THE ORIGINAL Toyota 86, launched in 2012, was always a tricky car to live with on a daily basis.
Busy, jarring ride; a cost-conscious interior and a live, 24/7 broadcast of the bitumen beneath you – vibration, noise and all. But you put up with it, because when the road turned twisty, nothing less than $50,000 satisfied or pleased, from a driving perspective, like the 86, with sublime steering, nimble handling and that oh-so-sweet rear-drive feeling.
The five per cent spent on far-flung, twisty roads, more than justified the other 95 per cent. Same applied, of course, to the Subaru BRZ. Yet it’s interesting, how many 86 owners do you see driving around who wouldn’t know what that five per cent feels like, yet put up with the 95 per cent on a daily basis?
And when it launched the 86 five years ago, did Toyota ever in its wildest dreams expect the 86 to be so popular with people who – not to pick on them – might hesitate if you asked them if their car was front- or rear-wheel drive? Perhaps not. But whether anticipated or not, the 86 is a mass-market success, in Australia at least – 18,084 sold as of December last year – and this has become both a blessing and a curse.
A blessing in that, if lots of people buy them, they’re more likely to build a second-generation car. And a curse in that, once the mass market has a taste for your sports car, there’s the temptation to start making the car to suit them, and less so the minority of enthusiast drivers for whom the car was originally built, and to whom it owes its legend and reputation.
This could be the case, ever so delicately, with the new 2017 Toyota 86. A major freshen up to keep it rolling off showroom floors, the 86 scores a restyled front bumper; updated headlights and taillights; a new 17-inch wheel design for the GTS; and spruced-up interiors including a new 362mm steering wheel, the smallest fitted to any Toyota.
But it’s not been all aesthetic, with breathing mods helping power climb to 152kW from 147kW; torque now 212Nm from 205Nm; and acceleration becoming perkier thanks to a new shorter final drive.
But there are two other fairly major changes: brand-new chassis electronics including a much-needed, ‘half-off’ Track mode; and some interesting changes to the suspension, including an overhaul of the dampers and a softening, by 15 per cent, of the rear springs (and a 1mm thinner swaybar), and a 10 per cent firming of the fronts.
This has resulted in a distinctly more grown-up ride – although it’s still no wafty, adaptive damper-equipped VW Golf GTI – but also more bodyroll and a subtly different handling personality to the ‘first’ 86. So, is it better? Is a slightly softer, more liveable 86 a good thing, making you have to become a smarter fast driver to manage the bodyroll, and even then, any ills forgotten thanks to that awesome new ESP?
And how is the 86 ageing in the general performance car world? We’ve got three months in a base GT at which point we swap for three more in a GTS. And by the end of it, we’ll have a pretty good idea if Toyota’s changes have made the 86 even sweeter, or a new flavour nobody was asking for.