I’VE been starting to feel old lately. All week, I was looking forward to watching a documentary about art in the Middle Ages on BBC Four. Sat down to watch it at 9pm. Woke up on the sofa in a confused state at 1am, having only seen about ten minutes of it. Then there’s the nose hair. I’m sure I didn’t have nose hair last week, but now I do. A thicket, no less. And there’s that creepy involuntary grunt I’ve started making every time I sit down on a low chair. And you can stick every song in the Top 40 these days up your iTube, or whatever it is.
But the clincher, which has sealed the realisation that I’m not as young as I used to be, has been the mind-blowing, life-changing revelation that, in a sporty car, power isn’t everything.
It started the other week when Scotsman Motoring took delivery of the ridiculously powerful Jaguar XKR-S. Five-litre V8 engine. 550bhp. 0-60mph in 4.2 seconds. Wait another 4.5 seconds and you’re doing 100mph. Brilliant. Can’t wait to cut loose in this thing, I thought.
Started engine. Edged out of garage to join road. Mirror-signal-spin. Oops. Try again. Same result. When I eventually did get it on the open road, no sooner had I excitedly dabbed the throttle than once again, all my orifices were agape in terror as Scotland’s damp roads singularly failed to keep a grip on the thing as its 550bhp sent it sashaying and slithering all over the place. Shaken, I gingerly returned to the office and began to ponder the unthinkable: could it actually be possible to have too much power in a car? Surely not.
A couple of weeks later, the Toyota GT86 Automatic, the result of a collaboration between Toyota and Subaru, arrived. I’d heard great things about the manual version of this mean-looking sports coupe – it was named Top Gear magazine’s car of the year this week – so it was with a slight sense of disappointment that I glanced over the spec sheet. 0-60mph in 8.4 seconds? That’s OK, but it’s not exactly pant-igniting for a sports coupe, even an automatic. And the 2.0-litre flat-four boxer engine – which they haven’t even bothered to super or turbo-charge – produces 197bhp. Meh.
Sighing a little, like the spoilt manchild I am, I opened the door and slumped into the driver’s seat, making that now all-too familiar involuntary grunt as I did so.
But the moment my steadily deteriorating frame was in the firm embrace of those heated leather seats (an optional extra at a slightly less comfy £1,600), my day started to improve.
The driving position is just about perfect. It’s low, without compromising much on visibility in front and over the shoulder, and a lot of thought has gone into placing the useful instruments across the eyeline. The steering wheel is nice and small, helping cocoon the driver in what is an unfussy but supremely comfortable cockpit. There are seats in the back, but unless you plan on ferrying delegates to a leprechaun convention, there is little point to them, aside from offering somewhere to fling your jacket.
On the outside, the aggressive, sculpted front with racy black mesh and malevolent-looking running lights give the car a strong road presence, while the snub rear is home to a surprisingly practical and well-shaped boot which offers 243 litres of space.
I hit the start button and the engine throatily snarled into life. As I was to find, that buzzy, satisfyingly loud engine noise is rather moreish and can quickly develop into a full-blown addiction. This is no accident. In an amusingly only-in-Japan episode during the car’s development, Toyota’s president test-drove the vehicle and pointed out an “inability to converse with the car”, due to the “inadequate volume of its sound”. Toyota’s engineers responded by piping the engine noise into the cabin. That noise acts like go-faster-stripes for the ears as you pump the accelerator pedal to make it happen again. And again.
The go-karty feel – and sound – of the cabin, with that low sitting position, is replicated on the road. No, the acceleration doesn’t sieve your stomach through your spine as in some cars, but this means that on the open road you can put the foot to the floor and take the car to its limits without doing the same to your driving licence’s points tally.
While I drove an automatic, once I was out of the city and on the open road, I spent most of my time playing with the Formula One-style gear-change paddles nested behind the steering wheel. Purists will always prefer a manual transmission, but this auto box should offer enough flexibility for most people. It changes gear seamlessly and sensibly if you let it, but using the paddles is invigorating, with each change taking about a fifth of a second. Downshifts are particularly good fun as the engine syncs with you, blipping the throttle, which of course creates a pleasing noise in the cabin as well as making it sound to everyone else like you know what you’re doing.
The combination of the GT86’s low centre of gravity, its dainty weight, the front engine and rear drive – along with front MacPherson struts and double wishbone rear suspension – makes for a car you feel you can throw around without dire consequences. The relationship between driver and steering wheel, vehicle and road, is a beautifully harmonious one.
After a few days, my conversion was complete. The GT86 is so well poised, so rewarding to drive, so forgiving yet so much fun, that any perceived performance shortcomings quickly eclipsed. Speed isn’t everything. There, I’ve said it. Saying it might make me feel old, but I can always borrow a GT86 if I want to feel young again.
CAR Toyota GT86 Automatic
PRICE £26,495 (£29,295 as tested)
PERFORMANCE Max speed 164 mph; 0-60mph 8.4secs
FUEL CONSUMPTION (combined) 39.8 mpg