Welcome to What If, a new feature from imaginative illustrator Abimelec Arellano and Hagerty. We’ll be taking you back in time—and possibly forward into the future—to meet alternative-universe automobiles. Even better, our time machine is working well enough to bring “short take” reviews along with the photographs and advertisements. Buckle up and enjoy the ride! — Jack Baruth
(Originally published in Asphalt and Course, December 1985 edition)
Toyota has a mountain to climb, to put it mildly. Their Corolla has to face Honda’s wondrous Civic in today’s showrooms, a task to be wished on no man or company. Their front-wheel-drive sedan doesn’t have the joie de vivre of a Honda — but on the sporting side of the equation it’s even worse. Who would buy a 1986 Corolla SR5 or GT-S liftback, with their old-fashioned rear-wheel-drive layout and miserable space efficiency, when there’s a frisky Civic CRX on the table? These old-style Corollas are thin on the ground, even near our Oldport Beach headquarters, and for good reason. Young drivers just aren’t interested in something that will “fishtail” at a moment’s notice, particularly around dangerous mountain roads.
Our man in Tokyo, Bob Yamamoto, tells us that for 1987 there will be a “Corolla FX” hatchback with modern-as-tomorrow front-wheel-drive and the same fuel-injected DOHC inline-four that fails to move the current Corolla GT-S with much ferocity but will no doubt be better in a lighter and more efficient FWD home. We expect that most buyers will wait the extra year to get a Corolla hatch with all-weather security.
For 1986, however, Toyota has come up with an odd stopgap to breathe new life into a tired old Corolla: a turbocharged take on the SR5, now with part-time four-wheel-drive. The new powertrain offers 135 horsepower, a useful 19-horse improvement on the sixteen-valve GT-S without the complexity of that engine’s valve gear. The EFI from the GT-S does make an appearance here, because it can be darned tough to turbocharge a carbureted engine. Ask General Motors, which turbocharged the Trans Am seven years ago and then tried a carbed 3.8-liter V-6 in the Regal Turbo before switching to EFI.
If you’re expecting a budget take on the forbidden-fruit Audi Quattro, think again. This is more like an AMC Eagle, with a part-time transfer case ready and waiting to send drive to the front wheels. Our testing on Southern California’s backroads revealed that the SR5 Turbo is sluggish until the boost arrives, at which point the rear end will pirouette in alarming fashion until the driver shifts and the engine runs out of pressure again. It’s hard to imagine that any driver who has sampled the laser focus offered by a CRX will be interested in these histrionics.
Where the SR5 shines is in light off-road situations. Engage the transfer case and enjoy the grip offered by the 225/75R15 all-terrain tires. On fire roads and campground paths, the Toyota offers a taste of what Vic Elford must have experienced in his many rally championships. The question has to be raised, however: Why would someone buy a sporting hatchback to drive around off-road?
These are not cheap cars: the non-turbo SR-5 is priced at $9,598 and the sixteen-valve GT-S at $10,508, but the SR5 Turbo has an MSRP of a scarcely believable $12,995. This is six hundred dollars more than a Camaro Berlinetta! There are better choices available from Honda, with the CRX Si at $9,298 and the Wagovan 4WD, which offers all of the Corolla’s off-road capability but features greater utility, for about the same price. While we appreciate Toyota’s efforts here, we think smart buyers will wait for the 1987 Corolla FX. Toyota’s slogan for this Corolla is “Go climb up a mountain” — but someone should tell Toyota that very few people will ever be fascinated by the combination of a mountain and an old rear-wheel-drive Corolla.