The Toyota 86 – A sports classic reborn

Despite all of the pressure for automotive manufacturers to focus on a future of sustainability, reduced fuel consumption and safety technologies, most can't help but look backwards occasionally.

For those that have spent decades crafting a brand that speaks to a certain sector of the automotive world, there is value in celebrating heritage. After all, history is one of the key factors in any brand's establishment and is essential to keeping loyal followers interested in what it does next. 

One of the more interesting examples of a company reaching into the past to satiate its fans is Mazda. The Japanese marque has cultivated a die-hard cult following of rotary enthusiasts, a group that lives on despite the fact the unique engine configuration is no longer produced. 

On top of this, Mazda has even supplied world renowned drifter/professional hooligan Mad Mike Whiddett with factory backing to build a rotary-powered drift car – a far cry from the modern automotive world of sustainability and safety. 

Which leads us neatly to the Toyota 86, a car whose name signals its intentions right from the get-go. Those two numbers – 8 and 6 – combine to reference one of the most revered vehicles in underground car culture. 

To the uninitiated, it may seem like a reference to some sort of formidable sports car. In reality, it's a call back to a Toyota Corolla from the 80s. 

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Designated with the model number AE86, this was no normal Corolla. While the modern version we all know and love supports a grandma-friendly front-wheel drive layout, the AE86 was a whole different beast, with rear-wheel drive marking it as the budding drifter's first car of choice. 

As if its real-world shenanigans weren't enough to make it a legend, it was further immortalised in the anime and manga series Initial D that detailed the mountain-conquering exploits of Fujiwara Tofu Shop delivery boy Takumi. 

Now, with the history lesson done and dusted, what makes the current incarnation so special?

Modern reinvention of an 80s classic

Clearly, Toyota has proved it can make world-leading vehicles, but what happens when it teams up with another star of the Japanese motoring scene in Subaru? 

The answer is the all-new 86 – or BR-Z if you've bought the Subaru equivalent – a vehicle that represents a collaboration between two automotive powerhouses that is set to revolutionise the modern sports car segment. 

Not only is it a reference to a specific model from Japan's past, it brings a whole class of vehicle back from the dead. From the late 80s and through to the early 90s, cheap Japanese coupes ruled the automotive roost, with Nissan Silvias, Mazda MX-5s and Mitsubishi Starions finding favour among young drivers looking for affordable ways to go fast. 

The collaboration celebrates this trend by combining Toyota's expert chassis building with Subaru's stellar engine production. Toyota's rear-wheel drive platform is augmented by a boxer engine that has become the auditory calling card for Subaru, sporting an engine note no enthusiast could ignore. 

Capable on road or track

While the 86 certainly looks the part, it's reputation would be in tatters if it couldn't back this up on the track. With the prevalence of track days throughout Australia, there's every opportunity for 86 fans to replicate Takumi's exploits in a much safer environment. 

Toyota claims the 86 was born on the track, and further probing reveals its chassis and handling wasn't crafted on just any piece of road, but the famed Nurburgring Nordschleife – a race track so formidable it was nicknamed The Green Hell by Formula 1 champion Jackie Stewart. 

Those credentials alone are a testament to the rigorous development the 86 was put through, with the vehicle emerging as a race-bred coupe ready for confidently tackling any country back roads with ease. 

Toyota then returned the 86 to some of its spiritual breeding grounds, test driving the car around classic Japanese racing circuits such as Fuji International Speedway and Suzuka Circuit where its ancestors laid waste to competitors in previous decades. 

Naturally, the 86 is built with the type of techniques usually reserved for purpose-built racing cars and stripped out tuners, with a low centre of gravity a key part of Toyota's design philosophy. This drastically alters the vehicle's handling characteristics, resulting in a vehicle that is more nimble with aggressive levels of grip – ensuring no corner is too difficult for the 86 and its driver to master. Here's renowned automotive journalist Chris Harris taking it for a spin. 

A cockpit for drivers

If there's any one part of the Toyota 86 that signals its intent, it's the design of its interior. Where 99 per cent of other vehicles on the market are targeted at making the driver as comfortable as possible and showering them with gadgets and gizmos, the 86 eschews this design sensibility altogether. 

Where some motorists may call it spartan, Toyota has deemed it "Driver-Focused". This isn't a vehicle for taking business calls or playing with voice recognition systems – it's for driving, and driving only. 

Instead of focusing its attention finding new ways for drivers and passengers to control the radio and infotainments systems, Toyota used its research and development budget to encourage racing drivers to adjust the steering wheel. 

What's merely a holdover in other cars until our autonomous vehicle overlords can take over is a main point of focus for the 86. For example, it's the smallest steering wheel Toyota offers, making it easy for drivers to produce deft movements whether they're on road or track. 

These faster inputs are encouraged by a steering rack designed for quickness, enhancing the nimble nature inherent in the 86's chassis. Again, Toyota is positioning itself against other sports car manufacturers. Some, such as BMW and Porsche, are embracing electronically assisted power steering instead of traditional hydraulic options. 

Not only has Toyota stuck with fluid over electricity, it assures potential drivers that the assist only inputs a minimal amount of force. In an age where most other manufacturers are trying to artificially limit driver involvement, the 86 is a welcome response for petrolheads that were calling for more driver-focused vehicles. 

Is it safe?

With all these talks surrounding spartan interiors and driver involvement, you may be wondering how far Toyota has decided to push the retro aesthetic.

Thankfully, when it comes to safety, the Toyota 86 again begins to resemble a more modern car. After all, if amateur racing drivers are going to be pushing these things to the limit at track days, the car needs to back them up if it all turns pear-shaped. 

Ventilated disc brakes are standard on all models, and are backed up by Brake Assist and Electronic Brakeforce Distribution technology. If you need to stop in a hurry, the 86 is more than prepared to help you do it safely. 

Added to these braking systems is electronic stability control, designed to step in and takeover in evasive manoeuvres. For a sports car, it's essential that these driving aids can step in when necessary. 

The 86's safety features are also bolstered by seven air bags designed to shield drivers and passengers in the event of an incident. 

Why do you need a Toyota 86?

Notice we haven't used the word 'want' in that question. Drivers who are used to cushy cabins and features that take cars closer to the autonomous realm will be pleasantly surprised by a vehicle that seeks to take the art of driving to a more human place. 

If you want – or need – to take control of your driving habits, the Toyota 86 is the car to open your world. 

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