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Driving 1000 miles in a Toyota GT86…

  1. “This is hysterical. They’ve certainly given it a loose back end, as they say in reviewing circles. Often, with an engine of that smallness, you don’t have the power to hold a slide, but you can in this. Normally you run out of ability before you run out of power, but this slides forever… It’s brilliantly good fun.”

    These are just some of Jeremy Clarkson’s thoughts following his first spirited meeting with Toyota’s new GT86 at the Top Gear track. And if you’ve been following reactions to the car since its launch, you’ll recognize the sentiment.

  2. Since the GT86 (and its identical twin the Subaru BRZ) was first put into the hands of the public, a rough consensus seems to have formed. This £25K, front-engined, rear-wheel-drive, boxer-engined, mechanically-diffed coupe is a welcome, and long overdue return to affordable, uncomplicated, oversteery goodness. An analogue hero in the Japanese tradition of the MX-5 or the car’s own predecessor the AE86, dispensing with the tiresome tech-wizardry of the modern age to put simple fun back in the hands of the driver.

    It’s a formula that saw it voted the winner of Top Gear magazine’s recent Speed Week adventure, where despite its lack of outright pace, the humble Toyota saw off cars worth ten times as much to be dubbed our performance car of the year (even though, as Jeremy pointed out, to him it was “a hideous thing to behold”).

  3. This is, however, likely to be most owners’ only car, something that will not only be thrashed around the ‘Ring, but also driven there and back. It’s going to live as a car in the real world far more than it is smoking rear tyres, And so, ahead of Speed Week, when asked if we wanted to pick up one of the very first European examples in Barcelona and drive it back to the UK, it was too good an opportunity to pass up.

  4. There were, however, conditions. One: we were picking the car up on Sunday in Barcelona. For logistical reasons, it needed to be in the UK at dawn on Tuesday. For the route we were planning, that meant around 1800km in 36 hours, almost all autoroute. Sleep deprivation and cruise control, not oversteery fun, were on the agenda.

  5. Two: as this was all was rather last minute, it was to be a solo trip. Nobody to share the driving, proffer nourishing packets of crisps, peer at maps, moan about my recent unaccountable love of early 1970s prog rock, take carefully crafted pictures, or burrow around for change at the countless peages. While not in the league of Top Gear’s recent five day coast to coast jaunt across the US in a Focus ST, it remained a somewhat daunting quest.

  6. We find the car parked up in front of a hotel high on Mount Tibidabo above Barcelona, surrounded by a distinctly uncurious wedding party clutching champagne flutes. To those who don’t live and breathe brand-new Japanese coupes, it’s clearly a fairly anonymous proposition, although I’m impressed by some of the finer detail. The specially commissioned ‘GT86’ badges look good, the four cutouts supposedly representing four wheels drifting, with two pistons fore and aft in honour of the horizontally opposed boxer engine. As does the red inverted triangle on the central rear fog lamp (I’ll be seeing a lot of this in the coming hours: it’s also woven into the pattern on the carbon-fibre effect dash, as well as the seat stitching).

  7. Famously, the car has been designed so that with the seats down you can get four spare wheels in the back, but for now, with the seats up, it easily swallows my weekend bag and provisions (mainly crisp-based). The headrests are also reversible to allow helmet-wearers the required room, but without Stig (or indeed anyone) as my co-pilot, this won’t be much use for now. Punching ‘Calais’ into the sat nav (a dispiriting 1,671 km hence on our chosen route), we head off.

  8. A major Mediterranean city full of excitable Iberians with somewhere to be - quickly - on their Sunday afternoon isn’t the ideal place to acquaint yourself with one of the only GT86s in Europe. But this not an intimidating car in town, at all. The low-down, reclined driving position is superb, although, at six foot four, I’m concerned about the potential long distance comfort of the tight-hugging seats. Because that boxer engine is set so low, you’ve got two raised front haunches above the headlights in your view at all times (much like a 911, or more prosaically, any new Mini), so it’s easy to thread through narrow gaps. There’s also a fine widescreen view aft, thanks to the frameless rear-view mirror (something that hasn’t made it to the BRZ). The steering’s weighty, the gearshift mechanically crisp, and the audio system has synced to my 70s prog rock playlist faultlessly. Good start.

  9. Once clear of buzzing mopeds and battered Ibizas, I settle into the first long yomp of the trip to the Pyrenees along the N7. With only 200bhp, the motorway is where I’d expected the most famous complaint about the GT86 - its perceived lack of torque - to show itself while overtaking, but this doesn’t prove a problem. Because as the landscape turns pure spaghetti western, I see about five cars in the next four hours.

  10. Without foe to dispatch, or anyone to talk to, there’s plenty of time to get to know the car. Again, like a new 911, the GT86 has a system to dispense induction noise into the cabin to keep excitement levels up, but it never gets boomy, and at high speed is easily drowned out by Can’s classic 70s smash Halleluwah. The dash layout is straightforward, with a digital speedo under a central rev counter, rendering the analogue speedometer to its left superfluous. I don’t think I looked at it once. And in GT mode, the ride’s just the right side of firm: when the motorway breaks up you do get some judder through the transmission and body, but not enough to truly annoy the likes of James May.

  11. Despite the sat nav deciding that a diversion via a cul de sac and a completely deserted manure processing plant in deepest Monzon would add to the fun, I reach the Pyrennes in the midst of a beautiful sunset in high spirits. Approaching the tunnel through clouds of sun-dappled clouds of early-summer insects, a French registered BMW M3 emerging in the other direction toots and gives a thumbs up. The first piece of human contact in almost five hours. I feel a bit emotional: to paraphrase Ferris Bueller, if you have the chance to drive across the Spanish/French border on the N7 at sunset, we highly recommend it.

    From there, it’s just a measly hundred kilometres or so to a friend’s house in a village near Pau, where the locals emerge to coo over the gently ticking Toyota, and I oblige with a couple of joy rides. Clearly, rear-wheel drive Japanese coupes are more a French than Spanish thing. 1,080 km to go…

  12. Early the next morning, despite evening prayers for an overnight rewriting of the laws of space and time, the remaining kilometres still reads 1,080 km. And we have to catch the last Eurotunnel of the day. But it’s a promising start: clearly, the sat nav is feeling bad for making me look at animal waste products in a Spanish layby yesterday, so sets a route to Bordeaux that takes in what can only be described as a series of gravel rally stages through a stunning part of south-western France.

  13. Mindful of my mission - to return this car in impeccable photoshoot spec without bits hanging off and at least some tyres left - self-discipline is required. Lots of driving left to do, and tractors and wandering sheep abound. So the traction control ‘off’ button remains untouched, the manual hand-brake within easy reach of the right hand is ignored, and I content myself with reaffirming how dynamically well-engineered this car is. Turn in, place, throttle and go. Jeremy was absolutely right.

  14. Self-discipline that is sorely regretted 200km later. Is there anything more dispiriting than a sat nav chirpily singing ‘continue… for 480 kilometres’? The Bordeaux to Paris leg begun, with only the occasional fuel/baguette stop for ‘entertainment’, before a final trek to Calais. Set cruise control to 135 km/h…

    As with any mind-numbing marathon of miles, it was about now that fairly inconsequential details about the car started to grate. A high-mounted stop lamp set above the back seats sits squarely in your rear view, and is a constant distraction in your peripheral vision as you’re checking for approaching cars. The carbon fibre trim is fake. The pattern the screen wash makes post-wipe isn’t very pretty. And I really should have loaded more music onto my phone, or brought an iPod: there’s no ‘skip track’ button on the steering wheel, and having to lean over and press a button on the radio to avoid hearing Can’s classic 70s smash Halleluwah for the fifth time becomes unaccountably annoying.

  15. Still, the tight-hugging sports seats remain remarkably comfortable throughout, and with time ticking on I’m grateful for the French people’s impeccable motorway manners: approach in outside lane, indicate to the central reservation, and to a monsieur et madame they pull over. One worry about the car is dispelled: the torque proves enough to get past all comfortably while staying legal.

    Well, until Paris. Given its idiosyncracies to date, I’m concerned at how the sat nav is going to handle the Paris periphique, which could have been designed as the ultimate stress test for any GPS system. A cacophonous, confusing and narrow series of tunnels and flyovers, with undertaking bikers and diesel-belching HGVs leaving inches of give as they career past, I need a solid virtual wingman to see me through.

  16. Half way round, a biker kicks up a rock, which puts a big stone chip directly in my line of vision. This becomes a moot point five minutes later, when I run out of screen wash and the stone chip mingles with the bodies of countless insects. But the sat nav holds firm in the face of urban adversity, and we hurl together at escape velocity out of Paris’ northern suburbs and onto the home stretch.

  17. With the time of the last Eurotunnel train now only three hours away, and the time to Calais reading three hours, there’s no time for such niceties as refilling screen wash. I hit the Autoroute des Anglais (familiar to all Le Mans veterans) and watch the second wonderful sunset of the trip through a miasma of dead invertebrate and bloodshot iris. But with ‘miles to travel’ is in the low hundreds and Paris dispatched, it’s time to relax and acknowledge that there are very few brand new £25K cars that I’d rather have done this trip in.

  18. OK, there are more refined cars, less thirsty cars, more spacious cars, and faster cars in the price range. But the GT86 ticks those four boxes more than adequately (we recorded 32.1 mpg for the entire trip), and brings both a sense of occasion and the knowledge that, if the roads get more fun, you’ll be having more fun too. For all its harking back to a bygone age, it’s quite unlike anything else you can buy new today (other than a Subaru BRZ, of course).

  19. Making the final train at midnight on a Monday, and having avoided a potentially disastrous last-minute wheel kerbing while loading, there’s plenty of time to inspect the quite astonishing range of splattered death on the front (Belgian) reg. Sole company on the train carriage is two bikers on matching KTMs, who recognize the car immediately and give it the final thumbs up of the trip. The GT86 definitely seems to get more popular the further north you get. On hearing I’m from Top Gear they go on to inform me, at length and in detail, the exact reasons why Jeremy Clarkson is wrong about everything in the world, ever.

  20. Delivering the car back to HQ in the witching hours, I receive the potentially dispiriting news - delivered in the kind of patient, gentle tone of voice you use for hair-trigger lunatics - that photoshoot logistics being what they are, it now isn’t actually required this morning. My mind goes back to a series of gravel stages in deepest south-west France, but it’s too late now.

    I don’t really mind, or maybe I’m just too tired to think straight. It’s done now: 1803.4 km of driving in a GT86, with over 19.5 hours on the road, and not a single moment of hysterical oversteer. And we still like it.

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