Putting Toyota back on track

Wed, Dec 7, 2011, 00:00

FIRST DRIVE: TOYOTA GT86:OUR FIRST ENCOUNTER with Toyota’s new sports car started much like the online dating stories you read about in magazines at the dentist. Teased for two years with photos and promises of rear-wheel drive, I became slightly besotted with the FT86 concept. But it was not until last week that we finally hooked up on its home turf in Japan.

Our initial meeting was across crowds at the Tokyo motor show, amid the camera flashes. Already things were going awry. It was no longer the FT86: its real name is GT86.

But it was not until the next day, on a rain-sodden racetrack on the Sodegaura Forest raceway, that we really got acquainted. And just like those tales from the magazines, I initially felt cheated.

After two years and as many eye-popping concept cars that stole my heart, the metal sitting in the pit lane was a rather bland looking coupe. Where had all the on-stage menace gone? The racy rear-end? Sure it was fundamentally stylish, offering a great basis upon which the after-market dressers could have a field day. From a subtle spoiler fan to the “pimp my ride” merchants, the potential to turn this car into a star of varying degrees of vamp is enormous. It’s just the bare basic metal is rather dull.

And yet, like many tales of such first encounters, you need to give it a little time, delve a little deeper. The rewards with GT86 are phenomenal. This is a car packed with passion, its raison d’être defined by driving.

The GT86 is a blue-collar racer, designed to be affordable to people with a passion for driving, not simply the idle rich who own sports cars for status but would struggle to handle a Nissan Micra on a race track.

During the design phase, the brief was to create enough space in the boot and back seat (which is really just a seat-shaped parcel shelf) for four extra wheels to be carried for track events. That’s what proper blue-collar sports cars have in their DNA.

Toyota needs this car to work. “Fun to drive. Again.” That’s the tagline to the rebirth of Toyota post-recall crisis. Toyota has been doing some soul searching of late.

Under the leadership of Akio Toyoda, scion to the founding family, the firm has faced a damaging global recall, the tragic consequences of the March earthquake and, more recently, severe floods in Thailand that took out major suppliers.

Alongside this is the challenge of exporting many of its cars from Japan in the face of a strong yen that pushes up its prices abroad.

Out of tragedies come opportunity and for Toyota the chance to return to its core message. Since the demise of the MR-2 and Celica, Toyota became too rational and sensible for its own good – and arguably too fixated on money over motors. It sacrificed passion for practicality.

Some suggest that Toyoda himself has led the renewed passion, given his personal interest in motor racing and promises to rekindle a jaded public’s interest in cars. Toyoda may be a lifelong petrolhead, but the GT86 project was actually instigated back in 2007 and the car is developed in conjunction with Subaru, which will sell it as the BRZ.

So what’s it like? Well, slip inside and the seats are what drapers would call cosseting. Multiple side bolsters lock you into position. It’s a reassurance that whatever direction the car may end up, you’ll stay pointed at the windscreen and steering wheel.

The dash and controls are simple but, in that regard, very fitting. Even the air-con dials are brushed metal in the shape of five-sided bolts.

Hit the start button and the two-litre 200bhp flat-four engine, developed on the basis of Subaru’s well-established powertrain, kicks into life. It doesn’t quite have the engine note of the old Imprezas, but it’s still intoxicating.

Power down the straight and the acoustics linearly increase. In fact, everything about driving this car is linear, except the rear end. Power is delivered in a perfect line from pedal to tarmac as the noise rises to a high-pitched whine. The rev needle quite happily flits beyond 7,000rpm and will rest there.

The six-speed short-throw manual gearbox offers a wonderful mechanical feel, the gear cogs slotting into each other like a well-oiled watch.

Its relatively modest acceleration – with an estimated 0-100km/h in the region of seven seconds – reflects the fact that this is not a torque-loaded rocket. But straight-line speed is not what’s it’s all about: this car is made for corners.

The steering is accurate and the feel is as good as we would have hoped. Given that it’s rear-wheel drive, the tail is incredibly easy to step out, but even after a couple of laps we were getting to know its limits and everything is telegraphed well in advance.

The most annoying feature is the fact that a progressive and completely manageable slide is interrupted by the traction control trying to smack the car back into the world of Yaris and Auris. Thankfully, it’s an intrusion that can be switched off, something we did on our second set of laps.

By then, the feel and response to the throttle was clearly mapped, the gentle twitch of the tail well signposted. This car is wonderfully balanced, with a centre of gravity that’s lower than the Porsche Cayman and incredibly lightweight, coming in at just 1,180kg. That’s more than 200kg lighter than a petrol-engined Peugeot RCZ.

It’s too early to say what the ride will be like on Irish roads, but the car was tested in Britain and has done several days’ testing on the Nurburgring. Its engineers assure us this car will not be a bone shaker, unless you want it to be.

And the engine, putting out 200bhp and 205Nm of torque, delivers power without the explosion of a turbo, though in later conversations about likely aftermarket extras for the track fans, there were suggestions that a supercharger could potentially be a feature of a future version.

On its own it’s a wonderful driver’s car, the first time you could say that about a Toyota in several years. After a dozen laps in the new GT86, I’d forgiven the misleading images and the false name.

While the looks are not as good as the concepts and teasers suggested, the car’s personality more than makes up for it. There’s much more to this car than meets the eye and it has the makings of a motoring icon.


ENGINE:1998cc flat-four cylinder DOHC 16-valve putting out 200bhp @7,000rpm and 205Nm from 6,600rpm

0-100KM/H:Unconfirmed but estimated at about seven seconds

PRICES:Estimated to start between €35,000 and €38,000