From £24,995
You’ll be able to get more out of the Toyota FT-86, more often, than you could a much faster and more theoretically capable sports car

What is it?

We’ve been waiting a long time for the Toyota FT86  Literally, because we’ve seen a lot of the concept. But figuratively, too: Toyota is promising the FT-86 will deliver a return to sports car purity that is driven by feel and intuition, not lap times and lateral grip levels. We’ve wanted a car like that for a long while.

“Sports cars have gotten boring,” Toyota says. “They’re only interested in going fast.” The FT-86 is meant to amend that, to bring speeds down but take the enjoyment up, not unlike the Caterham 7 Supersport which we’ve fallen for recently.

The FT-86 is on a new platform that has been co-developed with Subaru (whose Subaru BRZ will be distinctly similar). We still don’t have all the technical details because it’s some way from launch – sales start in June 2012, following the production car’s unveiling at the end of November 2011.

What I can tell you is that it’s “as small as possible for a four-seater sports car,” which means it weighs 1280kg. It has a 2.0-litre flat-four petrol engine in the front, naturally aspirated, which is supplied by Subaru but gets Toyota’s D4-S direct injection system. It makes 197bhp.

The key things to add are these: it drives the rear wheels through a six-speed manual gearbox and a Torsen limited-slip differential. And the tyres are the same modest 215/45 R17 items you’ll find on a Toyota Prius.

Oh, and the ESP can be completely switched off.

What’s it like?

As much fun as you’d hope. I drove a disguised car on a deserted airfield last May (wasn’t supposed to be able to tell you about it until the end of November, and it still makes me smile to think about it now.

First impressions: it feels light and compact, a bit like an MX-5. The driving position is low, straight and snug, with grippy front seats (and not a lot of room in the back).

The Toyota FT-86 feels quick enough, too, with a precise if a touch notchy gearchange, and an engine note that’s a bit growly – there’s not much flat-four burble. Tweaking the NVH is high on Toyota’s ‘to-do’ list. It has a broad power curve - it revs to 7500 but there’s no desperate need to wind it that far past the mid-range.

It’s hard to accurately guage the ride on a concrete airfield, but the FT-86 feels quite deftly set-up, light on its feet, with a touch of tyre roar that’s to be expected.

It steers easily too. At 2.5 turns lock-to-lock the steering’s quick without being hyperactive, and is light-to-middling in weight. It all adds to the impression that this is going to be an easy car to get along with.

Find a corner and you’ll find some roll, but its rate is well contained. The FT-86’s weight distribution is 53/47 per cent front/rear, so it’ll nudge into steady-state understeer if you’re on a constant throttle, where it grips moderately well and is pleasingly poised.

The great thing about the FT-86 though is, as promised, it really handles. It lets you choose how you want to corner. Add any amount of power and it’ll turn at least neutral. Trail the brakes into a bend, give a mid-corner throttle-lift or, well, just give the steering a bit of a bung and lots of throttle and it’ll either straighten its line or give you armfuls of oversteer, utterly as you prefer.

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There’s still a bit of tweaking to do on the damping, but it’s 90 per cent of the way there. As it is, in third gear the FT-86 will run out of power to keep a long slide going (if you like that sort of thing), so inevitably it takes momentum rather than power to play games with the chassis. But if you add more power to compensate then you’ll want a turbo and bigger stoppers too, and that adds weight, and, well – that’s where the downward spiral starts, right?

“The key development for the FT-86 is that it’s a front-engined, rear-drive car with intuitive handling,” says Toyota.

“A fun car is a car you can control. We rejected the idea of a car developed using numbers. It must have front-engine/rear-drive, a naturally-aspirated engine and a low centre of gravity.”

Should I buy one?

I suspect those who do won’t regret it. The Toyota FT-86 will need a change in attitude: this car’s not about delivering ultimate acceleration or lap times, it’s just about having fun.

The FT-86’s modest limits and power mean that it should prove enjoyable on the road: you’ll be able to get more out of it, more often, than you could a much faster and more theoretically capable sports car, whose reward is more often than not limited by visibility and sensibility.

It’d be terrific fun on a track day, too. It’s light enough to not wear out its consumables quickly and, while an FT-86 wouldn’t be the fastest way around a circuit, there aren’t too many cars out there – certainly not at its predicted £20k-odd price tag – that could put a bigger smile on their driver’s face.

Toyota FT-86

Price: 20,000 (est); Top speed: n/a; 0-62mph: n/a; Economy: n/a; Co2: n/a; Kerbweight: 1280kg; Engine type: 2.0-litre, four-cylinder petrol; Power: 197bhp; Torque: n/a; Gearbox: six-speed manual

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

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thebaldgit 31 October 2011

Re: Toyota FT-86

Not much in the way of details about the car, as it has not been officially announced this is not a surprise but im sure that as it is a car about fun it will appeal to the driver rather than the snob.

jtc911 31 October 2011

Re: Toyota FT-86

Can't agree more. First time I've got excited about a new car launch for a long while. Would have been nice to be sub-1200kg but the rest sounds great...

Onehp 29 October 2011

Re: Toyota FT-86

This is my recipe. Closest to smallest rwd 4/5 seater for sale today is the 1-series - which I thus own and modified to make it handle to my liking. Seriously considering to change it for a basic FT-86 next year. Cars are getting too complicated, either that, or they must be massively impractical. Deal breaker would be a too cramped rear seat. Too many sporty cars available today have one that is completely and utterly unusable, makes me wonder why they bothered. If the FT-86's not a four in any remotely practical sense, the proposition becomes much weaker as one could have gotten an MX-5 long time ago to fill that affordable rwd 2-seater urge...

"Kerb weight" 1280kg, is that as defined by DIN or EU-standard? If EU, that's actually good as that would mean empty weight (fluids only, no gas) is around 1160kg for a modern four(?) seater! Anyhow, looking forward to the test drive next summer...