British race driver, former Top Gear presenter, one-time Stig, and current Fifth Gear presenter, Tiff Needell, gives his thoughts on the Toyota 86, in a recent column.
The Fifth Gear stories have all been told, the evo filming has been done and the BMW M3 that has spent the year drifting round Thruxton has been parked up for a well-deserved rest. So the only motoring decisions left to be made before I dig out my stocking for Santa are whether or not to buy some winter tyres for the family BMW X5 — and whether I agree with the evo Car of the Year results from last month!
Of course, the great thing about cars is that you’re never going to get any group of enthusiasts to completely agree with any final choice, so the result is always going to be controversial. Mind you, there was one thing that I definitely wasn’t going to argue with — that all the finalists were rear-wheel drive.
Now, just in case you hadn’t noticed, I’m a big fan of the rear wheels providing all the propulsion while the front ones sort out the directional stuff — not simply because I can power-slide my way into a smoky oblivion, but because for me it provides the most satisfying “feel” when controlling a car.
Four-wheel drive is fine if you want to go loopy in a forest or you work on a farm but, as I know only too well, with big fat road tyres they are little better than rear-wheel drive when the snow comes (which is why those winter tyres are a must-have). Four-wheel drive on a Lamborghini, meanwhile, just generates a load of unnecessary weight to lug around. And the worst thing with high-performance four-wheel drive is that it’s always going to be the clutch that starts slipping before the wheels.
Mind you, with the increasing move towards flappy-paddle, robotised manual gearboxes, you can’t just dump the clutch and have fun in any of the big supercars these days — and that’s just one more nail in the driver’s coffin. That’s why if a tie-breaker had been allowed between the
Lotus and the Pagani at eCoty, I’d have been rooting for the car from Norfolk — even though the Exige’s ‘string’ gearchange system leaves a lot to be desired…
This is why the arrival of the Toyota GT86/Subaru BRZ is such a welcome breath of fresh air, because unless von look at Astons, upmarket German products or impractical trackday machines, there are precious few manual, rear-wheel drive cars to be had nowadays — and that’s not a good omen for the future.
I fought valiantly with that thing called the Stig in the recent Top Gear Live shows with both of us in GT86s and, on a slippery indoor surface, they were just the most fun imaginable! You could spin it around in its own length with plenty of wheelspin in first gear or drift it onto its lock-stops in second if you so choose. About the only thing you couldn’t do with it was jump out while it was still moving and still in gear… Now that’d be an interesting insurance claim. Name of driver at time of accident? Er, no-one…
By contrast, the racing drivers performing at the show in six of the best hot hatches of today could do little but screech around in unspectacular style with never-ending understeer interrupted only by constant yanks on the handbrake. The Vauxhall Astra VXR doesn’t even have one of those, as the march of the electronic “button” brake further removes yet more driver involvement…
With no handbrakes to tug, no clutches to dump and an increasing number of stability control systems unable to be fully switched off, I worry about exactly what sort of cars will be making the final eCoty line-up in five or ten tears’ time. But there was one promising hope for the future that we discovered at the show — if all we end up with are front-wheel drive cars, you can always cut them in half, put a couple of chocks of wood under the back and create some full on sideways action with no handbrakes at all. Half-car racing rocks!