Driven : Toyota GT86 Primo

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?

Toyota GT86 (1)

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.

Toyota GT86 (2)

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…

Toyota GT86 (3)

Keith Adams


  1. While these have been around for 2 or 3 years, I’ve yet to see one on the road. Is anyone aware of what the sales figures are?

    • First of all I state an interest I’ve recently taken delivery of GT86’s twin the BRZ – it’s in Lux trim the WRX Blue. It’s not new and was the dealer’s demo car – they had it for eight months and, when I got it, there were only 200 miles on the odometer.

      So what does that go to say about sales of the car, it truly is a wonderful car to drive with fabulous handling and an absolutely perfect driving position – for the sticker price there’s nothing to touch it. Yet the average punter won’t consider that either Subaru or Toyota are a sufficiently “premium brand” for their hard earned cash and are more likely to buy a car such as an Audi TT, BMW 2 Series coupe or a VW Scirocco purely because of the supposed “brand value” of these marques.

      When you consider that only the BMW is built in the Fatherland (the Audi is built in Hungary and the VW in Portugal) only the Beemer is RWD and the other two are glorified Golfs. I personally think that the British motoring press are to blame – road tests these days seem more like PR than objective reports on the cars being tested. So, if you’d like to find out what a real sports car, not a hotted up hatchback give the Toyobaru a whirl you’ll be amazed what you get for your money.

  2. I can only assume the author has a case of sunstroke.
    In the first instance, and this is alluded to in the comments.
    This car is not a good seller. either in Britain/Europe or in America.
    In fact the entire coupe market is shrinking fast.
    Just look at Audi TT sales And this is Worldwide.
    Secondly the idea that the British with the K series garbage could make this sort of vehicle reliable is what really makes the case of sunstroke an apt diagnosis.
    Talk about wishful thinking.
    I think I’ll buy a lottery ticket.

    As for the car itself..I’m glad it exists… but the styling is dull.
    The second generation Toyota MR2 is gorgeous.And I’d rather one of those.

  3. Mg without the tears. It’s a Toyota so will probably go forever. As an MX5 driver, I understand the concept. Fun without tears. I have looked and thought about one but an MX5 has the advantage of the drop top.

  4. Alternatively, if the Honda relationship hadn’t gone pearshaped there might have been a metal bodied MG (GT hardtop?) spun off the S2000 platform…

  5. A great bit of single-minded thinking, producing a car that’s fun to drive, as opposed to most performance cars which are designed to lap the Nürburgring as fast as possible…

    That Toyota paired up with Suburu to do this shows the small market that exists for such a product nowadays, and how RWD cars of this size are a real rarity. Sadly MG, even with SAIC ownership, wouldn’t have a cat in hell’s chance of producing such a vehicle, for such a price, and with Japanese, not Lotus, levels of reliability.

  6. “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.”

    I’d say the sales figures have proved there ISN’T a place for a low-priced fun coupe with less than 200bhp. Young(ish) drivers want turbo hatchbacks, with the Golf R being the peak of their aspirations.

    • Can agree with you here, I’m young(ish) I think at 42 … just got a Golf R DSG and my god, what a car. It’s searingly fast but so easy to drive sedately – that’s what people need in today’s crowded world. And before anyone says – it’s good fun too, a proper all-rounder. There’s no place for these ‘back end out’ oversteer machines in the real world unless you have a track as a playground.

      With reference to the new Focus RS and it’s ‘ingenious’ drift mode – who the hell can use that in real life driving? Going round your local ASDA roundabout sideways??

      • Hmm,I’m 20 years older than you and I also drive a Golf R Manual, I also own a Fiesta ST3. Both are wonderful drives. Yet I see the point of the GT86 as a car that tests your skills, ultimately making it more satisfying to drive than a Golf R.
        The Golf is super fast but where can you use it? The Fiestai is more fun on a twisty B road than the Golf.
        I cut my fast car teeth on rear wheel drive 6 cylinder 3 series BMW’s, without traction control. You soon learnt what oversteer was all about.

    • I imagine that in this country, it’s men in their 50s who buy the GT86/BRZ, appreciating the RWD handling and nostalgic for the Capris, Mantas and RWD Celicas of their youth!

      It’s nowhere near larey looking enough for the yoof, with it’s subtle styling and narrow tyres…

  7. Well there’s a Subaru BRZ owner next to my place of work and an 86 owner in my street at home. I even test drove a demonstrator, but unfortunately it was the CVT auto!

  8. “…the sort of low-priced, fun, coupe that Britain used to churn out in their hundreds of thousands.”

    Out of interest, how many British sports cars made it into six figures in terms of sales volumes? Obviously there’s the MGB but I can’t think of any others. I know we sold a lot of TR6s and Stags in the USA in the 60s and 70s but wasn’t aware how many.

    Or are we just lumping all British coupes together into one figure?

    • I guess that would be all Abington MGs & Triumph sports cars with the exception of the Stag & TRs7 & 8.

        • In total I guess which allows the poorer selling later Triumphs to be included in the mix.

        • I don’t think most of them big TRs sold that enormously individually. The TR7 sold around 115,000, and wasn’t this the best selling TR of them all?

  9. Maybe I’m missing something, but what has this got to do with BLARG, other than a passing K-Series refrence?

    • We’ve been putting cars from ‘other manufacturers’ for years on AROnline. It’s an enthusiast site, after all – and one that people like to dip in and out of for all manner of car features, drives, history etc. Like all stories that appear here, no one’s forcing you to read them – in fact, looking back through my blogs, I’ve often commented and explained why certain things that aren’t obviously BMC>MGR related are published.

      Here’s an example from 2010.

      So, you aren’t missing anything. It’s not obviously related to the firm, other than being generally interesting car ‘stuff’, and an example of the type of car the British motor industry doesn’t currently build (and should do).

  10. Here in Australia, the “Povvo” 86 sells for the equivalent of 16,600 GBP . They are excellent value at that price & sell like crazy over here. They are like “Bum holes”….(Every one has one!)

  11. Just noticed that the interior pic is not of GY65GZV. I got it with 1900 miles on the clock. You must have done most of that !! Previous ownler logged as Toyota UK.

  12. It’s now on Top Gear as the car celebrities do their lap in, which must be great publicity for it.

    Seeing Tinie Tempah slide it around this week, it looked great fun to drive, and so much more interesting that one of those planted fwd/4wd hot hatches.

  13. It is a dream to drive although officinados slate the primo with its small wheels. They drive with traction control on, on top gear so a really stable car. Would be much more interesting if it was off ☺..

  14. She was at japfest this year with the GT86 drivers club. Today we were at the japanese matsuri in Malden Essex. She is atill a delightful drive and has now passed 14k. Been to Burgundy and back 6 times now. Handles beautifully on the motorway, and in 6th on the motoeway still has great acceleration. She may undergo a few modifications in the next 6-12 months. Has her first MOT in October. Have more photos Keith.

  15. In the last year she has attended both japfests and other shows. Has had the Tuning Developments NA upgrade so torque dip removed also had MTEC shifter spring fitted. She has an extra 17 bhp. Tyres changing to PS4 all round. I have taken her to Carlimits doing a highspeed bend at 80 and other fun things. Handled beautifully.

  16. New brake pads all round pre first track day. Bedford last Friday, she didn’t miss a beat. More track time to come.

  17. Yes. I still have her. Still enjoying every minute behind the wheel . She will be at japfest Silverstone this year. Feel free to say hi

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