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This light, uncomplicated coupé promises so much. Can the Toyota GT86 deliver?

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There’s no overstatement in suggesting that we were waiting years for the Toyota GT86.

By that we don’t just mean enduring the interminable period of delays and introductions as journalists before finally getting our hands on a UK-spec Toyota GT86 (although we have had to do just that).

The Toyota GT86 feels light and compact, a bit like a Mazda MX-5

We mean ‘we’ in a broader sense, as in the wait that every car enthusiast with modest resources has had to tolerate before a manufacturer summoned up the necessary gumption to build an authentic, low-weight, low-cost, compact sports car.

The front-engined, rear-drive 2+2 is powered by a 2.0-litre flat-four engine that churns out 197bhp and 151lb ft. A six-speed manual is standard; there's also a six-speed automatic on offer as well.

Despite boasting a heritage that contains the Celica, the Supra and the MR2, Toyota has passed through a period of recent history that has been so mundane that the GT86’s potential place close to our hearts seems almost to be a novelty. 

However, the manufacturer’s three stated criteria for the GT86 (which has been developed in conjunction with the Subaru BRZ) read like a purist’s manifesto: rear-wheel drive, no turbocharging, ordinary tyres - much like the Mazda MX-5.

The objective, it gloriously affirms, was driver-focused fun. No further introduction is necessary.

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DESIGN & STYLING

Toyota GT86 rear

Delving into the detail typically reveals the devil in Toyota’s vast and intricate economies of scale, but in the case of the Toyota GT86, the use of common parts shrunk to just nine percent. If proof were required of the manufacturing giant’s enthusiasm for the project, it exists first and foremost in that figure. 

The next number to consider is 86. Just a hat-tip to the AE86, yes? No. The ‘square’ 86mm dimension of both the bore and the stroke of the 197bhp 2.0-litre horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine previously featured in the in-line four that powered the Celica and MR2. Even the car’s prominent, chrome-tipped exhausts are 86mm in diameter.

Toyota went through five manual gearbox prototypes

Toyota’s anally retentive pursuit of numeral significance may seem somewhat trivial, but it’s indicative of a wider effort to get everything on the car just so. 

Subaru’s boxer engine was selected because its configuration meant that it was compact and light, and could be mounted closer to the ground (and further back) for an ultra-low 460mm centre of gravity.

A high-revving unit was specified, so the boxer was modified to allow it to spin to 7400rpm. Desperate to get the flick-of-the-wrist changes right on its reworked six-speed manual gearbox, Toyota went through five separate prototypes. 

Underneath, nothing was permitted to muddy the virtues of the classic front-engined, rear-drive layout. Thinner, lighter body panels were used to keep the GT86’s burden under 1300kg.

The weight has been distributed 53 percent front, 47 percent rear – not because it’s physically perfect, but because the engineers found that the slight front bias was ideal for the car’s handling balance.

Likewise, the suspension components, split between MacPherson struts at the front and double wishbones at the rear, have been mounted to take further advantage of the low centre of gravity, and were tuned to allow an intuitive degree of roll on turn-in.

Finally, and encouragingly, there is a Torsen limited-slip differential to help apply a gung-ho degree of throttle on exit.

For 2017, the GT86 was given a facelift before its final hurrah, with Toyota revising the intake and exhaust system, while tweaking the shock absorbers for greater stability chief among the mechanical changes. The rest of the car was given aerodynamic adjustments and more premium look inside. Soon after the announcement of the facelift, was news that a second generation GT86 was in the pipeline for launch in 2018-2019, with the next model set to sit below the reborn Supra developed in collaboration with BMW

INTERIOR

Toyota GT86 interior

A cursory, showroom-floor introduction to the Toyota GT86 will likely reveal that the car’s cabin, while offering a concerted step up from the Subaru BRZ’s positively skeletal innards, still lacks the plush, polished look that has come to define a European expectation of what sports cars should feel like inside, even though its recent facelift has aimed to rectify this issue.

The Toyota is hard-edged and flinty to the touch, and it looks it, too. But there is a wonderful schematic rigour to the interior that only really becomes apparent once the model is in motion.

The Toyota is hard-edged and flinty to the touch

Most manufacturers talk a fine game when it comes to focusing their cockpits on the driver, but the GT86 is as nakedly purposeful as the tail-gunner seat in a B-52.

Characterised by a sublime seating position — offering the lowest hip-point of any Toyota production vehicle — the car trades gun sights for a large tachometer, and then brilliantly orbits every other facet of the architecture around that eye line. 

The attention to a functional, instinctive level of detail — so often the subject of empty marketing rhetoric — is comprehensive and remarkably effective. The steering wheel is the smallest ever attached to a Toyota and a horizontal dashboard design has been used to help better communicate mid-bend roll posture.

Soft knee pads have been built into the door trim and centre console to offer support under high lateral loads and there’s a centre line mark on the upper edge of the dashboard that can be seen reflected in the windscreen… The list goes on and on. 

Not every facet is a success. The pedals have been positioned straight on but are too splayed to allow every size of right foot to heel and toe, but the overall effect is so intoxicating that an enthusiastic driver will likely feel compelled to keep his or her jaw clenched in unconscious tribute to the ardent and impeccable nature of it all.

Nevertheless, the GT86 has an awful lot going for it. Further reinforcing its case is a decent list of kit across its two trims - GT86 and GT86 Pro. The entry-level trim equips the sports coupé with 17in alloy wheels, LED headlights, front foglights, folding door mirrors, cruise control and keyless entry on the outside as standard, while inside there is dual-zone climate control and Toyota's Touch 2 infotainment system complete with Bluetooth, DAB radio and USB connectivity.

Those who opt for the Pro will get a revised aerodynamic bodykit, a rear spoiler, a suede dashboard, a part-leather and part-Alcantara upholstery and heated front seats thrown into the package.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

2.0-litre Toyota GT86 petrol engine

The Toyota GT86 falls into the same bracket as we grouped the Mercedes-Benz SLK 200 into. Both cars, though not fast, feel like they have a pleasing level of performance. They are slow enough to be able to enjoy on the road for more than just a second or two’s burst of throttle, but quick enough for necessary overtaking. 

Therefore, don’t be put off by the fact that, on paper, it looks decidedly under-nourished compared with its price rivals and dispatches the 0-60mph sprint in ‘just’ 7.4sec.

It's performance isn't about numbers. It's about feel, communication and enjoyment

A similarly priced hot hatch like a Vauxhall Astra VXR or Renault Mégane RS will not only give you at least 60 extra bhp, but they also come to you more easily than in the Toyota, whose engine asks you to work it to 7000rpm for its peak 197bhp, and even to 6400rpm for its 151lb ft peak of torque.

Truth be told, a less costly Renault Clio RS or Ford Fiesta ST200 is a closer performance rival. But to dismiss the Toyota on that basis would be a mistake.

Its performance isn’t about numbers; in the same way that a Renault Clio RS is more fun than an Astra VXR, or in the same fashion that the Morgan 3 Wheeler we tested wormed its way into our hearts despite its modest poke. It’s about feel, communication and enjoyment. 

Make no mistake: the GT86’s performance is worth working for. And you do have to work it. Throttle response is crisp, the gearshift is positive and precise (if not entirely notch free) and the flat four makes a solid rasp once you wind it up, as you have to, to make swift progress.

All sports cars were thus once. We didn’t mind then, and we don’t mind now. Thanks to its 1235kg tested weight, the GT86 stops pretty well, too, and it resisted fade comfortably during heavy runs on track in warm weather.

Buyers interested in the automatic version would be well advised to test one first, however. It changes smoothly and relatively quickly but it's not as crisp or as fast as a dual-clutch gearbox.

RIDE & HANDLING

Toyota GT86 cornering

All it takes is 50 metres – a jaunt out of a car park, just a short roll – to know that you’re in the presence of an exceptionally well sorted piece of kit with the Toyota GT86.

From the lowest of speeds, the GT86 rolls with a controlled comfort allowed by 215/45-section tyres and fine damping of its body. It steers with slickness, total linear accuracy and fine weighting. 

From the lowest of speeds, the car rolls with a controlled comfort

They all combine to make the GT86, ironically, one of the more relaxing sports cars to drive.

Because everything happens as you expect, and each control responds just so to each input you make, it’s an extremely amiable companion, despite cabin noise levels that are much higher than average (forgivably, we suspect, because of a weight-saving reduction in sound proofing).

However, the really impressive stuff comes when you ask more questions of the chassis. During the GT86’s time with us, texts from testers telling the rest of us that they were “going to be late; taking the scenic route” became commonplace. The GT86’s slickness of steering, tightness of chassis control and general love of corners wowed us all.

Key to it are the modest tyres. That 215/45 R17 Michelin Primacys leave the GT86 looking under-tyred is a sign of the times. Yet at the track, the GT86 was still capable of holding 0.99g through corners on the dry handling circuit, on a steady throttle.

The fun comes on less steady throttle openings, mind you. Lean on the brakes on the way into a bend, get busier with the right pedal mid-corner, and the GT86 displays a willingness to adjust its line that makes every quiet roundabout a joy.

And therein lies the Toyota GT86’s real brilliance. It is at once poised, precise and agile yet also willing to indulge its driver with oversteer. The choice is yours. Every corner is a blank page, and the cars that give their drivers such options are rare things indeed.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Toyota GT86

Is there no justice? If you buy a Toyota GT86 it’s predicted that you’ll lose more money over four years than if you’d bought the equivalent Audi TT.

Console yourself, then, that at least the GT86 comes relatively well equipped, and that you’ll have a lot more fun in the meantime. 

The GT86 comes relatively well equipped

You’ll also, if driving carefully, be able to return more than 40mpg over a gentle touring route; a figure that, thanks to the absence of a turbocharger, drops only to 15mpg on a track day (which doesn’t sound great, but is considerably better than we’d expect from a 260bhp-ish turbo four).

Overall, we returned a very respectable 30.2mpg and would expect most owners to better that. For the amount of entertainment you get, that’s a pretty good deal.

Buying a GT86 makes sense in several other respects too. It's not overly expensive, servicing won't be costly and its reliability should prove excellent. That means that the Toyota, as well as being fun to drive, will be simple to live with and easy to enjoy.

 

VERDICT

Toyota GT86 rear quarter

As with all cars, there are areas of the Toyota GT86 that could be improved. But, in this car’s case, where would answering the criticisms take you?

We’d like a bit more torque, but we don’t want a turbo making it heavier or spoiling the response of the naturally aspirated motor.

The affordable performance car that we’ve been waiting for

Some would like less interior noise and some more solid-feeling interior materials, but we love the fact that the Toyota GT86 tipped our scales at only 1235kg.

It's true that we think that the GT86's tyres look a little under-nourished too, but the poise, balance and, crucially, accessibility of its chassis would surely be compromised by adding wider rubber.

With the GT86, then, it is necessary not just to accept a few compromises but, as with a Caterham Seven, positively embrace them, for they make the car what it is. 

They’re visible, audible, tangible characteristics that serve to remind you that you’re driving the keenest, sharpest, most enjoyable and loveable small sports car for a generation. 

Importantly, it's an accessible sports car  - one which won't break the bank to run either - and it's a refreshing alternative to the likes of the Mazda MX-5 for those seeking lightweight rear-drive fun.

The Toyota GT86 is a gem, and we adore it.

 

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Toyota GT86 2012-2021 First drives