When it was announced three years ago at the 2009 Tokyo Motor Show under the name FT-86, car fans the world over collectively dropped their jaws. After Toyota had discontinued the Supra, and given its super car a Lexus badge, it seemed like the one of the world's most reliable brands had closed the door on sports cars forever.
The Long Wait
The unveiling of the 86 was a revival of many things; of the old AE86 and its affordable and fun to drive spirit, of its recognition of the growing popularity of drifting and grassroots motorsports, and of its pursuit of creating a reliable sports car to rival the world's best.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was that it would be propelled, not by a 20 valve inline 4 black top, but by a flat four Subaru engine. Then came more news that it wouldn't be just one sports car, but three: the Toyota 86, The Scion FRS and the Subaru BRZ. The joint venture should come as no surprise as Toyota owns a 16.5% stake in Subaru.
For three years, the world awaited the car, drooling over prototypes and sports concepts, contenting ourselves with virtual drives in Gran Turismo, wondering what it would be like to drive for real.
With so much anticipation, Toyota and Subaru knew the new 86/BRZ couldn't simply be a Corolla derivative, like the AE86 was. It would have to be engineered to the high standards of today, with light weight, responsive handling and performance, excellent balance, rear wheel drive and of course, a propensity to drift.
Subaru proved to have the ideal solution towards achieving this: a low center-of-gravity boxer (horizontally opposed) engine. The resulting 2.0 liter flat 4 engine was mounted in front, paired with either a short-throw 6-speed manual or a 6-speed auto with paddle shifters. Independent suspension all around would make short work of the car's light 1,200 kg curb weight while 16 inch brakes would bring it to a quick stop. Extensive wind tunnel testing yielded a body with a highly aerodynamic 0.27 coefficient of drag. Finally, driver-oriented features were also integrated in the design to make it not only visually appealing, but functionally sound as well.
In the Metal
The product is a car that captivates in every aspect. Whether the admirer is a fan of specs or aesthetics, there is a lot to talk about. For one, there's the high horsepower output per cubic centimetre of displacement at 1 hp for every 10 cc. The very shapes of each wheel arch, as well as a center fin on the dashboard are designed to visually communicate the direction and position of each wheel to help the driver turn tighter.
Inside, there are a lot of clever touches. The instrument cluster puts the tachometer in the center with a digital speed display. The steering wheel is large for such a small car, but is stitched and contoured for optimum grip. The sports seats feature a little guide loop to keep the seatbelt within reach. Dials are shaped like lugnuts while climate controls are shaped like aircraft toggles. The stick shift, whether manual or automatic, still looks like a manual stick and is lovingly wrapped in a leather boot. And if you must, the back seats can fold to accommodate more cargo.
Devil in the Details
Naturally, there are subtle differences between the two. In front, the Toyota features a nose that ends much lower. A train of LED lights lead into the projector headlamps. Below it, triangular housings fit the turn signals and fog lamps. Between them is a trapezoidal lower intake, raked to resemble a shark nose. The grille pattern even features a subtle interlocking T's. Over on the side, Toyota's 86 logo makes sure to communicate the orientation of the cylinders. The same T pattern reappears in the rear reverse lamp and fog light cluster. And inside, you guessed it, those same T's serve as the “wallpaper” of each dial. The numbers on the tachometer are on a white strip for better visibility.
The Subaru puts its own mark on the BRZ. The nose ends just a tad higher to make room for its larger intake, shaped just like Toyota's but flipped upside down. The intake is more vertical in its orientation, integrating a subtle bumper inside. No T's here, just a plain old grille. In the headlights, a turn signal is housed on the inside while the LEDs encircle the projector headlamp in a 'C' shape. The new bumper shape has moved the headlight washer to a more prominent position. Below it, the foglight is housed in a much smaller triangle shape. Over on the side, 86 logo on the wing vent is gone, replaced with a chrome strip. And in the dials, there's no T wallpaper, just white numbers on a black face that glow red. Its speedo, however, shows both km/h and mph readings. Unfortunately, that dreadful Toyota 2-DIN stereo is also found in the BRZ. Then again, in either car, I never bothered to even turn it on.
Then, there's the drive, which was well worth the wait. Being designed for enthusiasts by enthusiasts, it's one talkative car. The steering is weighted just right, with a large wheel that is not too light nor too heavy. NVH insulation is very good, but there's thankfully enough vibration transferred from road to the steering wheel to be able to differentiate driving surfaces. The shifters, whether paddle or the short throw stick, are crisp and quick. The car accelerates quickly, but even more remarkable is how quickly it drops revs when downshifting, almost like an LFA. The car's lateral motion is easily felt in the posterior, right through the seat. The car accelerates with verve, turns in with little body roll and brakes exceedingly well in such short distances. It truly feels like a purpose built sports car, similar to the 2.0 liter Miata in layout and performance but with more obliging oversteer.
The Toyota's character is much more evident from the offset. Even with traction control on, it allows for a little tail-out action; just enough to let you feel it, but catching it just before it starts to get hairy. It seems any little flick will get the tail out, with the traction control raining it back in, and perhaps a little too soon.
The Subaru, on the other hand is a more surefooted individual. The BRZ's dampers and coil springs are firmer. True to the brand's grippy understeer-biased reputation, it grips much better but also takes a lot more effort to get the tail to whip out. It also means that the BRZ has a slightly firmer ride. It may be a downer for those that want some tail out action, but it also makes the BRZ faster and much more stable in mountain roads and circuits.
Having driven both cars, it's starting to seem like Toyota has had quite a lot of influence over the car. Small touches all over the 86 let you know that a lot of thought was put into the car to remind you that it's a Toyota. Much of that evidence was hidden in the BRZ, though hardly as thoughtful as how Toyota did it.
Still, the car's engine note still sounds more Subaru than Toyota and the stiffer setup of the BRZ makes it feel right at home in the Subaru stable.
The choice of which car really boils down to the owner's driving style. If you want to go drifting, do donuts in a parking lot or just hoon around, you should definitely get the Toyota. Those into track days, time attacks or just fun drives ought to look into the more stable BRZ.
The BRZ is priced just a tad higher than the 86. Although with all the hoops Toyota dealers will make you jump through, they could end up just the same. Prepare for a long waiting list for either car. What we can tell you for sure is that either one is going to be a blast.
Special thanks to the Toyota 86/BRZ Club Philippines