Quick Drive: 2012 Toyota GT-86

The entire automotive world had its eyes pinned on Toyota. The largest carmaker in the world was about to create one of the world’s most affordable rear wheel drive (RWD) coupés, equipped with a limited slip differential (LSD) and promising low weight, a hunkered stance that suggested a low centre of gravity and a short, compact wheelbase. It was a nostalgic return for Toyota to creating truly desirable sports cars again.

That was only a few months ago. The spiel from critics that flowed in the weeks following the launch was mixed. The hype created by Toyota and the ravenous hunger of frustrated enthusiasts for the birth of a wallet-friendly and fun RWD coupé drove expectations to stratospheric heights. Perhaps it was slightly unrealistic to expect the GT-86 to be that sort of car – groundbreaking, revolutionary, segment-redefining. But Autosavant still wanted to see for ourselves what Toyota did. Surely for a company famous for its best-selling but vanilla Camry and Corolla, the GT-86 was a bit like those exotic chocolates flavoured with chilli. We had to have a taste.

First, the name. For our American audience, the GT-86 is sold as the Scion FR-S in North America. What you see in the pictures of this article might not correspond to the specifications of the FR-S, most noticeably the big-bore exhausts (which, by the way, measure 86mm in width) of the GT-86 which is a stark contrast to the standard smaller exhausts of the FR-S.

Seeing the car parked, it looks a lot lower on the road than expected; certainly, more so than most other modern cars on the road today, sports cars included. Planting yourself into the driver’s seat, you could be forgiven for thinking that your bottom might just scrap the surface of the road. Looking out of the window at your side and you can even see a F10 BMW 5-Series passenger peering downwards from their high throne of German luxury. Toyota’s brief of a low centre of gravity was certainly fulfilled.

From the driver’s seat, you discover more joys as well: the driving position is hard to fault. The pedals are where they should be and the seats are comfortable. This feels like it comes from a car manufacturer which knows the preferences of the driver inside out after selling millions upon millions of cars, and it should. The stitched leather steering wheel is quite possibly the only luxury in this otherwise stark cabin that, by today’s standards, feels quite cheap and tacky. But then, the Japanese were never known for their finesse in interior material quality. What they do well though, is the build quality, which still remains a Japanese specialty. Everything feels well-screwed together and ready for many years of hard driving.

The gauges illuminate a menacing red glow and the tachometer is positioned right in the centre of the driver’s eye-line. Slotting into first gear, the gearbox feels like it has an unwilling resistance to it, but is otherwise a pleasant device to aid quick changes. The gearing is much longer than what one is used to, especially from a car with a small engine that thrives on revving. The upside is that the car is extremely civilised and unhurried when you are just getting about at a normal speed with traffic; the downside is that a lot of that hard-edged sensation of driving is removed from the day-to-day commute. It is still there to be sure, but to access it requires space, nerve and some measured abandon.

So with a quieter stretch of road, I downshifted to third and, having observed that the car still had not reached its powerband, went down further to second. The exhaust note sounds manufactured when you double declutch the car and as you hurry the car to its redline. It was not detestable, but neither was it particularly nice. There is nary a hint of drama at all as 197hp barely overwhelms the amount of grip available (from Prius-spec tyres, no less), at least in a straight line. What becomes very apparent however is the way the engine vibrated unwillingly as you climbed to its limit. It became genuinely unpleasant as you stretched it to the redline – and before you think that I over-revved it, it was still at a not-ridiculous 6,500rpm. Any further than 7,000rpm and it was just picking up crumbs of power that was left; it just was not worth it to go so far.

It could be that the press car was overworked which meant an engine that was not as smooth as it should be, but it certainly dented the experience of driving the car. The power delivery also felt flat and just a bit gutless; for once I actually felt that 197hp was overstated and did not translate into actual on-road performance. For something that is co-developed with Subaru and for a Boxer engine layout that shows much promise, it is a bit of a disappointment as you find less joy than expected further up the rev range.

It picks up when you head for corners. Although I did not get to sample the sideways tricks that the car can do due to time and space limitations, I felt the keen and supple balance of the car as it darted left and right on my favourite road. There is an unflappable way the car sniffs a corner and the next, the low stance no doubt helping its cause as it feels like there is an amazing reserve of grip that can be tapped upon. There is a sweetness to the way it does it, much like how a Porsche Cayman felt when I drove (and it seems like I am not the only one drawing parallels with the Porsche, either). Instead of relenting to understeer or oversteer, the car feels decidedly neutral, something truly exploitable even by the most inexperienced of drivers. Even on its limits, it works each and every single wheel hard, ensuring that agility is maintained by keeping all four tyres on the road. There are no complaints for the steering – it does the job well.  Some part of me suspects that the impeccable balance is helped by the underpowered engine, which brings out the polish of the chassis that much more; yet, I have the inkling that even with 30-50 more horsepower (and with the same increase in torque) the car will not lose its trick handling.

But alas, even the keen handling does not make up for the disappointing drivetrain. This is especially so when you consider hot hatches – biases of front wheel drive put aside – and how they manage to master both good handling and a special drivetrain. Cars such as the Renault Megane RS come to mind, which I definitely rate as a better drivers’ car overall compared to the GT-86. I could very well have my mind changed if I was given the opportunity to try the car sideways, as what most of us see on videos of the car, but in the real world that does not count for much, does it?

That said, the GT-86 has massive potential. Toyota has not calculated wrongly when it decided that the world needed an affordable and fun RWD sports car. The desire for one remains as strong as ever and the GT-86 has answered the question, albeit partially. With a revised drivetrain, Toyota could have a much more convincing answer than the GT-86 that it gave us. The turbocharged variants lurking in the future could be a possible means, but getting the power delivery right is paramount so as not to upset the near-perfect handling balance.

A great effort though, Toyota. I will always respect the brand for trying to make something special for the enthusiast and I hope it continues to do so.

Thanks to Gerald Yuen for taking the photos for this review. 

Author: James Wong

The only writer to be based in Asia, James provides a refreshingly different perspective to the automotive industry with his unique experience of living in the Far East. He is a prolific journalist who has written for several leading automotive publications in Singapore, including Torque Singapore and REV Magazine Singapore. He believes in the thrill of driving and champions for an appreciation of driving pleasure above the horsepower race. In September 2010, James relocated to the United Kingdom, London, bringing him to a whole new environment from which to start a new chapter in automotive journalism.

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