Has there been a car more hyped over the past 12 months than the Toyota 86? This is the car that’s touted as being The One, the sports car that will make Toyota exciting again after too many years of worthy but non-exciting practicality boxes. The affordable driver’s car designed for the man (or woman) in the left hand seat, with everything engineered for tactile feedback, performance and, most importantly, fun. Great expectations weigh on its shoulders. And now it’s here, marking the first time Toyota has sold a sports car in the Middle East since 2002. Can it deliver the thrill of driving that we’ve been promised?
We’ll find out soon enough. First though, there’s the official launch to attend, carried out with great pomp and no small expense at the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi. Al Futtaim Motors, the Toyota distributors in the UAE, have even flown in the car’s designer, Tetsuya Tada, to brief us on his creation. He talks passionately about wanting the car to have a low centre of gravity and the type of agility previously seen on the AE86, the 2000GT and the Sport 800. All very worthy reference points. Most intriguingly, Tada-san says that the benchmark for the car was the Porsche Cayman, a car that costs twice as much as the 86. Lofty ambitions indeed.
The 86 project was developed with fellow Japanese car maker Subaru, which has its own version of the car called the BRZ. The 86 is largely the same, save for styling tweaks and differences in the suspension settings. Colleagues that tried the BRZ emerged disappointed, so I’m hopeful that these small changes will have a big impact.
There then follows a very brief and very slow excursion around part of the Yas Marina track, driving an automatic 86 behind an Aurion pace car. Frustrating doesn’t begin to cover it. Here I am, finally sat in the most eagerly awaited driver’s car of 2012, and I haven’t yet got out of third gear. Nor will I today. We pit, and I’m left to reflect on the size of the event; a sign of how important Toyota believes the car will be as a halo in the region.
But as for driving impressions, I have to wait another two weeks to borrow an 86 for a few days and give it a serious workout. We opt to get in the manual version rather than the automatic; this is crankandpiston after all, and nothing gives a driver connection with the mechanics of a vehicle like a clutch pedal and stick shift.
During the waiting time, we ponder at the office over what to pit it against for this feature. The obvious answer would be the Mazda MX-5, but local importers no longer stock manual models. The Hyundai Genesis Coupe seems another option, but so far only the bigger, more expensive V6 model is sold here; a turbocharged 2.0-litre facelifted model is on the way, but hadn’t arrived at the time of writing.
And then it clicked – a manual transmissioned driver’s car, designed to put grins across the face for less than $30,000? The Renault Clio RS. This little bundle of hilarity has exactly the same power, weighs virtually the same and has been a huge hit in its native Europe, where hot hatch lovers have fallen head over heels for its sharp handling, motorsport-derived performance and bargain price. It continues a long line of Renaultsport Clios, and all for just a shade over $23,000. That already makes it cheaper than our entry-level test 86, which cost slightly less than $26,000. It features a manual gearbox but few of the toys of the better equipped automatic models stocked in the UAE. Customers can order a manual car with all the bells and whistles, but it’ll take some months to arrive and we’ve waited long enough.
So here we are, on a scorching summer’s day in Dubai, with a red 86 and a bright green Clio RS. The day’s mission – head to our favourite stretch of wriggling mountain road, and find out whether the Japanese newcomer has what it takes to beat the French champion.
Sitting next to each other, the most striking thing about the 86 is that it’s really, really small. The Clio is hardly hulking, but it towers over the dinky Toyota. That said, the 86 is well proportioned with the traditional sports car sillhouette. I’m ambivalent about the light design, and the puny exhausts on this entry-level model look incongrous rattling around the rear diffuser, but the chrome tips found on higher-spec models look much better. A Toyota Racing Development bodykit is also available, which pumps everything up and makes it meaner on the eye.
The Clio has had a facelift since it launched in 2006, and it still looks fresh three years after that. The frog green paint and black racing stripe on our test car really makes it stand out, while the wide stance and rear diffuser mean no one’s going to mistake it for a standard Clio.
I’m in the Renault for the drive out to Hatta, in the centre of the Arabian peninsula near the UAE-Oman border. It’s a trip of just over an hour, and I settle with a little difficulty into the Clio’s razor thin Recaro seats. The side bolsters are very stiff and high, and it takes an unexpected poke in the derriere to remind me that some care is needed when hopping in. The actual seating position is somewhat higher than I’d like, thanks to the mounting frame, but the chairs themselves are very comfortable in the way they hold you in place. There’s no doubting the performance focus – they’re not well cushioned, but they’re designed with everyday use in mind. The sporty vibe continues on the steering wheel, with a racing style yellow stripe at 12 o’clock to remind you where straight ahead is during frenzies of lift-off oversteer. The rest of the cabin is fairly standard Clio, with quirky French design cues such as the ball-like air vent controls.