There was an air of excitement, anticipation, and, dare I say, relief, on the faces of the Toyota South Africa marketing team at yesterday’s launch of the new 86. For the first time in several years words like sporty, dynamic, and lofty rev limits were being uttered at a Toyota press briefing and they weren’t met with awkward silences or resigned shrugs from the attending members of the media corps.
Of course these and other more expressive adjectives started appearing on long-suffering Toyota performance enthusiasts’ fan pages, tweets and blog sites ever since the GT-86 concept appeared at the 2009 Tokyo Motor Show and it’s been a long wait for the first units of the actual car (to be know here, as it is in Japan, simply as the 86) to arrive on local shores. In this time Toyota South Africa has managed to fill close to 750 pre-order forms for the car, enough to move all 58 of its monthly import allocation for the next year and a half. But is all the hype and frenzy around the arrival of the 86 simply down to the fact that Toyota finally has a vehicle that vaguely resembles the legendary sportscars, the likes of the Celica and 2000 GT that line the walls of its heritage museums, or does the 86 have enough substance to create an all-new legacy?
The simple answer is, yes. At the media unveiling's base at the Malelane Airfield in Mpumalanga (271 m above sea level) I was immediately drawn to the bespoke Fusion Orange coloured 86 parked at the head of the fleet of test units. While all the cars at the launch featured the High specification, including part leather (part alcantara) seats, keyless entry with starter button, climate control, and a centrally-mounted rev counter, my first experience of the 147 kW 2,0-litre boxer engine came in the form of a model equipped with a six-speed manual transmission.
This ‘box’s Subaru Impreza roots are immediately obvious and the 86 is all the better for it. Its short-throw action and positive feel, linked with a lightweight and predictable clutch action make gearshifts as effortless as they are fulfilling. It’s a good thing the naturally aspirated engine enjoys revving as much as it does as most of the action (and sound) happens near the 7 500 r/min redline.
That characteristic also affords the 86 a very distinct dual personality. It’s an effortless, if somewhat subdued cruiser around town, but this Toyota can transform into a high-revving racer whenever it's required. I use the word racer with some caution however as I can already hear the ticking of typing fingers on Golf GTI and Ford ST enthusiasts' forums challenging new 86 owners to traffic light duals, but to judge the 86 on its modest performance figures (claimed 0-100 km/h in 7,6 seconds) is to completely miss the point of this car.
With its engine and transmission positioned as low down and rearwards as possible, the 86 has its lightweight (1 250 kg) mass distributed almost evenly across both axles. By offering a low driving position (even for my tall frame) this ratio is fortunately not affected too badly and the 86 feels both light on its feet and extremely well balanced on the road. I would have like the reach adjustment on the steering column (also adjustable for rake) to have come a bit closer to me, but otherwise I found the driving position immediately comfortable and suitably racy.
While the 86 will be called a 2+2 in the specification sheets there is simply no way that the rear seats will accommodate adults. Fortunately the rear backrests can be folded flat to increase luggage space as this aspect of the 86, due mainly to fact that Toyota South Africa specifies a full-size spare wheel, is less than impressive.
The 86 has been developed around the simple idea of a fun-filled driving experience and, within the first few kilometers, and indeed around the first 90-degree corner on our launch route, I was already having more fun than I can remember having behind the wheel of a car in a long time. While cars like the mighty Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG Black Series and the Jaguar XKR-S offer similar levels of rear-wheel drive, seat-of-the-pants driving enjoyment, the Toyota manages to deliver this sensation and thrill – without the same fear of death that accompanies the more powerful models.
That being said some care will need to be exercised by inexperienced drivers (with the two-stage traction control active in some form) as the 86, with its Toyota Prius-sourced 215/45 R17 (on the High spec cars) selected specifically for their compliance and flexibility of their sidewalls, has been “programmed” to be slightly loose at the rear. Thankfully though, any shifting of the rear mid-corner is progressive and can easily controlled via the throttle and decent steering feel.
Driving the six-speed automatic 86 later the same day highlighted, for me, the fact that the 86 is an enthusiasts car and, as such, is best experienced with a clutch pedal and very capable manual transmission. While the automatic option with its steering wheel-mounted paddles and full-manual mode offers the driver an acceptable degree of involvement, it changes the character of the 86 somewhat and excludes the driver from much of the fun.
With no word yet on when the Subaru BRZ might reach South African shores (and indeed on how many Subaru South Africa will be able to make available) the Toyota 86 carries the flag for this joint development that arguably sees the best of both companies (admittedly the heart of which comes from Subaru) blended into one of the most enjoyable (and relatively affordable) new models to reach South African shores in a long time.
For full specifications, model line-up and pricing details go here.
Model: Toyota 86 High 6-speed manual
Engine: 2,0-litre, four-cylinder, horizontally-opposed
Power: 147 kW at 7 000 r/min
Torque: 205 N.m at 6 400 – 6 600 r/min
0-100 km/h: 7,6 seconds
Price: R329 400
Service plan: four year/60 000 km and three year/100 000 km warranty.