Coupe of the Year: GT86 vs BRZ
Not many road tests begin with a fur hat and a blindfold, but it's freezing in Wales, and we're attempting an experiment. So here I am, standing beside the road with a mask over my face and fake fox on my head. As some elderly ramblers watch, a car pulls up, and I'm bundled into the passenger seat. "Sorry about this, mate," says the driver, before commencing a gravelly burnout while I slap the air in panic. "Look happy, or they'll think I've kidnapped you."
There's a 50 per cent chance I've just been abducted in a Toyota GT86. But it's equally probable I'm in its near-identical twin, the Subaru BRZ. For two days, we've been driving them around, playing spot the difference. There certainly are some, but when it comes to actually computing them, the mind is a fickle thing. Maybe my brain prefers blue to orange. Perhaps I just expected to like one more than the other. And, as psychologists have proved, these are things that can twist your judgement.
Photos: Lee Brimble
This article originally appeared in the December 2012 edition of Top Gear magazineAdvertisement - Page continues below
So there's only one thing for it: block out the decoys. Forget the badges. Colours don't matter. And you can be as pretty as you like, but that information won't be reaching my impressionable little brain right now. With such distractions out of the way, I can focus on the raw sensations. Every twitch and bump and rut and bobble. If they match up with our earlier suspicions, we'll be closer to really telling these two apart. Hopefully. It's a bit like the Pepsi Challenge... with cars.
First, some history. We already know we like these things enough to give one an award at the end of this story. They prove you don't need to go a million miles per hour to have fun. And that 1,240kg (give or take a kilo for the purposes of rounding), rear-wheel drive and 200bhp is just about right. Both have traces of Porsche or Lotus in the way they go down the road and around corners. Neither uses cheap tricks, and you get the feeling each was developed by men prepared to spend endless days fiddling with shims and springs until they reached their Goldilocks moment. There have been squabbles over who did what. Toyota claims the original idea, but admits working with Subaru to actually flesh out the car. From there on, the division of labour is uncertain. Each had its own team, and each claims its final product is slightly different from the other. Subaru was the first to give us a proper drive, and we know that every car - whether GT86 or BRZ - is made at its factory. Both have their logos stamped under the bonnet, though it's easy to fish out the likely contributions there: boxer engine from Subaru, direct injection from Toyota. Here's how we see it: Toyota is a top-three carmaker and owns around 16 per cent of Subaru's parent company. So it probably stamped its feet a bit. And without such giant backing, Subaru would've had to really shake its pockets to afford an all-new product and the enormous cost of putting it on sale around the world. You may wonder, then, why Toyota needed Subaru at all. But then you remember that one makes the Yaris while the other makes forest-munching rally replicas. Let's just say they needed each other on this one...Advertisement - Page continues below
Whatever. Here we are with the actual cars, so we can finally have a good poke around. Let's start with the front view. Both have strips of LEDs: the GT86's look like angry eyebrows atop the light cluster, while the BRZ's create a softer effect around the edges. Beneath them is a foglight housing: triangular for the GT86, squarish on the BRZ. Then it's bumpers and grilles: the Toyota's sharp and clean, the Subaru's more rounded and a touch bulbous, thanks to the plastic bar behind the numberplate... a smiley dolphin to Toyota's fighting fish.
Moving rearwards, the differences become more forensic. On the front wings of both cars are pseudo vents. But where the Subaru goes for a plastic strake and blacked-out panel to simulate a grille of sorts, the Toyota goes for a body-colour block with a GT86 logo, plus a tiny black oval for a grille effect. Around the back, the BRZ's badges sit just under the rear wing, while the GT's are glued beneath the numberplate and pinched towards the middle. Tiny things, but it's the Subaru that looks a touch more balanced as a result.
Inside, the differences can be summed up like this: frameless rear-view mirror in the Toyota, plastic surround in the Subaru. Carbon-effect dash inserts in the 86, shiny silver in the BRZ. Proper stereo and satnav in the Toyota, irritating Pioneer thing in the Subaru. White dial backlights in the GT86, orange in the BRZ. The Bluetooth microphone design on the top of the steering column is also different. Do any of these things matter? On their own, probably not. But added up, the Toyota feels a bit more expensive.
Which leads us to the price. Both cost £24,995. Add leather to the Toyota, and you'll spend an extra £1,600. Upgrading to the leathery SE Lux BRZ costs you £1,500. Throw in metallic paint with your cow-trim, and overall you'll spend £95 less on the Subaru than the Toyota. There are six shared paint jobs, while both have a unique colour in the WR Blue and Velocity Orange seen here. The Toyota has a five-year, 100,000 mile warranty versus three years and 60,000 miles for the Subaru. But the BRZ also comes with an excellent complimentary package including free dent and alloy repairs, free monthly wash, free annual valet and winter-wheel storage.
And what about the driving? After two days on the road - not blindfolded, for reasons of wellbeing - here's what I felt. Both these cars are bursting with energy, spurring you to use every last gram of power. They're as fizzy as a hot hatch, but somehow the Toyota feels more playful. It seems to take a more obvious chomp at a corner, followed by a slight roll of the shoulder as the rear end perks up. The BRZ feels a touch more direct, and a bit more serious about the business of going around bends. Put it this way: the Toyota meets each corner like a puppy greeting the postman. The BRZ grabs the letter right out of his hand.
I was sort of expecting this. Both sets of engineers hinted as much when we tried the cars separately. And though their characters differ, we're talking about a degree of steering here, a notch of suspension there. It's easy to amplify this stuff. Which brings us back to our experiment. Could the pointy bumper fool you into thinking the 86 is feistier? Was the early expectation ambushing our senses? Or were we really feeling it through hands and bottoms?
Back on with the blindfold for a blast up the same bit of road. And after five minutes of blackout in each car, I think a verdict has been reached. My first mystery ride? I'm going with the Toyota. I could swear it pushed me harder into the seat bolster as it took a greedier first bite at each corner. Next? Subaru. The ride was ever-so-slightly calmer... a little more subdued, maybe. Not by much, but certainly a bit. As the mask comes off, I'm proved correct.
And with the benefit of hindsight or, rather, no sight, other things are revealed. The Toyota has a deeper, more resonant sound. Both pipe induction noise into the cabin through a rubber hose, but the Toyota does it better. Then again, this BRZ had done twice as many miles as the GT, so maybe that has something to do with it. The GT's damping felt a touch firmer too. These might seem like tiny things, but such marginal differences can be explained like race-car set-up: Lewis might prefer a lively rear end, where Jenson prefers something less playful. Essentially, they still drive the same car.
So what if I was forced to choose? One of these must become our Coupe of the Year. And it's going to be the Toyota. Partly due to that extra playfulness, partly because the more aggressive styling suits it better than the BRZ's. But here's the thing: you can get your hands on one sooner. Whatever the engineering input, there was an agreement that Toyota got the lion's share of stock. That, plus big demand in Japan and the USA, means there's currently a six-month waiting list for a BRZ in the UK.Advertisement - Page continues below
As I write this, directors from Subaru's UK importers are in Japan, pleading for more cars. If they get more, they will sell. These are both excellent cars, and will go down as Top Gear heroes. You don't need a pair of eyes to see that.