First Drive: 2017 Toyota 86

First Drive: 2017 Toyota 86

Akio Toyoda must have revisited his childhood collection of Dr Seuss books before taking the position as president of Toyota Motor Corporation.

He is outspoken in his mandate to imbue a sense of joy into offerings from the manufacturer. And he also wants to build cars that elicit childlike amusement and cause the butterflies to flutter a little harder in your tummy.

Yes, the brand has released products which prove that Mr Toyoda is intent on giving us the real deal, not just a marketing spiel.

Take the C-HR compact crossover: a dazzling looker available in flamboyant shades and equipped with a turbocharged engine.

There is also the prospect of a new flagship performance car developed jointly with BMW — if the FT-1 concept is anything to go by, it looks set to be everything that a Supra fanboy dreams of.

Consumers first saw evidence of this renewed excitement in 2012 with the arrival of the 86.

Enthusiasts went mad with their emphatic pronunciations of Hachi-Roku (“eight-six” in Japanese) and lively discussions about Initial D, an animé series about a boy who used a Sprinter Trueno AE86 for racing and tofu deliveries.

Much like the Mazda MX-5, the 86 served a simple yet delightful recipe. Low mass, rear-wheel drive and a (relatively) sprightly power source.

Subaru did the engine. It’s a 1998cc, four-cylinder, normally aspirated unit, and its horizontally opposed layout means a lower centre of gravity — best for assuring handling characteristics.

And even though many bemoaned its dearth of power, initiating some shimmying from the backside was certainly not a challenge.

An engaging, affordable and (fairly) practical sports car, the 86 delivered on the tenets that driving aficionados regard so highly. So, for the 2017 model year Toyota has done very little to alter things.

We headed for Red Star Raceway in Delmas, Mpumalanga, to experience the revisions.

Wet weather offered ideal conditions in which to reacquaint ourselves with the driftability of the 86.

With brains in your head and feet in your shoes, you can steer yourself in any direction you choose.

And choosing to go sideways in a controlled environment is bound to induce a smile fatter than that of The Cat in the Hat.

Power output remains the same at 147kW and 205Nm. That claimed sprint time of 7.6 seconds is probably optimistic at Johannesburg altitudes.

Modest, yes, but we need to remind ourselves that the 86 does not pursue straight-line kicks. Instead, it’s an experience that critics would describe as “organic” and “pure” — balanced and involving, in other words.

To that end, most of the changes were under the skin.

The suspension (front and back) was fettled with a view to achieving greater responsiveness and stability.

Spring rates, for example, have been tweaked for better body control under duress.

The rear anti-roll bar is purportedly larger too. Toyota claims the 86 is more rigid, thanks to thicker reinforcements under the skin and additional weld points.

I can report that the enhanced 86 is still quite happy to cut the rug when its dancing partner wants to hustle around a circuit with zeal.

The vehicle stability control system has a new mode dubbed Track, loosening the shackles of electronic intervention.

A unit of the outgoing vehicle was available for us to sample back-to-back with the new vehicle.

To say the changes were stark would be an overstatement because the old vehicle was used for driver training and had an inevitable degree of sloppiness to its manner.

Frankly, the improvements were far more distinctive on the open road.

Those skin-deep technical enhancements have culminated in a car that feels more accomplished in real conditions.

Oh, they also did something with the spare wheel that used to jut out in the boot. It now sits under a neat grey tarpaulin.

The interior brings tangible gains. This includes a new steering wheel — with the smallest diameter yet fitted to a Toyota production car.

The engineers were quite pedantic about getting the ideal feel just right. The design, they say, promotes a natural inward angling of the arms which is more conducive to enthusiastic driving.

Plush Alcantara material adorns parts of the fascia and door panels. And the top-grade version gets an instrument cluster with a digital screen, which has features like a lap timer.

The Toyota 86 is one of two cars in the attainable sports car sphere, playing alongside the Mazda MX-5 — a car we are currently running over a long-term test period.

The 86 is undoubtedly a more practical proposition, given the roomier cabin and additional small rear seats.

It would be improper of us to omit the subject of value.

A colleague and I mused that basic prices of these vehicles are not considerably far from those of a popular C-segment hatchback, the Volkswagen Golf GTI.

But the case was not really different back in 2012. Then you would have paid R364640 for an MX-5 (previous generation), R298 500 for an 86 and R338 500 for the GTI. In 2017, you will pay R417 000 for a Mazda MX-5, R449 600 for the Toyota 86 and R472 800 for the Volkswagen Golf GTI.

An interesting comparison indeed — but the traditional sports car genre will always have its apologists. And since there are only two left, one cannot help but look at the niche with rose-tinted glasses.

The motoring landscape is all the better for simple, fun offerings like the Toyota 86. – Brenwin Naidu

2017 Toyota 86 Pricing:

86 Standard: R449 600

86 High: R494 400

86 High AT: R519 400