Some cars are that bit more enigmatic than others to define. Bothersome even, like in the case of the Toyota 86 (Link: Official Toyota 86 microsite). Up until late in the day of our time with it, it didn’t really show any real reason why it was as special as some people have made it out to be.

Speed-wise, it’s pacy enough, but not racy, and while it looks sporty, it’s a bit generically so. The interior contains a mish-mash of material and different textures (I counted eight at least), and there’s no real sense of occasion. Upon first impression, there’s little to suggest what the fuss is all about with this one.

In fact, in a world where the normal adage is now “bigger, better, faster, more,” the 86 doesn’t quite measure up in the arms race, and the initial reaction will be to dismiss it, based on those very definitions above. The point is, if you’re looking for a bazooka on wheels, well, this one isn’t really it, because something like the Renault Megane R.S. 250 Cup will get you around a track faster. Indeed, those into brute force and application should just stop reading now.

Dismiss it though, and you also dismiss the chance to unearth a gem of a car, one with a panorama of party tricks that it won’t show until it knows you, or rather, you know it. Initial impressions can be a bit soggy with this one. You sense there’s something tucked away deeper within when you prod it, but until it’s unlocked, she’ll keep it pretty civil.

Such was the case at the beginning. I’d volunteered to give the car a go because of all the hoo-ha concerning it, all that talk about the old AE and offering an essence of that from the past. With that in mind, I decided to head out to Bukit Tinggi on a quiet Monday afternoon, which I haven’t done in yonks with a test car. Along the way, on the Karak, the 86 provided the first bits of its tonality, responding to input with a great sense of lightness and agility, adjectives that Danny has also used as descriptors.

For good reason. Here, on sweepers and at pace, it tracks well, and feedback to input has the car replying in a sure, measured fashion, so you always know what the car is doing. Undoubtedly, the 86 feels like it can do with more ponies than the 200 present, but that would arguably also ruin the composition and balance. Meanwhile, there’s plenty of useful information coming off the steering, which is nimble and quick.

A decent opening gambit, but the next step was a bit less inspiring. At Bukit Tinggi, I decided to try out the whole gamut through a series of runs, starting with the car in normal mode and with all the electronics on. The auto tranny, already hinting at slow uptake earlier, kept to its character left in Drive – with a laggy throttle response and the need to keep the engine boiling, the first climb up was, in short, unspectacular, at times even gangly.

Moving to Sport mode on the engine and going to the VSC’s Sport mode helped, but again, nothing to suggest that the 86 was anything more than a very sharp handling offering needing more power (well, uphill at least). Downhill, the Sport mode responded to heavy braking by switching down a gear, which didn’t always make for good progression at core points.

A note about the 86’s brakes – the assist and pedal feel is a bit old school, where you have to stand on it a fair bit, which I quite fancy. It does have good modulation, and hauls the car up rapidly enough when asked.

Going into manual mode, still with VSC Sport, made for the best presentation of the lot, though at that point I kept pondering for a stick shift and wondering how that would have turned out. Still, things were clean, VSC Sport keeping it all – mostly – tidy. Things were never unruly, and if you like things taut and neat, you’ll find the 86’s moderated presentation rewarding enough. It was probably good that at that point I’d not discovered the ability to switch the VSC and traction control off completely.

The drive home went into traffic conditions, which showed how well the 86 has been managed. As a daily driver, the 86 scores high in the ride department. It’s a comfortable car when you’re going about your daily routine, the suspension soaking it all up with a level of refinement a good sedan would be envious of.

Score points also for the driver’s seating position, which is a standout, likewise everything that is a contact point. Really, it’s not until you get out of the 86 and get other perspectives do you realise how well it has all been accomplished as far as driver-focus goes.

As a tool, the best manner to describe the 86 is that it’s a scalpel. A bit on the light side, yes, but efficient nonetheless at close quarters. Sacrificing outright punch and power for deftness and agility, this is a car the more you drive, the more you marvel at the philosophy of thought that has gone into it.

Well, at least that’s what happened when we finally unshackled it. As Danny’s part of the story puts it, it was right at the end of the test session, the night before we returned the car, that the 86 came out to play. We’d deliberated whether we were going to do it, and in the end, I can say that we’re both mighty glad we did.

On an oil and soap-covered skidpad that was already in place for an event, with everyone else long gone, and traction control and VSC completely off (we finally discovered it at that point), the 86 finally put its argument across that you don’t really need that much power or brute force to have fun. Or that in such a case, too much would have been overkill.

In this case, it was exhilarating, getting the 86 to do the sideways bit. Once I’d gotten the feel of the upper limits of thresholds, accomplishing graceful arcs continuously around the skidpad was an infinitely repeatable affair. I can’t say if it is, as Danny puts it, steering by throttle at its finest, but it was plenty amazing. I’m sure I must have looked like a kid in a candy store at that point, with giggles to boot. Fun? Best in a long while. All that was missing was the tofu, really.

Danny, meanwhile, took the car around harder, and while there was a less ability to maintain a continuous hold through more than a few circles at a time (inevitably, too much gas proved the undoing for the tail), it all looked mighty impressive. And as dramatic as it looked, it was all accomplished is simple fashion, without having to put too much thought – and effort – into it.

The point is, the car makes it so easy, once you give it the range and scope to run. The next day, before returning the 86, I set out to do a final session with it sans electronics on a few quiet stretches of road. Mindful about the tyres, I kept things to a minimal.

Still, it was an absolute gas, and it was easy to drum up images of Bullitt amidst the limited shenanigans, with a ‘keeping it hanging as long as possible but sensibly’ bit capping things off. Nothing smoked, and the Michelins were very much alright. Addictive though, so inevitably it’s going to cost you in terms of tyres with this one once the bug bites hard.

A rear wheel-drive, light sports car offering beguiling deftness and agility when you choose to stretch its legs while being practical (!) and comfy enough for everyday use when you want to be pedestrian is a rarity in this day and age. That it comes from Toyota is perhaps the surprise, but it does show that when it wants to, the automaker can be adventurous.

No, it’s not perfect, but pricing not taken in the context, as an experience this one is simply brilliant, and drivers should be thankful for such manna in a world fast becoming too generic and matter of fact. Shame that its price means not many will get to enjoy its unique charm, but such is life.

Danny drives the 86 again:

Roped in to give a second opinion on Toyota’s reborn icon, I drove to Sepang and back with Anthony for an event, and the journey revealed plenty about the 86, mostly pleasant surprises.

I’ve already stated my love for the car’s driving position in the preview drive story, but it’s worth repeating. One sits really low inside the cabin, which is good, and the space is snug but not overly enveloping for me – good headroom for the front two, enough width to feel “normal”. We don’t wear short skirts, so graceful exits aren’t an issue.

The seats are not branded, but they offer good support. Not the tightest wrap for me, but good enough as they need to accommodate the bigger guys as well. The steering wheel may look simple, but it’s perfect as a tool – small diameter, just the right thickness (i’m not into BMW M style fat rims) and tilted at a nice vertical angle.

Besides the above, shift paddles that turn with the wheel (action is just about substantial enough), a hand brake lever on the driver’s edge of the tunnel and a clear instrument pack dominated by the rev counter (as it should be in a high revving sports car) all contribute to a driver focused environment. On the latter, I like the digital km/h readout but would have preferred 0 to start at 6 o’ clock for the analogue bit.

I also don’t find the 86 dashboard design attractive, and some materials such as the faux carbon fibre panel look nasty. Good thing though that none of these affect the business of driving, and it doesn’t take long to realise that this car was made by folks who love to drive.

The relaxed highway run to Sepang and back gave the 86 a chance to charm us with its manners, and yes, this is a car I can easily live with everyday. The rear seats are for kids only, and a RON97 diet is costly (UMW Toyota says the car will run fine on RON95), but Toyota didn’t throw comfort and refinement out of the window with its first sports car in years.

The 86 rides surprisingly well on our less than perfect roads, and in more ways than one. The ELITE highway is quite choppy in stretches, but we didn’t get bounced around too much – the primary ride is certainly calmer than in many sporty cars. The Honda Civic FD2R and VW Polo GTI are two that come to mind.

Perhaps Toyota didn’t have to spring the 86 too firmly, because of the car’s light weight (it tips the scales at 1,280 kg). Small road imperfections are steamrolled over without much fanfare, too. I feel that this attribute, like the great driving position, aids fast driving because one can truly focus on the subject.

The good ride comfort is a great ally to the decent rolling refinement. At a highway cruise, and even when you’re past the limit by 30 to 40 km/h, the 86’s boxer engine settles to a quiet sleep, waking up only when you stab the throttle. Tyre roar and wind noise didn’t stick out either, unlike say in a Nissan 370Z.

We’re also pleased to report that the exhaust note is neither overbearing or a constant companion, although I wouldn’t mind an engine note with more boxer burble in it. Just enough, although some owners would surely proceed to “fix” this “problem.”

Another thing some might want to fix is the naturally-aspirated 2.0 boxer’s grunt, or rather the lack of. It’s not an issue for me – personally, I find it fast enough and I quite like the need to work for the performance. It undeniable though; to get the most out of the 86, you’ll need to rev the engine hard.

Many might miss the immediate turbo rush served up by today’s hot hatches, and their better flexibility, compared to the need to keep the 86 on boil. It can even at times feel lethargic at low revs, especially when momentum is broken and you need to get back up to speed.

I can imagine this trait being a hassle to many, which is another reason why the 86 is not for everyone. But for those who love to work with a good high revving NA engine, proceed to enjoy the second wind that takes you to redline. It’s not as dramatic a switch as in a Honda Type R, but acceleration and sound becomes more vivid as you ride the wave and catch the next gear.

Speaking of gears, it’s my third time sampling the 86/Subaru BRZ, but I’ve yet to try the manual version, which bugs me! So all we can say is that in D, the automatic is faultless in town and in normal driving, but incapable of being one with you when the pace is upped. That’s when the steering paddles come into play, and DIY shifts happen fast enough. Still hankering for the manual, though. To try, I must buy? Let’s hope not.

OK, so how does it respond to fast driving? Friendly and intuitive is the first impression. The steering is light and very quick, and there’s good feel through the rim. Forward visibility is good, and enough has been said about the nice driving position and good ride comfort. The feel of lightness and agility is a constant, and the 86 grips well in a normal fashion if you drive neatly.

Even at this level, the 86 does many things better than the fatter and faster sporty cars we’re more accustomed to. Great job for any sports coupe, but the 86 is no normal sports coupe. We are of course looking at a rear-wheel drive descendent of the AE86, made famous by drifting and Initial D.

We very nearly didn’t discover this unique facet of the 86. It was luck that we got to do so, and without any damage done or a set of bald Michelins. You see, there was a driver training exercise being held in SIC’s paddock carpark, and the skidpad for the oversteer exercise was layered with oil and soap, which is inherently much more lasting and tyre friendly than water. The show was over, it was dark, and we were naughty …

The 86 has a special VSC Sport mode, which allows for a bit of rear slip before the electronics intervene to keep the car (and you) in shape. This is great for the road, where normal mode can be too restrictive and full VSC off is too dangerous. It works as advertised. But faced with a safe playground, VSC off it was.

It was amazing, and easily the most fun I’ve had in a long time. Not only is the 86’s tail effortless to kick out, sustaining a drift is also relatively easy if you know what to do. The quick and intuitive steering and the sharpness of the throttle response played a big part here – every stab of the gas pedal coincided with immediate body movement – steering by throttle at its finest.

While Anthony was pirouetting around gracefully, coming out for a chuckle, then hopping in back for more (like a kid in a candy store!) I was trying to donut my way around the centre circle – it was fun and addictive either way.

And before you say every RWD car is the same, this amateur wasn’t nearly as successful trying the same course earlier in the day in a German example. I also don’t remember the Porsche Cayman being so willing to dance. The Toyota 86 was made to drift, and I’m just glad to have been able to teman it doing its thing.

What do we want out of cars? Many want reliability and resale value, some are drawn to looks and features, while some want the most power and speed for the money. Some have big families, a few prioritise driving pleasure above all else. Me? I want to feel good, and the 86 made me feel like a hero. But after the dust had settled, I realised it was the true hero. One of a kind, not for everyone.