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Toyota, best known for its practical bread-and-butter commuters, has launched a car that makes very little practical sense but is all about prickling the senses. It’s a character car that, with its hot looks and handling, makes the journey more important than the destination.
The Japanese firm’s last stab at a such a vehicle was the mid-engined MR2 that sold here until the mid-2000s, and it’s returned to the sportscar fold with the GT 86, a rear-wheel drive coupé built in collaboration with Subaru that had one overriding development goal: fun.
The Toyota, which will drop the GT moniker and be simply called the 86 in South Africa, arrives here in July (Subaru’s version, known as the BRZ, is set to follow late this year or in early 2013). The two cars, which are virtually identical save for some suspension and cosmetic differences, are pitched as relatively affordable sportscars with iconic styling aimed squarely at driving enthusiasts.
Inspired by the Toyota 2000GT of the 1960s which gained a cult following in Japan, the Toyota 86 is a compact 2+2 seater focussed on nimble handling rather than outright power, embracing the Lotus philosophy of lightweight design.
LIGHT & LOW
The power unit’s a relatively modest four-cylinder 2-litre “boxer” engine but a body mass of just over 1200kg gives the 86 a useful power-to-weight ratio.
Its low centre of gravity (its driving position is 7mm lower than a Porsche Cayman’s) and double wishbone rear suspension deliver racy roadholding, enhanced by traction-enhancing features like a limited-slip diff and two-stage stability control.
The 86 is named after the Corolla Levin AE86 coupé that was a hit with Japanese boy racers in the 1980s, and also refers to the boxer engine’s square bore and stroke set up of 86mm x 86mm. The inner diameter of the car’s exhaust playfully measures 86mm too.
We drove the Toyota 86 on its international media launch in Spain last week.
The Toyota 86 proves a sportscar doesn’t need a gazillion kilowatts to be enjoyable.
That much was confirmed when I drove the new fruit of the Toyota-Subaru partnership on the twisty mountain passes near Barcelona on the international media launch in Spain last week, and the point was further underlined when I threw it around a race circuit. Small, light and nimble, the 86 is the world’s most compact four-seater sportscar. It scampers through a twisty road with the enthusiasm of a Jack Russell chasing a ball, though with considerably more grip.
In the same vein as Mazda’s MX5, the Toyota 86 offers medium power with a maximum-fun chassis. With rear-wheel drive, quick steering and a low centre of gravity, Toyota’s new coupé is a car for purists who enjoy cut-and-thrust driving without needing to set land-speed records. I can dig that, and at sea level where I drove it, the car’s 147kW/205Nm normally-aspirated engine backs up the sweet-handling chassis with just enough shunt to be fun.
Redlining at 7400rpm, the engine delivers good old high-revving performance and decent midrange grunt, backed by a fairly feisty growl and a slick short-throw manual gearshift that’s a delight to operate.
At sea level, the six-speed manual version of the car is good for a 226km/h top speed and 0-100km/h in a semi-respectable 7.6 seconds (210km/h and 8.2 for the six-speed automatic), according to Toyota’s figures.
The flat-four engine contributes to the low centre of gravity that gives this sports Toyota such a planted feel through fast turns. It’s a beautifully balanced car that can be encouraged into some sideways action when you switch the stability control either off or to its partial-intervention setting, but in a predictable and not snap-oversteer kind of way.
This grin-inducing agility has been achieved without giving the 86 a spine-crushingly hard ride, and it cruises with impressive comfort for a sports car.
In the styling department Toyota’s produced a classically swept-back coupé shape inspired by the old 2000GT, but modernised with the requisite pumped-out wheelarches and gaping air scoop to lend some visual aggression.
The cramped rear seats are for amputees only but the front of the driver-focussed cockpit has plenty of space, along with well-bolstered bucket seats and a height-and reach-adjustable steering wheel. The cabin’s trimmed in sporty plumage that includes a thick-rimmed steering wheel, red seat stitching and aluminium pedals.
I stick by my “don’t need a gazillion kilowatts” opening statement, but there is a fly in this ointment: the engine will suffer from altitude sickness and is likely to be humbled by turbocharged hot hatches up on the highveld.
Toyota felt a normally-aspirated engine was more “purist” than turbo- or supercharging, but up in Gauteng this Toyota’s estimated 17 percent power loss from sea level won’t go down well with buyers who’ll have to get used to watching the disappearing back ends of Golf GTIs.
Subaru is already working on a faster STi version of its BRZ which will pack a reputed 190kW, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Toyota followed suit once its high-altitude customers start bleating for more power.
The Toyota 86 goes on sale in South Africa in July in two specification levels at prices still to be announced, but rumoured to be in the region of R350 000. -Star Motoring
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