Toyota's return to the sports car arena comes at a good time. It's not only because of a long absence, but also for the fact that there are no direct rivals for the all-new 86 developed in conjunction with the Subaru BRZ.
You might be inclined to say that the Mazda MX-5 has the same rear-wheel-drive and price affordability (okay, not in Thailand where there are high import duties) concepts of the 86 (known as GT86 in Europe and Scion FR-S in the US).
But the current generation MX-5 is now five years old and is actually a two-seat roadster with an open-top roof; the 86 is a 2+2 coupe.
The Mazda RX-8, you might ask? Nah, it's now out of production and is a bigger coupe than the 86 that actually is a better rival for the Nissan 370Z Fairlady.
And speaking of Nissan, there are now rumours that it may return with a modern-day successor for the Silvia to lock horns with the 86.
The only possible rear-drive coupe in the European camp is the BMW 1-series which, however, is dated in two-door form (the second-gen model is already revealed in hatchback forms) and carries a premium price of 3.699 million baht in 120d uniform.
That said, the 86 is very much in a class of its own with a 200hp 2.0-litre engine, 2+2 coupe layout and a reasonably attractive price in the range of 2.5-2.8 million baht in Thailand.
Since the 86 comes to Thai shores on a quota basis _ of which the 100 units allocated for this year are already sold out _ our acquaintance with the car took place in Europe last week where demo cars were made available to the media.
So the question is: does the Toyota 86 really live up to all the rave reviews it has gotten from the foreign automotive media?
It does, but only for certain particular reasons which we will be delving into.
You see, the 86 has been conceived as a basic sports car with a reasonable price to win the hearts of driving enthusiasts who cherished the good old days of the 1980s and the AE86, the Toyota that has obviously been the inspiration of the 86's badge.
With that in mind, the production cost of the 86 was crucial and that explains why Toyota turned to Subaru for the basic platform and flat-four Boxer engine _ minus the front drive shaft and turbocharger.
What you get in the 86 (and the BRZ, of course) is a genuine sports car with rear-wheel-drive and a normally aspirated petrol engine that can rev up to 7,500rpm.
This is where the 86 appeals. If you simply love high-revving, responsive performance and chassis adjustability when driving sideways, the 86 has got them all.
It’s best to use Sport when driving hard.
Just because maximum torque is achieved at a high 6,600rpm doesn't necessarily mean it's breathless below that. In fact, there's still a decent amount of flexibility in the low to moderate engine speed range.
While the six-speed manual gearbox is a joy to use with a nice, fairly accurate short throw action, the six-speed slushier has also been well conceived even if it's just a regular torque convertor auto and not a twin-clutcher.
Kickdown from the 86's slushier comes quite instantly at real-world speeds and the gearchanges are snappy and more responsive in Sport mode, which isn't surprising because this automatic has been sourced from the Lexus IS-F's eight-speed _ with two forward ratios taken away.
There is now an even better reason to settle for an automatic without feeling guilty of losing any significant level of driving enjoyment and that explains why more than 90% of 86 sales in Thailand are autos.
With 200hp under the bonnet, the 86 is quick enough. But you just can't stop craving more rousing oomph in the real world. Users of the RX-8 and the Honda S2000 _ both with extra-peaky outputs _ should get the picture. Having said that, suspicions of fuel thirst might emerge with the 86. However, the use of direct-injection from Toyota known as D-4S is partly responsible for that decent 14kpl average.
The 86 lacks aural fireworks from the engine whose trademark Boxer thrum is now practically subdued. Yes, more engine music please, so that those big twin exhaust pipes buried below the air diffuser are not only there for show. Interestingly, the engine in the manual version sounds better than in the auto variant.
If you really want to enjoy the 86, you need to rev the engine hard. The same goes for the chassis which is terrifically balanced when driving on the limit, even if the front end is slightly lacking in bite when powering out of tight corners.
Front seats are snug to sit in yet comfortable.
The steering is precise but not to the point of being quick and the weight it bears when manoeuvring around at low speeds certainly reveals the 86's sporty intentions.
Ditto for the ride, whose underlying firmness can prove to be a little rigid over road imperfections. Even so, the handling and ride balance is still impressive for a sporty car of such size and nature.
Probably the weakest point of the 86 lies in the cabin. The two rear seats are rubbish to sit in because there's a huge deficiency of both head and leg room.
The boot isn't that large either, although it can be extended by folding the rear backrests down _ and just keep it that way all of the time.
In fact, Toyota should have just made that 86 a strict two-seater because it's a genuine driver's car in the first place. Maybe, Toyota is planning a smaller two-seat sports car in the future (see story on the left side of P6).
Although the 86 is generously equipped with safety kit and necessary convenience items, the cabin could have felt a little more avant-garde and shapely to match the distinctive exterior styling whose rear side window design is a salute to Toyota's first ever sports car: the 2000 GT.
It would also have been nice if the fascia was angled slightly toward the driver, which it isn't.
There is poor head and legroom in the rear.
Despite the blandness of the shape and some materials, the 86 still has the kind of minimalism that draws smiles from driving aficionados. The red stitching around the cabin helps inject some sense of sportiness.
A point worth mentioning is the lowly placed front bucket seats that are good to sit in, even though it might be a task to get in and out of the car for some people.
But that simply is the whole point of the 86. It's a real sports car with rewarding driving experience. The only problem is that you need lots of road space, or better a track, to really enjoy it.
This is the reason why the 86 won't be an immediate choice for buyers wanting a sporty car that can also thrill in the real world.
Better examples are the naughty but uncompromising Mini Coupe and the more balanced Volkswagen Scirocco, both with 200hp turbo performance albeit transferred to the front wheels.
So it's either two things for the 86 in Thailand. If you're looking for an enthusiast-orientated sports car under 3 million baht, the 86 is it.
But if you need more driving usability in performance terms and more comfort for the real world, there are other alternatives to choose from.
AT A GLANCE
Styling ................................. 8/10
The 86 feels rightly sporty from most angles and this grows the longer you look at it. Wheels feel a touch small in size.
Performance ........................ 8/10
The engine is generally responsive and becomes lively when you push it, falling slightly short on mid-range punch.
Handling and ride .................. 9/10
As a sports car with a focus on enjoyment, the 86 handles and grips well. Ride is firm around town.
Practicality .......................... 4/10
As a four-seat coupe, the 86 is flawed with its limited rear accommodation, not helped by a shallow boot.
Safety kit ............................. 9/10
There are seven airbags (including a knee one for the driver) and all the necessary active safety features.
VERDICT .............................. 8/10
The 86 marks a pleasant return to a proper driver's car with tech kept as simple as possible. But you face some compromises if you want everyday usability and performance.
The steering is precise but not to the point of being quick.
About the author
- Writer: Richard Leu
Position: Motoring news Editor