Sunday 22 April 2018

How boring old Toyota got its mojo back at last

BLAST FROM THE PAST: Reading the specification of the GT 86 you could be forgiven for thinking you were looking at a car that was 15 to 20 years old
BLAST FROM THE PAST: Reading the specification of the GT 86 you could be forgiven for thinking you were looking at a car that was 15 to 20 years old

The new GT 86 sports car along with a motorsport programme demonstrate a passion underpinning the firm that's long been absent, writes Kyle Fortune BLAST FROM THE PAST: Reading the specification of the GT 86 you could be forgiven for thinking you were looking at a car that was 15 to 20 years old

FIFTH gear, blip, fourth gear, blip, third, blip then second, off the brakes, turn the beautifully weighted and accurate steering and the nose turns into the tight hairpin bend at the end of Jarama's pit straight.

There's no slack in response, the nose going where I want it to, the steering giving back information through the wheel's rim and the whole car seemingly pivoting under me. Turned in and feeding on the power there's a shift in balance, from neutral to the rear. The accelerator pedal is as useful for turning the car as the steering, so the corner is taken with the rear tyres sliding and some corrective lock at the wheel.

I'm in a Toyota. Not just any Toyota, but perhaps one of the most hotly anticipated models to come from Japan in as long as I can remember. At least it is in my world, where we really care about, and enjoy our driving.

Embroiled in recall mayhem a year or two back, Toyota has too long been a byword for capable but spiritless cars: the sensible choice. Nothing wrong with sensible, and really, in times of economic woe it's easy to see why, if you are spending, you'd spend wise. But while Toyota's core values remain true it also seems to have rediscovered its mojo.

That's a good thing, not just for the drivers among us who love the idea of cars like the GT 86, but for everyone. Car companies need a halo model, a machine that, while not appealing to all, gives its entire range a boost by association. I've been vocally critical of the unimaginative and interminably dull Yaris, and underwhelmed by the paradigm altering Prius, but it's easy to forgive Toyota these if it's prepared to make a car as wonderful as the GT 86.

Read the specification of the GT 86 and you could be looking at that of a car 15 to 20 years old. It's a sports car, a two-door coupe with four seats (tight in the back), rear-wheel drive and a small boot. An indulgent machine then, that's aimed at drivers. Not so indulgent though, as with an estimated starting price of a good deal less than €40,000, it's remarkably affordable.

That was one of the development goals, as was its overall back-to-basics approach. So there's no ludicrous power output. No, the GT 86 has 'just' 200hp from its 2.0-litre flat-four boxer engine, with the emphasis being on power-to-weight ratio rather than headline-grabbing outputs. It tips the scales at a relatively delicate 1,210kg.

Its boxer engine's configuration also gives a clue to the firm's collaborative partner in the GT 86 project -- Subaru. It's been largely responsible for the GT 86 (and its own BRZ model), while Toyota's input was its direct injection system among other things.

The boxer bit is important, as it means the centre of gravity is low. So that kerb weight of 1,210kg, a low centre of gravity, a high-revving naturally aspirated petrol engine, rear-wheel drive, quick and feel-some steering and a mechanical six-speed manual transmission . . . what will it do? Nobody's saying, there's no 0-100km/h time yet quoted, no top speed and, crucially, no lap time around the Nurburgring.

None of this matters, really it doesn't, it's absolutely not what the GT 86 is about. Tetsuya Tada san, the GT 86's engineering boss, doesn't care about 0-100kmh times or lap time nonsense; the GT 86 is about the more intangible elements of the car, like how it drives -- rather than measurable, but largely pointless numbers.

The result is nothing short of extraordinary, a car that takes a refreshingly simple approach to driving. Sure, there are traction and stability systems, but they can be switched off. Do that and the GT 86's responses and limits are so approachable and friendly that it never feels like it's driving you. Leave them on and you get much of the car's purity, balance and all its performance with the bonus of a safety net.

This side of a Caterham there's nothing much out there like it. It evokes the simplicity of the Mazda MX-5, a car that's now fallen into a 'big wheel and tyre' trap and lost its purity. The GT 86 rides on the same size tyres as a Prius, a car that's key goal is efficiency. So the GT 86 moves around underneath you, like a sports car should. That it's so easily read and adjustable is what makes it so much fun.

It may not be the most dramatically styled car out there, but it's neat enough and there are some clever details -- like the opposing pistons badge on the top of front wings. Inside too, there's nothing really much to get excited about, the dashboard focusing on functionality rather than flair. You'll care little though when the 2.0-litre unit is singing up near its red line and you dip the clutch and snick the quick, mechanical feeling six-speeder though its gate for another gear. It's fast enough for the road, a car that can be enjoyed at speeds that won't attract the interest of the gardai.

That's absolutely key to its appeal, and something that Toyota is keen to push. Reading the press material it's peppered with phrases like 'driver-focused', 'fundamental joys of driving', 'passion' and 'fun'. Nothing new there then, but for once it really does ring true.

It's a gargantuan shift in Toyota's recent approach to motoring, and while it's unlikely to filter down to its bread and butter machines, the fact the GT 86 exists at all is something to be applauded.

Underlining a new confidence, Toyota is going racing again. Not Formula One though (its recent foray there proving fruitless), but endurance racing. That means Le Mans, perhaps the greatest race on earth. It's done Audi no harm pushing its diesel engined technology at the famous 24-hour event, and Toyota is hoping to do the same -- though with hybrid-engined racing cars.

Sports car racing for Toyota makes a lot of sense, with endurance racing cars needing to balance both performance and economy. What better a series then for exhibiting its hybrid technology? Tadashi Yamashina, Toyota Motor Corporation senior managing officer and Toyota Motorsport chairman, said: "Toyota has entered Le Mans before, but by using our hybrid technology this time it will be a completely new challenge. We want to write a new chapter in the history of the Le Mans 24 Hours, as in the FIA World Endurance Championship, through our use of hybrid technology."

It's not the first time Toyota has competed at Le Mans, with Toyota cars on the grid since 1985 in various guises. Its most recent appearance at Le Mans saw the company fielding its GT-One in the late 1990s and it achieved a lap record in 1999.

The TS030 Hybrid racer is built and developed by Toyota Motorsport GmbH in Cologne, Germany, and will make its debut on May 5 at the Six Hours of Spa-Francorchamps. It gets its TS030 Hybrid name as a successor to Toyota's TS010 and TS020 cars, which scored podium positions in Le Mans in the 1990s.

Two cars will be run at Le Mans, with the driver line-up confirmed as Alex Wurz, Nicolas Lapierre and Kazuki Nakajima for the first car, and the second car's including Anthony Davidson, Hiroaki Ishiura and Sebastien Buemi.

If anyone can race hybrids it'll be Toyota, and the translation from track to road will keep the marketing and advertising people busy indeed. Happily the engineers are helping, with Toyota rolling out a range of future-looking hybrid concepts at the forthcoming Geneva Motor Show.

The NS4 and FCV-R concepts underline that hybrid and hydrogen fuel cell technology needn't just be worthy, but can be desirable. Something Toyota has perhaps been a bit remiss in the recent past to recognise. That's changing though, with Toyota seemingly a brand rejuvenated for a more exciting future.

I wouldn't have believed it myself, until I dropped a few gears and entered that hairpin bend at Circuito del Jarama.

Twitter: @Kyle_Fortune

Sunday Independent Supplement

Life Newsletter

Our digest of the week's juiciest lifestyle titbits.

Also in Life