A review of the GT86 sports car after two year's ownership.
In 2014, after fifteen years and with well beyond 100,000 miles on the clock, my much loved Subaru Legacy AWD 2.0 Saloon was getting tired and dated. It was easy to justify a replacement car, but what? Longstanding thoughts had been focussed on a Legacy estate, but the size of the car and poor fuel economy in the petrol-version would remain off-putting. As were the anonymous hatchback looks of smaller AWD offerings from Subaru and others.
Did I really need an AWD car? If not then a clean-sheet approach was fine but with precious little direction at the outset. In to this febrile state of mind crept the idea of getting something more personal and interesting.
In tracking year-by-year model tweaks to the Subaru Legacy, I was aware of the rumours, development and then actual production from 2012 of a new small Subaru coupe, the BRZ, without seriously considering it at the time - a lightweight basic sportscar with modern mechanicals.
Once I had freed myself from the AWD strait-jacket it was a small step to looking at the GT86/BRZ design, development and road-test reviews, particularly those considering it as a long-term daily-driver prospect, rather than as passing review-fodder for jaded motoring journalists.
The 86 is a joint development by Toyota and Subaru and solely manufactured by the latter. The main engineering is by Subaru with exterior design and fuel system contributions from Toyota. In slightly different badged guises it appears variously as the Subaru BRZ, Toyota GT86 and (in the US and Canada) the Scion FRS. The car drew wide plaudits and awards from the motoring press in 2012 and has an active owner's club in the UK.
Two particular on-line videos from Subaru stood out as capturing the effort that had been put in to a new stand-alone design, the quite purist focus on the essentials in a sportscar and the development time spent on a car that is sold in to different markets and environments across the world.
For a sportscar, the bare bones spec - front boxer engine (flat-four), rear wheel drive, low centre-of-gravity and 2+2 seating was a good start. Add to that fold-flat rear seats for a practical load bay, together with reasonable fuel economy and good handling. That took me most of the way towards a prospective purchase in principle, allowing that there were lower order plusses and minuses and I could live with the latter (and some notable omissions, of which more below).
The next mistake was to go and look at a GT86 in the showroom at my local Toyota main dealer, sit in it, then go back later and test drive one. Even a short time behind the wheel was enough to confirm it's responsiveness from standstill, the lack of roll, the crisp response to controls and docile behaviour in traffic. The salesperson also entertained with a full-throttle launch in second gear from a rolling start on an open road, by way of confirming it's sporty credentials.
The showroom model happened to be the colour I wanted (silver metallic), with a cloth black interior relieved with red flashes, together with climate and cruise control but no sat-nav. Ideal then.
It was close to the end of the model/financial year and the dealership was keen to sell it so the silver one it had to be. Apart from a good price, it avoided further mithering about specs, colour and waiting 3-months for one to come from the Gunma plant in Japan.
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I should mention other prospective car alternatives in relation to opting for the GT86. This is in terms of major issues for me personally rather than any detailed comparison.
The ubiquitous Mazda MX5 roadster is rightly popular, but the cabin is noticeably more compact than in the GT. MX5's typically come out to play at the weekends, especially when the weather is good. A car just to do a couple of thousand miles a year in was not my objective.
A speculative sit in the Audi TT was enough to know that the accommodation, even if high quality, was too snug and verging on claustrophobic. The body-shape is also a bit bland, if I'm honest and there is a hefty price-premium for an Audi, although it is largely based on generic VW mechanicals.
The Peugeot RCZ has an appearance not dissimilar to the TT and comes with a powerful turbo-equipped engine and front-wheel drive. Although that drive train layout appears reasonably sorted it is atypical of most sports cars. Having owned Citroen's and Peugeot's in the past, the promise of idiosyncratic gremlins seems to be an inevitable part of long-term ownership.
So as not to be too myopic, I did look at other concepts including the Mini Cooper and the BMW 2 Series coupe. Both had their merits and generated some enthusiasm but without properly ticking the sports car box, of course.
Before getting down to my views on the car, it is perhaps best to highlight what it does not have.
There is not much sound-proofing. There is no turbocharger or supercharger, no excess of power or torque, no AWD, no plush cabin by modern standards, no sunroof, no soft-top and no wide wheels. None of this though really detracts from the design clarity - a modestly powered, fairly lightweight sports coupe.
The roofline and seating are low so you will need to be reasonably limber to fold yourself up and slide in to driver's seat. The bonnet proportions mean you will have to take extra care whilst parking and to avoid grounding the front splitter on low kerbs. The rear-quarter views are poor, so care is needed to position the car at tapered junctions.
The modest torque means that conscientious use of the gears is needed for overtaking manoeuvres. Higher rpm are required to access engine performance and the acceleration that then results may come as a surprise, so good anticipation of road conditions and space-time-distance is paramount.
The car is low and quite small, so even with daytime running lights you need to be aware that some road users may not register your presence, especially lorries. The suspension is good but very firm, you will find yourself having to drive around the worst potholes.
The interior is described by some as poor. Most materials are basic, but well-used. The ergonomics are fine and the seats good. But if you must have Audi-BMW standards of appointment then from new you will have to spend much more on a different car from a different manufacturer.
So what is left when all the things it does not have are discounted? To start with, the body shape is very pleasing and purposeful, low, streamlined and fit for purpose, even if some of the details are, well a little bling to be honest.
The seating position is excellent and although you sit really low, the low bonnet height gives quite a panoramic view left-centre-front. Rear and quarter views are not so clever, so wind those side mirrors out, grease your neck and modify your driving to suit. There are rear proximity indicators.
The front cabin feels fairly spacious and the front seats are well-bolstered and supportive, including on long journeys. The gear lever falls readily to hand and the major facia controls are readily accessible, if somewhat 1980's in style. There is dual climate control in the front and cruise control.
The instruments are good, with a central dial rev counter which incorporates a digital numeric speed display. An rpm warning light/buzzer can be set as required. The touchscreen media panel is basic but effective and is complemented with a bluetooth phone connection and a media usb port.
The boot is modest but adequate for a week's shop or gear for a week away and the rear seats fold to make a long flat loadbay, if needed, although the boot entry is not deep. There is no shortage of cubby space in the front cabin.
The only interior additions have been: 1) a Brodit GPS mount which attaches just to the left of the media centre display and makes a very practical location for a sat-nav; 2) An OEM option of a hinged lid to the small storage between the seats. This is trimmed as an arm-rest and improves driver comfort, whilst the box is useful for leads and cloths etc.
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On the road, the throttle response is sharp, the gear ratios close spaced and practical, there is little if any body roll and the steering response is direct. There is plenty of feedback to the driver on the vehicle dynamics. The clutch is particularly light and precise. After a little practice, clean changes are easy. The gearbox baulks a little in 1st and 2nd only when cold and otherwise works fine. It seems vice free, although sounding somewhat mechanical at times.
The GT86 is easy to drive around town and in heavy traffic. The engine ticks over steadily down to 650 rpm when the vehicle is stationary. Despite the modest torque, the car is spritely enough for relaxed progress, using up to 3000 rpm.
The dynamometer graph below shows that the torque that there is is fairly consistent across the mid-to-upper rev range, albeit with a drop at around 4000 rpm.
On the open road, accessing it's power often means a conscious move to down-shift (or delay an up-shift) and put the engine "on-boil" from 4000 rpm upwards. It's actual cabilities are kept well hidden really in round-town driving and lower rpm.
The engine revs readily, with suitably gruff sound effects. Some of the sound is piped in to the cabin footwell, but it is less wearing to blank this off with a plug and it does not detract from the driving experience.
The precise steering comes in to it's own on fast switchback roads, where the GT86 is very good at maintaining it's composure and tracking accurately. It is also capable of rapid lane changes if required.
The car is able to make fast cross-country progress, even whilst respecting local speed limits, as it can get up to speed quickly and the brakes are effective, so it can make good use of short straights between bends. It is capable of taking most bends much faster than safety/visibility considerations or the driver's nerves warrant, providing it is kept balanced.
Even if driving enthusiastically (but legally) it is rare to feel that you are close to activating the stability control. Obviously mud, ice etc have the potential to upset that equation! You can sense the grip levels at each tyre if cornering moderately hard.
The noise levels in the car are rather dependent on the weather and road surface. At times it can feel quite noisy, particularly if you are tired. Then again often at higher speeds it seems to leave a lot of the noise behind and makes surprisingly quiet, rapid progess.
Generally, it is quiet enough at motorway speeds for driver-passenger to converse easily. Hail and heavy rain noticeably ping off the roof and stones flicked up will ping off the underside. Just goes with a lightweight vehicle.
Lastly and importantly, the car is a lot of fun to drive. It was also intended as (literally) a learning vehicle, both as a "junior" sports car and as an incentive to raise my driving standards generally. In fact, I have had to add new layers to my driving, which after 37 years on the road in my case is certainly desirable. See my associated web page on recommended driving books.
The basic GT86 (& BRZ, FRS) mechanicals are: a 2-litre flat four "boxer" engine, naturally aspirated, then rear-wheel drive through a Torsen LSD.
The suspension uses Macpherson struts (front) and double-wishbones (rear), then with coil springs, gas-filled dampers and a rose-jointed stabiliser bar front and rear.
The FA20 engine is a 16V DOHC design with a high compression ratio, being a development of Subaru's FB20 engine. It benefits from Toyota's D4-S dual direct and port-injection system. The FB20 engine internals were re-designed for fuel efficiency and higher rpm. The packaging was tweaked to reduce the engine height and it's CofG in the car.
The recommended running in period for the engine from new was to not exceed 4000 rpm for the first 1000 miles, whilst avoiding constant engine speeds. Based on additional suggestions from GT86 owners, I then increased the notional rev limit by 500 rpm per additional 500 miles driven. The adjustable rev warning was useful for this.
The engine is designed to give maximum performance using unleaded petrol with at least a 98 RON octane rating. 95 RON octane fuel is permitted under the vehicle warranty with no detriment to durability but with the possibility of pinking. Partly because there is a local Shell garage and also for good technical reasons, I have chosen to run the car solely on Shell V-Power Nitro+ with a 99 RON octane rating.
I can't swear to the fuel-system cleaning and anti-corrosion benefits, but the engine has not missed a beat (yet) in two years use, whether in stationary traffic or under large throttle openings. It was half a century ago, but Shell developed the special JP-7 aviation fuel for the Lockheed U2 and SR-71 spy planes, so they do have pedigree in the subject.
Reasonable fuel economy was a factor in choosing the car. It has returned an average of 37.8 mpg over 17,503 miles from delivery, much of that mileage being at motorway speeds around the legal limit, but with plenty of urban driving in traffic as well. Oil consumption has been only a litre or so in total between services.
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The car is certainly not over-tyred. The 17 x 7J wheels are however in keeping with the relatively light AUW and sensible horsepower. The feedback levels to the driver are high, concerning road surfaces, adhesion levels, front-rear balance, lateral loads etc. The ride comfort is OK. Potholes and bumps are definitely felt, but well-damped and the body feels stiff. However when and if corrugated concrete road surfaces are encountered the effect is very jarring.
The stock Primacy HP tyres are often casually and inaccurately referred to by enthusiasts as mere Primacy or SUV tyres, not worthy of a sports car. In fact the Primacy HP is marketed by Michelin as a grand touring summer tyre for high performance saloons etc giving longevity and better braking on wet roads. It benefits from twin steel belts and rim-protection. As a tyre it seems pretty in keeping with the GT86 then, unless you are doing track days or given to hooning.
The Primacy HP do seem hard-wearing but the rubber compound is somewhat gristly. The main downsides are a slightly harsh ride and a definite unsettling "floating" feeling on long high speed bends, especially in the wet.
Moving from AWD to RWD, the potential for serious traction problems in winter weather loomed large in my mind, especially for travel across the M62 trans-Pennine route. During summer 2014 this engendered a search for suitable after-market alloy wheels and winter tyres, to swop seasonally with the OEM wheels and tyres.
Based on an Association of British Insurer's Commitment, the majority of UK car insurance providers will maintain cover if winter tyres are fitted, "providing that the tyres meet, and are in accordance with, the vehicle manufacturers' specifications". Hence the decision to keep it simple and retain the same wheel and tyre size, hence maintaining a similar rolling dimension and not affecting the speedometer.
The stock specification is a 17x7J wheel with a 215/45-R17 87W tyre. Meeting this size requirement required some searching. In particular, one small minefield is the wheel hub specification in respect of stud geometry. The Subaru hub design is based on the following:
An effective wheel/tyre combination was found to be silver Speedline Turini 2120 alloy wheels with Michelin Alpin A4 215/45-R17 91VXL tyres, noting that the speed rating was higher than for the summer tyres, although in theory it is permitted to be one step lower (V-rating).
Over two seasons the winter set up has performed really well in regular trips across the M62 in all weathers. It gives noticeably improved grip, water clearance and ride comfort.
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