Drives: fat cars are still boats
Join Date: Jun 2007
Location: compensating a fat car with horsepower is like giving an alcoholic cocaine to sober him up.
"Iím giving it five stars only because itís not possible to hand out more."
In the olden days, when people had diphtheria and children were covered in soot, cars had skinny little tyres so that enthusiastic drivers could have fun making them slither about on roundabouts.
Nowadays, though, itís all about grip. Fast Fords are fitted with front differentials to ensure you can keep a tight line, even when you are doing 1,000mph through a mountain hairpin. Then you have the Nissan GT-R, which uses the computing power of a stock exchange to make the same mountain hairpin doable at the speed of sound.
In fact, all modern cars cling to the road like a frightened toddler clings onto its motherís hand. In some ways this is no bad thing. It means the befuddled and the weak are less likely to spin off and hit a tree. And it means the helmsmen among us can post faster lap times on track days.
But is that what you want? Really? Because when the grip does run out, you will be travelling at such a rate that you will have neither the talent nor the time to get everything back in order before you slam into a telegraph pole. If you are trying to win a race, high cornering speeds are important. But if you are not, theyíre frightening.
For the business of going fast, a Nissan GT-R is unbeatable. But for fun ó and I am not exaggerating here ó you would be better off in a Morris Minor on cross-plies.
Which brings me neatly to the door of this weekís test car. Itís called the Toyota GT86 and itís been built in a collaboration with Subaru, which is selling an almost identical machine called the BRZ. Unlike most coupťs, such as the Ford Capri, Volkswagen Scirocco and Vauxhall Calibra, the GT86 is not a hatchback in a party frock. It is not a marketing exercise designed to relieve the style-conscious of their surplus cash. It isnít even very good-looking. Or practical. The boot is large enough for things, but you can forget about putting anyone in the back, even children. Unless theyíve no legs or heads.
Power? Well, it has a 2-litre boxer engine ó Subaruís contribution ó which delivers 197 brake horsepower. Thatís not very much. But because the car weighs just 1,275kg and the engine is so revvy, youíll hit 62mph in 7.6 seconds and a top speed of 140mph. It could almost be mistaken for a hot hatch.
But thereís no mistaking the noise. This car is loud, and not in a particularly nice way. Thereís no crisp exhaust note, no induction wheezing. Itís just the sound of petrol exploding in a metal box.
The interior is nothing to write home about, either. You get what you need by way of equipment ó air-conditioning, stereo, cupholders and so on ó but thereís no sense of style or beauty. Apart from a bit of red stitching here and there, it all feels utilitarian, the product of a bean counterís lowest-bidder wet dream. So, there is nothing about this car, either on paper or in the showroom, that is going to tickle the tickly bits of Clint Thrust, the lantern-jawed hero from the planet Oversteer. And yet there is, because, unlike most cars of its type, the GT86 is rear-wheel drive. Rear drive in a car is like a roux in cooking. Yes, you can use cheapíníeasy cornflour front-wheel drive, but if you want the best results you have to go the extra mile. You have to fit a prop shaft. And a differential.
In a rear-drive car the front wheels are left to get on with the job of steering while those at the back handle the business of propulsion. Itís expensive to make a car this way, and complicated, but the end result will be better, more balanced.
And now we get to the nub of Toyotaís genius. The company fitted the GT86 with the same skinny little tyres it uses on the Prius. And what this means is that there is very little grip. You turn into a corner at what by modern standards is a pedestrian speed, and immediately you feel the tail start to slide.
So you let it go a little bit, and when the angle is just so, you find a throttle position that keeps it there. For ever. You are power-sliding, you are grinning like an ape and you are doing about 13mph. Which means that if you do make a mess of it and youíre heading for a tree, you can open the door and get out.
You wonít make a mess of it, though, because the steering is perfectly weighted and full of juicy feel. I promise. The GT86 will unlock a talent you didnít know you had. It will unleash your hero gene and you will never want to drive any other sort of car ever again.
No, really. Put some cotton wool in your ears, snick the old-feeling snick-snick box down into second, stand hard on the astoundingly good brakes, wish youíd used more cotton wool as the boxer engine roars, turn the wheel, feel the back start to go and itís like being back in the time of the Mk 1 Ford Escort.
Iím sure that at this point many non-enthusiasts are wondering whether Iíve taken leave of my senses. Why, they will ask, would anyone want a noisy, impractical car that wonít go round corners properly? Simple answer: if youíre asking the question, the GT86 is not for you.
I suppose I could raise a safety question. Because, while its antics are a massive giggle on a track, I do wonder what will happen when itís raining and your head is full of other things and you try to go round a roundabout at 25mph. Thereís a time and a place for oversteer and Iím not sure 5.30pm in suburbia is it. Best in these circumstances, then, to turn the traction control on.
Thereís another issue, too. Iím willing to bet that some people will decide that the styling of the GT86 could be improved by fitting larger wheels and fatter tyres. Do not do this. Because while it may make the car more meaty to behold, it will ruin the recipe as surely as you would ruin a plate of cauliflower cheese by vomiting on it.
Frankly, I wouldnít change a thing about the GT86. Because itís so bland, it doesnít attract too much attention. You can therefore have fun without being marked out by passers-by as an anorak.
And now we get to the clincher. The GT86 costs less than £25,000 with manual transmission. That makes it cheaper than a Vauxhall Astra VXR. It makes it a Tiffany diamond for the price of a fairground lucky-dip prize.
Itís strange. We thought purpose-designed coupťs had gone. We thought wayward handling had gone. And we sure as hell thought genuinely good value had gone. But all three things are now back in one astonishing car. Perhaps the most interesting car to be launched since the original Mazda MX-5. Iím giving it five stars only because itís not possible to hand out more.
Last edited by GoingTooFast; 10-04-2012 at 06:25 AM.