There’s not much left that can be written about the AE86.
Arguably, it’s one of the most cult cars to have ever come out of Japan. I doubt there’s a Speedhunters reader who hasn’t been exposed to one or isn’t familiar with ‘Dorikin’, Takumi or that Ueo video. It’s rare that you hear or read any negative commentary on the AE86, which is most unusual in modern car culture.
By most accounts, they’re a very good car. A lot of this is down to its simplicity; front-engined, rear-wheel drive and lightweight with a manual transmission. AE86s are reliable, too, and when driven in the appropriate manner, there’s not much out there that can match them in terms of excitement within the same price bracket.
The world is currently on its head at its moment, particularly in relation to car events (although there’s still the chance that the Irish ’86 Fest will go ahead in September). However, for 86 Day 2020, I figured that a more intimate approach was more appropriate, while abiding by all social distancing guidelines, of course.
I wanted to get insight from an owner, but I also wanted to re-examine the AE86’s place in the world and in particular how it fairs against the car it inspired – the Toyota 86 (ZN6), or as we know it here in Europe, GT86.
As AE86 values go up, and (GT)86 values go down, I think this is a really appropriate time to compare the two.
Michael J. Moynihan, or just Mikey to this friends, is a person I became familiar with through his driving style long before I ever met the man himself. His white Levin was one of several cars I would wait trackside for each lap, as it encapsulated that violent driving style which has become synonymous with the AE86. As it happens, Mikey doesn’t live all that far away from me, so he was the perfect person to answer all of the questions I had.
Naturally, Mikey is a diehard Toyota guy, but not to the point where it’s obnoxious or that he can’t appreciate other marques or approaches. He does know what he likes, though, and is committed to the humble Toyota 4A-GE.
“I think the first [AE86] thing I saw that had a serious impact on me was, and it’s a cliche I know, that clip of Ueo pinned against the pit wall at Ti Circuit Okayama, and then chucking it aggressively and at full speed, into the first corner,” Mikey told me. “That video and driving style still for me sum up what driving an AE86 should be – borderline manic.”
I caught up with Mikey as he was buttoning up his black 20-valve Levin notchback track car. But it was his white 16-valve Levin hatch road car which he’d take to the mountains, where I had arranged for another die-hard Toyota owner to meet us.
It’s a wonderful thing to drive behind an AE86 on the road. They were a common sight on Irish roads not all that long ago, now you would be lucky to see one once a year out in the wild. As an aside, the size difference between the AE86 and even a modern ‘compact’ car is amusing, as a Hyundai i20 dwarfed Mikey as it overtook us both on the motorway.
The relatively short drive into the mountains which overlook Dublin brought us to a viewing point where Ciarán Nolan and his recently acquired GT86 were waiting. Ciarán, a suspension development engineer, has only ever owned Toyotas, asides from one S2000-shaped blip a few years ago. Ever since the new 86’s debut in 2012, Ciarán knew that he would one day own one, although he does regret not buying an AE86 when they were much more affordable a number of years ago.
I specifically asked Ciarán along as he really understands the appeal of the AE86 where it isn’t all about horsepower. It does help that his car is white as well, and pretty much a modern equivalent of the Levin.
When Toyota, Scion and Subaru respectively released the 86/GT86, FR-S and BRZ onto the public roads, so many bemoaned the lack of power – myself included. We’ve been spoiled in recent years with performance cars which can deliver such impressive power figures, and for this to be so lacklustre in acceleration was a disappointment.
However, as time moved on, it has become more evident that I (and others) were completely missing the point of the car. The AE86 was never a powerhouse, so why would the new 86 be?
Despite the age difference, these are two cars that very much follow the same principles; they’re all about balance and momentum. And it’s really remarkable how alike they are when you delve deeper into them.
By modern standards, the new car is quite lightweight. Autocar in the UK weighed a GT86 at 1,235kg (2,722lb), which of course is heavier than the original AE86, but that car existed in a time with much less safety regulations. In the new 86’s defence, weight was kept as low possible so as not to negatively impact on the driving experience. For comparison, it’s lighter than a 2.0-litre MX-5 Roadster of the same era.
While the engine layouts are different – inline-four versus flat-four – standard examples of both the original and new cars have similar power-to-weight ratios of around 150hp per tonne.
When poking around each other’s Toyota, Mikey did say that while he wasn’t a fan of the boxer engine at heart of the new model, he understood that the car probably wouldn’t exist without it. We all agreed that any new and affordable rear-wheel drive sports car should be welcomed with open arms.
For these two particular cars, it’s difficult to compare them absolutely like-for-like. One is 35 years old and has been heavily modified, while the other is relatively fresh and just starting its journey. One is a weekend and track car, the other a daily driver.
There is another thing they have in common though, and that is their approximate value. As mentioned earlier, AE86 prices have been slowly rising over the last few years. Where once they were almost disposable, they’re now a coveted rarity. Fortunately, people aren’t buying them as financial investments just yet, but that does seem inevitable.
With the new 86 having been around a few years now, used examples continue to depreciate. They’re a lot more popular in other countries than they are in Ireland where a GT86 was about €44,000 (close to US$52,000) to buy new, courtesy of our vehicle registration tax for vehicles newly registered here. Still, the availability of used imports from Japan and the UK has seen values come down to meet AE86 prices for the first time.
This means that a budget of between €15,000 and €20,000 could buy you good examples of either car. It’s a lot of money for a lot of people, and with uncertain times ahead yet again, I can’t imagine that many would spend that much on a car which won’t be used every day.
This poses the question: is the new 86 now the better choice?
I have a huge soft spot for the AE86, and I understand that for all the similarities between the two, there will be owners who would never in their lives swap their cars for the modern equivalent. The new car just doesn’t have the rawness and relative simplicity of the original. It also won’t have that certain indescribable special feeling that the AE86 offers; it doesn’t have the history or the legacy.
A reputation such as the AE86’s must be earned over time.
On the other hand, the new 86 is filling a gap which is quickly being vacated by the AE86. The original was always the everyman’s sports car; they were plentiful, parts were cheap, and they were affordable. None of this is true anymore. The days of a mint €5,000 AE86 are gone forever, and I dread to think what nightmares an example that cheap would bring.
For the price of a good AE86, you could get a used new 86 now. You won’t have to deal with corrosion or rust; it’s a modern car which has proven itself to be relatively reliable and parts are freely available. It might be missing that je ne sais quoi, but I’m sure a lot of people would forego that to be able to exploit the car’s potential more often.
These are two immensely likeable cars, and while they both have to negotiate their own unique set of circumstances, they strive to offer the same involved driving experience.
I’m doing my best here to play the devil’s advocate, in order to try and really understand how these cars relate to each other in 2020. While some will bemoan Subaru’s involvement in the new 86, it doesn’t feel like a Subaru anywhere except the engine. Looking around the car, you get the feeling that Toyota were very much calling the shots.
Again, to echo Mikey’s earlier sentiments, if it came down to either a car with Subaru’s involvement or no new 86 at all, I know what side of that particular argument I’m on. The same applies to the new Supra, but that’s a discussion for another day…
There’s 30 years between these two particular cars, and they’re both different and incredibly alike at the same time. It remains to be seen if the new 86 has the longevity of the AE86, or if it will live up to the older car’s legacy, one which was forged over almost four decades.
With rumours abound that the next generation of 86 will be turbocharged, I think that new car will be a step further away in spirit from the original, and in turn allow the current model to move closer to it. Time will tell.
As always, we’re curious to read what you think about both of these cars. Has the new 86 grown on you, or were you smitten from day one? If you realistically had to choose one or the other, to live with every day in your current circumstances, which would it be? Is it a head or heart decision?
Honestly, I’m still not sure what my answer would be and that’s pretty telling.