ASK a keen driver to tell you their ideal on-paper spec for a performance car and you can all but guarantee three things will appear before anything else: a naturally aspirated engine, a manual gearbox and rear-wheel-drive.
It’s a tried-and-tested recipe, one which has appeared on countless greats throughout the years, and unfortunately it’s something that’s all but extinct in today’s market as manufacturers ditch high-revving screamers in favour of smaller capacity engines with a turbo bolted on to meet stringent emission regulations.
While Toyota’s GT86 may be reaching the end of its lifespan, it remains one of the only cars staying true to that quintessential sports car set-up and while a new model is expected next year - possibly with hybrid power - in its curtain-closing Club Series spec it truly is something to behold, remember and cherish.
Toyota - who entered into a platform-sharing agreement with Subaru to create the GT86 and BRZ respectively - have called in its engineers whose considerable nous has come to the fore on the Club Series. Notably, Sachs were commissioned to create a set of trick dampers, and Brembo are responsible for the brakes. Given its immediately recognisable shape first arrived on the UK’s roads seven years ago, it’s still an impossibly good-looking thing and the Club Series - available only in blue and orange - looks better than ever thanks to its dinky proportions and gloss black alloy wheels.
Open the feather light driver’s door, shimmy your way into the low seat and you’re struck by just how snug it is; tall drivers need not apply and although there are two small back seats, they’re only suitable for children. The driving position is nigh on perfect, though. Ahead is a thin-rimmed steering wheel, a central rev counter and little in the way to distract you from the matter at hand. The centre console’s graphics reveal the platform’s age and although trivial matters such as its blocky analogue numbers on its digital clock and heating temperature don’t bother me, owners used to German cars would scoff at such things.
Refreshingly, it’s a back-to-basics sort of car so you go without parking sensors, a reversing camera, a forgiving hill assist help and thankfully no lane-keeping assistance so it’s just you and the car. The clutter-free steering wheel feels great in your hands - it’s the perfect size - and refreshingly there’s just a couple of essential buttons for the stereo system. Look down towards the gearstick and there’s an enticingly-named ‘Track’ button, but all it really does is loosen the already lax stability control’s input.
As impressive as their fuel economy figures and bulging power outputs are, turbocharged engines - which just about every manufacturer now uses - are no comparison when you have a naturally aspirated screamer like the one that lives in the GT86. It’s a 2.0-litre with 197bhp, ample for a car that weighs a smidge over 1,200kg, but it’s one that craves revs, with peak power being produced at a heady 6,000rpm. Turbos are out of puff way beyond that point, so to have a new car which delivers its best performance at the top end and indeed all the way to its 7,500rpm limiter is what purists have been craving.
First impressions have always counted for a lot and you’ll be struck by several things in your opening miles with the car, firstly its lack of inertia. There’s a wonderful trait to that free-revving engine, which feels other-worldly when compared to turbocharged units, and although there’s a distinct lack of torque you know from the off that it’s something that requires work. The gearbox also shines. It’s notchy in the best possible sense, but it’s direct, to the point and excellently judged. The yardstick manual in cars around the GT86’s £30,000 mark is the Honda Civic Type R and the little Toyota all but matches its precision.
Its harsher ride - chiefly thanks to its Sachs dampers - has a tendency of making the GT86 crash along from bump to bump, but it doesn’t take long to tap into its magic. The steering is brimming with feedback, every brush of the accelerator results in an unrestricted bark from the twin exhaust pipes and it just feels right, traditional and all the better for it.
As soon as you get into a car with a properly sorted set-up, you know within 100 yards it’s going to provide you with what you want. After a week with it, I can safely say it does, time and time again, constantly leaving a smile on your face no matter what road you’re on or what the weather’s like - a true hallmark of an all-time great. It’s a throwback, the GT86. The biggest compliment I can pay it is that it feels old - it doesn’t feel like a modern day sports car because it is traditional in every sense of the word.
It isn’t perfect, though. The GT86 by its nature is tricky in the wet - 197bhp is not a lot in today’s motoring world but it’s more than enough to swing its rear. You have to be quick to catch it. In the dry it’s faithful, partly thanks to its limited-slip differential, and it stays true to its line. The turn in is crisp, ultra alert to your input and has that darting, terrier-like feel synonymous with lightweight cars.
Getting into the GT86 on a cold morning is a bit like waking a youngster up from their slumber as its six-speed gearbox requires warmth and hates the first mile or two, but when its oil warms it’s a joy to use.
That engine is the stand-out star of the show. It can sound a little uninspiring low down after that energetic start-up, but it comes alive towards the top reaches of the rev range and rewards its driver with a much-missed, unshackled naturally aspirated noise. It almost feels wrong holding on past 7,000rpm having been used to turbocharged engines where you’d have changed up a long time before, but persevere and it becomes an addictive, smile-inducing experience.
It posts a 0-60mph time of 7.5 seconds - nothing headline-grabbing - but in truth it does feel faster than that. To read too much into the perhaps disappointing on-paper figure does the car a disservice, because it doesn’t describe the freneticism of the way it goes when it’s on its feet and in its sweet spot.
But this car is not for everyone. People who enjoy driving and the simple thrill of being behind the wheel of something so unique will love it, just as I do, but others will bemoan its questionable build quality, lack of kit and poor fuel economy as a result of Toyota’s quest to stay true to that naturally aspirated showpiece.
Its interior is lifted by the supportive seats, but there’s little else in here to discuss. It’s sparse and almost like it was a last-minute botch-job - the switchgear feels like it’s come straight from the parts bin of a mid-1990s Corolla - but to make up for that you get something that’s been built by engineers who know what they’re doing. They’ve spent money where I want them to, on the drivetrain, the suspension and the brakes - the only things which should matter when you’re driving a proper sports car.
The Toyota GT86 should be celebrated for what it gives to the market. It’s a two-fingered salute to everything else in its price bracket, a throwback to when things were less complicated and just better for people who love the simple thrill of driving a sports car.
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Throwback GT86 is something to be remembered
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