When was the last time you were excited by a Toyota? Prius, Auris, Yaris – all laudable cars but hardly the last word in excitement.
But that changes here. Under new boss Akio Toyoda, the firm wants to get you excited about its products again and to make Toyotas fun to drive. So, three years of concept-car teasing are over and the new, rear-wheel drive Toyota coupe is finally here. Called the GT86 - it has a twin in the form of the Subaru BRZ- it’s just gone on sale and we’re some of the first people to drive it on British soil.
A different philosophy to performance
The GT86 costs £24,995 before options; has a 200 horsepower, non-turbocharged "boxer" engine; will do 0-62 in 7.6 seconds and weighs 1200kg. The eagle-eyed among you will spot that, for the price, you don’t appear to get a lot of power for your pound.
Indeed, at this price you could choose a more-powerful Golf GTi, Astra VXR or the current hot hatch daddies – a new Focus ST or Mégane 265. Or for a little bit more cash an Audi TT or BMW M135i. All great cars and every one of them faster in a straight line than the Toyota.
If straight line, easy speed is the thing you value most, we suspect you won’t like this Toyota at all. Still reading? Well, if you know a "drift" can be something other than a north Atlantic meteorological phenomenon, grew up a gamer, love the sub-culture of Japanese tuning or have ever enjoyed a rip-roaring drive in an original Mazda MX5, then read on – because the GT86 may just be the thing of your dreams.
A car to be seen in, not to look at
In the three-year gestation period between the first "86" concept and production car arriving, Toyota has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory – by messing up some of the detail design of an otherwise pretty shape. Inside and out, it’s littered with the kind of awkwardly resolved bits and cheap plastic finishes you’d not find in the most basic Audi.
But get inside and rubbishy perceived quality aside, the most important things are right. You sit low, in a brilliant pair of winged seats, with your legs stretched out and a lovely, small steering wheel – with no auxiliary buttons – to hold. In front of you, slap bang centre of the dash is a huge central rev counter – with a digital speed read-out in its middle. It feels like you’re driving a proper sports car, not a pumped-up shopping hatchback, it feels special.
And then you set off and it would seem that the world has been waiting for the new sports car from Toyota too. Doubtless it helped that our test car was orange, but we couldn’t have attracted more attention if we’d been driving a pink Ferrari. “What’s that mate, it looks wicked?” ask the two shopping trolley guys in Sainsbury’s; “Nice car mate, is that one of those new Toyota/Subaru things,” says one of the builders in the sandwich shop. And when we drive past a bunch of early teenage schoolboys, their jaws all drop open, they point and I get a bunch of thumbs ups.
Designed for driving, not social media
Sat behind the wheel, you don’t sense a lack of equipment either. You get the full set of multi-airbagged, traction and stability control safety aids. Dual-zone climate control, cruise control and xenon headlamps with LED running lamps are standard. For another £750 you can throw in Toyota’s Touch + Go media/nav system which runs through a 6.1-inch touchscreen.
But stick with the TomTom, because although there’s nothing wrong with the system, if you’re used to what the premium German makes offer, it’s likely to frustrate with its clunkiness. The connectivity tech just clearly wasn’t the priority here. Instead, the money’s been spent on making the car go well. A refreshingly honest approach.
The best car we’ve driven this year?
And ultimately, none of these issues really seem to matter on the road, because the GT86 is such an utter joy to drive.
The engine makes an odd, but not a bad noise. Mrs Pocket-lint suggested that if her car made that noise, she’d check whether it had any oil in it - which is to say it’s slightly rattly and raspy. Additionally, to really get it going you need over 4500 rpm on the dial. But from here it really flies to the red line at just over 7000rpm, flashing a red light on the dial and emitting a beep-beep-beep as you home in on the cut-off, which is addictive to do again and again.
The gearbox, a six-speed manual, has the best shift action of any car we’ve driven all year. Short, sharp and extremely accurate, there’s no slop and you work it via a lovely stubby gearstick – something you’ll be doing a lot to keep the engine in its sweetspot.
The ride is firm but not crashy; the dampers just have an iron-fisted grip on what the wheels are doing and there’s no softness or cushion. The pay-off for this is that the handling of the car (how it behaves on the limit of grip) is sublime. In corners you can adjust your line with the throttle. It will oversteer – especially in the wet – and generally, if you’ve half an ounce of driving skill, it will make you feel like a rally driving god.
And because it wears skinny tyres (the same as on the Prius, no less) and because it isn’t turbo-charged, you can completely wring the car’s neck in the first three gears without constant fear of losing your licence. Doing just that pretty much everywhere we drove it, we saw a remarkable 34mpg too. It’s even reasonably quiet on the motorway. Just don’t try sticking anyone older than two in the back seats.
You’ve probably got the message by now that the GT86 isn’t for everyone. Mrs Pocket-Lint, for instance, described it as an "anti-social little thing" and said she was sticking with her Audi TT, thanks very much.
It eschews the electronically controlled, easy-everything approach of most modern cars. That means it doesn’t have showroom appeal of many of its competitors. And it therefore might seem odd for us to be recommending it. Yet if you’re thinking of spending about 25k on anything remotely sporty, we’d urge you to take a good, long test drive in the GT86.
It’s not based on a shopping hatchback. It’s bespoke and encapsulates a different performance car ethos but also a new approach from one of the world’s largest - and previously most conservative - car makers. No longer just a five-year warranted, day-in, day-out reliable product (although it still gives you that), they want to put a smile on the face of the driver too. And boy, have they delivered.
We’ll conclude like this. We don’t normally mourn a press car going home, but the night before the GT86 went back to its maker, we couldn’t help sneaking out for one last drive at midnight. And then, when we came back and couldn’t sleep, we spent the small hours working out how much one would cost to buy for ourselves.
We really wanted to keep this car, it got truly under our skin and we think it is fundamentally brilliant. That’s why it gets five stars. It might seem odd, given the flaws we’ve pointed out, but drive it and we think you’ll see why. We applaud Toyota’s approach – and let’s face it, the world seems a better place when schoolboys across the country are giving you thumbs up. Japan has a new cult hero on its hands. Pocket-lint has a new favourite car.