Test Drive: Five minutes with a Toyota GT86

What is it?

Toyota’s ‘go-your-own-way’ 21st-century affordable performance car, the GT86. Named for a 1980s rear-wheel drive Toyota coupe, that was based on a Corolla and codenamed the ‘AE86’, the Japanese giant decided to revive the concept of an affordable, rear-drive sports coupe in the early 2010s. Time was when great-looking, moderately powerful coupes ruled the roost in terms of being the weapon of choice for enthusiastic drivers in the UK, but since the turn of the millennium, the inexorable rise and rise of the hot hatchback has put paid to these sleek two-door machines.

So much so that, in this sort of mid-£20,000s price bracket, the Toyota GT86 is only really rivalled by the Subaru BRZ… which is exactly the same car, only with different badges. Yes, the GT86 is the fruit of a joint venture between the two Asian brands and they’re defiantly sticking with the formula of normal aspiration, light weight and a manual gearbox for their thrills, rather than a turbocharged motor, front- or four-wheel drive, and a slick-shifting robotised clutch transmission. About the closest rear-wheel drive vehicle you’ll get from a rival manufacturer is the cheaper, less powerful and convertible Mazda MX-5, or the considerably more expensive, ageing Nissan 370Z.

Why are you driving it?

The GT86 has recently been facelifted for the 2017 model year but it’s one of those vanishingly small visual updates that’s hard to spot, chiefly revolving around the use of LED lights front and rear for the latest version, as well as revised bumpers that promise better aerodynamics. That doesn’t alter the fact that it remains a cracking-looking car, possessing the sort of rakishness that only a proper coupe boasts; the hatchback-derived Volkswagen Scirocco, for example, is a dumpy potato of a thing in comparison.

But where the Toyota hits the mark for exterior visual appeal, what it sacrifices is practicality. Unlike the four-seat hot hatchbacks, which also boast large boots, the GT86 is strictly a 2+2 – and the two in the rear will need to be very, very tiny people, as there’s little in the way of leg- or headroom. Meanwhile the boot is, at best, passable, rather than capacious. The GT86 has always suffered with a slightly cheap-looking cabin, as well, although the 2017MY changes include a new steering wheel and some fresh switchgear, which has helped the ambience sufficiently.

However, the carmaker has also fiddled with the coupe’s dampers all round, to make for a comfier ride, and equipped tougher springs at the front to aid steering feel. Given the rear-wheel drive GT86 has always been one of the most fun things you can drive this side of £50,000, such changes promise great things. So we wanted to see how the ‘new’ car felt from behind the wheel.

What do you like about it?

It’s a horrible, hackneyed phrase to have to foist upon the GT86, but this is an old-school performance car. Do not buy into the Toyota if you like fat midrange torque, lazy dual-clutch gearboxes and ‘anytime, anywhere’ pace, because you will find it one of the most frustrating machines in the world if that’s your motoring outlook on life.

But do sign on Toyota’s dotted line if you want one of the most rewarding vehicles to drive at any price point. The GT86 needs working, and working hard, to give up its best, but when it does you’re bound to be grinning from ear to ear. Sure, the engine sounds a little gruff when being revved, which is a shame, but once the motor is in its sweet spot the car is decently brisk. Yet it’s the handling that delights – Toyota fits the GT86 with slim, low-grip tyres in a bid to make oversteer easy and it really shows. Without being dangerous, or requiring you to drive at speeds way beyond the legal limit, this coupe has a playfulness and deft handling balance that is impossible to match in anything front-wheel drive, no matter how well-sorted dynamically it might be.

Thankfully, the GT86 also works when you’re not trying to replicate rally moves on a track, because the new damping has made the car better at simply munching up motorway miles. While the ride quality isn’t exactly pillowy-soft, it is more than bearable for long distances and the Toyota is easy to use in terms of its infotainment, cruise control and generally light controls. Plus, no matter how fast you’re going, the steering is a gem; it definitely feels sweeter and more informative on the 2017MY GT86 than it did on the pre-facelift cars.

Any issues?

The cabin remains low rent compared to something like a Volkswagen Golf GTI or Ford Focus ST, while we’ve obviously outlined its deficits in terms of both its practicality and its manner of performance. But, in reality, if you’re even contemplating a coupe in the first place, you’ve surely accepted it’s not a car built for taking great loads of timber in the back. About our only real issue with the Toyota, therefore, is the price, which is creeping ever nearer to the £30,000 mark with each passing year – it makes more sense in the £22-24,000 bracket, occupied by most top-spec front-wheel drive hot hatches.

Well, it’s the cost of the thing and also the lack of a proper range-topping performance model; perhaps Toyota could give us a 300hp GT86 to sign off with, as a treat…

What’s it like as a business vehicle – are there any tax benefits?

It’s not bad for running costs, either as a private owner or a business user, but turbocharged hot hatches make much more sense and so are more likely to be seen on company car fleets. The Toyota’s 180g/km CO2 is the defining feature, as it means 31% benefit-in-kind taxation and a first year’s VED fee of £800.

Admittedly, the car’s (relatively) cheap price means it quickly falls to £140 a year for road tax and we actually saw 38.9mpg over a 330-mile motorway business trip with the GT86, which is in advance of its quoted 36.2mpg combined figure.

Where does it rank in class right now?

It’s top of a class of two, jointly with the Subaru that is mechanically identical. But take it out of its narrow ‘coupe’ segment and plonk it in the much wider ‘affordable performance car’ category, and the Toyota GT86 holds its head up high. Aside from the Mazda MX-5 and the Smart range, it’s one of the cheapest routes into rear-wheel drive new car ownership and this Japanese chariot has a truly entertaining, beguiling chassis underneath its attractive bodywork.

As a normally aspirated petrol with limited all-round appeal to buyers, the GT86 might be the sort of car that is living on borrowed time – but it is a tremendously rewarding motor to drive and we love the fact that Toyota had the chutzpah to develop it, bring it to market and keep selling it to this day. It’s a fabulous thing and one of our ‘soft spot’ favourites.

TECH SPEC

  • Model: Toyota GT86
  • Price: starts from £26,855; car as tested £28,820
  • Drivetrain: 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol, six-speed manual transmission, rear-wheel drive
  • Economy: 36.2mpg
  • CO2 emissions: 180g/km – £800 VED first 12 months, £140 annually thereafter; 31 per cent benefit in kind
  • Top speed: 140mph
  • 0-62mph: 7.7 seconds
  • Power: 200hp at 7,000rpm
  • Torque: 205Nm at 6,400- to 6,600rpm