It’s a curious coincidence that I’m writing this, having just driven a car created out of collaboration between two once-unlikely bedfellows, as the motoring news wires are abuzz with word of another once unthinkable joining of forces.
The Toyota GT86, a car that steps neatly into the space sadly vacated by its massively likeable Celica forebears, is in fact not just a Toyota. It’s a Subaru too, with the much smaller Japanese company carrying out much of the design and development work on the car at the behest of Toyota, which snapped up a significant shareholding in Subaru as Subaru’s erstwhile partner, General Motors, divested a few years back.
That’s why the GT86 (and its Subaru BRZ kissing cousin) has a 2.0-litre flat-four engine (with Toyota injection systems and gearbox); it’s what Subaru knows best. Toyota, as the senior partner though, has clearly called the shots and it’s down to Toyota boss Akio Toyoda’s insistence on light weight and crisp throttle response that the GT86 and BRZ do without either the turbocharging or the four wheel drive that have been Subaru touchstones for so long.
The result is a car that feels gleefully out of place. It is small and light at a time when most cars are large and bloated. Its free-revving flat four sings and growls, drinking petrol in a world (a European world at any rate) that desires diesel. Its sub-200bhp power rating means that it barely qualifies in modern parlance as a performance car, but personally I have long felt that more than 200bhp is wholly unnecessary if you get the rest of the recipe right. Which Toyota and Subaru together have most certainly done so. It is just fabulous to drive on the road; Porsche-solid but with the adjustability and agility of a Mazda MX-5. It is a thoroughbred of the old sportscar school and all the more refreshing for it.
And it won’t be alone for long, for news came this week that Alfa Romeo and Mazda are to join forces to jointly develop both a new MX-5 and a new Spider. This could be a concoction of rare wonderment. The MX-5′s combination of low weight, affordable price and rugged reliability joined with Alfa’s styling and engine magic could make for just about the perfect sports car, whichever badge you choose. We will find out for certain when the first of the new cars rolls off the production line in Hiroshima in 2015.
In making these combined forces operations work so well though, the Toyota-Subaru combination has managed to (and the Mazda-Alfa alliance will have to) dodge the bullets of historical failure. Motoring collaborations rarely run so smoothly.
When General Motors and Fiat tied the knot in the late nineties, it seemed to be an ideal marriage of two motoring giants, but the relationship ended in an acrimonious divorce that cost GM billions in alimony. Only joined-at-the-hip Punto and Corsa models ever really came of it, and both are decent, rather than outstanding cars.
We all had high hopes for the marriage of Suzuki and Volkswagen, which recently looked like another combination where both sides could only benefit; VW from Suzuki’s low-cost Asian manufacturing base, Suzuki from access to VW’s bottomless parts-bin. But the relationship quickly soured and we were left with the unedifying sight of two major international car makers having a the equivalent of a screaming divorce row in the middle of a cocktail party. Not a single collaborative model came of the plan.
And then there was Citroen and Maserati. A seventies joining that seemed odd, for certain, at the time but which produced some delectable machinery. Maserati’s Merak supercar benefited from a comfy Citroen-inspired cabin that made a mockery of Ferrari’s cramped seventies efforts, while the Maserati-engined Citroen SM still stands apart as one of the most futuristic looking cars if all time. Even today, it looks like it would be more at home in front of Ridley Scott’s camera than on a mere high street or motorway.
But boy did the Citroen-Maserati setup go south. So acidic did the relationship become, that it bore witness to possibly the worst act of automotive vandalism ever. The story goes that, post-divorce, Citroen found it had a supply of spare Maserati V6 engines, for the now-defunct SM, sitting on the upper floor of a Paris warehouse. Despite the sheer beauty and ferocity of these engines, and their worth to future SM restorers and owners, they were summarily dispatched, through a loading door, to a waiting skip below. So much poetry and soul became so much scrap.
Hopefully, the intra-Japanese and Italio-Japanese tie-ups will be more harmonious. If they manage that, we could be on the cusp of a great new era in sports cars. A turning away from the pointless horsepower wars and escalating prices and weights of the past decade. A return to simple, affordable driving fun. The GT86 and BRZ make a wonderful vanguard. Hopefully, the Spider and MX-5 will make a suitably brilliant follow-up.