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Toyota GT86 meets the rivals

  1. Toyota GT86. Vauxhall Astra GTC VXR. Ford Focus ST. Suzuki Swift Sport. Doing the supermarket shop just got a whole lot more fun…

    Words: Ollie Marriage 

    Pictures: Joe Windsor-Williams 

    This article first appeared in the August issue of Top Gear magazine 

  2. Let’s
    knuckle down to business. Focus ST vs Astra VXR. Vs GT86. And a Swift Sport. It
    appears we have some proper tangle-ups to sort out here, so best not
    dilly-dally. We’re searching out a real-world hero. All four are currently
    lurking in the large, dark shed that, once full of people and noise, doubles as
    the TG studio. The Astra is parked in
    the spot normally reserved for the Cool Wall. Which begs the question…

    Is it actually cool? It’s certainly good-looking – far
    more so than the Focus, which appears a bit bug-like in comparison, its grille
    a fraction too prominent. So, the VXR’s handsome and well-proportioned, but it
    perhaps tries a bit too hard to look its best. Still, better that than the
    anodyne lines of the GT86. Honestly, how has Toyota managed to make a coupe
    look this plain? The Swift has just as much road presence, for heaven’s sake –
    principally due to its comically oversized headlights.

  3. But enough of aesthetics. Outside, there’s a track to
    play with, and I, for one, am very keen to know how these four cars compare.
    First up, the small matter of the battle for hot-hatch supremacy. OK, so we
    haven’t got a Golf GTI or Megane RenaultSport here, but, gaping differences in
    price aside, VXR vs ST is a crunch match.

    ST first. Sam drove one of these 3,300 miles across
    America last issue, which is one hell of an achievement and rather belittles my
    few-laps-around-an-airfield counterpoint. But one thing’s clear from the moment
    you slot yourself into the big, fat, cupping seats – the ST has lost none of its sense of purpose. So the 4cyl EcoBoost engine doesn’t idle with the same offbeat rumble
    as the old five. Big deal. I’m more concerned that, from the moment you get
    moving, the Focus feels tight and precise. Except the suspension, which
    delivers comfort. Perhaps too much. It’s not squidgy exactly, more…
    accommodating, like it’s built to satisfy as many different driving appetites
    as possible.

  4. This makes it an entirely acceptable road car, but
    here, in Stig’s personal playpen of petrol and power, more suspension control
    might help tame the torque-steer. Because the ST does suffer from it. Eschewing
    the mechanical limited-slip diff and clever (but expensive) front strut design
    sported by the VXR, the ST settles for ‘simple’ electronic control. It’s OK,
    but not good enough to stop the steering wheel wriggling in your hands like a
    tickled eel.

    This would matter more were the Focus not such a blast
    to punt around. There are two things it does particularly amusingly: accelerate
    and corner. Honestly, its chassis balance is as good as some of the mid-engined
    cars. Hurl it into a corner – Chicago is best – lift off and it’ll do the full
    sideways Sweeney stuff. And even if you leave the traction alone, there’s still
    entertainment to be had. This is a car that wants you to have fun and goes out
    of its way to deliver it.

    We all know that turbos (while great for power and
    emissions) leach character out of an engine. Yet here’s one – an ordinary
    2.0-litre 4cyl seemingly – that zings. It’s quick, too: 29bhp and 45lb ft down
    on the Astra? It doesn’t feel like that – it’s the ST that seems to have the
    brawnier mid-range pick-up.

  5. Oh, but Vauxhall has done a good job with its engine,
    too. It’s not as overtly charismatic as the ST’s, but there’s this noise – a
    gushing roar, as huge quantities of expelled air are forced down the exhaust –
    that just sounds so mean.

    However, it occasionally seems out of place in what is
    otherwise a rather sophisticated motor. And here’s my problem with the GTC VXR.
    Those two sets of letters don’t sit perfectly happily alongside each other, the
    Astra being like a bridging point between Focus and GT86 – it seems to see
    itself as more sophisticated than a traditional hot hatch and so leans towards
    its coupe alter ego.  So perhaps we
    shouldn’t be surprised that it doesn’t play with the wild abandon of the Focus.
    Maybe instead we should just admire it for what it can do.

    Because don’t think
    I’m down on this car, I’m just unsure of its positioning. It has a front end
    that makes the Focus’s feel dozy. Turn-in is fantastic, there’s little roll,
    the clever HiPerStrut suspension keeps things perfectly stable, and when the
    time comes to get back on the power, it has a proper diff that puts you exactly
    where you want to be and lets you use as much torque as you care to. It’s very

  6. The trouble is that part of the thrill of a hot hatch
    is the ‘can-it-really-cope?’ question, and the most amusing answers usually
    come from those that struggle. At Dunsfold, the Focus was more amusing, but I
    kept being drawn back to the Astra, suspecting it might be the better car for
    round two, then being immediately put off by the overwrought interior.

    Vauxhall, those silver steering-wheel inserts and that mammoth gearknob?
    They’ve got to go. How are you meant to get to grips with a car when you can’t
    get a grip on its steering wheel and gearlever? Neither of our Japanese pair
    makes that mistake. I know, I know – you wouldn’t think that there are
    parallels between Toyota’s coupe and Suzuki’s tyke of a parboiled hot hatch,
    but there are. Think about it; think about the mindset that has created them.
    Both have plain, simple cabins; both are light and agile; both have naturally
    aspirated engines and are perceived as underpowered. Neither actually is.

  7. Look, I’m getting fed up with this. Yes, turbos are
    great for power and can be economical, but they’re not automatically better. A
    naturally aspirated engine has nowhere to hide; it doesn’t have mid-range
    torque as a fallback position. In the Focus, I rarely found myself using the
    whole rev range. No need.

    But in the Swift and GT86 (to paraphrase Monty Python), every rev is sacred. It matters where the
    rev-counter needle is pointing and, ideally, it wants to
    be a long way from the idle position. You have to make them sing – they don’t
    give of themselves readily.

  8. In fact, the Swift doesn’t give that much away, full
    stop. OK, so it has 17-inch wheels and some red stitching, but, in this
    company, that’s nothing. And yet there’s something about it. There’s a bit of a tingle to it, somehow it
    manages to come across as eager – and that’s before you’ve driven anywhere in

    And when you do, you realise just how hard the Swift
    will try on your behalf. It wants to do everything. It exists to please you.
    It’s not clever or innovative or anything else – it’s just a small, fun car
    that revs to 7,000rpm and is as pleased as punch to be able to do so for your
    benefit. It’s way out of its depth at Dunsfold, but no one who drove it cared.

  9. I suspected the same might be true
    of the GT86, but, hand on heart, this was one of my favourite cars. It’s not
    slow – it really isn’t – it’s just that you have to work to get performance from it,
    but is that a problem? It sounds sweet, is smooth and has the best throttle
    response of anything here, 911 and BAC included.

    And I’m sorry, Ford and Vauxhall and Suzuki, but the
    Toyota is just better at corners than all of you. It’s nimble and light and has
    such a sweet balance of power and grip – sweet enough to be able to overlook
    the underwhelming cabin. And, yes, those narrow tyres mean the RWD GT86 is
    excellent at skids, but even if that isn’t your chosen angle of attack, it
    really doesn’t matter – the GT86 is as keen that you enjoy the experience as
    the Swift. It’s a real-world hero,and given that’s what we set out to find at
    the start, this is clearly an excellent place to finish.

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