Toyota GT 86 review (2012 onwards)
Summary: Toyota has turned the world upside down by building a lightweight, rear-wheel drive, 200hp sports coupé that places the emphasis on driving fun rather than driving fast.
We like: neutrally balanced handling an ideal way to get into rear-wheel drive, great design details, low weight, built-in learning curve, price
We don't like: engine needs working hard, shame it doesn't sound better, plenty of hot hatches (and turbodiesels) are going to eat it for breakfast - but if you're worried about that you're missing the point...
We should spend a few moments here contemplating just how unlikely it is that Toyota has built this car. The GT 86 is a lightweight, back-to-basics sports coupé with a classic front-engined, rear-wheeldrive layout - and it has been designed, above all else, to be fun.
Fun, in this instance, doesn't mean mega amounts of the horsepower, or a chassis that sticks to the road like superglue. Fun in this car is defined by the sheer accessibility of its limits, by placing the emphasis on the driver, and by minimising the amount of interfering electronic control.
The exact same tyres as the Prius hybrid
And when you learn that Toyota - Toyota! - has deliberately fitted the GT 86 with the exact same tyres as its Prius hybrid, in order to ensure the rear wheels can slide to alter the cornering balance at the throttle pedal's will, well, you'll probably start wondering if you've stumbled into a parallel dimension.
It's all come about thanks to the company's fledgling partnership with Subaru. A jointly developed sports car programme was deemed just the thing to seal the pairing's alliance; the GT 86 and its Subaru BRZ sister are the result.
With 200hp and an exceptionally low centre of gravity, taut bodywork and a 1,240kg kerb weight, this is potentially one of THE defining moments for the performance car in the 21st Century so far. But can the GT 86 possibly live up to the hype?
200hp. When we first got confirmation of this figure, it didn't really sound like enough. The latest generation of turbocharged hot hatches are pushing on towards 300hp now - they don't so much accelerate as explode, with hyperactive handling that does insanely well to keep up.
Find the space to properly extend it
With the GT 86 you have to work for your reward. True, 0-62mph in 7.7 seconds is none too shabby. But we found the non-turbo 2.0-litre engine to be truculent at first, and the noise - fed directly into the cabin via a pipe called a "Sound Generator" - seems harsh, occasionally even unpleasant, and far from endearing.
A whip-sharp, spine-tingling Honda V-TEC rival this is not. Same goes for the six-speed manual gearbox - which is short and snappy but doesn't offer anything like the tactile, well-oiled mechanical indulgence of that fitted in the Mazda MX-5.
However, give the GT 86 some time and attention, and it will begin to make sense. Find the space to properly extend the engine - in our case Toyota had very kindly laid on a Spanish racetrack - and you'll pass through the nasty boominess at around 5,000rpm and find it sings until the 7,400rpm redline.
Just before the limiter you'll discover there's a shift light - an urgent red flash that signals NOW is the time to change gear. And if you pay attention to this, use it as a guiding target rather than wimping out way earlier in the rev range, you'll find the gearbox suddenly seems much slicker.
If Toyota is to be believed, this initial finickitiness about the drivetrain is actually deliberate. It didn't want the GT 86 to be too easy to drive quickly straight away. And the weird thing is, once you've had this experience, once you've discovered there's a sweet spot, it becomes increasingly enjoyable at lower speeds as well.
You are still - always - going to have to really wring out the revs to make rapid progress. It needs a ridiculous 6,000rpm on the dial before it properly wakes up, and that is going to make overtaking a pain. Many a modern turbodiesel will eat it for breakfast. Yet it does tend to creep under the skin.
Ride and handling
The Prius tyres are a stroke of genius. The GT 86 is far from being a tail-wagging mentalist, but because the tyres have a progressive and relatively low grip threshold, they involve you in the process of driving this car at much more accessible speeds. And give it a cornering attitude that's highly adjustable.
A cornering attitude that's highly adjustable
There's a slight amount of softness when you first enter a bend, as the GT 86 leans into its suspension a little and the front end pushes on, hinting at understeer. But because the Toyota is rear-wheel drive, you can quickly dial this out using the accelerator.
In tighter turns, this resulting shift in momentum is quite pronounced - the car seeming to yaw at a point just behind you; in longer sweepers it's expressed far more neutrally. The tyres really help you to feel what the chassis is doing, encouraging you to carry more and more momentum.
Which is a fortunate, because unless you can keep the speed up you're going to start wishing for a gruntier engine. The GT 86 also lacks the sharpness and precision of, say, a Renaultsport Mégane. But these apparent shortcomings only add to the challenge.
A world of old-school non-turbo engines
It isn't a car that gives all of itself to you instantly. The return comes with extended familiarity - there's a learning curve, as it gently pulls you into its world of old-school non-turbo engines and rear-wheel drive. If you simply want to go flat out it probably isn't for you.
With a centre of gravity just 4.6cm from the ground, beautifully weighted steering and the extra dynamic elasticity of powered rear wheels, the GT 86 is brilliantly balanced. In other words, a hell of a reminder of what driving for pleasure used to be about.
Whether this has the endurance to deliver long-term satisfaction is harder to gauge. Pedalling it for a day over Spanish mountain roads and around the racetrack, it only got better and better. But over time, we can't help thinking we'd come to rue the absence of a truly incisive performance edge.
In terms of appearance, control layout and comfort, Toyota has done a great job with the GT 86 interior. The instruments are dominated by a big rev-counter, inset with an easy to read red-lit digital speedo, and details like the frameless rear view mirror are plain cool.
The seats are supportive, the pedals superbly spaced, the minor controls intuitive and visibility fine. It's hard not to be pleasingly surprised by the fluid ride quality, either - this car seems unlikely to struggle with the scarred tarmac back home in the UK.
The Sound Generator was making some curious noises
There's only a single specification, including dual-zone climate control, a decent stereo - everything you really need. The optional six-speed paddleshift automatic gearbox is supposedly among the fastest conventional autos available.
However, we weren't entirely convinced by the build quality. Admittedly, we were driving launch cars that had clearly been given a great deal of grief. But the gear linkage and the Sound Generator were making some curious noises.
Worst of all, though, the air conditioning compressor in our car sounded as if there was an overweight asthmatic breathing hard in the back seat. Wouldn't blame them, really, if that was the case - since the bare minimum amount of legroom back there means the rear is only really suitable for small children.
Economy and safety
There's no EuroNCAP crash test rating yet. But you get seven airbags, and Toyota/Subaru has spent so much time optimising weight against strength it will be a shock if the GT 86 doesn't achieve a solid score.
If you're alarmed by those Prius tyres, don't be. You have to be massively aggressive to get the back end to step out fully - at least in the dry - while a three-stage stability control system plus a limited slip differential keep things pointing in the right direction. The car's natural balance is always on your side.
It achieves a remarkable 44.1mpg
As for economy, this is unlikely to be a major buying consideration among the target audience. But with a specially developed direct injection system - Toyota's major contribution to the engine programme - it achieves a remarkable 44.1mpg on paper with 181g/km CO2 emissions.
The auto is even more efficient, returning a claimed 49.6mpg with 164g/km. According to the trip computer we saw 27.4mpg during our road driving in the manual - which, considering the driving consisted mostly of second and third gear twisties with foot down sprinting in between, isn't all that bad.
MSN Cars verdict
So then. The engine's hard work, it's noisy, the chassis offers more adjustability than precision, and the gearbox is occasionally tricky. In day-to-day driving it may, in fact, prove to be quite the pain in the arse. What exactly are we to make of the Toyota GT 86?
Being completely at odds with recent trends in performance motoring, we'd like to call this car a breath of fresh air. It's actually more like opening a vault that's been sealed up for years - hints of treasure, but you're going to need to take a moment before you can breathe in the atmosphere and fully appreciate it.
At under £25,000 - and with Toyota's usual five-year, 100,000-mile warranty - it certainly gives value for money. Yet the choice at this price point is vast, and the dedication required to get the most out of it means the GT 86 definitely won't suit everybody. But then, it probably wouldn't be such a fascinating car if it did.
Need to know
Engines (petrol): 2.0
Engines (diesel): n/a
Torque: 151lb ft
0-62mph: 7.7s (manual), 8.4s (automatic)
Top speed: 140mph (manual), 130mph (automatic)
Mpg combined: 44.1mpg (manual), 49.6mpg (automatic)
CO2, tax: 181g/km, 27% (manual), 164g/km, 23% (automatic)