Subic International Airport, sometime in late 2012. I remember it like it was yesterday. I was flying the black and red colors as a 23-year old Junior Editor for C! Magazine, a publication that I obsessed with and adored since I was 13-years old. I was living the dream when the Japanese automotive giant launched its brand new sports car on an empty airstrip.
It was christened the Toyota 86, an ode to the original Hachi Roku or AE86. Having tested the new Genesis Coupe a week or so before this event, I remember thinking that 200 horsepower from Toyota at the same price that I could get 303 horsepower from Hyundai made no sense at all. It would be completely outclassed and brutally humiliated by the Korean.
"From the moment I turned the wheel, I knew it was going to be special."
As I waited for my turn to get behind the wheel of the new sports car like I was queuing up for a ride in Disneyland, I started seeing a certain commonality in those that were hopping out of the 86. They all seemed to be completely flabbergasted at what they had just experienced. Finally my turn came, and very shortly realized that my assumptions couldn't have been further from the truth. Horsepower isn't everything.
From the moment I turned the wheel, I knew it was going to be special. The entire drive down the airstrip and through the set of corners was majestic. It was unlike anything else I had ever experienced at the time. To say that it was face meltingly fast is laughable. A Toyota Camry will demolish it on a straight, but there's so much more to it than straight-line speed and that is still the case today.
Today, the 86 no longer stands on a league of its own. It now has the likes of the brilliant MX-5 buzzing around its ears like a fly it just can't kill. So right after having the MX-5 for a week, I was able to get my hands on this red 86, both of them equipped with a manual gearbox. I don't feel the need to state the obvious, but the 86 cannot compete with the MX-5 in anything that involves the sense of sight. Let's be honest, the Mazda is Jessica Michibata and the Toyota is, if you get where I am going with this, whoever is in your head right now.
All you really get are a pair of supportive bucket seats, a lovely gearbox, and the most deliciously weighted steering on the planet. The perfect driving position comes at no extra cost.
As a driving proposition, I do believe that it is marginally better than the MX-5. The clutch has better feel, the chassis is more predictable, and you don't get as much noise disturbance in the cabin the way you do in the other car.
"Getting the revs up is like waking up an untrained puppy you just brought home the night before."
The pedals are perfectly placed, so heel-and-toe shifting is made easy. And unlike the MX-5, you have some space to breathe and move about. You do not need to be double-jointed to operate the new radio, which I must say has had a profound effect on sound quality, if you even care at all. You can even take kids along for a ride at the back for as long as they don't have a pair of legs.
The 86 is pure, nimble, and a hoot to drive. The boxer engine is a corpse in traffic, but once you put your foot down and let the revs build, all of a sudden it comes to life, and I'm not just talking about the engine - but the car as a whole. Getting the revs up is like waking up an untrained puppy you just brought home the night before. A little tickle on the throttle, the ears go up, the tongue sticks out, and the tail starts wagging. "Are we playing, are we playing?!".
Those that do not, at the very least, see the brilliance of the 86, do not understand the ecstasy that driving brings people who see it as the ultimate expression of freedom. If you love driving in its purest form and to no destination whatsoever, I cannot think of a better car to do it in. It's not a supercar, so you won't get worried about getting lost and finding yourself in a rough part of town. You won't scrape the front nose everywhere you go, and neither will you worry about it when you park it in the lot to grab a bite to eat.
"I honestly enjoyed driving this more than I did a 340 horsepower BMW 1-Series M Coupe."
It will go where you point it, and if you want to stitch corners together in mountain passes, it will gladly do it with you for as long as you lead the way. It is quick enough to thrill you, but not quick enough to get you in serious trouble. Of course, if you shut off the traction control completely, the tail will kick out and you'll end up driving facing the side windows.
Amazingly, once you get the hang of it, you'll realize that you can hold it that way, forever. I can also tell you that I honestly enjoyed driving this more than I did a 340 horsepower BMW 1-Series M Coupe, and that's not saying anything derogatory to the BMW and their M division - but everything magical to the company that should have won Le Mans this year.
So let me ask you, when was the last time you went out for a drive?