FR Sports Royalty: how Toyota's 86 has epic sports car DNA
Toyota’s sports car lineage dates way back into The Time Before Internet, but while older generations think of sports cars as cheery, small-capacity. open-top runabouts, Toyota Motor Corporation flipped this concept on its head in the 1980s.
As the GTi hot hatches from Volkswagen and Peugeot took Europe by storm Toyota’s fifth-generation Corolla was launched in 1983 to an appreciative audience at home in Japan as well as worldwide markets like America and Australia. The basic models were pretty pedestrian, but the twin-cam 4AG-powered models were absolute Duck’s Nuts, and quickly began winning races in Group A and Group N touring cars and rally racing.
But it was the performance of the Levin (fixed-headlight) and Trueno (pop-up headlight) models in the underground Japanese drifting and touge scenes which made the “Toyota AE86 Sprinter” a cult icon. A lightweight, dynamically on-point rear-wheel drive chassis with a vivacious, revvy little one-point-six-litre coupled to a sweet-shifting five-speed manual, with simple brakes and suspension meant it was also a tuner’s dream, as Keiichi “Drift King” Tsuchiya proved with his touge-spec AE86 that slays GT-Rs down mountain passes. It even inspired a cult favourite cartoon series about a tofu delivery driver's exploits, which you might know as "Initial D".
Toyota knew the Most Excellent AE86, also known as the Hachi Roku for “eight-six”, had a limited life. Introduced in 1983 the world had moved on to far more powerful turbocharged all-wheel-drive performance cars by 1987 as Japan entered its Performance Car Golden Era. Toyota had a new performance car that fit that exact criteria and would take on the World Rally Championship; the Celica GT-Four.
The ST165, ST185 and final ST205-generation Celica GT-Fours were homologation specials, sold to the public to make the rally version legal to race, but while it fast and took heaps of wins it wasn’t a sports car. It did donate its turbo two-litre four-pot 3S-GTE engine to Toyota’s new sports car, though!
While the first-generation AW11 MR2 was a cute little sports car in the vein of Fiat’s 1970s X1/9, it wasn’t a success with the youth market like the more practical, nicer handling AE86. Toyota attempted to fix this with the second-generation MR2, the SW20. Much larger and more refined than the AW11 this new model came in hardtop or T-top versions, with NA or turbo drivetrains.
And the turbocharged GT models were certainly rapid. First introduced in 1989 the SW20 platform ran for 10 years and the snail-fed models earned a reputation for being incredibly fast, but difficult to work on and tricky to master when driving at the handling limits. If you’ve seen Marty driving his in the drift part of the $10k Challenge you’d know what that’s about.
The third-generation MR2, introduced in 1999 under the W30 codename, changed the recipe back towards what the AW11 had represented as a sports car. Unfortunately the world had become focussed on more practical cars like the four-door WRX and Evo, or supercars like the Skyline GT-R, NSX and Mazda RX-7. After the MR2 wrapped production in 2007 Toyota fans had to wait five long years until a successor presented itself.
While the Toyota 86 (AKA, the Subaru BRZ), has gone on to become a ubiquitous part of tuner culture it was a real shock when it launched in January 2012. Toyota ignored all the expert advice that said two-door naturally aspirated sports cars weren’t what the buying public wanted and they launched their collaborative effort with Subaru anyway.
Here was a cheap, vivacious and dynamic two-door car with a near-useless back seat and not much torque (or horsepower), but that didn’t matter because modern 86s are an absolute hoot to drive. They give you a buzz like the AE86 did, and they have proven easy to modify, just like the original.
Many fans hung out waiting patiently for a turbo variant, or one with a substantial power boost, since the 86/BRZ twins popped up nearly 10 years ago. While Toyota has resisted their repeated calls, the Japanese giant partnered with BMW to bring another iconic name from the past back; Supra.
Based on the new Z4 sports car platform, the new, fifth-generation Supra packs a twin-turbo three-litre six-cylinder like its famed JZA80 forebear, with the addition of an entry-level two-litre turbo four-cylinder. While the new model doesn’t look as drop-dead gorgeous as the FT-1 concept car it is still a swoopy, dramatic-looking coupe packing turbo six-cylinder power and we can’t wait until they start popping up 2nd hand so we can buy the cheapest one sight unseen off the Internet!