Graded – 1980s Toyotas

Welcome to Graded. Here we discuss legendary marques, models, or trim packages and affix a letter grade to a selection of vehicles falling under that topic. The grades mean nothing and are completely arbitrary. I fully encourage you to tell me what I got wrong and how you would grade them instead. Have some fun with it.

During the 1980s, Toyota was starting the find their legs in North America. This was the decade where the Japanese manufacturer went from niche brand to mainstream juggernaut. Along the way, Toyota was still experimenting and introduced several very cool products on our shores. Below is a collection of nine vehicles that we have taken the time to affix grades to based purely on our personal preference.

This week we have a special guest judge helping with Graded, Dan Roth! Creative director and co-host of @whlbrngscast, he is well versed in everything automotive, and an excellent guest judge as he is a self-proclaimed opinionated Gen Xer.

1984 Toyota Celica Supra

AutoLobotomy’s Grade: B
Dan’s Grade: A-

AutoLobotomy: The second-generation Toyota Celica Supra was introduced in 1982. By 1984, power was up to 160 hp and the car received some styling updates. Looking the part of a proper sports coupe, the Celica Supra was still lacking a bit in the power department despite steady increases.

Dan Roth: It looks like a Transformer and can pack a turbocharged inline six cylinder (in Japan). Blocky in all the right ways, this Supra was a better ponycar than the domestics, straddling the line between traditional sports car and hot-rodded ’60s compact.

1984 Toyota Tercel SR5 4WD

AutoLobotomy’s Grade: C+
Dan’s Grade: B-

AutoLobotomy: The Tercel SR5 4WD was way, way ahead of its time. Before the ubiquitous crossover became commonplace in the automotive landscape, Toyota was already using the basic formula of putting a tall hatchback body on a four-wheel drive architecture. Not all that great to drive, the Tercel 4WD was a master at wintery weather.

Dan Roth: This little funkbox has aged better than I thought it would. They were sorta geeky and weird at the time, and that’s part of the charm now. It’s the Toyota version of a Subaru Leone, and like you’d expect, totally practical and thoughtfully designed. Open the door, and you’re met with crappy ’80s materials, but at least you could get plaid seats.

1986 Toyota Corolla Sport GT-S (AE86)

AutoLobotomy’s Grade: B+
Dan’s Grade: C

AutoLobotomy: I know what you’re thinking, why doesn’t his have a higher grade? Well, as cool as these cars were, it more so what people transformed the cars into that we love so much – not the way it left the Toyota factory. Still, a compact rear-wheel drive coupe is a great place to have fun and the GT-S was the most powerful of the lot.

Dan Roth: Overrated. It ticks all the right boxes: cheap (well, it was), fun, stylish, but now an outsized legend has been hooked to the AE86. There’s no arguing the greatness of the culture that built itself up around having fun with this entertaining application of workaday Corolla components. That gets an A+

1986 Toyota 4Runner SR5 Turbo

AutoLobotomy’s Grade: B-
Dan’s Grade: B-

AutoLobotomy: Not many remember, but it used to be possible to get a turbocharged 4Runner right from the factory. For a few short years in the mid-80s Toyota addressed the 4Runner’s power deficit by adding a turbocharger to the 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine. It would be replaced by a more powerful V6 engine, but for a while, one could attack the wilderness under boost.

Dan Roth: Get it done up with KC Hi-Liters and a strobe stripe down the flanks, and this one’s a looker. It’s also pretty capable, because it’s based on the famously unbreakable Toyota pickup. But you’ll run into the compromises. It’s just a two-door. The weird seating position that still plagues the Tacoma started here. And they rust like the dickens. Good luck finding one that isn’t all used up, either.

1987 Toyota Van 4WD

AutoLobotomy’s Grade: C
Dan’s Grade: A+

AutoLobotomy: Unlike anything else for sale in North America at the time, the aptly named Toyota Van was a minivan competitor with the engine squished under the floor in between the driver and front seat passenger. Starting in 1987 the Van could be had with a proper four-wheel drive system adding versatility to this people hauler.

Dan Roth: Just look at it! It’s shaped like an intergalactic pod, thanks to its forward-control layout and crisp ’80s lines. Instead of paying to fix your Vanagon’s head gaskets, you could be rocking Van Life with a Deluxe Wonderwagon with a fridge and cushy cabin.

1987 Toyota Supra Turbo

AutoLobotomy’s Grade: A
Dan’s Grade: A-

AutoLobotomy: The third generation Supra, or Mark III as the cool kids call it, really came into its own. Most notably, the Turbo model turned the Supra into a serious sports car competitor. With 231 hp and 240 lb-ft of torque, the car could also be had with a limited slip rear differential and anti-lock brakes. The car also looked the part with a sleek, low slung profile.

Dan Roth: Car & Driver described it as a three-quarter scale ponycar, and that’s accurate. But it’s also better. More of a Porsche 944 alternative, thanks to an all-independent suspension and big power (for the time). Without a turbo, they’re heavy and slow. The styling, unfortunately, is also a softening of the earlier Supra, so it’s less dramatic on the eyes.

1988 Toyota MR-2 Supercharged

AutoLobotomy’s Grade: A
Dan’s Grade: A+

AutoLobotomy: Addressing power shortages seems to be a theme here. The lightweight, mid-engine budget sports car known as the MR2 was an entertaining, if not unforgiven car to drive. But for the first few years of its existence it was also quite slow. Toyota addressed that in North America by finally bringing out the Supercharged model. It added 33 hp to the diminutive car and took nearly two seconds off of the 0-60 mph sprint.

Dan Roth: Mid-engined, well-made, and filled with snort. Where the hell are cars like this today? Superchargers are an engine amplifier without lag, and the effortless muscle makes this an exotic you can afford.

1988 Toyota Celica All-trac Turbo

AutoLobotomy’s Grade: A
Dan’s Grade: B-

AutoLobotomy: Toyota seemed to have a gluttony of high-performance models by the end of the 1980s. Completely different than the MR2 or Supra, the Celica All-trac Turbo was a rally car for the road. With a turbocharged four-cylinder engine making 190 hp and 190 lb-ft of torque, the All-trac sent power to all four wheels through a viscous coupling central locking differential. The compact Celica could surprise a lot of unsuspecting sports cars in its day, especially when the roads became slippery.

Dan Roth: It’s essentially a rally car, and the mechanical piece are the coolest part of the rig. It is a great alternative to trying to find an ur-quattro and probably just as entertaining. It can even look good when done up right, but because of the Celica’s position in the hierarchy, it’s more of a plain-wrapper kinda car wrapped around fascinating hardware.

1989 Toyota Corolla Sport GT-S (AE92)

AutoLobotomy’s Grade: B
Dan’s Grade: B

AutoLobotomy: By the end of the 1980s the Corolla had gone to front-wheel drive, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t still a GT-S model. Using a version of the well-known 4A-GE four-cylinder that was also in the AE86 Corolla, the roughly 2350 lbs. coupe developed an impressive 115 hp. Nimble and rather good looking, the Corolla may have switched where the power was sent, but it was still an entertaining car to drive.

Dan Roth: This one personally fired my imagination back when my primary transport was a Diamondback Viper. The styling had been smoothed just right for this generation, and it’s more rare now than a lot of high-end metal. It’s part of the now-dead class of front-wheel drive personal coupes, but it’s no Prelude. Still, there’s fun to be had. Pop-up headlights are having a moment, and you can get ’em here.

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