Forget all about the Celica, Supra and even the MR2. When Toyota finally decided it was time to get serious about a 21st century hero car, to put some much-needed shine on its badge, it discarded all of its wimpy imitation sports cars.
It turned to the history books for inspiration, listened to enthusiastic young owners of modified cars, tapped Subaru for engineering expertise, wrote big cheques and rejected committee-style decisions on styling, then went all-out for the finish line. And a starting price in Australia in the low $30,000s.
Livewire company chief Akio Toyoda, a part-time racer who knows his family company will not continue at the top if it cannot combat the Koreans and put some flavour into its vanilla lineup, as well as winning younger buyers to the brand, stayed close to the project and added his guidance when necessary.
The result, based on a super-brief Carsguide taste at Fuji Speedway, is a car that easily trumps anything Toyota has done since the original Lexus LS400 in 1989. The Toyota 86 is lively, enjoyable, youthful and likely to be affordable as well.
Alright, it sounds like a Subaru RX, some of the cabin equipment is a bit cheap, and it could definitely cope with a lot more than the standard 147 kiloWatts of power, but the 86er is a car you want to drive. And it drifts like a beauty.
When Toyota says it's aiming for a starting price in the low $30,000 range you have to take the 86 very, very seriously. That single price line decision could even be enough to push Subaru Australia away from bringing the 86er's clone cousin, the BRZ, downunder.
A sharp price in the thirties is going to rattle a whole bunch of hot hatches, from the Volkswagen Polo in the twenties to the Golf GTIs and Renault Megane RS in the forties, right up to the Subaru WRX and even the Nissan 370Z in the high sixties. The 86 might not have turbo punch, but it will be tough to beat in any bang-for-bucks assessment.
No-one knows yet what the 86 will carry as standard equipment, but power steer and aircon, a reasonable sound system, alloy wheels and a leather steering wheel will all make the grade.
The 86 is old school, with the engine in the nose, gearbox in the middle and drive from the rear wheels. But Subaru has done a great job in packaging the chassis for great front-to-rear balance and kept all the heavy mechanical bits low in the chassis.
"We were able to create a car where one plus one equals three," says chief engineer, Tetsuya Tada. "Rather than produce a car with universal appeal, we stick to our purusit of a real sports car. We made no compromise in performance."
So the 2.0-litre boxer engine - part of a new family of flat fours at Subaru - hits the benchmark output of 100 horsepower for every litre thanks to 147 kiloWatts, with 205 Newton-metres of torque. There are six-speed manual and automatic gearboxes, fully-independent suspension, 18-inch alloy wheels and quick rack-and-pinion steering.
The real work went into fine tuning the chassis, and it is possible to completely disconnect any electronic driving assistance. There is ESP stability control, but only for Monday-to-Friday commuting and not weekend fun runs.
"The development is strongly committed to the motorsport tradition. We wanted a car with no compromise. That would be loved by enthusiasts," Tada says.
Toyota did all the bodywork and the cabin, and tapped the 1960s 2000 GT for the basic shape and overall feel. The process for approval went outside the Toyota system, with Akio Toyoda available for extra muscle at decision time.
"If we followed the traditional approach it would be a boring car, but universally accepted. There was no executive committed. We gathered the sports car users from inside the company," says Tada.
The result is a car that is distinctive but not overdone or outrageous, with obvious visual ties to the 2000 GT but a modern take on details like the twin exhausts, face at the front, and flared guards.
Inside, the look is clean and simple and the location of the tachometer - which sits Porsche 911-style in the centre of the instruments - says it all. There is good room for two adults in the front, all the controls are Toyota easy to find and use, and Tada says weekend warriors will find enough space in the tail for a spare set of wheels for drifting and a toolbox.
Just because the 86 is a sports car does not mean scrimping on safety, and Toyota promises a five-star ANCAP rating. The car obviously comes with standard ESP and ABS brakes, but there is no news yet on the airbag package or the fine detail. That will have to wait until just before the on-sale date in April next year.
This is the good bit, because all the talk fades to black when you drop into the colourful 3D world of the 86. The car is even better than I hope, even if the driving only amounts to a handful of laps on a twisty little track at Fuji Speedway. It's more than enough to feel the enthusiasm that has gone into the car and that it - in return - can deliver.
The cabin is cosy, well laid out, and puts the driver first. The gearbox is a snick-snick six-speeder, the steering is light but sensitive and the view is good - although probably not for tight reverse parking.
As I drive out of the pitlane I'm reminded of the importance of this first run, and then that the 86 has a Subaru. The flat-four engine note cannot be disguised and reminds me of a mum's run RX. But that's only for a second, before the engine spins eagerly beyond 6000 revs and it's time for the first set of corners.
This is where the 86 gives me the first big smile, as the grip and balance is fantastic. Unlike many modern cars, the 86 does not have giant tyres and the car is lively and responsive. It's more like a big go-kart than any hot hatch, far more usable than a 370Z, and just plain fun. My time passes quickly as I drive and ride, revelling in a car that is so un-Toyota and so un-Camry. There is definitely some Subaru passion involved.
I can complain a little about the quality in the cabin, with some hard plastics and cheap controls, and also about the lack of torque from the 2-litre engine. And 147 kiloWatts is not a lot today. But the engine is easy to tweak, and will be tuned from 7 today to 10 and beyond by the turbo maniacs in Japan and around the world, and an affordable pricetag will balance any other slight shortcomings.
In years to come I will look back at my first drive in the 86 as a landmark day, not for Toyota but for a new generation of sports car fans who are finally getting a 21st century car that is all about the joy of driving. It's impossible not to love the 86 and what it means to motoring.
The 86 is real fun. It's not like every other Toyota, or any other Toyota sporty car, and that means it should be a winner.
Price: from $32,000 (Estimate only)
On sale: mid 2012
Body: Two-door hatchback, four seats
Engine: 2.0-litre horizontally-opposed four cylinder
Output: 147kW/7000 revs, 205Nm/6600 revs
Transmission: six-speed manual or automatic, rear-wheel drive
Dimensions: length 4240mm, width 1775mm, height 1300mm, wheelbase 2570mm, tracks 1520/1540mm front/rear
Suspension: front struts, rear double wishbone
Tyres: 215x40R18 front, 225x40R18 rear.
Renault Megane RS250- compare this car
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Price: from $41,990
Nissan 370Z- compare this car
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Price: from $68,640
Subaru WRX- compare this car
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Price: from $39,990