Driven – Toyota 86 GT

I’m usually fairly cynical when it comes to the launch of new cars. It’s a time when marketing bullshit hangs low in the air, as one bold claim after another springs from a glossy sales brochure or press release. And the reason is that most new cars are actually very similar to the ones that precede them. Sure, they may look vaguely different, might be slightly more powerful or a little safer. But essentially, the evolution of the automobile is a very slow process.

Ever so occasionally, a car is released that is a genuine quantum leap forward, it revolutionises the marketplace and makes everything else look vaguely irrelevant. MG did it with the TC back in the 40’s, Mazda did it in 1989 with the introduction of the MX5 and Toyota have done it today with the introduction of the 86.

Make no mistake, for us sports car enthusiasts the 86 is the single most significant car to be launched in the past two decades. Sure, the Ferrari 458 will make you throw your breakfast up faster than anything else currently can and the ceramic brakes on the new 911 are a technological breakthrough, but none of that is really relevant or accessible to the 90th percentile. The 86 is. It is a simple, light, basic front engined, rear drive sports car. It has everything you need, and nothing you don’t. The 86 is keeping the flame alive – it’s the car that some of us have been dreaming of for years, and the car that will no doubt build a whole new generation of sports car enthusiasts. 

The 86 is a joint partnership between Toyota and Subaru which came about due to Toyota’s stake in Fuji Heavy Industries, Subaru’s parent company. The thing that makes the 86 (soon to be co-released as the Subaru BRZ) so good is that, like the original Mazda MX5, it is a clean sheet sports car design. There’s no cost cutting or parts bin salvaging here, every part has been designed with one goal in mind – driver enjoyment. In its concept stage, the combined 86 development team, led by Tetsuya Tada, actually visited different grassroots motorsports events and spoke to drivers to find out what they wanted in a sports car. The result of this is a car that’s beautifully balanced, and one that has actually been engineered to drift. That’s right; the development team went to great lengths to make sure that the 86 is fun, easy and safe to drive sideways. Not only that, a key element of the design brief was to make sure that a full set of spare wheels and tires would fit in the car with the back seats folded flat. Track day, anyone?

The 86 looks fresh and modern, but I think it also looks basic and humble. It doesn’t give an aura of false pretensions and it has no cliché ‘sports’ styling. It’s not overly aggressive, nor is it bland and shy. It doesn’t look like it’s trying to tell everyone just how much of a sports car it is – those in the know will appreciate it. But by the same token the detailing is superb, the way the chin spoiler flows into the front guards and forms a belt line that gradually pumps into the rear guards. I like the scalloped surface fore of the doors – the perfect place to display the special ‘boxer 86’ badging, which is also seen on the steering wheel and in the boot lining.

The interior is a nice place to be; it actually feels like a premium car inside. The black and red alcantara trimmed seats are heavily bolstered, the stubby 6-speed shifter sprouts from the console and the thick steering wheel feels almost exactly like it’s mounted horizontally. The ergonomics for sporty driving are exceptional; everything falls right at hand and is perfectly placed. There stereo system is nothing special, but the induction noise is so good that you don’t really need it. One criticism I initially had was the lack of a centre arm rest, until I realised that its not there because it would just get in the way on a twisty road. I liked the way the gearshift felt – not quite as notchy as an MX5, but with a throw and positive action that’s just as short and direct. Another nice touch are the headrests – in their usual position they support your head, but take them out and turn them around and they become specially recessed to properly support a helmet.

The engine is a 1998cc flat four that began its life in the Subaru Impreza and still wears a Subaru engine code. Any similarities end there though – the naturally aspirated boxer now has specially designed heads developed by Yamaha and Toyota’s excellent D4S injection. Anyone who has ever driven a naturally aspirated Impreza will be aware of how lifeless and lethargic that engine feels and sounds, so I was pleased to discover that the significant revisions have completely changed its character. You can still detect the familiar boxer sound on startup, but from there on up the rev range it sounds and feels like a proper thoroughbred as it races toward its 7500 rev limit, accompanied by a throaty induction roar that begins at 4000rpm.

If you just read this engine’s specifications on paper you’d never guess it started life in the Impreza – peak power of 147kw is achieved at 7000rpm, peak torque of 205nm is achieved stratospherically high from 6400-6600rpm, and the engine comes within a single horsepower of reaching the magic 100hp/litre benchmark. The flat four configuration allows the driveline to be mounted extremely low in the chassis to lower the centre of gravity as much as possible. It’s these sorts of fundamental specifications that make it such a special car to drive.

The handling at fast road speeds is best described as neutral. My test car was fitted with non standard 18” Work Emotion’s, which despite their extra size are still the same weight as the stock 16 inchers. Steering feel is superb but lighter than you’d expect, and it does a brilliant job of transmitting to the driver exactly what the front wheels are doing. Turn in grip is unbelievable; the 86 feels as if it’s connected to a large electro magnet that pulls it toward the apex, every time. The 86 seems to absorb mid-corner bumps as if they weren’t even there, seemingly ignoring how potholed or rough the corner may be. I wasn’t brave enough to turn the traction control off, although the only times it came on was on corner exit when it slowly interrupted to stop the rear of the car sliding free. I’m told it has a sports mode that will let you get it a little sideways before stepping in, and it is also possible to switch it completely off. I’m also told that with traction control off, at the limit, the 86 will initially understeer before transitioning to sweeping oversteer; it doesn’t bite.

The 86 is a car you really need to rev, and even then it’s not a particularly fast car in a straight line (0-100kmh in 6.8sec). It comes into its own in the corners though, and the single best thing is the way each element integrates with each other with the sole goal of putting a smile on your face. It’s a car that demands to be grabbed by the scruff of the neck and driven; each heel-toe downshift feeds into the turn-in, flat on the power by the apex and rocketing toward the redline before snicking into the next gear, corner after beautiful corner. All models in Australia come standard with a Torsen limited slip diff which is so tight that you can hear the inside back wheel gripping and slipping on gravel road U-turns.

The single most remarkable thing about the 86 is its price. Bearing in mind that the latest MX5 starts at around $45,000, I think you could easily sell the 86 for at least that much. But no, the 86 GT (pictured and driven here) starts at just $29,990. A top spec Corolla costs more! The heavier 86 GTS adds sat nav, leather, keyless entry, HID headlights, climate control and heated seats for just $35,490. But you don’t need all that stuff – the only mechanical difference between the two is that the GTS has slightly larger brakes. Buy a GT and keep your $6k to spend on a decent set of pads and rotors and then spend the rest having fun at track days.

I was lucky in that I could spend a couple of hours becoming at one with the 86 on some decent twisty roads in the hills, but the real tragedy of this car is that most prospective buyers who test drive one won’t get that experience. It feels taut and tight around town, but just driving it at 60 in the city is a bit like listening to Bohemian Rhapsody on a ten dollar clock radio. You’re kind of missing out on the very thing that makes it great. Potential buyers will see how there’s zero legroom for rear seat passengers, they’ll feel the solid ride and they’ll miss the entire point when all they can do is rev it to 5000 in second down West Terrace, although I guess that’s no different to most new sports cars.

I just hope that people can look past the Toyota badge and their own preconceptions, because this car isn’t just a new Celica, it is as good as everyone says and the hype is justified. I think its list price might turn some customers away too – those in the market for a $60,000+ sports car would probably refuse to accept that a car worth half that is worthy of their consideration.

It’s good to see that Toyota is finally taking sports cars seriously in Australia. Toyota even provided pre-production 86’s to tuners to develop suspension parts and superchargers, and to race teams to turn them into endurance racers, drift cars and rally cars. It seems almost as if Toyota have designed the 86 to be modifiable, and in 6 months time the list of tuner parts available for the 86 will be huge. Given the already runaway success of the 86, it can’t be long until rival manufactures announce their response. This is a big call I know, but we could be on the cusp of an affordable sports car revolution. Let’s hope so.

I’d like to thank Tom and Ryan at Adelaide Hills Toyota for making my drive possible. This 86 isn’t just their demo, it’s also being prepared for some light motorsport use. Look for it in the upcoming Targa Adelaide rally!

Nb – I apologise for the lack of creativity in these photos. Any Given Reason is really about driving cars, not photographing them, so I chose to spend as much of my limited time behind the wheel, rather than behind the lens.

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  1. Pam Coles June 29, 2012 Reply

    Cool! Noice shopping basket!!! From a Serious shopper, not driver!!

    • Andrew Coles June 29, 2012 Reply

      Hi Pam! Sorry... the boot isn't that big for the shopping :(

  2. John June 29, 2012 Reply

    You know that the 86 is a reincarnated Corolla Sprinter (AE86), not a Celica, right?
    AE86 was the last RWD Corolla made by Toyota. Its also the car the started the whole drift movement in Japan.

    • Andrew Coles June 29, 2012 Reply

      Hi John - yep, definitely aware of this. However most of the ordinary consumers I've spoken to aren't as well versed in Japanese car culture, and from my experiences a lot of them aren't aware of the 86's heritage and sadly just view it as the replacement for the Celica.

      • John June 29, 2012 Reply

        Personally I think they should have revived the Sprinter badge. Its sad when you think about all the great cars they once had that they killed off. Sprinter, Celica, Supra, MR2. They became too bland and focused too much on "safe" passenger cars. Kinda like Nissan and only focusing on 4wds. Their passenger market has gone downhill.

  3. Viano July 2, 2012 Reply

    Mmmmm, I'm very excited, Andrew. Gotta book me a drive!!!

  4. Mei July 29, 2012 Reply

    Wonder if Hyundai will finally release the Genesis in Australia now?

    • Andrew Coles August 12, 2012 Reply

      Yea I don't know, you'd think that now is the right time if there ever was one. I'm going to be honest though and say I'd still have a bit of an issue with brand snobbery - it's my own problem, but the Genesis would need to be very good to overcome it.

  5. Dan January 1, 2013 Reply

    Oh boy, I want one of these so badly.

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