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Toyota's joyful 86 sports car offers up irresistible bang for your buck

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[video=youtube;JDR3TpGxY0M]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JDR3TpGxY0M[/video]
Once upon a time, Toyota produced cars like the MR2, Celica and Supra, and made fans of joyful, lightweight performance cars very, very happy. But as it grew into a gigantic global entity, Toyota found there were far greater profits to be made by churning out reliable yet utterly bland vehicles for the mainstream masses. The performance coupes and hatches of the 1980s and 1990s were relegated to collector status, wi*************lly revered by the import tuner crowd. And the Corolla, that bumbling beige nemesis of impatient drivers everywhere, became the best-selling car of all time.



But in 2009, when Akio Toyoda - a passionate competition racer - took over the company founded by his grandfather, he vowed he'd return it to its roots by building cars that "make people happy." He believed in order to revive brand loyalty, Toyota needed to win back the hearts of enthusiasts by once again building sports cars. The most outstanding example of this strategy was the Lexus LFA, a V10-powered, carbon-fibre coupe of which only 10 were made available in Canada. Of course, the LFA was a financial failure since they lost money on every labour-intensive model built. But as a halo car, the US$375,000 LFA was a success, helping to reshape Toyota's image into something more vibrant.

A more accessible example of Toyota's makeover was the GT-86, known in North America as the Scion FR-S. Since the youth-oriented sub-brand recently went "Scion-ara," this entry-level sports coupe returns as the Toyota-badged 86. It seems fitting. The 86 pays homage to Toyota's performance heyday by reviving the nameplate of the AE 86, one of its most iconic sports cars.

For 2017, the 86 receives a styling refresh, updated interior materials and some tweaks to the engine and suspension. The design is classic two-plus-two sports car: Long of nose and short rear deck, with a wide and lowered stance. Revisions include a wider front intake, a sharper fascia that reportedly improves downforce and aerodynamics, the "86" logo behind the front fender, standard LED headlights and taillights, and new fog lights.

Inside, the simple cockpit benefits from "Granlux" faux-suede on gauge binnacle, dash, and door panels. Racing-style seats are highly bolstered and supportive, holding the driver in place when the car's flung about on the track or autocross. They're extremely comfortable for daily driving, too - at least the front ones are. Average-sized rear passengers will find they won't be able to force their feet into the tiny gap behind the front seat backs. However, they do make this car more useful, practically speaking, than two-seaters like the Mazda MX-5 Miata. A child seat will fit back there, and so will a set of track-day wheels with the rear seats folded down.

Instrumentation is basic and performance-focused. The tachometer moves to the centre spot with its 7,000 rpm redline at 12 o'clock and the speedometer sits to the left. A small multi-information display tucked into the corner of the speedometer shows temperature and fuel consumption. Climate controls are simple round knobs that are easy to find and operate. Unfortunately, the connectivity screen is a carry-over from Scion and displays only the backup camera, audio and Bluetooth functions. There's no navigation, and neither Apple CarPlay nor Android Auto - all of which are available even on the Corolla.

The steering wheel has been replaced by an even smaller one - fat and grippy, it's the perfect interface between car and driver. Enthusiasts will appreciate TRAC, the stability control system, which doesn't immediately intervene when it senses slip. Or, drivers can engage the Track setting, and throw the rear end out to their heart's content.

The 86 still uses the Subaru-derived 2.0-litre Boxer four-cylinder engine with Toyota's unique D-4S fuel injection system, which alternates between direct and port injection depending on demand. Manual models receive a power upgrade to 205 horsepower and 156 lb.-ft. of torque - up from 200 and 151, respectively - while output on automatic models remain unchanged. Fortunately, my tester was equipped with the excellent six-speed manual transmission. The drilled aluminum pedals are perfectly placed for heel-and-toe footwork, and the stick-shift's short, precise throws made multiple downshifts a joy.

Dynamically speaking, the most important upgrades were to the suspension and chassis. The frame's made stiffer thanks to spot-welds and thicker sheet-metal. Front coils and dampers are 10 per cent firmer, but the back ones have been softened by 15 per cent to make them more compliant and comfortable. A larger rear sway bar has been added to eliminate any roll. The result is a car that's brilliant on curvy roads; with lightning fast turn-in, it's easy to get sideways and just as easy to put it straight again. It rotates beautifully and is quick as a cat in the corners. That kind of stability is not only entertaining, it inspires great confidence.

Despite the slight bump in power, the 86 isn't exactly fast. It's quick upon getaway as you row up through the gears, but the engine falls flat at high rpms. If you're really bothered by this there are aftermarket supercharger and turbo kits available, but you'd be missing the point. Like the MX-5, the Toyota 86's nimble athleticism far outweighs its lack of straight-line speed.

A pure, rear-wheel drive sports car, the Toyota 86 is probably the greatest bang for your performance buck since the Miata.



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