Needs more ticker
Sleek coupe remains a load of fun but the engine is due for an update, says Bill McKinnon
COUPES glow hotter than the sun for five minutes after launch, then they’re forgotten when the next must-have pretty thing comes along. A former Holden marketing boss, asked about the 2004 Monaro, put it this way: “Coupes are like radioactive isotopes. They only have a half life.”
In 2013, its first full year on the market, Toyota’s 86 blitzed the class with 6706 sales; in 2016, it did fewer than one third of that. The rock star coupe du jour is the Mustang.
Despite teasing the market with concepts such as the 2013 open top roadster, the recent Australiandesigned Shooting Brake hatch and rumours of a 2.0-litre turbocharged WRX-powered version, Toyota has limited development of the 86 to a mid2014 suspension fiddle, a factorybacked race series promotion and, just released, a subtle yet substantial update for the 2017 model.
We’re testing the biggest seller, the GTS manual, priced at $36,490.
The 86’s profile is pure coupe, timeless and classically-proportioned, so it’s been left alone; minor front and rear end changes improve aerodynamics and give the car a more hunkered stance. GTS gets a small rear-wing spoiler and new 17-inch alloys.
Subaru’s 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine has been extensively modified, with new pistons, more efficient plumbing and a stiffer block, yet it gains just 5kW of power, now 152kW, but only in the manual version. Automatics make do with 147kW.
Grunt — otherwise known as torque — is up by seven Newtons but still in desperately short supply (212Nm) compared with a turbo donk and available only at a stratospheric 6400rpm.
The car feels a touch more toey, though, especially in the lower gears, largely because of a shorter final drive ratio. Drift kings — early and enthusiastic 86 adopters — will rejoice in lap timer, G-force, power and torque meters, plus the provision of a switchable Track mode, which allows the sort of tailout shenanigans that will get you locked up for life in Victoria.
I thought Toyota had the suspension spot-on with the original 86; its engineers obviously didn’t because they have twice tweaked it, by such fine increments it’s difficult to discern significant changes to ride or handling this side of a racetrack.
The body is stiffened with additional spot welds, and a thicker rear stabiliser bar, to improve turn-in responsiveness, precision and stability.
Inside, the 2017 86 is less boy racer and more gentleman’s GT, with more sophisticated instrumentation, subtle fake suede dash trim and audio and trip computer switches on the tiny new steering wheel, which also gains an 86 badge.
Twelve o’clock on the tacho now reads 7000rpm because 86 owners know that’s where they need to point the needle.
Around town, short, closely spaced intermediate gears and a responsive accelerator disguise the
engine’s lack of pulling power in the bottom half of the rev range.
It takes a little while to master clean launches: the short throw clutch has a narrow band of engagement and if you don’t have enough revs on board, the car will stall.
So a hill holder is now standard. Otherwise, the GTS is an easy, enjoyable drive in traffic, with good vision for a coupe, a surprisingly forgiving low-speed ride, light steering and a useful boot.
Less impressive is a gearbox that doesn’t quite shift as smoothly or willingly as it should, mandated premium 98 octane fuel and a thirst that can reach 13L/100km if you’re a bit vigorous. You would only put your enemies in the back seat, too.
ON THE ROAD
Few cars at any price handle with the agility, poise and balance of an 86. It’s a featherweight (1218kg) rear-wheel drive with a tight body, razor-sharp steering and immaculately-controlled suspension, so the basics have been done right and on the road you can feel the quality and depth of engineering skill that has gone into it. At the price, it’s remarkable.
Michelin Premacy tyres are its only dynamic flaw. They start slipping early. Some 86 owners probably think that’s a plus. One journo hyperventilated that the 86 is better than a Porsche Cayman. It isn’t, but with a decent engine it would be in with a chance.
Time and technology haven’t been kind to the 2.0-litre boxer, which feels and sounds laboured and unresponsive under acceleration and at the top end; below 4500rpm, it’s spectacularly gutless.
This is supposed to be a sports car, after all, and in 2017 the Subaru engine doesn’t cut it. More power isn’t the answer. Strong, accessible grunt is. What it needs is a turbo.
Drive a hottish force-fed hatch — a Focus ST, Hyundai Veloster Turbo, Mini Cooper S, VW Golf GTI or a Subaru WRX — and you’ll see what’s missing in the 86.
The 86 stunned us all in 2012 and still does when you aim it at a series of corners, which it waltzes through with ridiculous ease and amazing grace. You can’t argue with the price, either. In 2017, though, it’s let down by an engine which has fallen way off the pace.