Forget practical, the 86 gives drivers what they really need

Carmakers spend a lot of time figuring out what buyers' needs are. This usually results in radically over-specced vehicles with huge option lists to take it even further and, generally, a few more cup holders.

But when it comes to buyers' wants, it's a whole different story. Do you want a vehicle that looks like a lanky station wagon, can fit the obligatory 2.5 kids, piles of luggage and a dog and drives like it's more of a household appliance than a car? Or just need one?

Toyota's new sports coupe, the 86, isn't going to fit Rover. Even little Johnny will be pushing it to squeeze himself into the tiny rear seats, and if you want to take it to golf, those clubs will need to be chopped in half. The 86 is not a hugely practical car. But that's not the point.

It's a rear-wheel-drive, lightweight, modestly-powered, low-slung driver's car. It fits into the same box as the likes of the Lotus Elise, Porsche Cayman S and the original MX5. While you can guarantee that buyers of the 86 won't be using it for airport runs, you can be equally assured that they will get out of the car, every time, with a Shadbolt-spec grin on their dial.

In terms of sheer hype, you could already label the Toyota 86 as a roaring success. Resulting from a joint venture with fellow Japanese manufacturer Subaru, which will release its BRZ version later this year, it is one of the most eagerly-awaited new vehicle releases of recent times.

Toyota's website is racking up huge fan counts and traffic, its Facebook page has an impressive 3000 likes, online forums are alive with chatter about the new model and a bunch have already been pre-sold, with enough serious expressions of interest to chew through the first wave of stock before it's even arrived.

While Toyota is the biggest selling manufacturer in New Zealand, you can fairly say that much of its range is suffering from galloping beige - and at a recent launch of some of its sensible and conservatively-styled product, several staff members were fizzing at the bung at the prospect of having such an exciting vehicle joining the line-up.

It gives the company a chance to align the car to its spiritual successor, the iconic Levin AE86, one of the original drift cars, and considered a classic not only in Japan, but around the world. This explains the nameplate. If you told the unformed that you drive a Toyota 86, you're likely to be offered a hot meal and a tenner, but with a solid marketing shove behind, this shouldn't leave too many confused.

The good news is, the 86 is all it's cracked up to be. After waiting for its arrival since the concept announcement in 2009, we were able to cajole Toyota into letting us have a bit of time in the car well in advance of its late-August release.

And after a couple of days in the mid-spec GT version, we're thoroughly looking forward to checking out the rest of the range, and comparing it with other lightweight sports cars on the Kiwi market. It's a striking look, with hints at other Toyota successes like the 2000GT and the Supra, with smooth lines, wide guards and a flowing profile that helps it look pumped-up and aggressive from each end.

The inside eschews overladen features and confusing arrays of dash buttons for a very purposeful look, with deep sports buckets giving a very low seating position, a very clean, tacho-dominated dash, and a sports steering wheel sans buttons (incidentally the smallest steering wheel ever fitted to a Toyota). The tiny rear seat is, like most 2+2s, bordering on pointless.

The fact that it isn't over-featured doesn't mean that the 86 isn't equipped with the necessities - there's a Bluetooth-capable six-speaker audio system, air conditioning, electric everything and even heated seats. The centre console is low - and does have two cup holders, in case you can't do without - and is dominated by the gear shifter and pair buttons to disable traction control and to engage a more aggressive state for the stability system.

It's powered by a typically Subaru boxer engine - two litres, putting out a meagre 147kW and stretching to 205Nm at 6400rpm - with Toyota's direct port injection, and a high 12.5:1 compression ratio. Like the numbers say, it needs to be pushed to perform, as a car like this should. The instantly recognisable Subaru sound is gone - perhaps tuned out - and it has a raspy mid-range note that leaves you in doubt that the engine is working. The car hasn't been acoustically deadened to get rid of engine noise, and while it's certainly not quiet, it won't deafen you.

While it's perfectly tractable around town, with plenty of vision courtesy of glass quarter and rear three-quarter windows, and the turning circle is fine for tight carparks, it's not until you head for the country that the GT 86 comes into its own.

As soon as the clutch is released in first gear, there's a strong sense of urgency - and it climbs steadily to its shift-lighted 7200rpm redline with reasonably linear power delivery, and with each gear change you just want to keep pushing it. I found it incredibly hard to not to exhibit a heavy right foot, and tended to push it harder than you could if you wanted to get within cooee of the claimed 7.1L/100km consumption. But this is not an exercise in frugality.

Handling is stunningly good - with a slightly forward-biased balance of 53/47 per cent - and it drives easily on the throttle, responding quickly and accurately to even the smallest steering adjustment. Even with the traction control in default, all-on, mode, there's enough leeway given by the system that it won't interrupt the flow and lessen the driving experience. Turn either of the switches off, and it's still extremely easy to handle and feels settled and stable enough that only a panic oversteer situation is likely to leave it pointing the wrong way.

It favours open and flowing sets of corners and tackles them with an easy rhythm, making for a thrilling drive at pace and an easy cruise when taking a more relaxed approach. Into the tight and twisting back roads with random surface changes that feature so heavily in this country, the 86 is a rocket - the LSD comes into its own in these situations, and when the tail starts to wag it can quickly be bought under control. What it lacks in power, it makes up for in agility, and while there's a lot to be said for packs of grunt, it's hard to use it to the degree that the little 86 can.

The 0-100km/h sprint takes 7.6 seconds in the manual version and 8.2 in the heavier auto - hardly ground-breaking figures by any means, but its about driving attitude and grin-factor and the 86 has this in spades. The main criticism that can be levelled at it is the brake package - it's running two-pot front callipers and single rears, but felt like it could have gone one step further, as the limited edition range-topping TRD version has.

It wasn't easy giving this one back to Toyota - I even amended my East Auckland to CBD commute to go via Kaiaua, a thoroughly appreciated extra 160 kms.

The GT 86 tested here, in manual form costs $46,986, and $47,986 for the auto - although why anyone would pick an auto version in a car like this is beyond us, no matter how slick the transmission. There's also a winged 'Aero' version that starts at $48,586. The base model 86 is $41,995, and if you're keen to aim high, a TRD (Toyota Racing Developments) version that comes with four and six-pot calipers, bigger wheels and tyres as well as styling touches (including twin dual exhausts) for $63,486.