Driving Perfection: Toyota GT86

I’d waited rather patiently for my turn in the Toyota GT86. As the months passed, I watched the videos, read the reviews and listened to the hype surrounding Toyota’s supposed return to form. Like a boy cruelly overlooked in the playground routine of selecting players for a football team or a young man without a date for the prom, I thought my time wouldn’t come.

I had every reason to believe the GT86 would appeal to me – the love child of a joint venture between Subaru and Toyota offered what appeared to be the perfect ingredients for a classic sports car recipe. The question was, could it live up to my own hype?

Well after a week in its company I can now confirm the inevitable. The Toyota GT86 is an absolute gem of a car. Not only do I believe it to be the greatest car ever to appear on PetrolBlog, I’ll also stick my neck out and proclaim it to be one the greatest cars I have ever driven. An instant classic that I positively yearn to own.

There now follows a warning. What you’re about to read is one of the most positive reviews I’ve had the pleasure of writing. I make no apology for this, when a car captures your heart in the way the GT86 has mine, you want to shout it from the rooftops. It’s a love that grew stronger as the week went by, so by the time the day of departure had come round, I could almost feel my heart breaking.

It’s not perfect, for reasons I’ll explain later. But when you love someone – or in this case something – you’re prepared to forgive one or two minor irritations. So the GT86 may leave the cap off the toothpaste or sing terribly out of tune in the shower, but so what. It remains so utterly convincing in other areas. But perhaps more crucially, it excels in the areas that really matter for a car of this nature.

Naturally I indulged myself in a Dawn Raid. My appetite wasn’t so much whetted by the Citroën ZX a week previously, as positively reaching fever pitch. The chance to repeat the experience behind the wheel of a modern, rear-wheel drive, front-engineered sports car was not something I was about to pass up.

Toyota GT86 on the North Devon coastThe alarm this time was set for a slightly more sociable 6.06am. Whilst the rest of the country either slept or sat watching the start of the 2013 Formula 1 season, I was out dancing with a GT86 on the roads of North Devon.

The destination was Croyde – a location normally associated with those who get their kicks from waves and white horses than curves and hairpin bends. And indeed, by the time I reached the north coast the surfers were out in force making the most of the stormy conditions. But I’ll put it on record here: I don’t think for one minute they were having more fun than me.

But let’s get one or two ‘issues’ out of the way first.

Issue number one – its interior. Yes, I’d agree that it doesn’t match the quality of say the Volkswagen Scirocco. Hell it doesn’t even come up to the standards of the Peugeot RCZ, although this may say more about the improvements delivered by the French than the lack of quality within the Toyota. The infotainment screen feels about a decade out of date and some of the switches appear to have been lifted straight from the 1990s.

Interior of Toyota GT86But to harp on about the issue is quite frankly to miss the point of the GT86. I’d agree that the fit and finish isn’t perfect and indeed, even after 1,500 miles my test car was already showing signs of scratches and minor wear and tear. But tell me, when you’re hurtling towards a bend on your favourite B-road, does this matter? It shouldn’t.

I’d also say that the things that really matter, for example the steering wheel and gearstick feel absolutely spot on. Equally the seats feel fantastic and the interior ergonomics are first rate. Maybe love is blind, but I did warn you about this review.

Second issue – cost. £25,000 is perhaps a lot to ask for a sports car adorned with a badge from a manufacturer so long in the excitement wilderness. But the value of the GT86 needs to be measured in the way it makes you feel rather than standard nuts and bolts. Just occasionally price becomes an irrelevance. Simply spend a morning with a GT86 and you’ll see what I mean.

Third issue – performance. To say the GT86 is lacking in pace is absolute poppycock. Granted the car is unlikely to be a winning card in a game of Top Trumps. A 0-62 time of 7.7 seconds and a power output of 197bhp will be provide little in the way of bragging rights. But it’s the way the GT86 uses its armoury that really matters. You can keep your gazillion horsepower hot hatch, the GT86 was never designed to be anything other than a highly focused precision instrument.

Toyota GT86 on the A386, DartmoorAnd besides, it’s £15,000 cheaper than a Porsche Cayman and whilst I’m yet to drive the new and supposedly brilliant 2013 version, I believe it has the mettle to give the starlet from Stuttgart a run for its Deutschmark. Stop thinking about the GT86 as an expensive 2+2 Toyota and start thinking about it as a genuinely pure drivers’ car. A priceless commodity these days.

The fact is, to get the best from the GT86 you need to put in some effort. There’s no turbocharger for a start, meaning you need to explore the upper reaches of the 2.0-litre engine to get the best performance. Peak torque of 205Nm comes between 6,400rpm and 6,600rpm at which point the fireworks start to happen. Keeping the car at peak torque becomes an addiction. It’s something you’ll never tire of. The redline is 7,400rpm – touching this will illuminate a red flashing light which simply encourages you to shift up and keep pushing on.

Critics will argue that this makes the GT86 inaccessible – claiming a turbocharger and an extra 100bhp is what the car really needs to exploit the brilliant chassis. And I’ve no doubt a quicker and headline grabbing GT86 wouldn’t be anything less than great. But it’s totally missing the point. As it stands the GT86 is useable, well rounded and utterly compelling.

The Dawn Raid (I actually did three early morning runs in the end) was enough for me to confirm that someday I will own a GT86. I’d order one today were it not for the fact that I’m chasing a dream of doing this writing malarkey on a full time basis. So instead I’ll start a piggybank and hope for the best.

Central rev counter on the Toyota GT86Rather like me, the GT86 takes a while to warm up in the morning. There’s an organic and mechanical feel as you wait for the fluids to circulate around the engine and the GT86 to reach operating temperature. But the sense of anticipation begins long before you get behind the wheel. Even the mere thought of knowing there’s a GT86 parked on the driveway is tinged with excitement. A sports car simply has to do this.

And the anticipation builds further once you set eyes on the thing. It’s not beautiful, not by any stretch of the imagination. But it has an aggressive, almost menacing stance – it’s like a statement of intent on four wheels. And these wheels are wrapped in the same 215/45 R17 tyres you’ll find on a Toyota Prius. By resisting the urge to fit ultra-wide rubber, Toyota has ensured the GT86 delivers predictable yet exploitable handling with bags of feedback running up to the steering wheel.

It’s the level of feedback I’ll remember most about the GT86. How often do motoring writers bang on about numb steering and a feeling of absolute disconnection with the road? It’s as though driver involvement was becoming a thing of the past in all but a select few modern cars.

But not in the GT86. The level of feedback is almost absolute. There’s communication through the gearstick, the pedals and crucially the steering. Grip the wheel lightly and it will constantly chatter away, communicating every tiny detail about the road surface, picking up even the smallest of indentations. Run over an unfortunate spider and you could identify its inside leg measurement. On all eight legs.

Toyota GT86 on the A386 in DevonIt’s the GT86’s greatest strength – a feeling of being totally immersed in the driving experience. The balance is a near perfect 53:47 front-to-rear distribution, making the Toyota the ideal dance partner. You know exactly where the car is on the road and the level of grip available to you – clumsy dance moves and stepping on each other’s toes never becomes an issue.

The engine will sing you to you too. Subjectively it’s not the most pleasant of engine notes and the way in which it’s piped into the cabin through a rubber tube creates a tune that at times can feel a tad artificial. But it becomes central to the driving experience. It will also return to more suburban-friendly levels when you’re not exploring the upper reaches of its talents. Meaning you can tiptoe back up your driveway following a Dawn Raid without the fear of waking your neighbours.

That’s if you return home. The temptation is to spend your entire life exploring the B-roads of Britain before crossing the channel and exploring the best Europe has to offer. Right now I can think of no other car I’d rather do it in. Perhaps a Michael Palin style trip is on the cards? 86 days around the world in a GT86.

Creating such a deliciously enjoyable car didn’t happen by accident. Subaru and Toyota started working on the project as far back as 2006 and there was only ever one aim – to create a pure and unadulterated drivers’ car. As such the attention to detail is little short of obsessive. I wouldn’t have been surprised had the car emerged as the OCD86.

Front wings designed to be seen from inside the Toyota GT86The front wings are designed in a way that ensures they’re seen from the inside the car, ensuring the driver knows exactly where he or she is on the road. The rear haunches are also perfectly visible in the door mirrors. The contours in the roof were put in to help the car achieve a drag coefficient of 0.27. The raised section on each side of the roof also widens towards the rear, providing greater stiffness, allowing the steel used for the roof to be just 0.65mm thick. You’ll notice this in bad weather when rain drops sound like bullets bouncing off the roof.

I could go on to talk about the 365mm diameter steering wheel – trimmed in buckskin to provide the best levels of feedback and grip. Or the hip-point of 400mm – 7mm lower than the Porsche Cayman. Combine this with the flat-four Boxer engine format and you have a centre of gravity of just 460mm.

The engineers even went as far as ripping out the original fuel tank to build a bespoke unit designed to fit neatly into the available space. As part of an overall weight production plan, the GT86 eventually tipped the scales at 1,240kg.

And yet, despite building what I believe to be one of the greatest sports cars of the modern era, I do wonder if the Toyota GT86 is destined to become a glorious failure. Like the Corrado and the Racing Puma, critically acclaimed and yet commercially a monumental flop.

Those who want a 250bhp hot hatch are unlikely to be swayed. And those who want something a little more accessible and rounded will still opt for the more trendy TT, RCZ or Scirocco. And it would be wildly optimistic to suggest the GT86 will win sales from Porsche. Because it won’t. And don’t be thinking the rear seats are anything other than a token gesture – unless your children are dwarf monkeys, they’re only good enough for storing luggage.

Side view of the Toyota GT86 on the A386, DevonIn some ways I hope the GT86 becomes no more than a niche indulgence. A sideways step created by the joint efforts of two manufacturers in an age where the focus is on efficiency and turbocharging. But then the GT86 could signal end of the rear-wheel drive, normally aspirated sports car once and for all. And that would be a shame.

I’ll conclude this review by reaffirming my apology for the overtly glowing and positive nature of this review. But I make no apology for falling head over heels in love with a Toyota. And that’s something I never expected to write on PetrolBlog.

And if you’ve skipped to the end simply to read the PetrolBlog Score, allow me to summarise exactly why I rate the GT86 so highly. The driving position is perfect, the handling is exemplary, the ride is firm yet comfortable, the pace is perfect for a British B-road and it’s unlikely to be driven by anyone other than true enthusiasts. I can’t throw enough superlatives in the Toyota’s direction.

The Toyota GT86: an instant classic and arguably the last of a dying breed. Beats going to the prom and playing football in the playground – no risk of a broken heart and grazed kneecaps. Just an overwhelmingly brilliant car to spend a week with.

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ABOUT AUTHOR
Gavin Big-Surname
The chief waffler and founder of PetrolBlog in 2010. Has a rather unhealthy obsession with cars from the 80s and 90s, and is on a one-man mission to collect the cars nobody else wants. Also likes tea and Hobnobs.

6 comments

  1. March 11, 2014
    Chris Devine

    I have got one (March 2014) and yes, it is all true. One hell of a drive.

    Reply
    • March 11, 2014
      Gavin Braithwaite-Smith

      Lucky, lucky chap.

      Just as the soon comes out, too…

      Reply
  2. February 14, 2015
    Leno

    Gavin, if you had a choice between a GT86 or Swift Sport, which would you go for? I’m in a position to buy either a brand new swift sport or a couple year old gt86. Had a test drive in both but think gt86 rear drive novelty would wear off after a few months and perhaps not the best everyday car?

    Thanks

    Reply
  3. February 14, 2015
    Leno

    Besides (you may think this is stupid) but I really like how the swift sport looks and of course rear seats…

    Reply
    • February 14, 2015
      Gavin Braithwaite-Smith

      I don’t think that’s stupid at all. Personally I prefer the look of the previous generation Swift Sport, but the new car manages to pull off the transformation from shopping trolley to B-road warrior rather well!

      As for the GT86 v SS conundrum…

      Right now I have three Swift Sports sat on my eBay watch list. I still haven’t scratched that itch and fully intend to one day. But it would be the previous generation car for me, which isn’t as practical.

      I’ll probably get shot down in flames for this, but right now, sat here, on Saturday morning, I’d take the Swift Sport. It has the potential to put a smile on your face more often than the GT86.

      My week with the GT86 was sublime. It really was a very special car. But I haven’t really thought about it since.

      Buying new, you can spec your own car and take advantage of the warranty. That would be a big appeal for me. The new car has greater everyday potential than the older version, not least because of the sixth gear. And if practicality and rear seats are important, the five-door version compromises nothing in terms of fun factor.

      It remains a brilliant car.

      Out of interest, have you driven the Fiesta ST?

      Reply
      • February 14, 2015
        Leno

        Hey thanks for the reply – it’s really helpful. Now I’m thinking I could save a wad of cash and go for the previous gen. swift sport as it at least has useful rear seats…trick is to find a dealer that’d let me test drive it for a bit.

        I have looked at fiesta ST but for me it has to be Japanese lol the rent4ring rent out swift sport at Nurburgring and rave about their reliability and fun engine. Also, my idea of fun is a car where it’s only time to shift up when the limiter is bouncing off the red-line and you really can’t do that with turbos if you want to keep your licence. Btw, I think the next generation swift sport will be the best ever as it’s been officially confirmed that it’ll have a turbo and that focus will be more on Torque and not BHP (148!)…torque figures must be eye-watering from that engine turbo’ed at that BHP!

        Reply

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