Despite us living in the era of the 350bhp-plus hot hatchback, it’s good to know that an honest-to-goodness, reasonably priced, coupe can still get our juices flowing.
The Toyota GT86 delivers excitement and feedback – as well as a good dose of street cred – for the price of a mid-range Ford Focus. But would the novelty wear off after a short blast in the country?
Before we get down to the nitty gritty of this working man’s hero of a sports car, consider the Toyota GT86’s place in motoring history. Here we have a 197bhp, rear-wheel drive coupe that costs £22,495 in the basic guise we tested it in. Admittedly, it’s in no way a rival, but consider that this is the same price (give or take a few pennies) as a Ford Focus 1.0T Nav Titanium X, and you’ll agree that what we really have here is the 2010s equivalent of the MGB GT – a properly affordable sports car.
Further thought could soon get one thinking about counterfactual history and, how following SAIC’s takeover of MG Motor UK, this kind of car genuinely could have been rolling out of Longbridge by now. Picture the scene: it’s 2007, and SAIC’s management falls in love with the classic MG ethos and tasks SMTC UK to come up with a sound sports car plan to relaunch MG with a bang – and one that could be easily implemented.
A little shopping around the UK specialist car industry for drivetrain technology, a further boost of the excellent K-Series engine, a conversation with Lotus about flexible production techniques later and, within two or three years, a new sports car emerges blinking in the glare of the media spotlight. The MGH is born, with an Andy Kitson-honed suspension set-up, and the UK has a sports car it can be proud of. Ah, well…
Instead, Toyota and Subaru launched the brilliant ‘Eight-Six’ – or Hachi-Roku (ハチロク) in Japanese – and BRZ in 2012, and proved there’s still very much a place in the market for the sort of low-priced, fun, coupe that Britain used to churn out in their hundreds of thousands. It’s light – by today’s standards – at 1235kg, and boasts near 50/50 weight distribution. The boxer engine has a low centre of gravity and, with rear-wheel drive and a limited slip differential, it promises to be an absolute hoot to drive. So, in reality, it’s more Ford Capri Injection than MGB GT? Perhaps…
We’re sampling the entry-level Primo model, with smaller 16in wheels and no boot-mounted spoiler. It still comes equipped will all the essential kit, although the Touch and Go navigation fitted to our car was a £750 option. Given it looks like a standard double-DIN set-up, we reckon you could probably buy better (for less) from an aftermarket supplier such as Alpine or Pioneer – but that’s a minor detail.
The important points are that the driving position is perfect in the old-school sporting way of having your legs stretched out ahead of you, and the relationship between your hands, feet and major controls is also spot-on. As for interior quality – yes, it’s okay, and there are some details that feel a little dated (like the digital clock), but it all adds to that back-to-basics feel that marks this out as a car honed for keen drivers.
Needless to say once it’s fired up, and you’re underway, the ride feels initially firm, but the damping is excellent. The steering has a linearity of response and clarity of feel that marks it out as a proper sports car. The gearchange is positive and quick, if not as snickety as the rival Mazda MX-5. Its flat-four engine has an interesting thrum to it, which initially sounds a little anodyne, but as you pile on the revs in search of performance, it builds into a soulful crescendo – all hard-edged and smooth. It soon has you realise that hoofing it between 4500-7000rpm is a joy, and one you’ll want to repeat. That’s a good job too because, if you don’t use this end of the power band, your average turbodiesel would leave it for dead on the road.
However, bare figures are not the be-all and end-all of sports cars. Despite that, its 7.5 second time for the 0-60mph dash and 140mph are more than enough to keep you amused, if not utterly excited. No, it’s the way that when you get it on the open road, you can enjoy a car that telegraphs every nuance of the road surface through the tips of your fingers and small of your back. The handling is initially neutral, slightly pointy and, once you’re dialled-in to its lack of slop, it responds with lightning speed.
The relatively skinny tyres and high-resolution steering are key to this sensory flood whenever you drive it hard, and this might explain why the miles piled up significantly in the week we had it, without once hitting the motorway. Despite all those pictures of drifting GT86s across the Internet, we didn’t have a go at sideways action – but didn’t need to. You know this car is neutrally-balanced, yet capable of throttle-steered mid-corner adjustments, as soon as you go for a session on your average B-road at anything more than seven-tenths. How? Look down for a second, and you’ll see just how little movement of the wheel you’ll be feeding it.
And that’s the heart of this car’s massive appeal. Leave huge acceleration and drama to the S3s and RSs of the world, and revel in this car’s massive tactility.
The day-to-day tedium of driving to work might not be the best way of really enjoying this car, but neither are such boredoms a chore. It’s refined enough when pootling and, on these smaller wheels, it rides acceptably well. So, the compromises aren’t really compromises at all – and that makes this the classic new sports car for the 21st century. It’s a lovely thing, especially for the money. Would we recommend one? Yes.
It’s brimming with character, and fun to drive – a head turner, too. And just the sort of car that MG should have built when it had the opportunity. Still, Britain’s loss is Japan’s gain – for now at least. Fingers crossed…
Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...
Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.