When was the last time you had fun in a Toyota? No, I'm not talking about the bowel-churning ride you had in a Toyota Land Cruiser out in the Liwa desert last winter. Nor am I referring to the roller coaster ride that cabby took you on in his Camry the other day. I'm asking you to remember a single instance of real fun that you had behind the wheel of a Toyota in the last couple of decades, and all you can come up with is a Land Cruiser and a Camry? Well, don't worry about it; it's not your fault, for in its pursuit of commercial success, Toyota has been focusing all its resources into making vanilla cars that sell by the millions around the world.
It worked, but the price Toyota paid was an image that was a far cry from the days when it had the brilliant Celica, Supra and the MR2 in its illustrious line-up.
Of all the fun-to-drive coupés that the carmaker had in its array, none assumed the legendary position that the AE86, or Hachi-Roku had achieved. Debuted in 1983 as a coupé version of the fifth-generation Corolla, yes a Corolla, the AE86's sub-1,000kg weight, combined with the front-engine rear-drive configuration, made it an instantaneous hit.
With Japanese racing legend Keiichi Tsuchiya using it for his phenomenal drifting feats and Takumi Fujiwara, the lead character of the Initial D manga using it for racing in the mountain passes, the AE86 soon achieved cult status among young Japanese street racers. And thanks to its easily tunable engine and the perfectly balanced chassis, the AE86 is one of the most widely used cars in drifting competitions around the world, even today. So when the head honchos at the world's biggest carmaker decided to refocus on the company's long-forgotten fun-to-drive formula, they had only one choice; the Hachi-Roku.
The hype surrounding the 86 (it's called the GT86 in other markets) was such that the motoring fraternity's expectations of what the car will be were blown out of proportion. So naturally, on seeing the car for the first time, the first question that popped up in my mind was, "Is this it?" The 86 looks a lot smaller than it seems in the pictures. And it is. At 4,240mm long, 1,285mm high and 1,775mm wide, the 86 is one of the world's most compact four-seater sports coupés, and at just over 1,200kg, it's one of the lightest as well.
And there's nothing exceptional about the way it looks; it's the classic wedge-shaped two-door sports coupé design with a long nose, low roofline and short tail, and has no remarkable design element that makes it stand out.
The styling inside is equally innocuous with a simple yet intuitive and driver-oriented layout with barely anything more than the functional bits on the centre console. Low, supportive bucket seats, and the rake and height-adjustable steering wheel help you find the perfect driving position in no time.
Fire the 2.0-litre boxer engine co-developed by Toyota and Subaru, and there's nothing extraordinary like a snarl or a burbling exhaust note that suggests exceptional driving fun.
But It's when you engage the delectable short-throw manual into first and put foot to pedal, that you realise that the scale of expectation worked up by the hype had you looking out for all the wrong attributes in this car.
Toyota never claimed the 86 was going to be the fastest, loudest or the best- looking sportscar. All it had promised was a simple old-school sports coupé with no turbocharging and minimal electronic controls; a sportscar that will not control itself or you but begs to be controlled entirely by you. As the sweet boxer lump climbs delightfully up the rev band toward the 7.5K red line, you get a growing sense of the immaculate balance and beautiful composure of the 86's brilliantly set up chassis. Power delivery of the 200bhp, 205Nm engine is not neck-snappingly quick, but the sub-8.0-second progress to 100kph from standstill is more than satisfactory.
Exiting the first roundabout, you realise with a smile that Toyota has succeeded in drawing on its rich sporting heritage and invoking on the spirits of its brilliant sportscars of yesteryear. The 86 comes out of bends beautifully poised with the meaty electronic power steering offering brilliant feedback. The low rolling resistance tyres mean it's fairly easy to get the tail to play along with a nudge of the right foot when the rev band is past 4K.
But you also realise the 86 could easily handle a few more horses under its bonnet, as the car's compliant ride never threatens to bite you even when you try pushing the limits.
That, I guess, was the idea anyway, as this is a car you can hoon with confidence, knowing that whatever drift or slide you get can be caught back with ease.
As I said earlier, the 86 is not the fastest, loudest or the best-looking sportscar out there. And there are any number of rivals that can offer way more adrenaline rush than this modestly powered Toyota. But it's hard to imagine a car that's on sale today that gives you so much old-school fun as this will.
A healthy power-to-weight ratio, a perfect driving position, superbly communicative steering, and an extremely low centre of gravity combine to make the 86 arguably one of the best all-new sportscars to have come out in the last decade or two. For Toyota, this car is its first step towards changing its brand image and offering the enthusiast an affordable, fun-to-drive sportscar.
After my first encounter with it, I'm convinced Toyota has taken a giant stride with the 86.