After castigating the BMW M5 last month for being too heavy, overpowered and generally overblown, I’ve found a car that puts the case for an alternative approach, and from a very unlikely source.
To see how left-field the Toyota GT86 is, consider that it comes from the company that in recent years has canned its F1 programme and killed every sporting car on its books from the little MR2 past the mid-sized Celica to the big and brutish Supra. So the decision to reverse all this thinking and build a lightweight, reardrive coupé was decidedly surprising.
But not perhaps so surprising as its choice of bedfellow for the project. Although nine out 10 by its major rivals such as the Audi TT, VW Scirocco and Peugeot RCZ, the GT86 is about as different as can be. But all it’s actually doing is reminding us of what such cars used to be like. It is a very simple soul: at one end there’s a 2-litre flat-four motor developing a healthy 197bhp, driving through a six-speed ’box to the wheels at the other. A limited-slip differential is optional in Japan but likely to be standard on UK models, and while there is an automatic version, it suits the car’s character as well as would a manual Rolls- Royce. The basic six speed manual is all you should want or need. As you can see, it’s an attractive car, at least until you reach the cabin. There you’ll find an interior where form has been made to follow of these cars will be sold as Toyota GT86s and while there is some Toyota input into its engineering, the bulk of the job was farmed out to Subaru, a company famed for making sporting cars with four-wheel drive and turbocharged engines. Of which the GT86 (or Subaru BRZ as it is also called) has neither.
More curious still is the fact Toyota engineers actually and actively cite all-wheel drive and turbochargers as two of the three reasons sporting cars have become ‘boring’. The third is too much tyre. Which is why the GT86/BRZ uses precisely the same rubber as the Toyota Prius, which would come high on my list of the world’s least sporting cars.
Compared with the fat-tyred, front- or four-wheel drive forced induction approach favouredby its major rivals such as the Audi TT, VW Scirocco and Peugeot RCZ, the GT86 is about as different as can be.
But all it’s actually doing is reminding us of what such cars used to be like. It is a very simple soul: at one end there’s a 2-litre flat-four motor developing a healthy 197bhp, driving through a six-speed ’box to the wheels at the other. A limited-slip differential is optional in Japan but likely to be standard on UK models, and while there is an automatic version, it suits the car’s character as well as would a manual Rolls- Royce. The basic six-speed manual is all you should want or need.
As you can see, it’s an attractive car, at least until you reach the cabin. There you’ll find an interior where form has been made to followfunction at a very considerable distance. You sit low in the car, making you realise how much other sports coupés that owe their underpinnings to humble hatchbacks place you much higher, much more on than in the vehicle.
There’s no elegant sweep to the dashboard, no lovingly chromed switchgear nor expensive addenda. You get some controls, some clear dials and the bare minimum of anything else. It is all you need.
I should say now I’ve only driven the GT86 on a track, and a soaking wet one at that so it is possible that what I am about to describe may not relate precisely to how the car handles on a dry British road. But on the basis that I can report only what I find, I find myself struggling to remember when I last drove such anentertaining, affordable coupé. The car it evokes most readily is the Porsche 968 ClubSport, but in its day that lived at an altogether more exotic price point.
Why is the GT86 so good? Partly for all those reasons Toyota says: because it’s not turbocharged, lacks all-wheel drive and doesn’t have needlessly fat tyres. But it’s still possible to make a mess of a rear-drive normally aspirated coupé, as many have proven.
The GT86 makes no such mistake. Its most significant weakness is the engine which is sweet but feels a little underpowered, even in the wet. It’s no secret that Toyota is already working on a supercharged version that would add the further 60-80bhp needed to give the chassis serious work to do. But the rest of the car is a sheer joy. And it’s that way not just because a fine job has been done tuning the suspension, but because Toyota and Subaru made life easier for themselves from the start, designing light weight in at source – which is why the GT86 weighs around a quarter of a tonne less than a Peugeot RCZ. The result is a car that’s delicate, nimble and has the most sublime balance. Over dinner that night its chief engineer confided to me that they’d actually set aside time in the development programme to make sure it drifted properly. And while I have heard tell of such things in Aston, Porsche and Jaguar programmes, this came from a man employed by a company better known for making such yawn-inducing machinery as the Auris, Prius and Avensis.
Out on the track the GT86 was in danger of becoming addictive. At the end of the driving programme we were meant to attend a press conference with a live link to the Tokyo show where Toyota was announcing a collaboration with BMW to supply British-built diesel engines. And I’m proud to say that while the entire European press corps dutifully filed into the conference room, the small but plucky UK contingent risked their host’s wrath by jumping into the vacated GT86s and heading back to the track for another session of entirely gratuitous, wholly unnecessary oversteer.
At the end of it we all wandered around looking a bit stunned. We knew from its on-paper specification that the GT86 had the raw material to be special, but just how special it was came as a complete surprise. Perhaps it was because we expected so little from a Toyota, or maybe we didn’t expect a mass-produced car from any mainstream manufacturer with less than 200bhp to be so enjoyable; I don’t know. What I do know is the GT86 was a complete revelation, one of those cars you’re lucky to find once a year in this job that completely overwhelms your expectation of it. It arrives here in June and, knowing what I know now, it is one of the cars I am most looking forward to driving this year.
Of course none of this means the GT86 will sell in huge numbers, and I don’t think Audi will lose a moment’s sleep over it. Sadly for every person who’s dreamt of a sensational driving machine they can both afford and use every day, I fear there are many more who couldn’t care less what end is driven but will care very much that they’d have to tell their friends they drive not an Audi or a VW, but a Toyota. And they’ll look at that sparse cabin and wonder who on earth could be seduced by that when an entry-level Audi TT has so much more class and quality.
I just hope the GT86 and BRZ garner enough interest around the world for some other car manufacturers to take note. There is, of course, no reason why one of the premium
manufacturers could not make a car as classy as a TT but as fun as a GT86. But as things stand the choice remains between a car that projects what its owners believe is a desirable image and another with no image at all, but which offers instead a landmark driving experience for cars of that type. To me there is no contest.
Engine: 2.0 litres, four cylinders
Top Speed: 145mph (approx)
Power: 197bhp at 7000rpm
Fuel/co2: 42mpg, 160g/km