Last year Toyota Motorsport in conjunction with Tin Top Tuesday ran a competition to take a picture of Frank Wrathall’s BTCC Toyota Avensis. I was lucky enough to be chosen as the winner in the ‘amateur’ category. My prize was the use of a Toyota GT86 for a week. After a little negotiation over available dates the car was finally delivered to the office. On handing over the keys the delivery driver explained where he had parked the car, although spotting the shiny pillar-box-red coupé amongst a sea of battleship grey company VWs really didn’t need much assistance. It was barely gone 9am and I was already thinking about the drive home – 5:30 has never seemed so far away.
My daily driver and therefore benchmark for any comparisons is a 60-plate Renault Mégane DCi Coupe. Clearly the Renault’s 1.6 diesel engine should be no match for the Toyota’s 2.0 flat-four, but the two are a similar shape and size so, performance differences aside, I don’t think it’s an unfair comparison.
That performance difference becomes apparent almost immediately as I leave the office car park for my journey home. In the Megane, pulling out into a gap on a busy main road requires a health amount of revs to ensure the engine doesn’t bog down. The same technique in the Toyota results in a squeal of protest from the rear Michelins. Mental note to self – less right foot next time!
Initial impressions on my drive home were good. The driving position felt immediately comfortable, as did the steering and gear change. The wrap-around seats were a snug fit for my chunky frame but not uncomfortably so. I didn’t feel the need to turn on the radio as with the window down the engine note as a blipped the throttle was more than enough to keep me entertained.
Arriving home, my attempts to impress the neighbours take a tumble as I clamber out of the car. Parked next to another car it’s difficult to full open the door, although that’s a common complain with 2-/3-door cars. The restricted access, low driving position and high sill conspire to make for a less than elegant dismount. I’m sure there is a technique to this, I just need to practice when no-one is watching.
The following day gave me change to get to know the car better, starting with the interior which really isn’t the Toyota’s strong point. The oversized switches and red LED numbers on the aircon gave the dash an 80s retro feel, whilst the fake carbon fibre weave only just stays on the right side of tacky. The instrument panel is dominated by the tacho with black on white digits, illuminated red pointer and digital oddo/speedo (also with retro red LEDs). To left is a conventional analogue speedo with tiny white on black markings, which are hard enough to read in good light and invisible when in shade. I don’t understand why Toyota bothered with the analogue speedo other than just to fill the space, unless it’s still a legal requirement in some countries. On it’s own it’s almost useless, and with a perfectly good digital display already available it’s pointless.
Tuning the radio in the combined audio/satnav system requires a combination of poorly labelled multi-function switches and dials together with a touch-screen display. I’m sure you would get used to it after a while but initially it seems overly confusing. The satnav display is very clear but badly positioned. I tend to rely on the on-screen map and lane-assist arrows rather than spoken directions, especially at a complicated junction, so like to have the screen closer to my normal line of vision. Mounting the screen on top of the dash (dare I say it, like the Megane) means you only have to glance across to the screen, but having it lower down in the centre console means having to take your eyes off the road.
A day blasting around the local country roads confirmed my initial impressions. Steering is nicely weighted and very direct; turn-in is almost immediate and I could easily place the car exactly where I wanted on the road. The gear-lever falls easily to hand and requires as firm push between changes, which engage with a reassuring clunk. The centre-sprung level and positive gates mean it’s very difficult to miss or wrong-slot a gear. Conversely the handbrake feels less solid but is still effective.
Throttle response, especially at low speed, is very sensitive, almost too so at times. Pulling away from a junction without over doing it requires a degree of finesse, whilst winding through a busy village high street takes a lot of concentration.If you want to be a hooligan it takes very little provocation to step out the back end, even on bone dry road. In wet conditions I imagine it would be very easy to make a very embarrassing and potentially very expensive mistake. For the brave there’s a switch on the centre console to turn off traction control but without a disused airfield to play on and wanting to keep my no-claims bonus intact I decide to leave this alone.
Friday morning, and time to pack the car for a weekend away, which means checking the size of the boot. Surprisingly it’s not as bad as I was expecting. You won’t be able to pack enough for a week long family holiday (you won’t fit the family in the car anyhow), but more than adequate for the weekly shop or a weekend away.
This afternoon I’m doing the ‘school run’ and picking up my ‘nephew’, but first a 130 mile trip up the M40/M42/M1, which means chance to test a few more features of the car. First up is to connect my phone to the hands-free kit – turn on Bluetooth, select the connect option, wait a few seconds, job done! That also gives the car access to the phone’s address book and the ability to stream audio from your phone. There’s also USB and audio connections for those who prefer the wired option. Setting the satnav destination is quick and easy. Cruise control is set with a column mounted lever on the lower half of the steering wheel. Half an hour into the journey I switch on the aircon and immediately get a blast of icy cold air. All boxes ticked so far.
My only complaint on the journey is that there is more road/wind noise at motorway speeds than I’m used to with the Mégane, and on a related note I really miss the steering wheel/column mounted audio controls every time I want to adjust the radio volume.
I’m greeted by a big smile when Tom sees me waiting at the school gates and an even bigger smile as we walk around the corner to where I’ve parked the car. It’s at this point we realise just how little space there is in the back of the car. The rear seats are spacious enough but legroom is virtually non-existent. Even getting a child in the back means pushing the front seats forward which means the front seat passenger is less than comfortable. Getting an adult in the back would be almost impossible, and I’m not sure I could drive with a second rear passenger and the driver’s seat pushed forward. We take the long route home which gives me a chance for a few traffic light getaways and short blast down the local bypass, all met with squeals of delight from the back seat.
The lack of space in the Toyota means we have to take two cars when going out that evening. We could comfortably take the family Nissan but Tom insists he gets to ride in the Toyota, and there’s no way all four of us are going to fit in that.
By Saturday evening I’m down to less than a quarter of a tank of fuel, and knowing I have a long drive tomorrow it seems like a good time to fill up. 290 miles down and just short of 38 litres, which if my maths is correct works out at a highly impressive 35 mpg.
If this were a normal car review I should end with a detailed summary of pros & cons and my first all verdict, but instead I’ll leave that to someone far more qualified, and I don’t mean the likes of Quentin Clarkson or What Gear Magazine. As any true petrolhead knows, the real test of any car is the opinion of a 7 year old boy. Tom’s verdict, “Cool car uncle Nigel“, and who am I to argue with that!
I can’t end this without a quick thank you to Alan Hyde and Tin Top Tuesday for running the competition, to Scott Brownlee at Toyota UK Motorsport for offering the car as a prize, to Frank Wrathall for picking my photo, and to the folks at Toyota’s press office for getting the car to me.