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GAUTENG – Toyota SA hasn’t had the best of times with the Toyota 86, with sales figures not quite as high as the firm would probably like. There may be any number of reasons for this, but the Japanese brand has not been deterred.

For fans of driving thrills, there is little to rival a rear-wheel-drive car and Toyota SA continues to offer the 86, which has recently been facelifted (see pricing here).

What's new outside?

To help differentiate the revised model from its predecessor, there is a new front spoiler (incorporating a lower, wider air dam), a more pronounced bottom lip and a redesigned foglamp section, including the repositioning of the indicator bulbs to within the headlamp cluster.

The rear gains a fresh wing design, complete with end plates on High spec derivatives. A new 17-inch alloy wheel design and a blade section within the side vents are further changes to the 86’s visage.

And inside

There isn’t too much new in the cabin. An auxiliary TFT screen now displays info to the driver in High spec models. A slightly thinner-rimmed steering wheel replaces the old item and now features remote controls for the audio system as well.

More changes under the skin

Under the skin, there are a few suspension tweaks. New spring and damper rates – firmer at the front, softer aft – combine with a fatter anti-roll bar at the rear and improved overall rigidity to help sharpen up the car’s cornering prowess.

Peak power from the 2,0-litre naturally aspirated, horizontally opposed four-cylinder petrol motor remains at 147 kW with 205 N.m. Buyers can choose between a six-speed manual or six-speed auto transmission. Torque is still sent to the rear wheels, where it is doled out by a limited slip differential.

Do the changes make a difference?

At the recent launch event, held at Red Star Raceway (RSR), Toyota SA kindly provided a pre-facelift 86 model for us to sample. Driven back to back, the changes carried out on the suspension are immediately evident.

The new car rides with a higher degree of pliancy and displays less body roll in the corners. More notably, turn-in is much sharper than the outgoing model, providing more precision when attacking a set of corners, such as the tight infield at RSR.

Verdict

A fact of South African motoring life is that the bulk of new car sales takes place at the power-sapping reef, which really blunts the performance of naturally aspirated engines. In a sea of turbocharged hatchbacks, the 86 is left a little floundering, which is a shame because it is a really entertaining car.

The changes conducted have sharpened an already capable platform, it’s just a pity that Toyota didn’t give it an extra injection of power to help lift its game.

As a driving machine, there is very little wrong with the Toyota 86. It can provide thrills by the bucket-load and when you drive one at the coast, which is where CAR is based, it'll perform exactly as advertised.

ROVANIEMI, Finland – Remembering the sentiment of Toyota president Akio Toyoda at the launch of the 86 Coupe in 2012 that, "if it's not fun to drive, it's not a car", my first act upon heading out onto a snow-covered launch route in the freshly updated version of the 86 is to hang the tail out.

Despite having all of the car's traction control systems activated, and noting the fitment on my test unit of heavily studded winter tyres, driving neatly on public roads in these conditions is rather a study of smooth throttle, steering and braking inputs in order to give the tyres the best chance of clinging to the road surface. Fortunately for me, there's also an afternoon spent at a testing facility on the itinerary...

A mid-life facelift? So, what are the changes?

The most notable updates to the 86's exterior include a revised front spoiler design incorporating a lower, wider grille section, more pronounced bottom lip and a redesigned fog lamp section, including the repositioning of the indicator bulbs to within the headlamp cluster. The latter also now includes full LED headlight technology.

While a new 17-inch alloy wheel design and a blade section within the corresponding side vents highlight the updated 86's profile, the rear gains a freshly thought-out wing design, complete with end plates.

Okay, but what inspired the changes?

While it makes sense that Toyota would look to refresh the 86 package midway through its lifecycle, the automaker also claims to have optimised these updates using insight gained from a relatively successful racing programme ... most notably, Toyota Gazoo Racing's exploits at the annual Nürburgring 24 Hours race.

So there are under-the-skin changes as well?

Absolutely, though rather frustratingly from an enthusiast's point-of-view, Toyota isn't currently backing up these "optimised" updates with any figures, such as comparable lap times, so it's difficult to pinpoint any discernible benefits. Certainly, the car still weighs the same (1 263 kg) and offers the same slick 0,27 drag coefficient as before.

That said, new spring and shock absorber ratings (firmer at the front, softer aft) combine with a wider anti-roll bar at the rear and improved overall rigidity (again, with no set claims of by exactly how much) to apparently enhance the car's cornering prowess.

Does it feel any different from the driver's seat?

In mid-winter conditions north of the Arctic Circle? No. For comment on that, we'll have to wait until we test the car on (warmer) home soil.

What I can tell you is that the slippery conditions experienced in Finland provided a timely reminder of just how much fun can be had behind the wheel of a relatively affordable and moderately powerful, yet impressively balanced, lightweight sportscar.

Are there any updates within the cabin?

I can tell you that the seat warmers work really well. But without driving the new car back-to-back with the old one, it's hard to say whether a 3 mm narrower steering wheel circumference makes any real difference to the experience.

A new 4,2-inch TFT digital trip screen positioned alongside the central rev counter (that now shows 7 000 r/min – the maximum engine speed where peak power is delivered – positioned at the top) displays a G-force meter, live power and torque curves, a stopwatch and a lap timer.

Expect South Africa-bound models to feature an updated touchscreen infotainment system, too. The Touch and Go 2 units, including Sat Nav, fitted to our European spec (GT86) models are not destined for our market as yet.

So, about that test facility…

Having welcomed the relative safety net offered by the 86's full set of traction- (TRC) and stability control (VSC) systems on the road section of our launch route, a variety of test track drives later in the day provided an opportunity to switch between the car's revised settings. While dialling TRC out permits more wheel spin to aid with loose surface pull-aways, a new track mode replaces sport mode on the VSC menu and allows for even greater sideways angles to be reached before intervention. With all systems switched off, the 86 driver is left to their own devices, as capable or inexperienced as they may be.

Any added oomph?

Nope. And herein lies my relative frustration with the Toyota 86. While by the end of the day, being able to hold a second-gear drift around a frozen Finnish lake and, via a series of tail flicks, successfully navigating a rally-style, snow bank-lined ride and handling course in a car so neatly poised for such activities will remain a highlight of my career, I sympathise with South African 86 owners, in particular.

Especially those living at energy-sapping altitude, who relish the potential for seat-of-the-pants fun in their cars, rather than necessarily having the opportunity, be it on track or an otherwise slippery surface, to experience all that the 86 has to offer. While I'm not suggesting that going sideways is the only way to appreciate such a focussed sportscar, the prevalence of tuned, lowered, and/or boosted examples of the 86 on South African roads suggests owners might be seeking a bit more than just potential from their favourite Toyota...

Expect the updated Toyota 86 to be launched in South Africa in April.

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