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Write what you drive

A showcase of independent motoring journalism and automotive travails

The Return of Aspiration at Toyota

Natural aspiration at least...

It was once the case, when I was growing up in the 1990s, that there was a huge choice of affordable sports cars to choose from. Japanese manufacturers were particularly prolific, with 2 coupes in a model line-up seemingly the minimum requirement.

However, since the demise of the Celica and MR2 in 2006/07, Toyota had been seriously lacking any sort of aspirational vehicles in their UK model range. With the exception of the Honda S2000 and evergreen Mazda MX5, there was a dearth of any sort of purpose-built mainstream sports car offerings from Japan.

European efforts during the '90s (in which I include Ford) were also plentiful, although mainly subscribed to the philosophy of plonking an attractive body on top of an existing model's chassis. There was the Cavalier-based Calibra, the pretty 406 Coupe (not even a token effort from Peugeot to disguise the car's underpinnings there) and the joint-venture Ford Probe/Mazda MX6, to name but a few.

This trend of bet-hedging by building a faux sports car (almost always dubbed a "coupe") based on an existing platform provided further sports-car regression during the '00s, where manufacturers went a step further and did away with the fripperies of even bothering with a new body in favour of warmed-over variants of family hatchbacks where tuned engines and bodywork additions were the only concession to "sportiness".

The business case for such models is far easier to make; a top-of-the-line sports model or coupe is never likely to sell in the numbers of its more humdrum brothers for volume manufacturers such as Toyota and Ford, but if a few extra points in the profit column can be gained from the attention such a vehicle is likely to garner with minimal financial risk due to most of the development costs already having been expended, the bean counters are likely to be more accommodating when it comes to sign-off.

That being said, this is not the way a red-blooded petrol head likes to think his or her car has been developed; as a sort of apologetic lovechild of accountant parents...who play in a rock 'n' roll band at weekends. In reality though, all sports cars are a compromise between business brain and engineering brawn to some extent, and those that aren't don't last very long.

If you weren't into FWD hot hatches and big-turbo'd rally homologations, the affordable performance car landscape was fairly bleak for the opening 10 years of this century. The gloom arguably reached its lowest ebb after the 2008 financial crisis, where car manufacturers battened down the hatches in attempts to stay afloat, which meant aspirational models were out and recession-busting superminis and diesel powered saloons were in.

I'm delighted to report, possibly slightly belatedly, that the car buying public seem ready to inject some excitement back into their choices. In what strikes me as vaguely analogous to the rise in popularity of the music festival over the last 5 years, people are flocking en-masse to something that was seen as a grubbier, more specialist choice 10 or 15 years ago.

The sanitised ownership experience of sports models based on mainstream hatches such as the very pretty double-bubble roofed Peugeot RCZ (307 based), handsome VW Scirocco (Golf platform and engines) and the arguably-uglier-the-original Mini Coupe has made them accessible to those who wouldn't necessarily class themselves as hardcore enthusiasts but possess some rock n' roll pretentions. These cars do exactly what they're supposed to - they're fashionable, quick and as hassle-free to own as their hatchback brothers - but they aren't sports cars in the purest sense.

Toyota and Subaru have admirably bucked this trend and created a car that is worse looking, slightly slower and less frugal than any of its aforementioned competitors (Mini's looks aside). The GT-86 is however, unquestionably a sports car. Bespoke chassis, rear wheel drive and no diesel variant to try and corner the festival-anthem fleet market. Bravo. The wider motoring media also reports that it is a wonderfully involving car to drive, the sort of "return to form" album waning rock bands continually promise.

In a predictable "they don't make 'em like they used to" caveat, I'd still argue that the honesty of the bands at the unfashionable festivals I attended between 2003 and 2008 makes them superior to the punter-friendly efforts of more recent years. And whilst the current explosion of coupes and sports models are a nice break from years of automotive austerity, I find it immensely satisfying to own a car that is 16 years older but faster, rougher around the edges and more of a departure from the norm than any of the current mainstream efforts.

GT86 Turbo required Toyota...

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