Back in June 2012 Any Given Reason managed to be one of the first motoring outlets to publish a drive story on the just released Toyota 86, a hotly anticipated little sports car that was set to take the world by storm. After a few weeks of badgering via email, and more as a result of the generosity of an old friend who happened to be a Toyota dealer rather than AGR being viewed as a preeminent and worthy publication, I ended up with one of the very first 86’s in Adelaide to drive for a few hours.
That drive was exciting but it came with added stressors – the car was Adelaide Hills Toyota’s only demo, there was a figurative queue of customers with actual money in their pockets waiting for a legitimate test drive and there was at least a seven month wait before the dealership would see another one. I really didn’t want to be the first guy in Adelaide to crash an 86 and I was being so careful that I didn’t learn a whole lot about how it truly carved up the corners. What I needed was a racetrack.
As a general rule stock street cars aren’t usually very good on the track, however I had high hopes for the 86 because it was designed from scratch as a sports car for purists. In a world where cars are increasing in complexity, mass and cost, it was a gutsy move for Toyota to buck the trend and give one man complete autonomy over the project to build something light, cheap and fun that would shape the future direction of one of the worlds biggest auto makers. There were no committees or focus groups on the 86 project; just one engineer dictating the creation of the sports car the world needed. The car had to be engaging on the road, but the 86 had to be competent on the track as well. During its development the engineering team consulted grassroots racers; they made sure it could be easily drifted; they ensured the boot was big enough to carry a full set of spare wheels and they designed the headrests so that they could be flipped around to accommodate a helmet.
The core ethos of the 86 is in placing driver satisfaction over outright speed; a concept I dig but the downside of which is the much maligned lack of power from the 2.0 Subaru sourced boxer four. I appreciate how the engine doesn’t dominate the dynamics of the car and that enables you to get stuck into it on the public road but it feels plain underpowered on the track. On a circuit like Mallala it never really shoves you in the back, and I think an extra 50 horses would spice things up without ruining its character. The 86/BRZ twins will be due for a mid-cycle freshen up in the near future, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a TRD/STi turbocharged version is offered.
Where the 86 comes alive is in the corners, and on the smooth bends of Mallala you discover that the stock suspension is really very good. It’s certainly not racecar direct and the chassis does take a little while to relay back exactly what it’s doing, but you’ve got to remember that the 86 doubles quite nicely as a comfortable, modern Toyota… a comfortable modern Toyota that actually drifts! Ten years ago nobody thought they’d be uttering those words, but I’ve never driven anything that wants to hang the tail out so easily and controllably before.
The driftability is often written off to the factory fitted Michelin Energy tires (identical to what you’ll find on a Prius), however our example wore stickier Toyo’s on its 18” Work Emotion’s and still wanted to get sideways at the slightest provocation.
Sideways is fun but it isn’t fast, and in the 86 you spend most of your cornering time trying to keep it straight. Leave the stability control turned on (it can be fully disabled at the press of a button) and it cuts in on almost every corner. It was tempting to leave it off, but I suspect that the slides would become bigger and bigger and would boost your ego so much that you’d be sucked into making promises that your talent can’t deliver. I had the internal debate happening between delusions of being Ken Block on one hand, and not wanting to crash someone else’s $35,000 car on the other (no insurance on the track, remember). For the most part I left it turned on.
After a while I realized that when in Sport mode the stability control could be used as an educational aid. It will let the car slide a fraction before chopping in, and I discovered that through fine-tuning my steering and throttle inputs I could hold the car at the optimum point on the limit of adhesion without sliding enough for the stability control to step in. The challenge then became to drive as fast as I physically could without letting the car slip even a fraction and it became a more engaging and satisfying pursuit. Whereas before you would simply tip it in and hold the slide, with the stability control waiting just over the horizon I found myself working far harder, making tens of minute corrections and adjustments every corner, every lap. I don’t think I managed a full lap without that squiggly orange light flashing at least once, but I felt like I was improving as a driver with every passing corner as I chased perfection.
About the only part of the 86 that isn’t up to track work are the brakes. Mallala is renowned as being tough on the anchors, but this track merely highlights a problem that would surface anyway. Whilst I never actually ran out of brakes, you could feel them go off after about five or six laps and the pedal began to get longer and longer after eight or ten. A change to a racing style pad compound, a set of braided lines and some decent quality racing fluid is probably all that would be needed to rectify this.
It’s all a matter of personal opinion but for me the 86 doesn’t quite cut it as a club motorsport car, yet at least. It was always fun but after a few decent sessions I got the feeling that I’d been there and done that; there was no challenge remaining and it was almost too easy. A few basic modifications may rectify this and there’s no doubt that as the 86 gets older and used examples become more affordable we’ll see them on the grids in the same plague proportions as MX5’s.
In a similar fashion to open-source computing the 86 platform is designed to be modified, and before its launch Toyota was actually giving pre-production cars to tuning shops and race teams to ensure racing parts were available as soon as possible. In effect Toyota have provided an already competent blank canvas – in stock form the 86 is the ideal car for beginners to get a taste of club motorsport. If they don’t want to take it further then they’ll still have a fun and fine handling sports car for the road, but if the appetite for competition is whet then the 86 becomes the ideal base for them to build and modify as their experience and talent increases.
None of this changes the 86 as one of the best contemporary sports cars on sale today, especially considering you can drive a brand new one home for just a touch over thirty grand. Kudos must be given to Toyota for making the 86 a reality. But when manufacturer warranties end and used values dip below the twenty grand mark, watch out. The dawn of the Toyota 86 as a club motorsport car is only just beginning.
Thanks again to Tom Gilbert of Adelaide Hills Toyota for the invitation to drive the 86, and his continued support of Any Given Reason.