Finding the delight in the twists and turns

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Exterior changes comprise new bumpers, re-styled LED headlights, a new rear spoiler, and new alloy wheels. Photo: David Thomson

It is hard to believe that five years have passed since Toyota and Subaru's joint endeavour to produce a top-notch sports coupe first bore fruit.

Back in the day, Toyota's version of this compact rear-drive machine (the Toyota 86) was judged good enough to scoop NZ Car of the Year honours, while Subaru's near identical-twin equivalent (the BRZ) was also highly regarded.

Today, the BRZ is gone from Subaru's range, but a facelifted version of the 86 is still on offer as a new car from Toyota.

Sensibly enough, Toyota hasn't made radical changes. Even so, the sum of subtle updates to exterior styling, interior trimming, standard equipment and - for the manual-transmission version - mechanicals is sufficient to merit a re-test by Drivesouth.

Exterior changes comprise new bumpers, re-styled LED headlights, a new rear spoiler, and new alloy wheels. Inside, there are new trim materials, a new centre instrument cluster, a new dash-mounted colour touchscreen, and a new audio system. There's even a new track mode for the traction control system.

Opt for the automatic version of the 86, and its non-turbo 2.0-litre boxer four delivers the same 147kW of power and 205Nm of torque as the pre-facelift version. But the manual - only available as tested in premium $51,986 GT86 guise - features a re-designed exhaust manifold. This lifts peak outputs slightly to 152kW and 212Nm, and spreads peak torque across a wider rev range.

The objective benefits are twofold: acceleration is quicker than before (by 0.3 secs for the 0-100kmh dash) and the manual GT86 is more economical than its predecessor.

But the GT86 is not a car you buy to drive economically, any more than it is a car you buy for practicality. Rather it is an overtly sporty coupe designed to be driven in a sporty fashion.

And so, having lived with its firm ride, mediocre visibility and high levels of coarse chip road noise during the obligatory urban and main highway portions of the road test, I was happiest pointing the GT86 towards winding tarmac back roads where it proved a driver's delight.

It's impossible to single out any one ingredient as key to the GT86's dynamic appeal.

The manual gearbox provides a peach of a shift and greater driver control of the engine than an auto can ever deliver. Revved hard, as it needs to be to access peak torque, the motor shows great sporting character. Yet it is also characterful even at lower revs and, because its outputs aren't insanely high, great fun can be had without travelling at silly speeds. With rear-wheel drive, crisp responsive steering and chassis and brakes to match, handling is first-rate too.

Taking just one decent corner in isolation, turn-in is sharp and precise, on-throttle adjustability excellent, and chassis balance through the bend is flat and assured. Throwing in a mid-corner bump or two boosts the fun element. So too do changes to the traction control systems, which give more leeway than before, before reigning in any tail-sliding fun.

When that lone corner expands to become a succession of bends with the odd short straight interspersed to let the engine rev out in second or third gear, the GT86 is better yet.

Little wonder then that a Sunday morning back road blast in the test car stretched from the anticipated hour-long jaunt into a two hour fun run, interrupted only by a phone call to family letting them know I would be a bit late home.

Finding the delight in the twists and turns
At a Glance
At a glance

TOYOTA GT86

Overall: ★★★★+
Design andstyling: ★★★★★
Interior: ★★★★
Performance: ★★★★+
Ride/handling: ★★★★★
Safety: ★★★★★
Environmental: ★★★+
For: Superb handling balance, delightful gearbox, great driving position.
Against: Coarse chip road rumble, firm ride over rough surfaces.
Verdict: Facelift freshens a fine sports coupe.
SPECIFICATION Price: $51,986 (as tested)
Engine: 1998cc horizontally-opposed 16 valve petrol four cylinder, maximum power 152kW@7000rpm; maximum torque 212Nm@6400-6800rpm.
Transmission: Six-speed manual transmission, rear­wheel-drive.
Brakes and stability systems:Front and rear ventilated disc brakes, ABS, BA, EBD.
Safety: 5-Star ANCAP crash test rating.
Wheels,tyres: alloy wheels, 215/45R17 tyres.
Fuel and economy: 95 Octane petrol, 7.1 litres per 100km on EU combined cycle, capacity 50 litres.
Emissions:CO2 194g/km on combined cycle
Dimensions: Length 4240mm, width 1775mm, height 1285mm.