WHETHER it’s the rolling A-roads of Cornwall, the pitted and twisting lanes of Wales or the magnificent mountain passes of the Scottish Highlands, Britain can really separate the men from the boys when it comes to chassis engineers.
It’s said that if a car works well on British roads it will work well anywhere, so when a new performance car is built there’s always a question in the back of your mind as to whether it would be quite as good in Britain as it is on billiard-table European roads. It was that question that brought the Toyota GT86 to me on a wet English weekday morning.
The GT86 is a driver-focused affordable sports coupe; the first of its type in a long time. Some people compare it to the evergreen Mazda MX-5, but although the latter is a brilliant convertible it always feels like it needs more power.
The GT86 delivers that, with 197bhp coming from a high-revving 2.0-litre flat four-cylinder engine designed by Subaru. It’s a traditional normally-aspirated driver’s engine without the lazy torque of hot hatchbacks’ 1.6-to-2.0-litre turbocharged units, but which offers much faster throttle response for a huge boost in immediacy and excitement.
It’s reason number one why the GT86 is perfect on our usually wet, slippery UK roads. With a torque curve that encourages you to use all of the 7,200rpm on offer, you can power out of corners in a low gear with the car’s instant reactions; building a crescendo of pace as the engine pulls harder first above 4,000rpm, then again at around 5,500rpm. With it comes a hollow metallic rasp, tingling its way through the car into your senses as it climbs to a unique roar before the in-built upshift-warning beep signals a gear change.
Wham! You punch the stiff gearstick through the tight-gated gearbox with the absolute confidence that the lack of flex inspires, dipping and releasing the clutch as if you’re at Le Mans. The GT86 was built to be driven this way. In fact, the systems never feel so cohesive and brilliant as they do when you’re at maximum attack.
Rear-wheel drive is another reason the GT86 is perfect for UK roads. Despite dips, cracks and potholes everywhere the Toyota escapes the nemesis of torque steer, which is a problem faced by every new turbocharged hot hatch you care to mention. There’s a natural balance between the front end, with its amazingly well set up electric steering that puts the Porsche 911’s to shame, and the rear end which has the absolutely perfect balance of power and grip. There’s enough grunt to work the back end and steer the car from the rear, but not so much that wet roads turn the instrument cluster into a disco of traction control lights.
The third main reason why the GT86 turns out to be perfect for UK roads is its chassis. Naturally it’s a firm setup; it’s a proper sports car after all. But whereas most mainstream hot hatchbacks have a wobbly chassis and too much compression damping as a cheap fix to make a car feel ‘sporty’, the GT86 has a torsionally stiff chassis with extremely well judged spring rates and damper characteristics that mean bumps are controlled rather than crashed into. It’s a car for corners and it wouldn’t do to be pinging sideways towards the hedge with every imperfection.
All of this is standard for your near-£25,000 outlay. That’s all you need, too, but there are some tasty options for those who want them. Heated leather and Alcantara seats are comfortable, supportive and stop you sliding around when the lateral G-force ramps up. One of the metallic paint shades is probably a must, too.
What’s most surprising is the fuel economy you can extract from the car with steady use. I saw high 30s miles per gallon without too much trouble at all, partially thanks to the six-speed gearbox and engine that’s flexible almost right down to tickover.
Other strokes of genius don’t go unnoticed either, whether they’re deliberate or not. The windscreen washer jets instantly deliver a lot of fluid over a broad area, so only the briefest of squirts is needed to clear the screen and the driver’s view is obscured for less time.
Complaints? Not many, I can tell you. With nearly 10,000 miles under its belt a few rattles had started to develop in this car’s dashboard plastics, the engine’s high state of tune means that it’s quite hard to drive smoothly at low speeds, and occasionally its door mirrors block your line of sight – a common curse among new cars.
But the question of whether the GT86 works in Britain has been smashed. As long as you don’t often carry rear passengers it works better than pretty much anything else for the price.
FACTS AT A GLANCE
Model: Toyota GT86, £24,995 on the road.Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine producing 197bhp and 151lb.ft.Transmission: Six-speed manual transmission driving the rear wheels.Performance: Top speed 140mph, 0-62mph in 7.7 seconds.Fuel economy: 36.2 mpg.CO2 rating: 181g/km.