Toyota's fun car of the moment
Toyota has quite a heritage in terms of high-performance cars. It was the first of the Japanese companies to dabble in sporting models.
Click on photo at left for more views of the Toyota 86
The original Celica made quite an impact in the United States in the early 1970s and the larger Supra did much the same 10 years later, while the original MR2 in the mid-80s showed that the Japanese company could also have a way with chassis design when it set its mind to it.
But it's not those models that Toyota's latest sports car, the F-86, pays homage to. The new coupe owes most to the similarly configured AE86 Corolla Sprinter coupe of the mid-80s, a collector's item among those who know about these things. I think the new 86 could become one too.
Despite the appalling aerodynamic "aids" on the test 86, it's obvious that there's a good- looking coupe struggling to escape.
The stubby-tailed long-nosed silhouette is nicely proportioned, and with a teardrop side glass profile to tie it all together and a big grimacing intake maw up front, the GT86 looks the part without the need for plastic add-ons, which add so much weight to the car that it is slower than than the basic model, as well as adding considerably to one's budget.
There are a few negatives inside too. The cockpit and dash look cheap and a little nasty, with the plastics seeming particularly badly textured.
Fortunately, the driver's seating position is superb and if you get a higher-echelon GT86, the chairs come with lovely grey Alcantara upholstery, which makes their catcher's mit-like grip and support even more effective.
It's bad news for those in the rear, though, for the GT86 is not even a two plus two, but more a two plus laptop and shopping. Even children won't fit unless they're very, very young, although larger youngsters might squeeze in if the two front occupants are midgets and can drive with the front seats well forward.
No adults will ever use the GT86's rear cab, but what the heck, this has never hurt the Porsche 911, has it?
That said, the GT86's 243-litre boot is useful enough and it can take a week's soft luggage for two if you don't take your dinner suit or favourite party frock.
The GT86, developed with the BRZ Subaru - the company that supplies its non-turbocharged but impressive 147-kilowatt 2.0-litre flat-four engine - is a car for the enthusiast, and one on a reasonable budget.
When we say reasonable, we mean it. It's one-third the price of the Porsche Cayman, a car I have no hesitation in mentioning in the same sentence.
Suffice to say, if you're looking at a new Corolla, you could easily pay a couple of thousand or so more than the asking price of an entry-point GT86.
The number 86 is not just a nod to the AE86 twin-cam engine once used in quick Corollas, the MR2 and Celica all those years ago, but it refers to the bore and stroke of the new flat four that powers it.
So fixated is Toyota with the number 86 that even the car's exhausts measure that much in diameter.
In case we forget, in the tiny waistline crease in the car's front flanks, there's a shiny, rather kitsch horizontally opposed piston badge with the number 86 forming a boss where the crank should be.
A flat-four engine was an obvious choice for the car, because such a cylinder arrangement allows the heaviest item in it - the engine - to create the lowest possible centre of gravity, with the configuration also allowing the unit to be mounted lower and further back in the engine bay than an upright inline engine.
The actual centre of gravity is less than half a metre (460mm to be exact) from the tarmacadam, and with no GT86 in the range weighing more than 1300 kilograms, it's all good news.
The car's weight distribution is rated at 53 per cent front, 47 per cent rear. It's probably closer to about 49 per cent rear in my test car, thanks to that ridiculous wing on the bootlid. But even though the silver plank is constantly in my peripheral vision and prompting points and sniggers from pedestrians, the car feels brilliantly responsive, as if it pivots around the driver, and with such little weight to lug around, the 147kW engine doesn't have that much work to do.
It will work hard if you call on it, however, and I'm glad it does, because when it's not revving much, it sounds much like any common or garden four.
Yet give it some herbs, to take it beyond 5000rpm, and the unit starts to sound more like a sports- car engine. It howls and hums like great fours of the past, like Toyota's much-loved AE-86 and the iconic BMW E30 M3's engine.
It sounds strong, busy and very pleasant, right up to its 7400rpm red line, and not like a flat four at all. Gone is the well-known "Krobba-krobba-krobba" beat you normally get from Subaru engines.
Instead it's a smoother, more engaging rasp, closer perhaps to the engine note of Alfa Romeo flat fours in the Sud and 33 models.
You wouldn't call the engine exactly "torquey", especially when its peak value is generated at between 6400rpm and 6600rpm, but a six-speed gearbox with a natural, short-throw, "snick- snick" action that would flatter a rifle bolt, and a delightfully sorted clutch take-up point means it's easy to keep the car on the boil.
I have driven the car more in automatic form, and can report that the two-pedal powertrain - with wheel paddles for manual override - is a slick operator too.
While you might take half a second or so longer for the arbitrary zero to 100kmh sprint, the automatic's longer overall gearing means that it uses up less gas and makes fewer emissions - according factory figures - than the manual.
The GT86 has MacPherson struts at the front and double wishbones at the rear, to create a chassis setup contrived to permit a certain degree of body roll when cornering. It feels intuitive and instead imparts just the right amount of information at turn-in that the car immediately feels "right". If you do want to let your hair down, the GT86 has a Torsen limited-slip differential to allow some cornering fun - and you'll have lots of that.
The last people to tell me how important the ability to triangulate the knees and feet for best steering, braking and cornering information were BMW's advanced driver training instructors, and Toyota must have been on a course too.
When you are behind the small- diameter but nicely shaped steering-wheel rim, the knees move akimbo into comfortable location points in the door and centre tunnel that feel just right.
Thus, when cornering, you are not merely sitting on the seat, in a car. It may sound trite, but the position the Toyota moves you automatically into is one where you really do feel at one with the car. Few motor vehicles have it, most of them with expensive names and racy reputations, but the GT86 has it and the car's chassis does not let it down.
The joy of driving the Toyota is that it talks to you while you do. It doesn't shout "Watch out!" when you're nearing its limit, nor does it allow you to slumber behind the wheel when you cruise. It has that ability instead to impart just the right amount of response from your input to deliver confidence without making you over-cocky.
The steering is linear and unfailingly accurate, with lots of informative feedback, its fine weighting conspiring with the chassis's well-sorted impact damping to make multi-surfaced corners no problem at all.
Being a very predictable car in the way it works with you means that you soon relax into driving it. You forget just how adjustable light rear-driven cars are these days, and if you've been punting large rear-driven or common front-wheel-driven cars for the last few years, as most of us have, the GT86 will be a revelation.
Having gained confidence, a driver will note the direct relationship possible between cornering attitude and throttle position, as well as the steering wheel angle. Even the top of the tree GT86s have tyres that won't overwhelm with their tenacity.
Thus the car can work with the driver when he or she is pressing on, demonstrating the available level of grip telegraphically, so you can vary the car's cornering line with uncanny ease.
In this car's just over $40,000 starting bracket, only Mazda MX5 offers competition in the handling stakes and, as with that wee sportster which wears the most undeserved hairdressers' car labelling (among those who've never driven it), the GT86 feels as happy at driving for the heck of it as you do.
The GT86, which manages decent hot-hatch acceleration times to 100kmh despite the absence of a turbocharger, stops as well as it goes, and it's not just the alacrity with which the all-round discs haul this lightweight coupe to a halt but, like the chassis itself, the way it does it.
Deceleration is linear and, again neatly predictable, in traffic you stop exactly where you want to, while on the open road you scrub off speed accurately too, never over-braking or feeling as if you don't have enough stopping power.
Entry-level GT86s have drum rear brakes to the upper shelf models' discs, but for me, unless you're doing regular track work with the Toyota, the base car is surely good enough.
People will do trackwork with this car, however, and we'll start to see GT86s among the regular Porsches, TVRs, BMWs and the like at the country's circuits.
The GT86 is a genuine triumph from Toyota. Its poise and precision and easily accessible agility are addictive, and so is its puppy-like willingness to please the driver, and you don't need to spend that much money.
It's possible to spend close to $70,000 on a Toyota 86, but trust me, spend the thick end of $30,000 less and you will still have the time of your life behind the wheel and, without those daft wings and stuff, you will not look like a grinning try-hard, as I did.