Early critical froth has always been a poor predictor of a car's success. The cruel gap between dreams and reality is perfectly demonstrated by the GT86, a car that arrived to the sort of adulation normally accompanied by the sound of heavenly choirs and predictions it would reinvent the accessible sportscar. Eight years later, and after missing its early sales targets by an embarrassing degree, it is getting a sparsely attended retirement party with a cheap cake and a low-rent clock purchased with a meagre whip-round.
Not that the GT86 is formally dead. Production of both it and its Subaru BRZ sister have ended in Japan, but Toyota says it has sufficient stock in the UK to meet the current level of demand for some time - quite possibly all the way to the arrival of the turbocharged second-gen model we are expecting to appear next year. A stark contrast for a car that had a waiting list when it first went on sale.
Because it all started so well. Toyota has long regarded sportscars as an important part of its corporate identity, but with the death of the 'A80' Supra in 2002 and the third-gen MR-2 five years later it was left without one. The desire for another was reflected in various concepts - the FT-HS that was shown at the 2007 Detroit Auto Show bears a strong resemblance to the styling of the finished car, although it was set to use what would be a much heavier and more complicated hybrid V6 powertrain. But ambitions ran up against the harsh reality of limited global demand for frill-free sportscars and the significant costs of development.
The obvious thing to do was to partner with a rival, although this would require a serious amount of diplomacy given the prickly pride of corporate Japan. Toyota owned a stake in Fuji Heavy Industries - which owns Subaru - but the smaller company actually rebuffed Toyota's first attempt to discuss co-developing a sportscar around a boxer engine. But when Subaru found itself facing a crisis following the 2008 financial crash the prospect of putting a significant number of its engineering staff onto somebody else's budget became irresistible. The division was a simple one: Toyota was responsible for design and product planning; Subaru would do the heavy lifting of engineering the new car and then producing it at its Ota plant.
From the beginning, the mission was to deliver unfiltered driving thrills rather than outright performance. That was a similar philosophy to the one behind the MX-5, but the desire to distinguish the new car from the world's most successful roadster meant it would be exclusively produced as a 2+2 coupe. Engineering was led by Subaru's Toshio Masuda, who had previously been in charge of the 2001 Impreza, the company's most successful car to that point. Clever construction produced both a lightweight structure - just 1200kg, making it lighter than most superminis - with the low-mounted engine helping give a 460mm centre of gravity, closer to the ground than that of the Ferrari 458. As much of the car's mass as possible was put in the centre of the car, with the a special saddle shaped resin fuel tank positioned under the rear seats.
Well before driving either version, we knew that the Toyabaru wasn't going to be a rocket ship. The new 'FA20' 2.0-litre engine shared its layout and capacity with the existing Subaru flat-four but was more compact and lighter. It featured both a 12.5:1 compression ratio and an appetite for revs, with the peak 198hp arriving at 7000rpm and the spark-cut not calling time until 7,400rpm. Toyota's then pioneering D4S fuelling system was used, this featuring both direct and indirect injection to help boost economy.
Toyota didn't exactly wear out the pencils distinguishing the two cars from each other; metalwork was identical and the only visual distinction beyond badging came from different bumpers and wheels. But while the substance of the finished car owed more to Subaru than Toyota, the BRZ was destined to be the minority partner in terms of volumes, something effectively dictated by the radically different sizes of the two company's global sales operations. Back in 2012 Toyota told journalists it was hoping to sell up to 4,000 GT86s in the UK each year; Subaru was aiming at 1,000.
Hindsight has delivered a Nelson Muntz "haw-haw" to those numbers, both of which proved to be woefully optimistic. British sales of the GT86 sales peaked at 1,700 in 2013, and had fallen to under 500 by 2018. The BRZ never managed over 150 in any single year, with total sales of under 1,000 making it rarer than many recent supercars. Those figures encapsulate the Toyabaru's critical problem: the difference between an idealized car and one with proper market appeal.
Early reviews were overwhelmingly positive; this was a hugely attractive car to motoring journalists almost everywhere. Although there were minor chassis differences between BRZ and GT86 the driving experience of both was effectively identical: light, agile and with outrageous throttle adjustability. This ranged from the ability to tighten or broaden a chosen line by a subtle change in toe pressure up to heroic oversteer. The engine sounded good, responses were almost surgically sharp and - as promised - the motor seemed happiest when being thrashed hardest. Steering was spot-on and the beautiful shift action of the standard six-speed manual box made the need for frequent changes to keep the engine fizzing a joyful part of the experience. (The optional six speed torque converter auto never felt like a 'right' choice in such a car.) Like the MX-5, the GT86 was huge fun at low speeds - and who didn't want that?
Most of the sports car market, as it turned out. While journalistic enthusiasm came from a positive place - wanting to celebrate something clever and different - the critical fervour did downplay some fairly obvious flaws. While great to drive hard, the GT86 wasn't actually very quick - a 7.6-second 0-62mph time and 140mph top speed meant it was slower on both benchmarks than a contemporary 'F30' BMW 320d. Nor did it have much in the way of raw adhesion, with the decision to use eco-grade Premacy tyres making for fun low-load transition from grip to slip, but meaning the overall levels were never more than modest.
Aside from driving, there were some bigger issues. The most important of these was the obvious fact the Toyabaru had been designed to have a much lower price tag than the one it ended up receiving. The cabin was less than spacious - unsurprising given the car's modest dimensions - but also filled with low-rent plastics and utility grade switchgear. All of which could have been pretty easily forgiven if, as with the contemporary MX-5, the GT86 had been priced under £20,000. But thanks to both a slipping yen: pound exchange rate and the two companies' desire to actually make some money it began at £25,995 for the Toyota. That put it in direct competition with some very impressive hot hatches, several of which were both quicker and more practical.
It was a point made forcefully by my first encounter with a UK-spec BRZ, on a magazine comparison test that also featured a Megane 265 Trophy. We all had huge fun in the Subaru - despite it being an auto - sliding and scrabbling around favourite Welsh roads. But it could barely keep the Renault in sight let alone stay with it. At the end of the test and with the prospect of a four-hour drive home there was something close to an unseemly scrap for the keys to the not exactly plush Megane rather than the cramped, buzzy BRZ.
Perhaps the biggest surprise at waving off this generation of GT86 and BRZ is that they are set to be replaced. This isn't exactly a dynamic part of the market these days, and Toyota now has the Supra in the blended family, the result of a more recent collaboration with BMW. But work on a turbocharged successor GT86 is apparently well developed, one that should bring an increase in both performance and - if lessons have been learned - a nicer driving environment. Full credit to Toyota for keeping the faith, but for all the early love it received the first-generation GT86 seems set to be remembered as a miss rather than a hit.
1 / 12
Chat about all things motoring
The Pie & Piston
Chat about everything else…
Win on Sunday, talk about it on Monday
Not all cars are created equal
Meet your hero Matt Bird in person
Need to get something off your chest?