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Toyota GT86

Click to view picture gallery“Back in the Seventies Smokie’s big
  question was Who the heck is Alice?
  For today’s drivers keen to smoke
  their tyres the key question is What
  the heck is Oversteer?
  teenaged drivers doing shakedowns
  at a recent racing series test day was
  eye-opening — some drivers were
  fantastic; others just didn’t know how
  to cope with a rear-wheel drive car.
  Oversteer — what’s that?

THAT'S THE THING ABOUT MODERN CARS. Just about all of them are tugged from the nose. The reasons are clear: this format frees up loads more room in the cabin for passengers and luggage, and if you drive a front-wheel drive car fast, it's much easier to control if things go wrong. As one product planner told me: if you come off the road in a front-drive car, it's your fault; but if a rear-drive car spins off the road, it's the car's fault.

So many 'sports' cars are now front-wheel drive that it's a joy to report on one that reverses the trend — thank you Toyota! With its GT86, it's brought back the joy of rear-wheel drive motoring. So why did we ever get rid of it? Maybe, just maybe, it will usher in a new era of fun-to-drive sports cars.

I never thought I'd be saying that about Toyota. It has resolutely turned its back on driving fun, ever since it axed the Celica and MR2 in one fell swoop back in 2006, in pursuit of worthy but dull mediocrities like the Urban Cruiser and Auris Hybrid.

“Toyota’s fun-to-drive
GT86 sports car
has brought back the joy
of rear-wheel drive
Luckily, it realised it had expunged any semblance of soul, and turned back to the 1980s for inspiration, namely the Corolla AE86 — the last budget rear-wheel drive car that Toyota ever made, and the car that launched the 'Tokyo Drift' phenomenon. Hence the '86' in the GT86 badge (which, by the way, is a very cool piece of design).

Okay, let's get to the nub: the GT86 is all about the handling — and it's a sheer joy. What I like most about the GT86 is that it treats you like an adult. Too often, electronic stability control (ESC) systems sap all the joy out of supposedly sporty cars, chiding you like a Victorian nanny should you ever dare to ask if you can sing and dance.

And 'dancing' is a very good description of how the GT86 handles. Toyota's ESC has three settings. Get this: even when turned on, it still allows for a little bit of wheelspin, such as when you're exiting junctions. Wow! I can't remember the last time an ESC allowed me to do this.

It gets better. Switch the button to the 'half-off' position and you get the chance to play Colin McRae on roundabouts. And before you get all nanny on me, I'm not being anti-social here. The sense of control is so immediate that you just react, instinctively. And the fact that the GT86 allows you to slide even at low speeds makes the experience even better — and safe, since it will still intervene, as gently as a loving mother's hand, to keep you heading in the right direction. There's a fully-off position, too, for the odd track day.

Here's another shock: the steering is an electric system, and it's actually very good. It's taken car makers a long while to get the feel of electric, rather than hydraulic, steering to be convincing, but the GT86 boasts a well-weighted, accurate helm that offers plenty of feedback.

Switch the Electronic
Stability Control button
to the ‘half-off’
position and you get
the chance to play
Colin McRae
on roundabouts...”
When oversteer arrives, it's like an old friend. This isn't a chassis that bites; it beckons. The transition from grip to slide is delicate and predictable. Can you tell yet that I rather like it?

So, to the engine — probably the GT86's most controversial aspect. With 197bhp, the GT86 certainly isn't in the vanguard of the sports car horsepower race. I don't mind modest power in a sports car — light weight allows excellent performance in cars like the Caterham 7 and Mazda MX-5 with far less power than 197bhp. The GT86 weighs in at a fairly hefty 1,275kg so its raw performance figures are decent rather than spectacular: 0-62mph in 7.6 seconds with a top speed of 140mph.

What's really lacking, though, is torque. Flexibility is not this engine's strong suit (for the record, the rather weedy peak torque of 151lb ft arrives at fully 6,400rpm). It's too easy to find yourself in the wrong gear and get bogged down. Instead, you really need to concentrate and line up the engine revs for any manoeuvre you're planning to pull. It does rev nice and high, though, with peak power arriving at 7,000rpm and the red line set even higher than this.

Unlike most engines these days, there's no turbo in sight. However, there is speculation that Subaru and Toyota may be busy working on just such a version, which would be welcomed by most enthusiasts — and me!

The noise is rather disappointing: the soundtrack of the Subaru-derived 2.0-litre four-pot boxer engine is more 'interesting' than 'visceral'. Still, it's so much better than the dull drone of the Hyundai Veloster I drove last week.

“There’s just one engine
and one spec;
beyond choosing manual
or auto, your only
other options are
SatNav and leather
The GT86 I tested had a six-speed manual 'box (there's also a six-speed auto; the only reason for ordering this is surely the lower CO2 and tax benefits it offers).

Yup, for enthusiasts, it has to be the manual: its well-placed lever snicks rapidly through the gate like a good 'un. One odd thing though is the palpably mechanical chonk you get from the transmission as you engage first gear.

There's just one engine and one spec to choose from; beyond choosing manual or auto, your only other options are SatNav and leather (1,600). Toyota's Touch infotainment system has a good interface, but the SatNav it incorporates can be quite frustrating, as it's slow to react and slow to give instructions. Consider a standalone SatNav instead, and save yourself a packet.

Toyota has also rediscovered flair in the cabin department, which is stylish, ergonomic and well screwed together. It's still no Audi or BMW but it's going to have masses more appeal to buyers than most recent Toyotas.

Remember, too, that Toyota now includes a five-year, 100,000-mile warranty with all its new cars; and the GT86 has 'winner' writ large across every strand of its being. You can sign me up now. —
Chris Rees

Toyota GT86 | 24,995
Maximum speed: 140mph | 0-62mph: 7.6 seconds | Overall test MPG: 36.2mpg
Power: 197bhp | Torque: 151lb ft | CO2 181g/km