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Toyota’s knock-off Subaru joins its knock-off BMW in the GR sports range

Toyota-GR86-1
Toyota-GR86

Having seldom thought of the Japanese giant, Toyota, as an automotive pariah, reports Iain Robertson, two-thirds of its three-car line-up are wholly unoriginal, while the remaining model is not even a sports car but is its rally homologation compact hatchback, which combine to perpetrate one of the biggest lies in today’s new car scene.

Supra was first off the blocks. Taking the unashamedly excellent BMW Z4 as its base and tweaking the body panels with some appropriate Shogun styling hints, everything else from suspension and engine to its cabin architecture is Teutonically biased. Reflecting on the oriental greatness that is Supra, Japan’s first truly excellent sporting coupe through several generations, should make even the least brand-orientated individual mildly squirmy. After all, Toyota is notionally the world’s largest carmaker. It has the funds and (surely) the creative nous to develop a Japanese class contender possessing more than a soupcon of national pride.

Of course, an argument reigns around the car scene about the ridiculous reported on-costs of each new model but it is not just the Japanese players that have resorted to formulating new cars on computer, long before but eroding the customary gestation period prior to product introduction. The most popular methodology involves digging into the corporate parts bins to see what might be available to achieve power-to-weight ratio gains, durability and other production realities, while leaning on established dynamics parameters to make the final entity work most efficaciously. Toyota engaging with BMW for the use of its sporty two-seater is certainly a way by which to amortise runaway development costs…but we are still talking about the manufacturing monster that is Toyota. Personally, I do not care if that car is produced in Serbo-Croatia, as long as it retains its original national identity and not something that emerges from a bottle of Euro-fizz shaken but definitely not stirred.

Actually, the Z4-Supra melange was not the first, as that pleasure lay with Subaru’s BR-Z coupe, the ‘second’ copy-car residing in Toyota’s GR line-up. Poor old cash-strapped Subaru, which is at least Japanese, was having deeply entrenched problems with getting its ever-so-cute and potentially class-winning coupe off the stocks. A hugely respected and respectable brand, known for its ‘boxer’ horizontally-opposed cylinder engines, realised that it could produce a perfect 50:50 weight balanced, rear-wheel drive sporting model by simply omitting the front-wheel drive technology and going hell for leather down a traditionally engineered sporting route. It already possessed the necessary lower centre of gravity and the perfectly in-line propshaft ensured that dynamic balance would be a given. Yet, Subaru simply did not have the cash available and Toyota did.

Toyota-GR86-2
Toyota-GR86

A deal was struck that allowed Toyota to play around with badge-engineering, in essence all that it wanted. Of course, while the car was all-Subaru, Toyota’s marketing prowess could turn its alternative variant into the class winner, leaving Subaru choking in its dust. While ‘dangerous’ for Subaru, at least the car would see the light of day and it was immediately elevated into the ranks of the most promising of almost a decade ago. Yet, Toyota held the upper hand. Sales of both were far from spectacular, mostly because of retail confusion and the mega sales successes of Mazda’s MX-5, which is not the world’s best-selling two-seater for no reason. Toyota is not exactly helping Subaru to gain a toehold in any other sector, although the firm’s forthcoming Solterra BEV is likely to share the Prius platform. The new GR86 may carry the GR badge with a degree of Toyota marketing pride and it is assuredly a sweet, punchier and more competent sporting coupe but it remains a Subaru through and through.

Its normally-aspirated 2.0-litre flat-four engine has grown to displace 2.4-litres, which increases power from 197bhp to a more rounded 231bhp, enough for the car to blitz from 0-60mph in around 6.1s, to a top whack of 149mph. You need not expect any hints at electrification and even the switchable traction control avoids excess nannying, to allow the car’s array of natural talents to shine through. Now riding on 18.0-inch diameter shiny black alloys, it is easier to make the car slip into tail-out oversteer, almost on demand, aided by a standard limited slip rear differential. While the specification has improved, the cabin and dashboard layout are a typical Subaru ‘mess’, which might be endearing to the Subaru clan, even though most of them seem to have deserted the brand of late.

While rally fans could be counted as the core customers to Subaru, such was the spectacle and character inherent to the brand’s exploits during the 1990s, a fresh class of rally aficionados finds itself drawn to the compact Yaris GR that completes Toyota’s three-ringed circus. In fact, the rush of commercial interest, restricted by Toyota’s intentional import cuts, has ensured that not a single model exists of the required homologation production run, which means that you can all but forget any attempts to acquire one. Therefore, is it even valid to include the Yaris on the firm’s available product list? Yet, it was available, which is a darned sight more than Skoda, Volkswagen, Mini, or Citroen have been able to manage of their respective World Rally contenders, all of which appear to have more serious intentions in mind, rather than satisfy consumer curiosity.

So, there you have it. A three-car Toyota Gazoo Racing line-up, a sporty range within a range that is not exactly all that it is trumped up to be, as only one relies on Toyota brand ingenuity and enterprise, while another is expensively Germanic and the final contender is a ‘force majeure’ exercise over a lesser Japanese brand. Does that make them worthy? Sadly, no, although they either smack of model desperation, or harbour a smarter initiative that costs Toyota hardly a bean more than they need to. I prefer to settle on the latter premise, although I recognise that marketing lies tell their own verions of the truth.

Conclusion:          As a retail consumer, you believe what you want to believe. You need to decide whether or not Toyota is being fair, or just commercially astute. However, GR remains a mystical force working within a world automobile brand that gathers its own momentum speciously on the evidence provided.

Toyota-GR86-3
Toyota-GR86