We test a revised version of Toyota's affordable hero car tweaked by its chief engineer, Tetsuya Tada.
“Yes, the Toyota 86 is as good as you dared to dream it would be.”
That’s what we wrote 12 months ago at the launch of the affordable sports car that immediately became one of motoring’s most stunning success stories of its era.
A year on, it’s a bona-fide cult car, and a rarefied phenomenon. The stats, particularly locally, are frankly eye-opening, too: more than 6000 units sold, more than 4000 of them in the first six months of 2013; Australia is the 86’s third-biggest-selling market in the world behind the USA and Japan; the vast majority of buyers still wait three to six months for delivery.
I’ve personally logged, at a rough estimate, 4000-odd kays in the Toyota 86 prior to fronting up to Canberra’s Sutton Road driver training facility for an event celebrating the coupe’s “first birthday” in Oz, complete with the car’s chief engineer Tetsuya Tada (pictured above) and a newly enhanced version of ‘his baby’.
The unnamed prototype is treated to a number of light modifications: forged BBS-made 18-inch wheels (up one inch over the GTS’s 17s) fitted with performance-type Dunlop Direzza rubber in lieu of the Prius-derived standard-issue Michelin Primacy HP tyres, plus revised suspension damping.
Neither Toyota Australia nor its Japanese guest would be drawn into confirming whether the upgrades would be introduced as a mid-life update to existing variants, offered as part of some new future 86 variant, or potentially offered as an optional (new and retrofitted) upgrade to the existing cars.
We’re just asked to sample and compare the one-off with the current, standard, manual-equipped GTS around Sutton Road’s brilliant road circuit. And then we’re invited to offer Tada our feedback.
First, the standard Toyota 86. It’s still not a quick car off the mark – my personal best is 6.9 seconds to the 100-metre mark – but it chirps the rear tyres eagerly upshifting into third on its way to carrying over 150km/h into the circuit’s first, shallow left-hand sweeper … which has a makeshift chicane placed on its exit (whoops). A squeeze of its slightly soft middle pedal is evidence that this car has been pounding the track all morning.
And that the 86’s modest road-going brakes will only cop moderate (albeit high-speed) punishment before showing signs of fade…
That’s the thing about the 86. Don’t expect it to be a race car. And don’t expect it to be the faster device out there. It’s not meant to be either of these things, nor pretends to be.
Then you slip it through the chicane, across a blind crest, through a succession of challenging curves, and it’s blissfully, beautifully alive. And it comes alive early in the friendship, in a way only a combination of stunning dynamic balance and agility together with quite low tyre grip allows; in a way only two other new cars out there – its Subaru BRZ twin and Mazda’s MX-5 – can mimic.
The Toyota 86 is at its best with its tail dancing about, which happens often. It becomes theatrical at road speeds that don’t terrify. Its heightened levels of feedback and connection between driver and road – particularly the superb steering that renders even pricey exotics’ direction-finders feeling foggy and distant – delivers a constant fizz of fun factor while also inspiring confidence and commitment through friendliness.
Because of the light weight (1275kg in tested GTS form), it never seems to kill its tyres and brakes to the point of extinction. And, thus, begs you not to stop through sheer resilience. The upshot is that once you start playing with an 86 you simply don’t want to stop.
Bundle that all up and you call it X factor. And lots of it. Which is precisely the point of this car.
Stepping into the Tada prototype, its enhancements, though modest, conspire to affect a very tangible change of character to the car’s most heroic asset: its handling. The dampers seem more multi-dimensional in that, on one hand, the ride comfort feels to be improved, while the overall handling package feels a little tauter, to sit a little flatter, and to provide more resolute body control.
The larger wheels and grippier, lower-profile rubber do add an extra crispness and clarity of movement through the steering wheel and through the communication of the chassis sent to your hips via the superb bucket seats.
What’s immediately obvious is that the core Toyota 86 handling package will accept more road-holding grip with aplomb. In fact, it almost begs for it.
The rear Direzza rubber does break away more quickly when provoked, demanding quicker and more accurate reflexes from the driver, though does so at a corner speed the standard-fitment Primacy HPs could only dream of generating.
Balance wise, the modifications make the 86 a little more tail-happy. But because there’s more turn-in point, higher mid-corner grip and improved power-down exiting a curve, they conspire to bring improvements in pace in every department.
Strangely, it even feels to have slightly stronger brakes, but that’s purely a side effect of the tyre biting into the asphalt harder.
While enthusiasts wait in eager anticipation for the inevitable turbocharged version of the Toyota 86, this Tada prototype is a sign the current car has formidable talents in its DNA yet untapped in production form.