x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Road Test: pleasantly surprised by Toyota's new 86

Toyota roars back with an affordable, no-frills sports car.

Interior of the new Toyota 86.
Interior of the new Toyota 86.

Anyone would think that, with the arrival of the new 86, Toyota had launched the world's first sports car. The fanfare of hype surrounding its launch has been significant and, normally, that's a sure-fire way to put me off something. Inverted snobbery, call it what you will, but if a film I haven't seen wins big time on Oscar night, it puts me off it. Which is utter madness, I know, and many of those Hollywood productions have turned out to be worthy of all the plaudits and sycophantic praise heaped upon them. It's almost always my loss.

I've been guilty of this same approach with the 86. So many people have been going into overdrive, extolling its virtues as a pure and thrilling sports car, blogging about it, Facebooking about it, tweeting about it, that it all pretty much put me off. I like things that don't necessarily appeal to the masses, so the 86 and I got off to a bad start, not helped by a launch event that gave me too little time behind the wheel to see what the fuss has been about. But now I have one to myself for a few days. And it has a manual gearbox, too, which should answer once and for all the questions racing through my mind. Just what have I been missing?

Toyota is the world's biggest carmaker; we all know that. But it hasn't made anything genuinely exciting for many years (I'm ignoring the couple of hot Lexus models), not since the first MR2. That wonderful little car was launched in 1984 and, in a stroke, changed people's perceptions about Toyota. With lines so sharp you could cut yourself, a mid-mounted twin-cam 1.6L engine, as well as brilliant steering, an exciting cockpit and an affordable price tag, it was an instant success and proceeded to wipe out Fiat's pretty X1/9. They were everywhere, and rightly so, but the MR2 eventually lost its way, being discontinued after three totally different generations in 2006.

On paper it's easy to see why there's so much praise being heaped upon the 86. It's a back-to-basics, no-frills sports car with diminutive proportions and rear-wheel drive. It has a 2.0L, four-cylinder "boxer" engine up front, it was designed in tandem with Subaru and, like the early MR2, it's cheap. Dh95,000 cheap. Oh, and Toyota says if you like, you can customise it without invalidating your warranty - which is normally a manufacturer's get-out-of-jail-free card.

Reading through the 86's brochure, the clichés are wheeled out in force. "Built by passion, not by committee," it says, along with other headlines such as "your dream made real." You get the picture, but the actual pictures contained within display something not usually associated with the brand. In practically every shot, the 86 is being driven sideways with smoke emitting from its rear tyres. And there's something else to consider while I familiarise myself with this car's raison d'être: Toyota in the UAE is touting this thing as a drifting champion's dream machine, getting behind the sport and sponsoring it. Really?

Drifting is something I've been unable to get the hang of over the years. It's difficult to get a modern car to break traction at anything like a sane speed, even with all the traction control systems switched off. And anyway, most cars are designed to understeer when things get a bit slippery, which is when the front of the car goes wide rather than the rear, because drivers tend to live longer that way. But understeer feels pretty horrible, while oversteer feels great if you get it right. The balance between steering inputs and application of throttle is so fine that, usually, I end up looking like a total amateur when given enough space and someone else's car.

Drifting is the least effective way of getting around a racing circuit in a decent time, but doesn't it look like heaps of fun? And fun, if Toyota is to be believed, is what the new 86 offers in spades. I've been missing out, obviously.

There are a few things about the 86 that I don't like. Its styling, while not unattractive, is certainly not going to set the world on fire. It's wheel-sensitive, meaning that the 16-inch rims which come as standard kit are just too small, looking lost in its wheel arches. The rear seats are someone's idea of a joke but they're not very funny. With the front seat in a normal driving position, I could just about slide a hand between its back and the cushion of the rear chair. It would have been far better to have ditched them altogether. And, before I forget to mention it, the stereo is utterly hopeless, almost rolling over and dying at the first hint of a bass line.

But then it's cheap, isn't it? And there are plenty of things about the car that I do like. For instance, all the controls I need are literally at my fingertips. If I want to adjust that puny stereo, I can reach it with my hand still on the steering wheel - the cabin feels intimate, focused on one thing only: providing the driver with fun. There's that word again. The front seats are superb, such as those you'd find in track day cars, with soft cloth upholstery and deeply sculpted sides. The manual transmission is a joy to use, with a light clutch action that doesn't grate on the nerves, even in the worst UAE traffic jams, and that four-cylinder engine makes all the right noises. It's a promising start.

The engine, while sounding nice and gruff, doesn't really feel that powerful, however. It's a 2.0L unit, producing 200hp and 205Nm of twist, so I was expecting performance on a par with my Scirocco but it's way off. Granted, the VW lump is turbocharged, but the fact remains that the 86 just feels underpowered for its size, and weighing 1,700kg doesn't help, either. But, Toyota is ready to argue, just look at the sticker price. If the designers had turbocharged it, the 86 would be priced out of the reach of the hard-core enthusiasts the company is intent on attracting with the model.

So does it live up to the hype? After just a few seconds alone on a deserted and sizeable area of tarmac, I can safely say that it does. Disarming the electronic traction control is something I rarely do but the relative lack of punch from that engine makes me feel more at ease here. If it gets messy, I reason to myself, it won't take too much skill or effort to catch it. With the button held down for a few seconds, the warning lights illuminate and I rev it high. Dumping the clutch, the Toyota instantly swings its derrière outwards and, lo and behold, with some opposite lock applied to the steering, I'm able to control the slide.

I try it again. And again. And again. Each time, I steer it on the throttle inputs alone, drifting until I overcook it with too much lock on the wheel or too much pressure on the accelerator. It's easy. And then I stall it, which would have been embarrassing if there'd been an audience.

What follows, though, is a demonstration of how the technical wizardry actual works because, unbeknown to me, by restarting the engine, I've armed all those safety systems again. Try as I might, I just cannot execute the same moves I've just been enjoying. It takes me almost two whole minutes for the penny to drop and then, when I disarm them again, the riotous fun continues. The thing is, though, the Toyota 86 still felt fun to drive even with the computers in charge; allowing just enough slip at the rear to make you feel like a bit of a hero.

The ease with which you can drift this car is remarkable and I can imagine owners won't take very long before having to head for the nearest tyre depot for replacement rear boots. But there's more to this Japanese hero than going everywhere sideways, and it pleases me a great deal to inform you that every single time I get into it, the drive is one that entertains and thrills in ways that few cars this side of a Caterham Seven can provide a driver. It's responsive, communicative and agile. It's always talking to you, telling you what's going on underneath its skin. You can hear and feel the transmission working (I would advise you consider the manual option before placing your orders), the steering wheel is just the right size and the gearshift is meaty and precise.

If this car had been launched a few months ago, I'm not sure if I'd have bought my 2.0L Scirocco, it really is that good. It does, indeed, go back to basics and provide drivers with the raw experience that's been missed by enthusiasts for years now. It teaches you a lot about driving and car control and, for this reason alone, is worthy of that low asking price. Fun? Oh yes. Toyota, it's fantastic to have you back.

khackett@thenational.ae