Road Test Two car makers team up to provide the best of both worlds, and end up with this year's most exciting car.
Toyota goes back to basics with Subaru collaboration on FT 86
This year's most exciting car is a Toyota. Yes, really. The company that brought us the crushingly dull Yaris is just about to launch a compact, lightweight rear-wheel-drive sports coupé. Notice I didn't mention "powerful", as 200hp isn't much these days. In fact, it's paltry. But the FT 86 isn't about power; it's all about poise. Toyota has been obsessive about it, from the position and type of engine to the driven wheels, the FT 86 is a car that's been created to provide huge entertainment behind the wheel without the need for eye-widening power and masses of grip.
The engine itself it pretty unusual: the boxer four-cylinder has been developed by Subaru. Toyota's input was its direct injection system. That Subaru tie-up is interesting, too, as it will build its own version, looking only slightly different and wearing a BRZ badge. America will get the FT 86 courtesy of Toyota's more youthful Scion brand. The naturally aspirated 2.0L engine is light, the boxer layout allowing it to be positioned low and as far back under the bonnet as possible. The result is a very low centre of gravity, helping minimise inertia. The enthusiast-driven specification doesn't finish there either. There's double-wishbone suspension all round and that engine drives the rear wheels.
An intoxicating formula, but what of the numbers? Toyota isn't saying just yet, so the FT 86's 0-to-100kph and top-speed figures remain secret for now. At the Jarama circuit in Spain, arriving at the first corner, I couldn't care about how quickly the FT 86 can get to 100kph, nor am I concerned about its top speed. It's the steering that I'm concentrating on. It's beautifully weighted, the chunky wheel's response being both quick and very accurate. Like everything else these days, its steering is electrically assisted, but unlike most other cars there's some real feel at the wheel. Genuine feel that lets you exploit the FT 86's fantastic handling.
Arrive at a corner too quickly and turn in and there's some understeer, but the immediate throttle and faithful chassis allows you to play with the FT 86 through the corner. It's gloriously, effortlessly easy to have the FT 86 swinging its tail wide through and on the exit of bends. You'll need the traction and stability systems off to do so, but this is a car that you'll feel comfortable to enjoy free of its electronic nannies.
It's all about its fine balance. The gearbox delivers a crisp, mechanical action that'll be recognisable if you've ever driven anything wearing a Subaru badge. There's a paddle-shifted automatic, too, a six-speeder with a conventional torque converter. Despite its lack of sophistication - no twin-clutch systems here - it actually works well enough.
Sure, the engine isn't graced with an excess of power, but it's quick revving and eager in the upper rev ranges. Only in the mid-range does it feel a touch flat, which is hardly surprising when you look at the 7,000 and 6,600rpm points for peak power and torque respectively.
It's a hybrid then, but not in Toyota's typical sense, the FT 86 taking the best of two car makers and producing an excellent, exciting whole. There are no trick electrics for drive or stability, no four-wheel drive and no in-dash g-force meters or downloadable lap traces. The FT 86 really is a back-to-basics machine; you, an engine, a fine gearbox and a talented chassis. The interior isn't the last word in style either. There are rear seats but they're too small, while the boot is no more than adequate.
And it's not overly striking to look at but that's part of its appeal, as there's a real honesty to the FT 86, a purity. Lap after lap the FT 86 reveals more of what it can do. Other cars would undoubtedly be quicker around the Jarama circuit, but there's nothing that'll involve, engage and reward so thoroughly as this FT 86. That'd be a surprise from any manufacturer but, from Toyota, it's doubly so. If a company that's been mired in the crushing mundane for so long can produce such a spirited, focused and downright appealing driver's car then there's hope for the industry yet.
Price, base N/A
Engine 2.0L, four-cylinder boxer
Gearbox Six-speed manual or six-speed auto
Power 200hp @ 7,000rpm
Torque 205Nm @ 6,600rpm
Fuel economy, combined N/A