The Empire Strikes Back
Think there's nothing duller than a new Toyota? Think again. The 86 is here to right all the Camry's wrongs with one flick of its shapely tail
Like DC Comics' famous caped superhero, everybody has his Kryptonite; that one thing that brings you to your knees and renders you useless. In Superman's case it was a radioactive green crystal, but for us mere mortals it may be something as simple as a wayward rain spider crawling up our living room wall.
In my case Kryptonite can be found in a simple, six-character name: Toyota. For somebody who genuinely likes cars and spends more time salivating over wheels than he does over women, Toyota is more repulsive than a can of mace. They suck the soul out of motoring with a portfolio of thoroughly brain-numbing products. While other manufacturers might intersperse their sensible everyday offerings with a lunatic über-saloon or joyful little roadster, Toyota refuses to bring anything remotely fun to the automotive party. It is as if their design and development team is a pack of bean-counting accountants whose only thrill is getting their calculators to spell "boob".
Consequently Toyota is quite happy to flood the world's streets with what are essentially appliances on wheels; metal boxes designed entirely around the concept of the destination.
Wrong. Because when it comes to driving it is the journey that is all-important - that fleeting moment of freedom that comes from travelling between two points. A road trip might be the only time when a human being feels completely disengaged from the vices of modern life.
But inside a maroon Toyota Camry, heading down the highway unexplored, this experience is filtered down to banality. There is no excitement, no emotion. There is nothing about it that makes you say: "I never want this drive to end." And this is sinful. Mechanically speaking the Camry is not a bad car (look after one and it will outlive us all) but its complete lack of joie de vivre is unforgivable.
This is why Toyota has always made me want to crawl into the foetal position and sob uncontrollably. No matter what you buy, be it an Auris, Corolla, Avanza or Prius, you can be sure it'll exude all the charisma of your mom's new toaster. Life is too short for boring cars.
But the bizarre thing is that I have become infatuated with a new automobile - not some mint-fresh Porsche or Lamborghini but something with the fearsome chrome "T" on its bonnet. Yep, the vehicle that I am most itching to strap into right now is the latest creation to roll out of Aichi, Japan.
It is called the 86 and it comes distilled with that vital ingredient that every other modern Toyota lacks: sex appeal. A sleek two-door coupé that harks back to the '70s heyday of Japanese sports cars, this is a machine that causes little spurts of adrenalin to fire through your blood- stream. Like catching a glimpse of some smoking-hot supermodel in the Woolworths lunch queue. A long predatory bonnet. An evil face that grins like a psycho killer. That cascading roofline that plunges down towards two giant, chromed exhaust tailpipes. These are the headline features of a car that makes the most ardent Toyotaphobe sit up and beg.
The interior, although a little more understated, is equally stirring. Those two back seats are practically useless but up front you've got all the makings of a purist driving machine. Bucking the trend of gross over-specification, there is no unnecessary flim-flam to dilute or distract. You don't get a thousand buttons to adjust things like ride quality or throttle response or the volume of your exhaust. Instead, riffing off old-school sports car values, the 86 gives you body-hugging bucket seats, a small leather steering wheel and a gear knob mounted high on the transmission tunnel. If you want zillions of pop-up screens and brag-worthy gizmos then look elsewhere; this machine is purely about the drive.
The best thing about the 86 is how Toyota's radical, burn-the-bullsh*t ideology has been carried through to the things that aren't immediately apparent: the mechanicals. Co-developed with Subaru, this unseen anatomy promises to deliver some serious thrillage. How? Well without getting too technical, just know that rear-wheel-drive, a low centre of gravity (comparable to that of a Ferrari 360) and a feathery kerb weight (1180kg) should guarantee sharp reflexes and maximum agility. Qualities that helped to mould the Mazda MX-5 into one of the best-selling performance cars of all time.
Of course the haters will be quick to criticise the amount of muscle pumped out by that four-cylinder boxer engine (an underwhelming 147kW) but they're missing the point. The new 86 is not about tyre-shredding drag races or ridiculous top speeds. Instead it exists to make you feel completely at one with the machine. It seeks to reward you through perfect handling and a back-to-basics level of involvement that too many sports cars ditch in favour of massive horsepower.
This makes it one of the most important new vehicles to break cover since the original VW Golf GTI, the first Audi TT or the retro-chic remake of the Mini Cooper. A fun antidote to the predictable hot hatchback, the 86 could be the breath of fresh air we've all been waiting for. So sorry all you dubious supervillains, but you will have to find another brand to send me packing. Toyota has more heart and soul than I thought.
- The 86 will land in SA in July.