Toyota's stunning sports coupe captures imagination

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The new Toyota 86 is a lightweight rear-drive fun machine powered by a Subaru 2.0-litre boxer engine.Photos: Toyota New Zealand

This was a race Neal Bates was especially pleased to win, though he does not mind admitting it was close run - with the result hinging on a lucky call.

The ace Australian race and rally driver, at the Hampton Downs circuit between Hamilton and Auckland to show New Zealand journalists how to achieve optimum action from the new Toyota 86, was recounting the effort he had to put into securing his own example of this instant classic.

Australia and New Zealand has not been exempt from the insane global demand for the skid-tastic rear-wheel drive coupe and its Subaru mirror, the BRZ.

Bates wanted one for a special project but even his status as a Toyota motorsport ambassador did not help; the market was moving faster than he could. Then came a tip-off that led to him calling a remote country franchise that did not even realise it had been allocated an 86.

"I said to them, 'I'm calling to buy your 86' and they said 'We don't have one'. I said 'Yes you do and I can even tell you the colour [white]'."

Maybe Bates should have come straight to New Zealand; at the time of writing, we were still the lucky country for supply, though only just. The automatic GT has accrued an order bank running into next year. But he would have been able to buy into the TRD, an "ultimate" edition not offered in Australia.

Just 20 TRDs are being built, some have already gone: one to a 72-year-old Taranaki woman who previously had a Yaris.

Developed in partnership with (and built by) Subaru, the 86 is a lightweight rear-drive sports coupe.

It is powered by a Subaru naturally-aspirated 2.0-litre boxer, benefiting from the addition of Toyota D4-S direct injection technology. The Toyota version is a homage to the rear-drive Corolla AE86, a 1980s rally classic that also kicked off the drifting craze in Japan.

The 86 quickly moved into production because this brand sorely needs to reacquaint with the young. I was surprised to learn half the New Zealand pre-sales have been to 60-somethings. Sorry to sound ageist, but I am of the mind that this is a car that will be defined in part by those who sit in it.

The TRD lady will find her choice an extra-wild ride. Brembo brakes, firmer suspension, bigger forged alloys and a rortier exhaust that frees up an extra 5kW power, makes for a limited edition so special even we were not allowed to drive it.

The enhancements might have sliced seconds off our Hampton Downs lap times, though the base 86 and mid-spec GT, tried in auto and manual form, were a lot of fun nonetheless.

For me, the drive time confirmed that light weight, a peppy engine, intuitive steering and rear-wheel-drive layout, make this a brilliant driver's car, albeit one that does not offer its best easily. It does not have huge power and torque and because both peak high in the rev range, an 86 has to be worked hard to reward.

You will happily dig deep because the 86 is so communicative it is among those select few cars that instantly win over for the purity of its feel, balance and verve.

Forget about family use (those back seats are hopeless anyway). This car is all about the driver, kicking off with a driving position that is low, snug and pretty much perfect.

At 2.5 turns lock-to-lock, the tiller is attuned for the circuit and the merits of the 53/47% front/rear weight distribution and the limited slip rear differential are also clear. I do not know how the tyres would acquit in the sopping wet, but on dry surfaces the rubber feels "right". There is just enough grip to make it feel assertive and sure in normal operation, but not so much as to stymie tail-out antics.

As much as the TRD will gain halo status, those looking at the budget end of the range are not going to be short-changed. As a bang for buck, a base model intended as a starter kit for cash-constrained enthusiasts (who'll add after-market tweaks as they can afford to) is the best choice,
because you still get the same fizz and handling thrills.

The choice of transmission has the biggest effect on the driving experience. The six-speed auto has a relatively fast action (and downshift blips) but it's still relatively docile and lacks the intimacy of the sweet-feel manual.

What the 86 does not deserve is the cost-extra Aero Package, mainly because it delivers a stupidly sized, weighty wing. The TRD kit is more subtle, but really the body looks good without any adornments.

Ultimately, whatever form it arrives in, this model is to be a rare sight. Just one factory produces the 86 and the Subaru BRZ, and although the production mix favours Toyota 10:1, capacity is capped at 60,000 units a year, from which New Zealand will receive 200 per annum.

Toyota has suggested a touch of the 86 spirit will transfer to the new Corolla here at the end of October. One can only hope.



Toyota's stunning sports coupe captures imagination
At a Glance


Price: $41,986 to $69,486.

Engine: 1998cc horizontally-opposed 16 valve petrol four-cylinder, maximum power 147kW@7000rpm; maximum torque 205Nm@6400-6600rpm.

Transmission: Six-speed manual or six-speed automatic.

Brakes and stability systems: Disc brakes, ABS, BA, EBD.

Wheels, tyres: 205/55R16 to 215/45R17.

Fuel and economy: Petrol, 7.1 (manual) 7.8 manual (auto) litres per 100km on EU combined cycle, capacity 50 litres.

Dimensions: Length 4240mm, width 1775mm, height 1285mm.