First drive: Toyota 86 2012 at Yas Marina Abu Dhabi
Wait, it’s here? It took long enough, but the Toyota 86 has finally landed in the Middle East. In what has been hailed as the Japanese company’s game-changer, the 86 was officially launched in the GCC, at an event in Abu Dhabi.
This is probably the most lavish event we’ve ever been to for a Toyota. With a fancy 3D light show, all-expenses-paid hotel stay at the Yas Viceroy, and free Samsung Galaxy Tabs for all guests, they went all-out for what is pretty much a niche product. Not even the new Camry got this much fanfare.
The car itself is a looker, sort of like a smaller Hyundai Genesis Coupe, but cooler. With the Honda S2000 out of production and the Mazda MX-5 overpriced, the 86 is in a league of its own, unless one counts the Ford Mustang V6 and the VW Scirocco as competitors. It is a two-seater with two useless rear seats. The interior is largely hard plastics, but with strategic areas padded with stitched leatherette and a soft-touch upper dash.
We started off the afternoon with some ride-along drifting sessions with professional drivers. Watching the cars being drifted confirmed what we had suspected. With 200 hp and only 205 Nm of torque from the high-strung 2.0-litre four-banger, the drivers were throwing the cars into drifts by flicking the car in one direction and then the other to unsettle the rear, then piling on the power in second gear. The drifts don’t appear smoky or speedy by any means, but they manage. However, amateur drivers could never break traction as easily as they would with, say, a V8 muscle car. It takes a fair bit of advanced skill to get a low-powered car sideways.
We then jumped to the skidpad for some real drive-time. The setup involved driving through a mini-slalom course on a layer of water, and we got to try it first with ESC on, then ESC in sport mode, and ESC fully off. The car was unflappable with the electronic nannies on. With it partially off, the car actually went way more sideways, but it was easy enough to catch. With all the nannies off, the car was expectedly even more tail-happy, so we were going sideways at nearly 90-degrees, all at speeds of maybe 10 kph or less. Again, it was easy to catch the slide thanks to the sharp firm steering.
After everyone was done, we actually went back to the skidpad to try drifting the car around some cones. The last time we actually managed to do some half-decent drifts was half-a-decade ago with a 300 hp car, but have hardly tried since then due to it being, you know, illegal. So we took this opportunity to try again after so long, using a 200 hp car. After going through the water-slide many times, ESC fully off, it was again easy to catch the slide with quick steering, spinning out only once in several low-speed runs.
Coming out of the water, we then headed straight for some cones set in a very small circle and attempted to do some drifts on dry land around that. With the manually-shiftable automatic in first gear, we broke traction for the first 5 seconds with the wet tyres, but after that the rubbers dried up and the car simply turned and mildly understeered no matter how much we piled on the power. I didn’t yank the handbrake because there was a chaperone in the passenger seat watching over me, but it is safe to say it takes some solid momentum to swing that tail out.
The final activity was the much-awaited track session, where we drove in convoy, chasing an instructor-driven Toyota Aurion Sport around a section of the Yas Marina Circuit, that too with the ESC in sport mode. The 86 proved itself to be every bit the sports car that its creator claim. The engine sounds phenomenal, even with its puny Yaris-inspired exhaust tips. The steering is as firm and sharp as any other proper sports car we’ve driven. The brakes were surprisingly capable, even if they look small, with great firm pedal feel. The body roll, whatever there is of it, isn’t noticeable from inside the car. The grip seemed good, although it was still easy to reach the limit and squeal the rubbers, sometimes even wagging the tail by a few . The automatic gearbox was good at selecting the right gears, downshifting quickly by itself as we braked into corners, much better than the ignorant ones in Mercedes-Benz AMG cars we drove last month on the same track.
The car seemed to have good power for the track, but it only became glaringly obvious that it had “only” 200 horses when the 268 hp Aurion left us in the dust on the straights. It remains to be seen how obvious this is on the streets.
Indeed, the 86 has proven itself to be a proper track car, but the real test will be on public roads, where the terrain isn’t buttery smooth, and the corners aren’t always linearly curving. Don’t kid yourself though. It won’t win any street races, it won’t make drift champions out of novices, and it won’t outrun that Porsche Cayman that Toyota claims they benchmarked it against. This is just Toyota’s version of cars that already exist, such as the Honda S2000 and the Mazda MX-5. However, the fact that we’re even mentioned all these cars in an article about a Toyota product, and that too at a competitive price, is reason enough to celebrate.