“If a car is not fun, it is not a car,” said Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda at the Tokyo motor show as he revealed the company's new slogan: “Fun to drive, again.”
It is a response to the firm's battering over the past year, which began with a media witch-hunt over the (extremely rare) sticking-accelerator trouble, in which the consumer had to be all-powerful in their right to be incompetent and in which Toyota fell too readily on the corporate sword.
Then there was the Tohoku earthquake followed by the Thai floods, which destroyed the supply chains of every Japanese car company. Against this background, Toyota's new GT 86 comes like a new beginning.
“Car enthusiasts are bored with cars that cost too much in which the driver doesn't do enough and which rely on hugely powerful turbo engines, four-wheel drive and massive grip,” says the GT 86's development engineer, Yoshi Sasak. He's right. Technology has taken over, and what are we to do with such ludicrously fast cars? It's not as if we can really enjoy them on public roads.
Here, then, is Toyota's new sports coupé, created in collaboration with Subaru, whose own version is called BRZ. So it has a Subaru-signature flat-four engine, of 2.0 litres and producing 147kW without the turbocharger usual in fast Subarus. But instead of the now-usual front-wheel drive or Subaru-style four-wheel drive, it has rear-wheel drive.
Among this size and price of sporting coupé, this once-default configuration is now unique. Yet the opportunity it can give for microfine control in a corner is the best configuration for driving fun.
Usefully, Subaru already had the four-wheel drive Impreza; remove the drive to the front wheels and you have the basis of the GT 86's underpinnings.
The looks owe a little to the 1960s Toyota 2000 GT, an exotic, slightly E-type-like sports car made famous (once the roof had been chopped off) in the Bond film You Only Live Twice.
The “86” part alludes to the riotously entertaining, rear-wheel drive, Toyota Corolla GT Coupé Twin-Cam of the 1980s whose internal codename was AE86. Currently the only sensible-money sports car with a front engine and drive to the rear wheels is the Mazda MX-5, and that's a roadster. So the GT 86 stands alone as the coupé that car nuts have craved for years.
I am pleased to report that all of the promise is fulfilled, and more. The engine is a keen, fizzy thing, its note a mix of rasp and throb, its response instant and wonderfully easy to meter. This, plus crisp, sensitive, natural-feeling steering - it's electrically assisted, amazingly, and surely the best yet of its type - fills the driver with the intoxicating confidence of being fully, entirely in control, even on a damp, slippery test track.
More power in a corner brings on a gentle drift, helped by the limited-slip differential; this car does exactly what you want it to, in a way many recently qualified drivers will probably never have experienced before now.
It's fast, but not madly so. You need to work the revvy engine quite hard, but that's part of the fun. The interior looks and feels good in a racy, functional way; you sit low, and the two tiny back seats are more suitable for chattels than people.
Above all, though, it's the purity and simplicity of this car's character that really appeals, and the huge entertainment it offers while also managing to be quiet enough, and supple enough over bumps, to be usable every day. This is how a sports coupé should be. I want one, badly. -The Independent on Sunday