Toyota has done a totally brilliant job with the 86. Photo Gallery
Paul Gover reviews the new Toyota 86 coupe
Nothing is as boring as Canberra on a cold, grey, winter Sunday afternoon. Well, there is the Toyota Camry. But now we have the anti-Camry and the car that Toyota claims is the antidote to boring, the all-new 86 coupe.
The impact is immediate as I roll out in a racer red 86 for a bit of Sunday fun running and immediately attract the sort of attention you don't normal see in the capital. People smile and wave, a couple stop and ask about the good looker - not me - and a Toyota Supra driver does a smart U-turn to check out a car with links back to his go-faster coupe.
Except the 86 is not tied to the Supra. Or the Camry. It's an all-new effort to put some fun back into motoring at the one-time world sales leader, with a bit - actually, a lot - of help from Subaru, which provided the power pack.
Cynics might suggest the 86 is just a shiny new toy for Akio Toyoda, grandson of the Toyota founder, who now has unlimited access to the biscuit barrel and drove the 86 project hard from the top.
But Toyoda knows Toyota has to find a point of difference against strengthening opposition from Korea and China, since bulletproof Toyota reliability and brilliant aircon is no longer enough. Fun could be the thing.
He is also aware that some positive publicity, and good news on the car front, is essential for Toyota to rebound from the safety threats and recalls of recent years, as well as the crushing natural disasters last year in Japan and Thailand.
Against that background, Toyota has done a totally brilliant job with the 86. It has created a car that's fun, affordable and has the potential for easy upgrades by young buyers. It shares nothing with the sports car crew of the past - Celica, MR2 and Supra - that were underdone and over-hyped.
The 86 hits Australia with more hype than a new iPad and more promises than a politician, but is already a sellout with a waiting list that is going to stretch for more than six months. It's not perfect, but it gets way closer than anything that has worn a Toyota badge at any time in the past.
It's impossible to argue against a starting price of $29,990. The 86 was widely predicted to have showroom stickers from $35,000, but the strength of the Aussie dollar and the importance of the car allowed the bean counters at T-central to go all-out and produce a stunning starter.
There are two models of the 86, GT and GTS, but even the basic car gets the right sports car stuff: allows, six-speed manual, sports seats, seven airbags, smart ABS and ESP. The GTS picks up bigger wheels and brakes, LED daytime running lamps, satnav and more but the starting price jumps to $35,490.
A six-speed automatic is $2000 extra, and you only get flappy paddles in the GTS, but there will be a huge range of dealer accessories - including a truly giant rear wing - in coming months.
To put the 86 into perspective, a Hyundai Veloster starts from $23,990 and a Mazda MX-5 $44,265, while Toyota expects the new coupe to be shopped against a deep basket of rivals including the BMW 125, Renault Megane and even the Nissan 370Z.
"Sometimes you get lucky in this business," says Toyota's marketing chief, Matt Callachor, announcing the price in Canberra this week. But it's often said that the harder you work the luckier you get.
The 86 is old-fashioned on the tech front. The engine is in the front and the power goes to the back wheels. But, and it's a big but, it's a thoroughly modern take on the package with a Subaru flat-four engine set low and back from the nose, a limited-slip gearbox in the tail, and ESP that offers a range of driving choices from nanny to nah-nah with donuts.
Toyoda is a part-time racecar driver and was in direct touch with project leader Tetsuya Tada throughout the car's development to keep him focusses on everything from the 53:47 weight distribution to relatively low-grip tyres - shared, in a shock, with the Prius hybrid - to ensure the car would slide and not feel under-powered.
The engine itself is a new-design 2.0-litre that, thanks to direct fuel injection that Toyota was originally reluctant to share with Subaru, makes 147 kiloWatts and 205 Newton-metres.
There is nothing special about the rest of the deal - no look-ahead radar or automatic braking or even a sunroof - to ensure the 86 as the most focussed sports car to hit Carsguide since the original Mazda MX-5 in 1989.
The 86 looks just right. It's not too plain, not too aggressive, with the power to turn heads without provoking the predictable scorn you get in a Subaru STi or Lancer Evo. For us, it's not as edgy as the Subaru BRZ, but that's typical of Toyota. And there will be plenty of tweaking chances soon.
Inside, the car plays safe with a driver-focussed layout that includes brilliant seats and all the stuff you need. But, and it's a big one, the cabin quality is not what we expect from Toyota - some poor fits, low-grade plastics and a general cheapness - even for a car with such a sharp price. The cabin is strictly 2+2 as you'd expect but the boot is reasonably sized for a cavity that holds a full-sized alloy spare.
Toyota promises a five-star ANCAP rating and a strong focus on pedestrian protection, as you'd expect. There are seven airbags, including one for the driver's knees, and a safety shell with special emphasis on protection against higher-riding vehicles in the SUV stable.
The trump safety card, and something that is sadly impossible to measure, is a dynamic ability which means an 86 driver will have far more chance of avoiding a potential threat before it becomes a crash.
Wow. That's the best word to describe the way the 86 drives. It's the most impressive Japanese car since the first MX-5 in 1989, thanks to a chassis that works hard to give the driver everything they need and a bunch of stuff they probably didn't even believe was possible.
On a favourite driving road near Canberra, the 86 has the best balance and steering feel of any car I've driven. And that includes Porsche. It does exactly what you want, when you want. That could be braking, or hustling through a tightening curve, or just flicking up through the slick-shifting six-speeder.
The engine is strong but not as responsible as I hoped, with a flatness below 3000 revs that could pass with more kilometres under the wheels. Subaru engines are often like that.
One of the nicest surprises, especially after the flat dub-dub exhaust note at start-up, is a throaty inlet roar that comes into the cabin through a tube from the engine room. It reminds you, not that it's needed, that you're having fun.
The seats are great, the car is easy to park, and the 86 - in Toyota style - just gets the job done. Later, in the locked-off safety of closed roads, Toyota encourages the press posse to go crazy with the 86. So we slide and jump and generally push it to the limits, and sometimes further. And the smiles get bigger and bigger.
The 86 is a potential game changing car for Toyota, provided its driving DNA can be successfully transplanted into cars like the Camry. Right now, and for the money, it's simply unbeatable.
Nothing in the Carsguide garage gets five stars, but the 86 gets close. It's a winner.
At a glance
Price: from $29,990 (GT) and $35,490 (GTS)
Warranty: 3 years/100,000km
Resale: No previous model
Service interval: 15,000km/12 months
Safety rating: 5-star (predicted)
Engine: 2.0-litre flat four, 147kW/205Nm
Transmission: 6-speed man/auto; RWD
Body: 4.2m (l), 1.77m (w), 1.28m (h)
Thirst: from 7.1l/100km; 164g/km CO2