Five years ago, the affordable end of the performance-car market was a bleak and desolate place.
If your budget topped out at $35,000 and you wanted a set of wheels that was fast and/for fun, really your only option was the Volkswagen Polo GTI. If you wanted driven rear wheels, you’d need to keep saving for a $45K Mazda MX-5 or Holden SS ute.
Then came a bombshell, a lightweight, naturally aspirated, rear-wheel drive coupe that wouldn’t require a second mortgage to own, but few would’ve put money on Toyota being the company to re-ignite the sector.
While its back catalogue was packed with performance heroes, even the most recent was approaching high-school age; it took a petrolhead CEO (Akio Toyoda) to ignore established company protocols and give a talented engineer (Tetsuya Tada) free rein for the conservative Japanese maker to produce its first proper sports car in a decade.
Even so, few were prepared for just how big an impact the 86 would have. I remember the air of dismay from assembled hacks at the 86 launch when Toyota’s then-PR boss announced the starting price wouldn’t start with a ‘three’. I’m sure I wasn’t alone at this point in thinking that this new coupe was going to struggle with a $40K price tag, no matter how talented it turned out to be.
However, this dismay quickly turned to stunned disbelief when it was revealed that the starting price would actually start with a ‘two’.
Thankfully, Toyoda’s bravery and Tada’s talent was rewarded, Toyota Australia selling more than 18,000 86s since its June 2012 introduction, with Subaru Australia chipping in almost 4000 BRZs. It makes Australia the third-biggest 86 market globally behind Japan and the US.
But the budget end of the fast-car market is a very different place to that entered by the 86 four and a half years ago. Ford redefined affordable performance with the superb Fiesta ST, Renault slashed the price and broadened the appeal of its Clio RS, VW’s Polo GTI has gone from strength to strength and Mazda went back to the drawing board with the latest iteration of its iconic MX-5.
In short, consumers are now spoiled for choice, and with 86 sales slowing the facelift has arrived at an opportune time.
You’ll need a keen eye to spot the changes, though. The styling is subtly sharper, with new headlights and a larger grille adding some aggression to the front end and there’s a redesigned rear bumper. In addition, the GTS scores a new alloy wheel design and an F-Type SVR-style rear spoiler, which both look quite neat.
However, the 86 has primarily focused on substance over style, letting the driving experience create the biggest impression. On paper the facelift tweaks seem relatively minor, with a stiffer body structure courtesy of extra spot welding at the rear, revised suspension and a new stability control system.
The Toybaru’s dynamics were definitely a case of “not broken, doesn’t need fixing”, however 86 chief engineer Tetsuya Tada told MOTOR at the 2016 Festival of 86 that the tweaks added up to an “enormous change”.
It’s important to put these comments into context. No doubt to Tada and his team the differences are glaringly obvious, but we’re talking very subtle changes here and even long-time owners are going to need a long and varied drive to feel the effects. Thankfully, as mentioned, there wasn’t a lot wrong with the 86 to begin with, so we’re still talking about one of the more enjoyable driver’s cars around.
The steering is borderline perfect in terms of its weighting and rate of response and offers the sort of feel that thoroughly disproves the theory that electrical assistance is inferior to hydraulic. Even at straight ahead there’s snippets of textural feedback, with none of the on-centre dead zone that so often afflicts electrically-assisted systems.
There’s also terrific balance, and the combination of these two traits breeds plenty of confidence.
You quickly feel ‘at one’ with the car on a spirited drive; if that sounds a bit too metaphysical, essentially it means that the 86 does exactly what you want, when you want. If the previous 86 had a dynamic flaw, it’s that it could ‘fall’ into oversteer quite abruptly, followed either by a clumsy graunch from the ESP system or a rapidly elevated heart rate if you were driving unaided.
The new car retains this oversteer bias – it’s easier to unstick the rear than the front – but feels more progressive in the way it loses grip. We’re not talking wild, smoking slides here – the 86 needs commitment, momentum and a racetrack to do those – rather a few degrees of oversteer from apex to corner exit.
Exploiting this with a safety net in place is now possible thanks to the new ESP’s ‘Track mode’, at a stroke transforming the 86’s electronics from awful to excellent. The old car’s ESP was restrictive and intrusive, however, the new system allows the car to move around and lightly raps you on the knuckles if you overcook it, rather than chopping off your hands. This is handy in slippery conditions or if you’re on an unfamiliar road.
We’re still not completely sold on the eco tyre concept. Low outright grip levels are fine, but the tyres are simply unsuited to high-performance driving, particularly under heavy braking, making it all too easy to trigger the ABS. Unusually, the two cars driven, a GT and a GTS, displayed quite different braking characteristics.
Both cars had a firm, easily modulated brake pedal, however, the GT had a reasonably large dead zone at the top of the pedal and felt quite numb, whereas the GTS, which uses larger rotors, had more feel with next-to-no pedal travel required to activate the stoppers. The GT was extremely new, however, with less than 400km on the clock, so perhaps the brakes weren’t quite bedded in yet. What both cars shared was a firm but controlled ride. Disciplined is probably the best way to describe it.
This focus extends to the cabin, with a perfect driving position and great seats, though the interior has little else to recommend it. The base model GT, now $800 more expensive as a manual ($30,790) and $600 more as an auto ($33,090), is a bare-bones affair, almost refreshing in its simplicity. It’s a novelty these days to need to twist a key to start the engine, but the infotainment system is simply out of date, though it’s simple enough to use, partly because it doesn’t do very much.
The higher-spec GTS, now offered at $36,490 as a manual and $38,790 as an auto, increases of $500 and $300 respectively, will be of more interest to most (two-thirds of 86 sales have been the GTS), but while it offers more equipment, including sat-nav, heated seats and the welcome addition of steering-wheel controls, the interior is starting to feel left behind.
There’s a nifty new digital readout in the instrument cluster, which can display information such as power and torque graphs, g-force, lap times and the like, but to be honest it’s of little use bar novelty value, and we’d gladly trade it for a more upmarket infotainment system.
Another area where the 86 is being left behind – quite literally – is in the engine department. While it’s easily outgunned by the modern boosted four-pots in its hot-hatch rivals, particularly for in-gear acceleration, the 86’s lack of pace isn’t its problem per se. After all, it’ll still clock 0-100km/h in a tick over seven seconds, which is fast enough for most road situations in anyone’s book.
No, the issue is that the 86 feels so much slower than it is. Toyota has revised the intake and exhaust systems on manual cars to liberate an extra 5kW/7Nm, which apparently necessitated a reinforced block and modified pistons, while also shortening the final drive from 4.1 to 4.3:1, but the changes have had little impact on the seat-of-the-pants experience. In fact, the car is likely to actually be slower to 100km/h, as shortening the final drive means third gear is now required at 95km/h rather than 99km/h.
Regardless of the actual numbers though, the core problem remains. There’s enough low-end torque to make daily urban progress painless, but then there’s a trough in the mid-range where the car feels to hesitate before it picks up again from around 5500rpm to the 7200rpm redline.
Amusingly, the new power/torque readout in the digital display graphically illustrates the scale of the problem. To make serious progress on a twisty road you have to row the gearbox – good fun to use, though still very notchy when cold – to stay in this narrow 5500-7200rpm power band, but even then the 2.0-litre flat-four never feels particularly energetic. The similarly sized engine in the new MX-5 feels both more muscular and more enthusiastic.
But it wouldn’t be appropriate to end this review on a bad note, as the revised 86 remains one of the very best driver’s cars around. Its chassis and steering are utterly brilliant and when you’re totally dialled in and driving the wheels off it, it offers an experience very few rivals can match at any price.
The pace of performance-car development is relentless though, and the chinks in the new Toybaru’s armour, most notably its sub-standard interior and lacklustre engine, will quickly become cracks if not addressed.
The budget performance car landscape might now be rich and thriving rather than bleak and desolate, but in such an environment it’s those that can adapt quickest that will reign. In next month’s issue the Subaru BRZ takes on the MX-5 2.0 and Abarth 124 Spider to see which affordable rear-driver is top dog.
Body: 2-door, 2+2-seat coupe
Engine: 1998cc flat-four, DOHC, 16v
Bore/stroke: 86.0 x 86.0mm
Power: 152kW @ 7000rpm
Torque: 212Nm @ 2400rpm
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Front suspension: struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar
Rear suspension: multi-links, coil springs, anti-roll bar
Tracks: 1520/1540mm (f/r)
Steering: electrically assisted rack-and-pinion
Front brakes: 294mm ventilated discs, single-piston calipers
Rear brakes: 290mm solid discs, single-piston calipers
Wheels: 17.0 x 7.0-inch (f/r)
Tyres: 215/45 R17 (f/r) Michelin Primacy
Price as tested: $36,490
Pros: Benchmark dynamics; fun factor
Cons: Lacklustre engine; dated infotainment