Does the much-hyped Toyota 86 deliver? The Wheel Deal flew to Barcelona to find out
If you have ever been to Spain then you will know that it is a country custom built for the dark art of driving. In fact even now, on the brink of financial collapse, it has some of the smoothest and best-kept roads that you will ever clap eyes upon. More appealing than a leg of Iberian Ham, you ask? In my mind there is simply no contest. Well, provided you have the right tool that is – taming the mean twist of the Spanish countryside in something humdrum like a Toyota is only going to frustrate. Or is it?
You see I am about to set off from my Barcelona hotel in the first sporty car that this Japanese conglomerate has put to market since their MX-5-rivalling MR2 Roadster disappeared from European showrooms in 2007. It is called the 86 and it has been penned, what with its classic front-engine-rear-wheel-drive layout, to interest drivers looking for purist sports car thrills on a relatively shoestring budget. To say it has a lot resting on its shoulders would be the understatement of the year – or decade.
Fortunately it immediately comes out swinging with a design that commands your attention like a well-aimed punch to the solar plexus. Though opinion on its MR2 Roadster predecessor may have been divided, the architecture of the all-new 86 excites from every angle. The front is especially tasty what with that gaping great radiator grille and a set of evilly shaped headlights stealing the show.
All slanted like the eyes of a subject sat inside a Picasso painting, these HID units lead back to what must be this coupé’s signature feature: a flat aluminium bonnet sandwiched between two ultra pronounced wheel arches. Say what you like but I think this styling exercise makes the 86 look meaner than its more expensive brother, the fearsome Lexus LFA.
Move to this Toyota’s aft quarters and the sheet metal fireworks continue popping. With the shape of that narrow glasshouse saluting the rare and iconic 2000GT of the 1960s, the sleek profile of the 86 falls away to a short rear deck festooned with a subtly edged boot spoiler. Below it, two enormous chrome-plated exhaust pipes (the diameter of which measure exactly 86mm) flank a rippled air-diffuser.
Yep, while every other Toyota product is imbued with about as much excitement as the family vacuum cleaner, the new 86 is comparable to an iPad 3 loaded with the Playboy App.
The interior is also pretty impressive. Some of the switchgear might be a bit plasticky, stripped of the Photoshop lustre that characterised all those pre-launch snaps, but the layout and positioning of this car’s most important controls make the 86 feel like a sports coupé should. For example, the pedals are perfectly positioned for proper heel and toe work while the stubby gear lever is deliciously close to the thick-rimmed, small-diameter steering wheel – paramount for snappy cog-swapping.
Heightening this feeling of drivability is a pair of sports seats that keep your body in check no matter how high the G-Forces get. They are fairly comfortable too – normally I spend an eon fiddling with the angle of my seatback or the height of my seat squab but in the 86 I found my favoured driving position from the second I pushed the start button.
Ergonomically brilliant, another standout feature of the Toyota 86 is its emphasis on simplicity. And by this I mean that there is not a lot of unnecessary gadgetry to distract you from the business of driving. Sure it comes loaded with a sound system and cruise control as standard but things like satellite navigation are optional. This back-to-basics vibe is also mirrored in the dial pack that, just like in the Porsche 911, is dominated by a large, centre-mounted tachometer and a small digital speedometer.
Though awesome to look at and cleverly packaged, the true test of the Toyota 86 will lie in the way it engages with the black stuff at pace. But due to the fact that I have been stuck in the treacle-thick traffic of Barcelona all morning, it has been impossible to see anything beyond its easy-going demeanour or surprisingly compliant suspension system. For all intents and purposes I might as well be piloting a low-slung Corolla. Fortunately, now taking a turn off the freeway and forking off towards a rising mountain pass, this is all about to change – the asphalt ribbons of España await.
And this, I find out quickly enough, is where the latest Toyota coupé was born to perform. Engineered with a carefully considered front-to-rear weight distribution ratio of 53:47, it fires through corners like a missile seeking out its target. Sure, the 86 will understeer a little if you press into a bend too hard but snatch a gear, get back on the throttle, and that rump will immediately come around with a predictable enthusiasm.
Aiding to this adjustability is a low kerb mass (1239kg to be precise) that not only makes this Toyota feel very nimble but also lets it change direction with limited inertia. Think of it like this: if the 86 were human, it would be a lithe Brazilian ballroom dancer.
Now being armed with such sharp reflexes you would have expected the Toyota engineers to equip this machine with the latest and greatest in tyre technology. You know, like fitting it with some ultra sticky gumballs for limpet-like road holding. Instead they haven’t and the 86 is actually better for it. Sharing the very same Michelin Primacy tyres that grace the Prius Hybrid, this grip deficit means that the 86 experiences a rather high degree of lateral slide when you’re pushing the performance envelope.
On most sports cars this would be intimidating. But considering that you’ve only got 147 kilowatts to play with, the way this Toyota washes out on the limit simply adds to its driver appeal. And when it does let go it does so it a predictable and progressive manner. There is none of that sudden, sting in the tail, I’m-going-to-throw-you-into-the-foliage antics that you get in something like a Honda S2000. Constant failsafe communication, through the chassis and steering, is what this 86 is all about.
What it isn’t, however, is achieving blistering acceleration or top speed figures. Don’t get me wrong, the 86 certainly is not slow but when stacked up against the turbocharged enfants terribles of the hot hatch world – the similarly priced Golf GTI is a perfect case in point – this Toyota’s normally-aspirated 2.0-litre boxer engine does start to appear rather tight-chested.
You’ll feel it when it comes to overtaking slower vehicles on the highway and especially, after a brief stint on the Parc Motor Circuit proves, up long elevated straightaways. It’s during situations like these that you’ll wish that the development team had endowed the 86 with an extra 20 kilowatts.
The thing is though, as soon as you dig deep into the curvy bits again, this power deficit doesn’t seem to matter any more. Because the fact that this coupé feels so sprightly, is so eager to please and flatter its driver, makes it one of the most enduring and entertaining cars available on the market today.
The Speed and Sound generation might be quick to smite its robot-to-robot credentials (especially considering that it’ll probably cost a little less than the current Mazda MX-5 when it hits the SA market) but for old-school sports car purists who place handling finesse over straight-line ferocity, the new Toyota 86 will be nothing short of a revelation.
The Facts: Toyota 86
Engine: 1998cc four-cylinder boxer
Power: 147kW at 7000rpm
Torque: 205Nm from 6400 – 6600rpm
0-100km/h: 7.6-seconds (claimed)
Top Speed: 226km/h (claimed)
Fuel Consumption: 7.8l/100km (claimed combined)
CO2: 181g/km (claimed)
Price: TBC when launched in locally in July
Ergonomic, no-nonsense interior
An absolute joy through corners
Final pricing still not confirmed
Could maybe do with an extra 20kW
The hot-hatch faithful won’t get it
I have heard some people stating that the Toyota 86 could be the sports car of the decade and many Toyota dealers will tell you it’s almost impossible to buy an 86 until next year. The demand for the Toyota 86 has been so high that some have bought some of the limited stock and are now reselling them at a much higher price.