That Toyota's 1985-'87 Corolla GT-S is a cultural icon and a destination car for an entire generation of enthusiasts appears, on its surface at least, to be a mere accident.
It is not.
Nor will it be for the 2013 Scion FR-S. Mechanically, the two cars share nothing. Spiritually, however, their similarities run deep.
There are powerful reasons the humble Toyota Corolla GT-S — or AE86 as it's known by enthusiasts — remains a highly coveted machine nearly 30 years after entering production. Those reasons have nothing to do with the car's speed, its amenities or its complexity. Rather, it's the 86's fundamentally sound design, low cost and massive potential that give it profound desirability as its third decade approaches.
It's these simple, potent core values on which Scion and Subaru intend to capitalize with the Scion FR-S/Subaru BRZ twins. Here, then, is a look at how Toyota got the simple sports car right the first time and how it intends to get it right again.
Pure From the Beginning
Shaking off the numerous distractions of modern automotive design is a big deal in 2012. In 1983, though, there were far fewer diversions — not to mention mandates — to avoid. The engineers didn't have to worry about airbags, ABS, stability control or a five-star crash test rating. It was a simpler time.
Even then, though, being rear-drive mattered. It was a time when economy cars were almost universally front-wheel drive. And the AE86 — despite its purist intentions — is at heart an economy car.
Being small, however, wasn't such a big deal 30 years ago. Back then the AE86's 94.5-inch wheelbase didn't stand out as small. But by today's standards the FR-S's 101.2-inch wheelbase is considered diminutive.
Look at them together and the 2013 Scion FR-S dwarfs the 1985 Toyota Corolla GT-S. In fact, it eclipses the 86 in every dimension except height. It's 1.2 inches longer and 5.9 inches wider but stands a full 2 inches shorter. The extra length and width, plus almost 30 years of technology and safety bloating, make the FR-S about 350 pounds heavier, too.
The Real World
Put both cars on the same road at the same time and the FR-S's extra size matters little — even on the tightest of roads. In fact, the biggest challenge in the FR-S, at least compared to the AE86, is visibility. It's hard for the Scion to compete with the Toyota's pencil-thin pillars and upright seating that makes it feel like it's all glass above chest level.
And relax, fanboys, the AE86 is not fast. Not by today's standards, anyway. And that's fine. Because neither is the 2013 Scion FR-S. Yet we find the modern Toyota (Scion) to be among the most engaging driver's cars available at any price. There's no greater marker of success in automotive design than making a slow car fun. That's precisely what the AE86 did in the '80s and what the FR-S does today.
Having fun, it turns out, isn't even remotely proportional to outright speed. It's this disproportionate ratio that gives these machines value. That and designs so filled with latent talent that they can easily be made into giant-killers.
And there are few more easily identifiable giant-killers than the AE86. From drifting to rallying to sheer staying power among those who know a good car when they see one, the AE86 is capable far beyond the sum of its parts.
So it's unsurprising, then, that even this ultralow 27-year-old example can still make short work of a back road should duty call. We hustled it up the twistiest ribbon of pavement in Southern California and were quickly comfortable with its limits and abilities.
It's likely that the AE86's best trait is its direct steering. Despite a relatively slow ratio, the Corolla's hydraulically assisted rack offers a level of feel and response that's simply not common today — even on cars where it should be. Turn-in — thanks in part to this car's lowered stance and aggressive camber — is quick and honest. There's an intuitive nature about the way the AE86 corners that must have contributed significantly to the confidence we find in the 2013 Scion FR-S.
The AE86's throttle response, too, comes with a refreshing surge of cable-actuated candor. It's this simple functionality that proves we don't need multiple throttle calibrations in the FR-S for its response to always be right. There's value in consistency.
But the biggest and most important commonality between these cars is their chassis balance. As the limit of grip approaches, there's clear communication about its imminent arrival. And in the FR-S, driving beyond that limit isn't just OK; it's encouraged. We kept our borrowed AE86 well below its limit, but drove hard enough to recognize the potential for fun that lies beyond it.
Simple Then, Simple Now
In 1985, when Toyota began manufacturing the GT-S version of the Corolla, simple meant making certain compromises. Mustangs were simple. Camaros were simple. Trucks were simple. Simple, back then, meant having a solid rear axle. It was cheap, efficient, and with four links and coil springs, could be made to work well. Up front, struts were more than adequate.
Of course, utilizing an axle under the back of a Corolla had other advantages — one of which was leaving ample cargo space, which is important in a machine intended to serve only-car duties for most buyers. It might be a coupe, but it wasn't a wholly compromised coupe.
The car you see here utilizes suspension modifications typical of the breed. DG5 coilovers replace the stock parts, while TRD bushings remove slop from the system. Revolver negative roll center adjusters correct the front suspension geometry and allow aggressive negative camber. Revolver traction brackets allow the rear four-link suspension to function properly at this ride height.
Today's thinking is more focused both on performance and practicality. Sure, you're not going to easily stuff a bicycle in the back of a 2013 Scion FR-S like you could in a 1985 Toyota Corolla GT-S hatchback, but you can get four tires back there with the seats down. It's an ideal packaging compromise considering the FR-S's multi-link rear suspension. MacPherson struts — good enough for every Porsche 911 ever built — remain in the front.
Being simple today means making fewer performance compromises.
One of the best side effects of being light is that only modest power is required to provide adequate motivation. Both of these cars are modest power specialists. But that doesn't mean their engines are without soul.
Open the AE86's throttle fully and there's little in the way of grunt down low. Stay with it, however, and a 7,600-rpm swan song awaits. At high revs the little 1.6-liter inline four-cylinder sounds better than the FR-S's 2.0-liter flat-4, which, despite an honest engineering effort, manages only tepid aural character. At 112 horsepower and 97 pound-feet of torque, the minimalist 4A-GE power plant did exactly what it was designed to do: Wind up and move out.
This AE86 utilizes a high-compression 4A-GE mill from an AE92 Corolla — a common swap into the AE86. It's marginally more powerful thanks to a compression bump from 9.5:1 to 10.3:1. Also present are a TRD four-into-one header, 5Zigen 2.0-inch exhaust and an Injen cold-air intake.
What the Scion's boxer engine lacks in sound it makes up for in punch by cranking out 140 lb-ft of torque to the wheels from 4,500-6,500 rpm. It's rated at 200 hp and 151 lb-ft at the flywheel and although it's far from the strongest 2.0-liter four-cylinder on the market, its packaging endows the FR-S with undeniably enticing character.
Spend an afternoon on the right road swapping between these two cars and certain qualifying properties emerge. In the AE86 there's the typical old-car nuance — suspension noises, more than a few rattles and the undeniable sound of structural compromise. Heck, even the smell is old. But it matters little when you turn the wheel and this middle-aged coupe rotates with ease and balances with grace.
The 2013 Scion FR-S on the other hand is livelier and stronger. Even with a few extra pounds it's the more athletic of the two. It's marginally quicker, as well, but that doesn't really matter. What does matter is that it doesn't just retain the virtues Toyota instilled in a simple driver's car all those years ago — it builds on them.
And in today's market — fraught with the expensive and the overwrought — building on values like low cost, sound handling and massive potential can only be a good thing.
Editor's Note: Special thanks to Antonio Alvendia, founder of the motormavens.com enthusiast Web site for providing his 1985 Corolla GT-S for this story.
Scion provided Edmunds with the FR-S for the purposes of evaluation.