Can a Toyota be fun to drive? It’s a question that’s difficult to contemplate answering in anything but the negative when you consider the company’s current line-up.
Corolla, Camry, Aurion, Kluger, RAV4… they’re all competent machines that sell in vast numbers and have plenty of admirable qualities. But driving excitement is not among them.
So this is it. After plenty of hype, 'FT-86' concept previews and then official pictures, we’ve at last got behind the wheel of the Toyota 86 – the sports car that is aiming to help counteract the company’s conservative image and reach out to younger motorists.
It’s just a few days since Toyota unveiled what it calls a production prototype of the coupe at the 2011 Tokyo motor show as we find ourselves at the Short Course of the Toyota-owned Fuji Speedway racetrack nestled in the foreground of Japan's iconic, snow-capped Mount Fuji.
There’s not much of a view, however. With the clouds low, grey and depositing plenty of rain onto the track, the only thing towering over the track is a sense of anticipation from the assembled Australian motoring media as we contemplate getting to know the new rear-wheel-drive car in the wet.
There’s a couple of sighting laps behind a pace car first, to help us acclimatise to both the track layout the amount of available grip. And regarding the latter, it’s certainly a greasy surface that will need respect.
Our first Toyota 86 test car is fitted with 17-inch Yokohama low-rolling-resistance rubber that’s borrowed from the Prius to ensure the car isn’t over-tyred. There’s still a reasonable amount of grip, though, considering the conditions.
For a car that takes its name – and principles - from Toyota’s legendary front-engine/rear-drive Corolla AE86, the good news for enthusiasts who remember the 1980s is that the modern 86 is happy to go sideways.
You’ll need to switch off the car’s stability control system, which unlike any other current Toyota will genuinely prevent the electronics from interfering with the angle of the car through corners. Leave the system on and it’s overly intrusive – again in frustrating Toyota tradition - and doesn't allow much slip in Sport mode, either.
The saturated track certainly makes it easy to push the 86’s tail outwards, but we’ll have to wait until we run the Toyota in the dry before we can determine whether the engine has enough squirt to achieve the same feat.
The car’s initial attitude to corners is slight understeer, and there’s a sense that achieving oversteer will come easier as a result of lifting off mid corner rather than being trigger happy with the throttle. Either way, there’s a limited-slip rear differential to help keep playtime going.
The 2.0-litre four-cylinder ‘Boxer’engine comes courtesy of Subaru (but adds Toyota direct injection technology) along with virtually all the other mechanicals and Impreza-based platform as part of the joint venture project that has also produced the near-identical Subaru BRZ twin.
It produces 147kW of power, which is respectable when you consider a VW Golf GTI manages just an extra 8kW by turbocharging its 2.0-litre capacity.
Toyota is said to be working on a supercharged version of the engine, but that’s a story (to look forward to) for another day.
Even in the wet it’s clear the Toyota 86 is a car that’s more focused on corners than setting any 0-100km/h standing start sprint records. A highly unscientific seat-of-the-pants feel suggests a time somewhere in the seven to eight-second bracket.
But with that flat four pumping its four cylinders horizontally lower and further back than in any other Subaru, and combined with a circa-1200kg kerb weight, it takes only a few corners of our first flat-out lap to appreciate the Toyota 86 is a very nicely balanced sports car.
The car’s initial attitude to corners is slightly understeer, but as any good driver’s car should, the 86 rewards delicate inputs from the steering wheel and throttle. Or you can just throw it about, so chuckable is the chassis.
There’s a pureness to the steering – at least on the smooth bitumen of Fuji Speedway (so no verdict yet on ride quality). It’s smooth, responsive, and well judged in terms of weighting.
The smallest steering wheel in Toyota’s line-up also feels just the right in the hands.
Fuji not exactly a track that requires lots of heavy braking, but even in wet the brakes provided sufficiently confident stopping power in the one downhill start/finish straight. Everything feels progressive, including the engine.
This was the only part of the track where there was a decent opportunity to rev the engine, which carries some Subaru engine note characteristics even it’s not the kind of deep throb that's such a trademark in models such as the WRX. The revs feel a bit more enthusiastic with the six-speed manual version of the 86, though even the optional six-speed auto will climb towards the 7400rpm cutout without changing gear.
And with the peak power of 147kW produced at 7000rpm, it’s not a waste of time holding onto gears.An automatic would normally be heresy for a keen driver, but the self-shifter at least comes with paddleshift levers that offer some semblance of engagement – as well as blipping the throttle on downshifts.
Choose the manual and you’ll find the shift action notchy, but the throw is nice and short and teams with a well weighted clutch pedal.
And if you’re already wondering how it will compare with its twin, the Subaru BRZ, which it shares virtually everything except the badge and the odd styling detail, we can tell you.
Exactly the same, according to a Subaru insider who spoke to CarAdvice. Not even the suspension tuning between the two cars has been changed, our source says.
If Subaru Australia does decide to bring the BRZ to Australia, that means it essentially boils down to two simple factors: brand preference and price.
With half a year to go until the Toyota 86’s June 2012 launch, the company will says only that it hopes to start the sports car’s price with a ‘3’. Expect a figure in the mid to late-$30,000 bracket rather than low $30,000s, CarAdvice suggests.
We drove pre-production test cars that leave room for some final tidy-ups here and there, but even allowing for that the 86’s cabin still suggests it was built to a mid-$30K price point. There’s no shortage of hard plastics while the cabin presentation is unlikely to win any awards for innovation.
The cramped rear seats also make this a 2+2 coupe rather than a genuine four-seater, though the rear seatbacks fold down to create extra boot space (for items such as spare wheels and tyres for track days, Toyota suggests).
But at least the cabin delivers on the sporty feel. The driving position is low and the driver is partially cocooned by the well bolstered sports seats.
And, crucially, our first overall overseas impressions suggest we may have an answer to our original question: Yes.