If you go down to the woods today, be sure of a big surprise...
Granted, there'll be no teddybears in amongst the trees, but if you look close enough you might just stumble across a rather more unusual Picnic - in this case one made by Toyota. Granted this is not normally considered a PH car, but this particular Japanese MPV is slightly different from the norm. For at its heart, and under the bonnet, lies a tweaked Celica GT4
engine - with near 200hp.
Not what you'd expect to find under here
But this is no home-grown kit, lashed together in a lock-up; this car was built by the experts at Toyota GB's technical centre near Gatwick. Starting life as the company car for the team's press fleet manager, credit can go to PR boss Scott Brownlee for having the imagination to save it from retail and turning it into something far more interesting. Used as a support car on the original Lexus IS200 UK launch event, it hung around for a number of years bringing a smile to the face of every one who experienced an inside wheel spinning under full boost at each roundabout exit.
Never raced or ... oh
Eventually it made way for a number of other special projects, and was sold to an Irish dealer who used and abused it on a number of local rallies supporting their team cars. Those years as a workhorse took their toll, the most major being a holed piston from a turbo once stuck on full boost. But there was nothing Toyota GB couldn't fix - so when it came up for sale last year Brownlee bought it back. His biggest disappointment is the loss of the original Camry Sport wheels; the rare rims are no longer available and would likely require buying a whole car just to source them.
Shame it didn't get the four-wheel drive too!
But the rest of it is still as they intended - six Connolly re-trimmed leather seats (complete with picnic basket-aping weave pattern) wrapped in original silver bodywork all sat on lowered suspension and powered by that tweaked Celica turbo powerplant. The subtle TTE (Toyota Team Europe) bodykit is an off the shelf item, and save for the chromed exhaust pipe and 17-inch Team Dynamics alloy wheels there's little giving away this car's estimated 200hp. Inside it's a sea of red, the steering wheel still bearing the grimy marks of its time on the rally stage, with a TTE triple gauge holder (complete with boost readout) on the centre console and set of well-worn alloy pedals.
Started up, the four-cylinder unit which sits on the standard engine mounts and looks almost OEM under the bonnet, erupts into an uneven idle before settling down to a regular tickover. The clutch, replaced with a competition item, is heavier than most supercars and boasts a sharp biting point that makes for a less than smooth takeoff. You soon get used to it, and though the five-speed gearlever sprouts tall from the tunnel the shift is short and seriously tight across the gate.
Odd mix of crimson leather and default plastics
On the move the Picnic shows just how far turbocharged engines have come in the last two decades; we often complain at the lack of character in the linear delivery of power these days but the Toyota is the very definition of turbo lag. That boost gauge may run to 2bar, but by 3,500rpm it's barely registering a quarter of that and full boost (just over 1bar) doesn't arrive until 5,000rpm - the redline frustratingly just 1,000rpm later.
Every gearchange is punctuated by the whoosh of the atmospheric dump valve, the volume and ferocity of which leaves bystanding pedestrians confused as to which boy-racer hot-hatch it's just come from. Keep those revs up and not only does the Picnic make considerable progress, but also a decent noise (for a four-cylinder) too. Best suited to a straight line, the chassis is made up of standard shocks, brakes and lowered springs of unknown origin. The result is acceptable rather than amazing body control, the lack of side support on the seats exaggerating every ounce of body roll with every corner. You'll likely need to add some extra steering inputs too, the large red leather rim attached to anything but a quick rack.
How to make for a tastier Picnic? This is a start
Unruly, with an archaic power delivery and little in the way of feedback through the chassis, a modern turbodiesel would doubtless be quicker in almost every situation. But regardless of this car's faults - and 20 years of automotive development later there are plenty - the Picnic Sport is an absolute hoot to drive. And as the car that started the UK team's legacy of surprising one-offs, including the rear-engined Aygo crazy and Castrol Supra, the fact it exists at all is reason enough to celebrate in our book.
TOYOTA PICNIC GT4
Engine: 1,998cc 4-cyl turbo
Transmission: 5-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): c. 200
Torque (lb ft): Unknown!
0-62mph: Fancy a guess?
Top speed: See above
Price: Nobody's saying