Peter McKay June 09, 2012
On track: We test the bang-for-your-buck of Toyota’s new 86 coupe.
The Toyota 86 is one of the most talked about new cars in recent memory. The promise of a fun Toyota is a rare thing indeed, and its arrival is the perfect trigger for a "bang for your buck" showdown of affordable sports cars.
The 86 and its almost-identical twin from Subaru, the BRZ (launching here late next month), bow at a time when traditional sports car sales are on the wane - Gen Me youngsters seem more fascinated with Apple than acceleration, while the versatility of SUVs has wooed the oldies who otherwise may have turned to Viagra-on-wheels as part of a midlife review of priorities.
Last Monday, Toyota stunned a roomful of hardened journalists when it announced the price of the 86 GT at $29,990 (plus on-road costs). It was six or seven grand below what they'd been expecting.
Toyota sees the 86 as a wonderful opportunity to give its reputation a contemporary makeover. Fun and excitement are not always immediately associated with Toyota.
In brief, the 86 and BRZ get a body by Toyota (with a Subaru face in the case of the BRZ), a Subaru 2.0-litre horizontally opposed engine (with Toyota direct injection), and a Toyota gearbox. Performance should be identical and the only acknowledged difference is a slightly firmer Subaru suspension tune. Chosen to go up against the newbie 86 in Drive's three-car fun shootout is our reigning performance-car champ, the Renault Megane RS250 Cup, and the enduring latter-day sports car icon, the Mazda MX-5 Roadster.
It is to be a day of blessed relief from the Nanny State influences, the mad theorists of the flourishing "road safety industry'' and the spectacularly poor drivers that thrive under the current licensing system.
We head to the sanctuary of Garry Willmington's Marulan Driver Training Centre, a twisting one-kilometre circuit dropped into lovely bushland a few minutes from the sleepy NSW village. It's our amusement park for the day.
Did I mention it's raining? Not mere sun showers but that persistent, uninterrupted precipitation that challenges adhesion. But we're here to play and wet weather can't rain on this parade … unless you happen to be a hapless photographer or video cameraman.
Sports cars and sports coupes should have a bold visual stranglehold that promises excitement. The Renault - more hot-hatch than traditional sports coupe - is Drive's favourite in the looks department, with its aggressive crouching tiger stance.
It also makes the biggest impression in acceleration and engine response. We know from experience that the French front-drive hatch is quite brilliant on a dry racetrack, with sharp handling and excellent Brembo brakes to counter its powerful, premium-fuel-drinking 184kW turbo engine. The turbo pulls hard and dramatically from low in the rev range to a peak of more than 6000rpm. The trade-off: the RS250 Cup is the thirstiest of the three cars.
Whizzing around Marulan in the rain with the electronic traction systems switched on gives rapid but relatively non-alarming transit. With the systems off, the RS250 Cup uncorks its more challenging alter ego. Use the accelerator with anything but respect and the low-profile Michelin tyres will spin and the nose of the Renault will jump sideways on the wet asphalt as raging torque overcomes grip. Understeer (when the front tyres lose adhesion) is a constant threat coming off the turns. It's fun, but confronting. And all to an evocative soundtrack of engine induction and exhaust aurals.
Between the big slides, the manual gearbox (there is no auto alternative) is pleasant to use and the sharp clutch feels like it is designed for hard work.
The two-by-two cabin is all sporty intent. There's a ribbon of carbon-fibre and flashes of alloy-look highlights, a yellow Renault Sport tachometer, alloy pedals, and enough Renault Sport ID to act as racy positioning statements. The driver gets comfortable in well-designed front bucket seats with good side bolsters and lumbar adjustment. The chunky steering wheel can be positioned to suit, moving up/down and in/out. Head/helmet room is accommodating, though over-the-shoulder vision is limited by the modest rear-side glass area. Rear-seat headroom is acceptable and a small person may squeeze behind a small front-seat occupant.
Away from the racetrack, in the suburbs and on the open road, the Renault is surprisingly quiet, comfortable and safe. The usual obtuse Gallic ergonomic puzzle is soon unravelled, although someone should be sent to the guillotine for that silly sound system. The seatbelt is awkward to grab, too. Well equipped, it comes with six airbags, cruise control, space-saver spare and split-fold rear-seat backs to boost luggage space.
Renault Megane RS250 Cup vital statistics
Price $41,990 plus on-road costs
Engine 2.0-litre 4-cyl turbo
Transmission 6-sp manual; FWD
Power 184kW at 5500rpm
Torque 340Nm at 3000rpm
0-100km/h (claimed) 6.1 seconds
Fuel use 8.7L/100km, 98RON
Safety Dual front, front-side, curtain airbags
The oldest of the trio, the MX-5 with a retractable hardtop has conservative but well-proportioned lines. Still true to its original aim of reviving the traditional roadster but at a good price and with Japanese reliability, this is the third-gen MX-5, now seven years old.
We've seen the engine capacity go from 1.6 litres at launch in 1989, to 1.8, and now 2.0 (making a gentle 118kW). It can still be argued that the wonderful chassis will easily accept more urge from under the bonnet. Though an auto option is available, Drive went for a six-speed manual version with a hardtop that drops and folds away in 12 seconds.
It's clearly getting on in years. The cockpit space is tight, the fascia dated, the steering wheel doesn't adjust telescopically, the engine needs a hefty rev to get the car moving, and it's noisy at cruising speeds.
But a car doesn't find almost 1 million owners without competence and character.
At Marulan, in the rain and gloom, the MX-5 bursts into bloom. The responsive, communicative steering is a blessing whenever the rear wheels slide out of line. Splashing about with the switchable stability control on or off, the MX-5 feels the most planted and composed of the three cars.
Perhaps its relatively modest power (118kW) helps create the illusion but kudos, too, to the oft-lauded handling.
The engine is at its best high in the rev range, while the short-levered gearbox is another joy. Brakes - solid discs - handle the 1179-kilogram all-up weight comfortably. Accoutrements of this modern-if-traditional sports car include front and side airbags, Bose sound with six-CD player and auxiliary jack. But no Bluetooth or USB facilities. And no spare in that tiny boot.
With no sign of sunshine, we did not get the open-air experience much enjoyed by purists. Even with the optional sports pack of smart BBS 17-inch wheels with low-profile Bridgestone Potenzas and hip-hugging Recaro seats, the MX-5's nearly $50,000 price tag remains a purchasing impediment.
Mazda MX-5 Coupe Sports vital statistics
Price $49,805 plus on-road costs
Engine 2.0-litre 4-cyl
Transmission 6-sp manual (6-sp auto optional); RWD
Power 118kW at 7000rpm
Torque 188Nm at 5000rpm
0-100km/h (claimed) 7.9 seconds
Fuel use 8.1L/100km, 95RON (manual and auto)
Safety Dual front airbags, front-side airbags
After a bland diet of hybrids, repmobiles, vans, SUVs and people-movers - and a lengthy spell away from the sports car genre - Toyota sees the 86 as a potential game changer. The last so-called Toyota sporty, the MR2, was more sizzle than wagyu steak. The Supra seems eons ago.
But the meeting of the technical minds of Subaru and Toyota has forged a memorable car. Not a muscle-bound beast with rip-snorting, tarmac-tearing power. Nor a styling or engineering revolution to rock the automotive world.
Instead, with Subaru's help, Toyota has provided a beautifully balanced new benchmark for bang-for-your-dollar fun on wheels, and a two-door coupe that looks the part. Squint a little and you'll see elements of Maserati and Ferrari in its haunches and front guards.
Toyota's focus has clearly been on the engagement factor embodied in safe, predictable road and track manners - in a conventional sports car package of front-engine/rear-drive.
In the 1228-kilogram 86 GT, the engine's 147kW at 7000rpm and 205Nm at 6400-6800rpm gives fair performance (0-100km/h in a claimed 7.6 seconds) without venturing near the Megane RS250 Cup's benchmark. The redline is 7500 and there is a gearshift indicator.
The day before our playtime in the wet at Marulan, we got to drive the Toyota in a suite of entertaining situations - dirt loop, motorkhana, track, hill climb (all in fine weather) and on a wet skidpan. It was enough to convince us that Toyota was not making idle boasts about dynamic performance.
We would have welcomed more torque, but the firm and direct quick-ratio electric steering, stubby short-throw gear lever and excellent brakes (ventilated front discs; solid rear discs) do their bit well.
It's easy to sense the 86 (and BRZ) will be magnets for those keen to tackle affordable amateur-level motor club racing or merely experience the pleasure of a splendidly executed sporty machine. For serious track or hill-climb application, the $35,490 GTS is preferred due to its better brake package (ventilated discs all round) and bigger 17-inch alloy wheels with lower-profile tyres.
The GTS also comes with leather/Alcantara seats, satnav and other goodies.
At Marulan, with the stability and traction controls neutralised, the 86 answers the throttle pleasantly for some lurid, controllable power slides in the wet. Its natural poise is evident but the naughty side is there, too.
Sports seats hold the driver and passenger well during fast motoring. The near-vertical steering wheel can be moved to suit all shapes. Ergonomically, the 86 is hard to fault and controls fall to hand nicely but the interior has been built to a (very sharp) price. For example the A/C controls feel like those of the Yaris.
Standard with the entry GT model is a decent sound system with Bluetooth and USB connectivity, two 12V sockets, daytime running lights and five-mode stability control.
As a daily transport proposition, it's a pleasant cruiser, capable of decent economy (a claimed 7.8 litres/100km on premium unleaded). OK, the two rear seats are in name only, better suited to two sets of golf clubs or four wheels/tyres for track-day use than children. The boot won't swallow much, but the spare is full-size, although ours comes without one.
Toyota 86 GT vital statistics
Price $29,990 plus on-road costs
Engine 2.0-litre 4-cyl "boxer"
Transmission 6-sp manual (6-sp auto optional); RWD
Power 147kW at 7000rpm
Torque 205Nm at 6400-6800rpm
0-100km/h (claimed) 7.6 seconds
Fuel use 7.8L/100km (7.1L/100km auto), 98RON
Safety Dual front, front-side, curtain, driver's knee airbags
All three have considerable appeal in different situations. The Mazda MX-5 shows its age in some ways, while its lack of grunt is up for debate. But when the going gets tough - such as in the wet stuff on a racetrack - its surefootedness is reassuring. The open-air option is also a bonus to some. But the nagging feeling is that the arrival of the Toyota 86 has brought the MX-5's value into serious question.
The Renault Megane RS250 Cup is the hardest-accelerating, most powerful car of the three, and probably the quickest around a dry circuit. Drive hasn't fallen out of love with the RS. It still thrills us, despite its quirkiness.
But once the 86's price was revealed, it was always going to be tough to beat. It's value is stunning. It is not the fastest, nor is it a true open-air sports car. It meets Toyota's promise of genuine fun with commendable poise and thoughtful design, and the 86 appeases the traditionalists' demand for rear-wheel-drive. Low servicing costs and Toyota's envied reliability seal the deal.