Dancing on ice in Toyota’s latest GT86

Where better to test Toyota’s latest rear-wheel drive sports car than on the snow and ice of the Arctic Circle

 

Standing on the cusp of 66 degrees north, the official latitude for the Arctic Circle, Rovaniemi would probably be a one-reindeer town if it wasn’t for Santa. The bearded present-giver with a paunch and a penchant for ho-ho-hoes is apparently at home in the Finnish town.

Other snow-clad locations may dispute the claim, but as far as the Finns are concerned, this is Santa Central. To prove the point they have built an impressive theme park of Christmas kitsch right on the line where the Lapland town meets the Arctic Circle.

It’s a balmy -15 degrees when we arrive, there’s a five-hour window of daylight, and everywhere – and everything – is covered in a layer of snow thick enough to swallow an overgrown elf. Welcome to Santa Central. Where better to put a real-wheel drive sports car through its paces.

It sounds preposterous to test the latest iteration of the new Toyota GT86 up here, but it actually makes perfect sense. Finland is, after all, the home to some of the best drivers in the world. Former Formula One racing driver Mika Hakkinen – aka the Flying Finn – reportedly got remarried in Rovaniemi two days before we arrived.

For the local bus drivers and school-run mums, a dark icy road doesn’t harbour any problems. On the bus from the airport, the driver nods along to a medley of Finnish thrash metal hits as he winds his way on tight twisting roads that would have Ireland in a state of national emergency.

It’s as if the moment Scandinavians get behind a steering wheel, they intuitively develop an in-depth understanding of the principles of speed, slipping, grip and gravity. This is, after all, home to the Swedish flick (or Finnish flick if you are talking to a Rovaniemi local).

Rally drivers

Adopted by Finnish and Swedish rally drivers in the 1960s to great success, it basically involves turning quickly to the outside of the corner then almost immediately turn in sharply the other way, towards the corner’s apex. Then as the tail slides out you balance the car with counter steer. That’s the theory.

Outside the town is the Arctic Driving Centre, one of a multitude of remote testing facilities at the top end of our planet. These are the isolated, unforgiving locations where each winter car firms test upcoming vehicles to see how they react to the extremes in temperatures. Do the door locks seize up at lower than -10 degrees? Does the engine – and more importantly the heating system – pack up at -20 degrees? And most relevant for our event, is the car like Bambi on ice when it encounters anything other than immaculate, dry tarmac?

The GT86 is not just another addition to the burgeoning Toyota fleet. This has been a messenger, a motoring signal to the masses: Toyota is back in the sports car market and it means business. After mistakenly abandoning this segment with the death of the MR2, in 2012 the GT86 announced a reversal of strategy at the brand, courtesy of a partnership with Subaru.

The car itself has undergone a mid-life upgrade for 2017. This means new bumpers, a rear spoiler and a track mode, a much less invasive form of traction control that lets the car step out of line.

To find the balance point on tarmac requires relatively high speeds and the constant push against the grip of the tarmac. On the loose snow and ice the GT86’s rear tail can be swung like a pendulum with the merest input of throttle and the flick of the wheel. In the open snowy expanse of a test facility where you would have to drive 500 metres to hit something, it’s incredible fun. And even if you were out to find something to hit, it’s invariably just a bank of soft snow.

To test out our Swedish flicks we first spent 45 minutes on a slalom track with all the traction control systems switched off. It is vital that the car doesn’t suffer from serious understeer. Thankfully the GT86 has got no such issues. The reason it often ended in a full 360-degree spin was solely down to my driving. Yet even then, you get plenty of notice. There isn’t the sudden kickback or bite.

Fast and Furious on Ice

The sliding is gradual and even for an amateur it can be managed or orchestrated with the gentle flick of the foot or twist of the wrist. You can dial in or dial out of a flick without any drama in the cabin. Outside it’s like Fast and Furious on Ice, with plenty of sideways slide and a rooster tail of loose snow.

On the tighter, twisting handling circuit – a 1.5km winding forest track – experience breeds hooliganism and on the third lap I over-egg the rear flick in a left-hand bend. Counter-steering to the limit of the steering lock doesn’t prevent the rear from slipping past the front nose in the bend and it all ends in a cloudy puff of snow as I hit the bank.

But that’s the beauty of winter testing. It’s just a case of engaging reverse, a little handbrake and throttle to finish the 360-degree spin so I’m pointing in the right direction again and it’s back to the action.

In terms of the car’s safety systems, the traction control keeps you on the straight and narrow no matter how clod-footed you are, while track mode lets you slide out a little without getting into trouble. However, the most impressive feature of the GT86 is how with all systems off, the car has a natural balance of its own.

The GT86’s message to the motoring world about Toyota’s revival of its sports car image is also being delivered by Finn Fredric Aasbo. With charm, incredible patience, a west coast American twang and none of the jaded media savvy antics of many racing drivers, he’s the ideal poster boy for both Toyota and increasingly popular motorsport of drifting.

The world champion drifter competes in a GT86 of sorts. Certainly the outer shell strongly resembles the Toyota production car, even if the underpinnings are closer to a fighter jet. Out goes the throaty 2-litre 200bhp engine with six-speed manual and in comes a 1,000bhp monster with a four-speed gearbox straight from the Nascar engineering bin.

What you get is a car that somewhat resembles a Toyota but races around with the back wheels doing up to 240km/h while the front wheels deliver 160km/h. You don’t need to be Stephen Hawking to work out how the laws of physics apply on this car.

Back on the main roads in a regular GT86 and it’s time for more sedate driving and consideration of what exactly is the role of this car. Clearly few owners are going to get the chance to slide around the frozen wastes. Yet the point is really about the poise and balance of the car.

Incredibly easy to live with

People naturally think sports cars are hard to drive or difficult to handle. The reality is that these more mainstream models are actually incredibly easy to live with.

Of course there are limitations in terms of space and comfort. It’s still only a two-seater with two pretend rear seats for holding a sports bag or a spare jacket.

The mid-life revamp brought a few interior changes to the car, including the addition of the latest touchscreen system with sat-nav.

Perhaps not revolutionary in this age of tech revolution but it still represents a step up in terms of interior quality that’s most evident in the new CH-R crossover. Toyota never won many plaudits for its interiors in the past, but lately it has started to improve.

True, the GT86 hasn’t been a runaway sales hit to date. Of the 170,000 sold to date, a modest 17,000 have been sold in Europe, but the hope is sales will grow as buyers become more aware of Toyota’s involvement in this space.

The strategy will be further cemented if, as expected, an all-new Supra is unveiled at Frankfurt’s motor show this autumn. Production of Supras stopped in 2002.

The GT86 is produced in Japan, a relief to Toyota no doubt. The Japanese firm may be regarded as the pinnacle of manufacturing process, but it has been a grim six months for its production executives.

First came Brexit and the implications for Avensis and Auris models built at its Burnaston plant near Derby. Then, within days of starting production of the new C-HR at its Turkish plant there was a failed military coup.

Most recently the firm was party to one of President Donald Trump’s Twitter tirades over its investments in Mexico. Against that backdrop, having to ship the sports cars from Japan seems like simple logistics.

At €41,995, the GT86 will not be arriving in Ireland in huge volumes. Yet there is an historic appetite for such cars in Ireland. Consider the popularity of the Hyundai Coupe in its day. This Toyota is infinitely better than that car ever was. The issue will be over the price. Knock €2,500 of that and I reckon it would be a big seller. That’s perhaps why there is strong demand for used models. For now, potential buyers may need a little help from Santa. Don’t fret, I’ve put in a good word with him about Irish motorists who write to him looking for GT86s. He says all you have to do is be on your best behaviour for the year.

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