Why the new-age Toyota 86 had huge shoes to fill

Toyota's Corolla is nearly universally renowned as a cheap, cheerful runabout that runs on the smell of an oily rag and is more reliable than the ever-punctual Japanese public transport system. So how did one version lift itself head and shoulders above its brethren to become a global icon of multiples scenes?

Pic Credit: Supercars

This all-time titan of the car scene is known to car enthusiasts by many names: Sprinter, Hachi Roku, Levin, Trueno, but they are all AE86s. Introduced in 1983 for the ’84 model year the Sprinter was the rear-drive variant of the all-new front-drive AE82 Corolla platform, and it came in fixed-headlight (Corolla Levin) or pop-up headlight (Sprinter Trueno) body styles.Workshop Manuel’s random fact: “Trueno” means ‘thunder’ in Japanese, while “Levin” means ‘Lightning’.

Australia actually received Sprinters for a few years, though ours came with rear drum brakes and lowly carburettor-fed 4AC motors instead of the desirable 96kW twin-cam fuel-injected 4AGE, even though we got that motor in the Corolla Seca.

Markets that received the twin-cam Sprinter reported a sweet, rev-loving and vivacious sports coupe thanks to a low (950kg) kerb weight, MacPherson struts up front and a predictable four-link and live-axle out back. It delivered bulk driver enjoyment and it took two shakes of a lamb’s tail for Toyota to work out the little coupe and hatch were going to make a formidable bit of race machinery.

Running mostly in Group A and Group N production-based classes, the AE86 racked up manufacturer and driver’s championships for Toyota and privateers alike on both dirt and tar motorsport.

They would go on to beat far more powerful machinery like BMW M6s, V8 Holdens and Rovers, Ford Sierras and turbo Nissans. It was a retelling of the classic David versus Goliath story as the tiny underpowered Sprinters beat bigger, heavier competitors.

While race fans were cheering AE86s on young men were hanging out on the sides of Japanese mountains watching Truenos and Levins clean up in the Touge competition. And then came drifting.

Born out of racing on public mountain roads the wild, dynamic sport of drifting captured peoples’ attention the world over and had everyone clamouring for cheap rear-wheel-drive cars they could throw into guardrails and other cars with little concern.

The AE86’s reliability, good handling and natural balance made it a perfect fit. When it then became the poster child for the cult Initial D manga cartoon, the Sprinter’s legend was cemented.

Out of all the cars he could drive, Keiichi “Drift King” Tsuchiya (the man credited with bringing the hobby to an international audience and elevating it to a professional sport) steers a wild Trueno in touge battles on the legendary Best Motoring videos. He’s taken down GT-Rs, NSX Hondas and more in the plucky Sprinter, while his N2-spec circuit car is probably the ultimate iteration of an AE86 circuit car.

Pic credit: Hot Version/BMI

Produciton of the AE86 finished in 1987 and Toyota didn't have another lightweight rear-drive two-door to fill the sports coupe's shoes for another quarter-century (25 years!). In the Corolla's 54-year history of - generally - being fairly mundane, the AE86 stands as an anomoly; four years where Toyota turned the Corolla into a rear-drive masterpiece for enthusiasts.

In 2012 Toyota launched a new-age 86 model, which they named because they wanted it to encapsulate the spirit of the original Sprinter. If you have never driven an 86 and wonder what all the fuss about a low-powered little sports coupe is, go take one for a mad drive up a piece of twisty road and see.

So in a weird round about way, Moog's new car sort of is a Sprinter. Except its not. More on that issue next article! For now, check out the video here!

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