It’s a brave car maker who bucks the trend for more power, more performance and more.. everything when building a sports car, and when that car maker is Japanese there’s an even more tightly defined expectation for what constitutes a performance car.

The typical Japanese performance car is turbocharged, usually four-wheel drive, has more dials and switches than the Space Shuttle and looks like a refugee from the local race track.

But Toyota is different and has pedigree is this area – most recently with the Lexus LFA supercar, but spiritually with the 1980s AE86 Corolla GT (also known as the Hachi-Roku).

Toyota GT 86

The GT 86 is all about driving – not boasting

The Toyota GT 86 is designed to be a pure drivers car, a term which has become somewhat vague in recent years, but by Toyota’s definition means; rear-wheel drive, a front-engined naturally aspirated powerplant, narrow 17″ tyres and the lowest possible centre of gravity.

The GT 86 is the most eagerly awaited Toyota since the LFA, but unlike its supercar sibling the GT 86 must satisfy the wants and needs of a much broader range of customers.

Originally revealed towards the end of 2009 as the FT-86 concept, followed in 2011 by the mean-looking FT-86 II concept, some say the GT 86’s gestation period has been long, or at least it’s seemed that way. The truth is it took less than two years from FT-86 Concept reveal to the final GT 86 version.

Toyota GT 86(From L to R): 2009 FT-86 Concept, 2011 FT-86 Concept, 2012 GT 86 production model.

Developed in conjunction with Subaru, the GT 86’s 1,998cc four-cylinder ‘boxer’ engine generates 197bhp at 7,000rpm and maximum torque of 205Nm at 6,600rpm.

Even though they share the same engine block with its 86mm x 86mm cylinders (nice touch), Toyota has added its D-4S injection technology which features separate twin injectors for both direct and port injection, and a high 12.5:1 compression ratio, increasing power and torque across a wide range of engine speeds without sacrificing fuel efficiency and environmental performance.

From Toyota FT-86 Concept to GT 86.

The GT 86 measures 4,240mm long, 1,285mm high and 2,570mm wide, dimensions which make it the most compact four-seater sports car available on the market today.

Both the powertrain and the driving position have been set as low and as far back as possible to achieve the best balance: the car has a near-perfect 53:47 front-to-rear weight distribution. The flat-four engine format and the driver’s hip point – the lowest of any current Toyota production model – together, give the GT 86 an ultra-low centre of gravity of just 475mm.

Purity of driving experience

Toyota GT 86

The powertrain is matched to what Toyota describes as “..the world’s most compact four-seat design” to create a car that benefits from light weight, low inertia and a low centre of gravity to achieve the best possible power-to-weight ratio. For the driver that means lively, accessible performance and a dynamic character with minimal intrusion from electronic systems. The suspension features MacPherson struts at the front and double wishbones at the rear.

In fact the term, “purity of driving experience” comes up frequently in Toyota’s press release, as does the engineers detailed scrutiny of every component, material and feature that influences the enjoyment of driving.

Take the steering wheel for example. With a 365mm diameter it is the smallest wheel ever fitted to a Toyota, and is trimmed in buckskin, developed from exhaustive feedback from test drivers on how to achieve the best steering performance and grip.

Toyota GT 86

Or the dimensions of the GT 86 which are as compact as possible, offering just enough of a wheelbase to accommodate the car’s 2+2 seating arrangement. Then there’s the GT 86’s wheel and tyre combination, at just 17-inches in diameter the GT 86 bucks the trend for wide low-profile tyres with a relatively skinny tyre footprint (215/45 x 17), designed to make the GT 86 fun to steer (and slide) at road speeds.

On the matter of its drift-ability, the GT 86 comes fitted with a limited slip differential as standard, whilst the ABS and switchable vehicle stability control systems have been tuned specifically to deliver dynamic stability at the limit with minimal electronic intervention. Whether this makes the GT 86 a worthy successor to the original Hachi-Roku, we’ll have to wait and see, but the omens are looking good.

Interior and design touches

Inside, the ergonomics and function of every element the driver interacts with have been scrutinised to make driving the car as natural, instinctive and rewarding as possible.

The triple-unit instrument cluster is arranged around a large tachometer, its design benefiting from close attention to the positioning of the displays, markings and typeface intended to provide the best possible visibility and readability. The driver-focus of the cockpit is further reinforced by the carbon-effect trim, all-black roof lining, red stitching on the upholstery, aviation-style rocker switches and lightweight, aluminium pedals.

Toyota GT 86

Outside the GT 86 is noticeable by a rear spoiler, twin exhausts and the “86″ piston logo that denotes the car’s special powertrain configuration.

There remain a couple of key questions concerning the GT 86, most notably whether 197 bhp and 1180 kg will feel exciting enough in an age when fast hatchbacks deliver more than 300 bhp.

Times have changed since the AE-86 Corolla GT, as have customer expectations, so have Toyota managed to produce a sports car with greater appeal than a Renault Megane Trophy or will Toyota be swiftly following up the launch version with a full-fat turbocharged Porsche Cayman competitor? We can’t wait to find out.

The Toyota GT 86 debuts at this week’s Tokyo Motor Show and will go on sale in the UK in June 2012.

Toyota’s sports car heritage

The GT 86 may be launched as the world’s only sports car to feature a front-mounted, horizontally opposed engine and rear-wheel drive, but it cannot claim to be the first. That honour is held by Toyota’s two-cylinder boxer-engined Sports 800, which the company began developing in 1962.

Since then, Toyota has established a long history of producing exciting, driver-focused sports cars with a front-engine, rear-wheel drive format that have proved as popular with the public as they have been successful in competition.

The 2000 GT, a coupe powered by a 2.0-litre straight-six engine, was first displayed at the 1965 Tokyo motor show and helped establish Toyota’s reputation as a sports car manufacturer.

Launched in 1971, the first Celica models featured rear-wheel drive powertrains and were praised by enthusiasts for their agility. All four Supra generations came with straight-six engines and rear-wheel drive, while from 1984 the MR2 won recognition as one of the best handling sports cars of its time.

Toyota GT 86A short history of Toyota Coupes – Source: lolron.

The inspiration for the GT 86, however, is the Corolla GT (or Levin) AE86, a car with an enduring reputation for delivering excitement and capturing the fundamental joy of driving.

Its front-engine, rear-wheel drive package, compact dimensions, light weight, impeccable balance and superior power-to-weight ratio made it a must-have choice for rallying and circuit driving throughout its production life (1983 – 1987), whilst since then it went on to become the car of choice for Japanese drift enthusiasts. Here in the UK the GT claimed two British Touring Car Championship titles and a series of top-level rally victories.

Toyota claim the GT 86 to be a genuinely lightweight machine, that offers the intimacy and involvement of a car that can be driven as though an extension of the driver’s body. In this way, it perfectly recaptures the exhilarating spirit of the AE86, and with numerous customisable parts, it shares its predecessor’s aim to be an affordable car that will evolve with its owner.

Images: Toyota and lolron


Written By

Steve Davies

Steve is an investor, private equity advisor and former Partner at KPMG, PwC and Bain.   Most importantly he's a life-long car enthusiast, mountain biker and active sports enthusiast. He designs and builds technology platforms and is the architect behind Transmission.

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