I first encountered the GT86 on a trip to the Tokyo Motor Show in 2011. It seems strange now that the primary purpose of going was to be there when a very special announcement was made. We weren’t told what it was, but that it would be more than worth the time spent away. So off I went, duly to be told of the joint venture with BMW that yielded the current Z4 and GR Supra, news I could probably have survived hearing from the comfort of my own office.
But not the other thing we did while we were there. Which was to toddle off to a test track and drive the just unveiled GT86. It was one of those ‘I was there’ moments. As we were taken to the cars, it had just started to rain. So I settled into this attractive but not gorgeous coupé, with its highly tuned but not powerful 2-litre engine and wondered what might come next. The portents were good – a naturally aspirated engine at one end driving the wheels at the other through a six speed manual gearbox, but the devil with such things always remains in the tuning. The answer was ‘oversteer’, of a kind I’d not experienced since I last drove a 1960s racing Alfa Giulia in the wet on Dunlop crossply competition tyres.
This was not the kind of lurching, snap oversteer that makes your heart jump to your mouth as your stomach sinks to your feet, but the kind where by far the greatest danger is that you’ll be laughing so much you’ll forget to turn into the next corner, or just not see it for the tears clouding your eyes. Truly, I have never known a bunch of journalists so readily turned into a bunch of giggling schoolchildren by a single brief exposure to any car, let alone one as modestly powered as this.
It was so much fun, felt so wonderfully naughty I genuinely thought that by the time finished production cars went on sale they’d have dialled it back a bit. Indeed that’s precisely what Subaru did with its otherwise identical BRZ, tuning the suspension just to induce a touch more understeer on turn-in and a lot less oversteer at the exit. The result was a quicker, better car. But more fun? I don’t think so. The showroom GT86 went as sideways as those early pre-production units I’d driven in Japan.
I borrowed one for a week when they started coming to the UK and realised that if this became my daily driver I’d be guaranteed to apply opposite lock every day of my working life. It was a powerful temptation.
What was so impressive about the car is that it was so purely conceived, and by people who cared only about what it was like to drive. The interior was a bit of a mess and no match at all for the swanky cabins found in its European opponents. It had a decent level of equipment but nothing else to add to the sense of occasion other than the drive itself. Which should have been enough.
To that end Toyota not only laid out the GT86 in classic configuration and with the low centre of gravity afforded by its horizontally opposed engine, it even went so far as to fit it with exactly the same tyres you got on a Prius. That’s right: not the semi-slick boots that appear made from marmalade beloved by track day warriors, but ultra-low rolling resistance rubber made out of something closer to concrete and therefore all the easier to tempt into oversteer. In fact it needed no tempting at all.
In 2012 it duly bowled up at Autocar’s annual competition to find Britain’s best driver’s car and despite an entire day being flung around the Bedford Autodrome registered barely any wear on its tyres at all, while others had had to be re-shod or retired from the fray. And, staggeringly, it beat the lot, besting a field that included an Aston Vanquish, Lotus Exige S and Porsche Cayman R. That’s how good to drive the GT86 really is.
There are those who complained about its relative lack of power but to me they missed the point. This car is all about its chassis, the engine cast in an entirely supporting role.
Interestingly, the car was never that successful in the marketplace and I understand did well enough to justify being replaced only by the skin of its teeth. It seems most people would far rather spend their time in the suave, sophisticated and oh-so serious surroundings of an Audi TT, and I get that. But those who buy cars as future classics tend to be far more concerned by what a car is like to drive than how it looks or what image they think it projects, and the fact the GT86 was relatively unloved means affordable examples abound. Even in this era where there’s no such thing as a great value second hand car, £15,000 for a low mileage example with a full history still looks mightily appealing. They’re strong, reliable and about as much fun with a steering wheel in your hand as that amount of money will buy.
309-mile Peugeot 306 Rallye could be yours – for £46,000
Jay Leno’s favourite kind of car show has no awards
The One That Got Away: He went for fish and chips and came home with a Tickford Capri. Steve Saxty’s tale of love and loss