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|Built to handle ... Low centre of mass, good balance and rear-wheel drive combine to make the Toyota 86 a mighty fine handling car. Photos David Thomson|
It's been the most eagerly awaited new car of 2012 and David Thomson has finally managed a road test. Here's his verdict on the new Toyota 86.
Pick a corner, practically any corner. Fire the new Toyota 86 into it at pace, and work the brakes, throttle, gearbox and steering to finely balance it through the bend.
There, in a matter of seconds, you will receive confirmation that Toyota's first sports car in more than a decade has an underlying substance to match its pretty face.
Chances are, after one corner, you will decide that is not enough. You will seek out another, and another. You will end up far from home and running late, but you will still avoid the most direct route back, simply because there's another way that has twists and turns too good for a driver behind the wheel of a car like this to resist.
Drivesouth's 86 adventure started with the collecting of the mid-range GT auto variant, fancied up with Toyota's Aero Package that adds a large rear wing, a more aggressive front-end treatment, side skirts and underbody aerodynamic aids to the standard car's bodywork.
Truth be known, this was not the 86 variant I was really after: opting for the GT over the standard 86 is fine, as it nets uprated brakes, 17-inch rather than 16-inch alloys, HID headlights, LED running lights and extra interior kit (Alcantara leather trim, dual-zone climate and heated front seats).
However, for the driving purist, the six-speed manual is the obvious way to go: more sinfully, to my mind, the Aero Package adds needless boy-racer flash and clutter to the beautifully proportioned coupe lines of the standard car.
Still, with scarcity of supply a serious issue for the 86 model, one takes what one can get, hopeful that the finer qualities of a car that has motoring writers the world over in raptures will shine through.
The essentials of the story will be familiar to some. This rear-wheel-drive sports coupe is a joint venture with Subaru. Named in homage to the classic AE86 Corolla of the 1980s, the Toyota version of the coupe was launched here at the start of spring. Subaru's equivalent, the BRZ, will follow as a 2013 New Year treat.
The 86/BRZ teamwork runs so deep that even the engine is a joint project, with Subaru supplying the core of the 2.0-litre boxer motor. This has been reworked with a shorter stroke and wider bores, supplemented by Toyota's D4-S direct injection technology.
The engine configuration has achieved two key design objectives: to produce a car with a very low centre of gravity (just 460mm), and an ideal front-rear weight distribution. The 86 project has involved a determined weight-saving crusade, with the extensive use of thin, light panels keeping
the car's total mass to under 1300kg.
The low-slung nature of the car is apparent when you climb aboard to sit substantially lower than in any other Toyota model.
Officially, the 86's internal configuration is 2+2, but realistically, the rear pair offer only short-hop accommodation for children.
In the front, comfortable sports seats provide snug, supportive accommodation. Though the cabin is neatly laid out - with red-stitching highlights on the seats, steering wheel, and gear-lever - the ambience is not plush.
Instead, the focus is all on the driving: a large rev-counter is the centrepiece of the view through the sports steering wheel; paddle-shift controls for the gearbox nestle behind the wheel, and though it's a self-shifter, the gear lever looks like it belongs to a manual.
Tucked in front of the gear lever are three essential buttons for the enthusiast. The middle one sets the transmission into sports mode, while those on either side switch the car's stability control system into the less intrusive sports setting, and allows the traction control system to be disabled. Push-button start brings the engine to life.
In an age when just about any performance engine less than a V8 features forced induction, this motor has a refreshingly traditional point of difference: it's normally aspirated. As a result, peak outputs are relatively modest at 147kW and 205Nm, and neither is achieved until the engine is very high in its rev range.
Those who have grown up with modern turbocharging and a consequent generous spread of torque (often from quite low revs), may find the need to get the engine spinning high in the rev range quite a shock. Others will recall that once upon a time all small performance engines had to be revved madly to deliver.
Whether it's being rediscovered or learnt for the first time, there is pleasure aplenty to be had in this high-revving approach.
At lower revs, the 86 is decently flexible for everyday motoring; one ambles along, savouring the decent ride that is one of the car's strengths, but wishing perhaps for less coarse-chip-road rumble in the mix.
At the 4000rpm mark the engine's increasingly urgent growl signals sporty things are about to happen. Then around 4500rpm you start to feel them through the seat of your pants. But it's only at 6000rpm and beyond that the engine really hums.
With power delivery so top-end concentrated, and peak outputs quite modest, the 86 (particularly in auto guise) is a respectable rather than lightning-quick straight-line sprinter. As is the case with that other traditional-recipe Japanese classic, the Mazda MX5, this matters little, because the car's underpinning handling dynamics are utterly excellent.
That it takes time to gather speed is rendered largely irrelevant because so much of it can be carried into and through bends. The linear way in
which power builds is also in accord with the car's progressive, adjustable and utterly forgiving on-the-limit handling.
And while the manual, which along with the greater involvement of manual shifting throws a limited-slip differential into the mix, would be my favoured choice, the paddle-shift-controlled version with its throttle-blipping downshifts is an adequate substitute.
An easily overlooked feature is the tyres: the 215/45 R17 Michelins fitted front and rear to the GT86 are narrower and taller than the norm for a car of this type. Fatter rears would certainly increase grip, but with that I suspect, the car would be robbed of the rare sense of balance between engine and chassis that - along with delightfully responsive steering - make it such a driver's delight.
So to a final assessment for what is easily the most exciting Toyota I have driven in the 10 years since owning a classic 1980s Corolla GT - the very car this new sports machine is named after.
The 86 coupe has arrived with a huge amount of pre-launch hype. It lives up to this with the purity of its design, and the hugely involving driving experience it provides. Cars that combine affordability with this level of dynamic excellence are once-in-a-decade events from the car industry as a whole.
Even so, Drivesouth plays tough with a final star rating, awarding four and a-half rather than the maximum five. That's an enticement for Toyota to earn the final half star the 86 deserves by dispatching south a manual transmission car, minus the Aero Package styling kit, for assessment as soon as it is able.