takes a while to build speed – like a freight train – and once it’s moving, every kilometer per hour feels precious.
In this particular car, with aftermarket coilovers and 2.5 degrees of negative front camber, it’s all about taking as much speed into corners as you dare – and it can take quite a bit. Enough to shock an all-new GR86, to be sure.
Meanwhile, get the AE86 with a limited-slip differential on a wet or dirt road, and it takes about six corners to see why they’re loved by drifters and rally drivers alike.
Getting out of the AE86 and into the GR86 must be like a pilot jumping from a Spitfire to a Joint Strike Fighter. You sit down and pretty much cocoon. It feels huge and spacious. The lower-spec GT’s cloth seats are also welcome.
Start revving that big-bore FA24 and compared to the AE86’s characteristic 4AGE, the synthetic engine noise coming through the speakers is certainly loud and interesting, but not to our taste. Others like it – horses for courses.
The trade-off for artificial noise is strong power (172 kW from the 2.4-litre atmo-four would have blown everyone’s tiny brains just 20 years ago).
Second gear throttle steer is easy to access, even in the dry.
Toyota has completely ‘fixed’ the torque hole that plagued the older model, it’s also now gone much more linearly.
Oddly, the GR86 feels significantly stiffer than the previous model – as if it’s got a newly installed, 10-point roll cage. As for chassis stiffness, it would make the 2012 car feel like a convertible – and that car was hardly rocking.
Obviously, the GR86 is faster than the AE86. Where the AE86 is all about maximizing mid-corner speed, the GR86 isn’t about overcooking it. In fact, it can handle the rubber much better than its standard Michelin Primacy tyres, which forces you to slow the car down more in most corners.
These are not the most communicative or linear of tires. Replacing them with something like the Michelin Pilot Sport 4S would make a big difference to the GR86 GT’s driver appeal.
The GR86 also feels engineered for oversteer. In corners, the rear is snarky and bouncy, almost like an old-school hot hatch – and you’re constantly reacting to it.
In terms of chassis communication, the GR86 asks you to listen carefully. The steering is razor sharp, and feels fine, but all other controls leave you with some work to do where there may be limitations.
The AE86, by contrast, communicates the road and what the chassis is doing with perfect clarity – although, it must be said, it does this all the time. Some Melbourne streets you don’t want to know too well…
Not that the GR86 is much better, quite a mess by modern sports car standards with a lot of tire noise.
Other gripes with the GR86 GT are…
The throttle map has a large bulge early in its travel, as if engineered to further mask the lack of low-end torque. It gets tiresome all the time as it feeds sensitively into the throttle in traffic.
Its clutch is still a bit numb and the dry, scratchy gearshift is nothing special. Then there’s the price – just 12 months ago, a (last generation) 86 GT cost $32,180. Now it’s $43,420.
Toyota says it has a lot of standard equipment – and, to be fair, the interior represents a big step up, and not just because nobody’s smoking in it. Plus, it’s still cheaper than the $70,000 or so a red AE86 will now set you back…
As rough as a daily driver, the GR86 is a much better sports car.
As rough as a daily driver, the GR86 is a much better sports car. He finally got the grunt he should have had in the first place. And it’s looking much better – one of the more successful faces of late. The GR86, like the new BRZ, gets under your skin in a way that only a rear-drive sports car can.
However, while Toyota has built a better sports car, such as the 2012 car it still lacks any noticeable AE86 DNA or pedigree. With completely different engine characters, they remain more family friends than close relatives.
That’s not to say GR86 failed to rekindle an old flame, it ignited something new.
Something you won’t have to fumble around for a fire extinguisher.