By on December 3, 2012

No car in recent history must have been so relentlessly covered at TTAC as the Toyota 86 and its dizzying assemblage of names and numbers. I don’t think there is an editor at TTAC who hasn’t reviewed the car at least three times. All except me. I only reviewed it twice. Something had to be done …

Dear reader, be warned: This review of a sports car with a multiple persona syndrome concentrates mostly on seating arrangements and extraneous observations in the field of bears, bodies, far-eastern religions, man-machine romance, and sex. You may miss some of the driving impressions commonly supplied. If you are interested in those, they are provided hereand hereand here. And especially here. You are welcome. Some of the more than 30 pictures may gross you out.

My inspiration: Diorama of hachi-roku at Japanese mountain pass

Originally, I had planned a hachi-roku review to end all hachi-roku reviews. The plan was to go back to the car’s birthplace, to Japan. Whip the hachi-roku around narrow, windy roads in Japan’s mountains, the car covered in mud and sweat just like Toyota had shown us on Hachi-Roku Thursday at Makuhari Messe. Then, contrast the machine’s raw power with the serene beauty of the golden-leafy Indian Summer, or whatever they call that in Japan. Fill a following Alphard with skinny lovelies screaming “sugoi desu neeee”, and take steamy NFSW photos in an outdoor onsen hot spring bath. Everything lit by a Mt. Fuji sunset. Something like that.

Then, Michael Karesh did beat me to the idea. He took the Scion FR-S to the Monongahela National Forest, during Native American Summer time. His choice of venue (the wrong side of the tracks in Roadkill, WV) was not at all as classy as my idea, but Michael was first. Damn.

But there is one format that cannot be taken away from me, and that is Bertel’s signature road-test, the Review From The Backseat. Yes, the back seat.

When I explained my new plan to my driver Martin, his first reaction was “Rücksitzbank? Ja bist du denn bescheuert?” Which meant that he was questioning my sanity. See, when Martin does not drive me around, he moonlights as Martin Koelling, Tokyo correspondent of Germany’s Handelsblatt. He writes and thinks in German. With Umlauts. Actually, his real name is Kölling.

Granted, the hachi-roku would not be a top-of-the-mind candidate for a regular From The Backseat review. The 2013 Lexus GS 350 we tested together BEGGED for being reviewed from the comfort of the rear. Even the well-appointed kei-car, the Honda NBOX, provided a pleasant back seat experience. But the back seat in a hachi-roku? Who wants to go there? Only the carpet-covered luggage shelf in the Porsche Carrera RS must have been more austere than the hachi-roku’s second row. “Dein Problem, nicht mein Problem” (your problem, not mine) said Martin with a raised eyebrow and a down-the-nose look at my 5 ft 11 and slightly debu-debu (that’s Japanese for “fat”) body. “Let’s go and get the car!”

Martin (he is persuasive and multilingual, ladies like that) had talked Toyota HQ out of a Toyota 86 GT Limited Edition. Don’t worry if you have never heard the name. At home in Japan, the little sports car is simply and zen-like called “86”.  In the rest of the world, the car changes its name more often than Richard Kimble did. In North America, it is a Scion FR-S. In Europe, it goes by Toyota GT86. I may have missed some.

Then, there is its Doppelgänger at Subaru, the company that actually produces the car, and which calls theirs – don’t say it with your mouth full – the BRZ. No wonder they wear those facemasks. At TTAC, we early on called the car “hachi-roku” (Japanese for 86), and the name stuck.

When Martin said, “Let’s go and get the car”, he meant it. We walked. If this would be America, a provocatively dressed lady with my name on an iPad would meet me at the airport, or in the lobby of a (“just sign the bill”) 5star, with my steed-for-the-day idling outside in a don’t-you-ever-park-here zone, and a guy would ask: “Any bags?” But this is Japan. In Tokyo, we go to Kudanshita station. There, not far from the Emperor’s Palace, Toyota dispenses its cars to properly credentialed members of the fourth estate.

The GT Limited is the top trim level in Japan. The “GT” buys you 17 inch wheels, a few aero doo-dads, and assorted useful gear such as aluminum pedals, more gauges, and a dual exhaust pipe. “Limited” adds heated Alcantara leather seats that were most likely hand stitched by certified Japanese virgins. If you’d buy this car in Japan, it would set you back some 3 million yen, or $36,000. Don’t do it, it will be cheaper in America, and it will have the steering wheel om the right left side. For full specs, go here.

Even if you never heard of the 86 GT Limited, you may have seen our car a few times in finer international publications. There is an orange and a black hachi-roku in Toyota’s Tokyo test fleet. Today, we have the black one. Before the car is handed over, it is carefully inspected by an attendant.

After the attendant marks the end of the inspection on his clipboard, the attendant’s boss inspects the inspection.

You may think this exercise is meant to assure that the reviewer receives a pristine car, but you will be disappointed. It is to document any nicks or scuffs present before the car is handed over. Any additional nicks or scuffs would go on our account, and they probably mean that quite literally. In our inspection process, the boss notes a tiny dent the size of an eraser tip in the roof, probably caused by a wayward acorn. The dentlet is documented in triplicate, and the car is ours with the understanding that there would be hell to pay if we return the car with more than one acorn-sized dent in the roof. It is unthinkable to return it covered in mud and rocks as in that picture we saw. Oh, by the way, the car must be returned washed and with a full tank. Hai, wakarimashita!

Dozo. Driver Martin opens the door for me. Note that he opens the left hand door of the right hand drive car. We are in Japan, in case you missed it. (Don’t worry, I miss it all the time. Even after years in Japan, my windshield wipers engage when I want to make a left turn…)

I see that a smirking Martin has the back of the passenger seat flipped forward. I eye the rear seat for a second, decide to break protocol, and to ride shotgun until we are somewhere with a little more privacy.

Getting into the front seat is challenging enough. This definitely is a car for young people with sexy bodies. Or for Japanese who love sitting on the floor. This is Yoga on wheels. Speaking of sex, once you are in the seat, it feels good. Turned on, it would even feel hot. Being among boys, we don’t test the heated seat feature.

I pull my legs inside, and we go.

“The suspension is tight,” says driver Martin as we thread our way out of Tokyo and into the hills. ”The suspension feels more European than Japanese. You feel the road, but bumps won’t kill you.”

We head towards Nikko, a mountain town north of Tokyo, famous for its Three Wise Monkeys (hear, speak, see no evil). That meme thrived for hundreds or years. Recently, it was killed by bloggers.

Wikipedia calls Nikko a “popular tourist destination” in Japan, and they aren’t kidding us today. We and what looks like half of Tokyo have the same idea: “Honey, how does afternoon tea in Nikko sound?”

The hachi-roku hates being in traffic jams, especially going uphill behind unending rows of Prii. That car likes to be revved.

Boxed-in by Prii destined for Lake Chuzenji or bust, we stab fingers into the on-board navigation system. Those guys kvetching about complicated systems are pansies – they should try one in Japanese! A road sign with “122” on it offers relief. We hang a hidari (left) on a really small and really winding road. The mood of both hachi-roku and Martin brightens instantly.

“This car seems to be happiest above 5000 rpm,” declares Martin as he (rrrrrrrm, brrmmmmm) downshifts into 4th. The manual has 6 gears, and Martin happily stirs the shifter as if there would be whipped cream for desert.

Martin has a crush on the clutch:

“The clutch is not as brutally hard as on some, shifting is pleasant.” It must be. He shifts a lot.

Skirting a few kei cars, we head into the hills. Martin shows off that he had done prior research:

“The low center of gravity really comes to life when going through the turns,” Martin announces to the tune of squealing tires singing “threshold range” in squeaky Japanese voices. “The seats hold you nicely in place. Look, no sliding.” Easy for him to say. He can hold on to wheel and stick, I must hold on for dear life.

Even in nasty hairpins, the car runs like on the proverbial rails. “Good hachi-roku” I say and pat its center console. The hachi-roku purrs back. Now I understand what Akio Toyoda meant when he said that he likes talking to cars while he drives them. The hachi-roku definitely is a car to have intimate conversations with. Other cars? Send a memo.

Going into a short piece of straightaway, Martin shifts down to make those little boxer pistons go crazy, and he is on his favorite topic:

“This car doesn’t have the brutal acceleration as some other sports cars, but it is fun to drive.“ One day I must ask him which car gave him nightmares.

A few twists and turns later, Martin finds the switch that cuts off the Electronic Stability Control. The tires greet this discovery with a rousing hymn. I should have brought Valium.

The road is getting narrower, the curves twistier, the ledges steeper, my breaths shorter. Fallen rocks on the road remind me of the man near Kudanshita station, his clipboard, and the dentlet. I declare a technical stop. The clean mountain air tastes of pines, sage and the sweet aroma of clutch lining. I pull myself together, and we are on the road again.

It is getting really remote now. But even in the remotest parts of Japan, someone looks out for your welfare: Signs by the road warn that bears may not be as friendly as they look. And they are not just any bears. They are “Crescent Moon Bears,” black with a white bib, ready to have us for dinner. With chopsticks. Oishii.

All by ourselves with a hachi-roku and bewildered bears, it is time to prepare body and spirit for the big Why We Are Here. We are here to test the hachi-roku from where no one has gone before, from the back seat. When Tetsuya Tada, chief engineer of the hachi-roku, showed me the car last year, he quipped that the rear seats are “great for taking spare tires to the race track.” Sure, two of them, max. The hachi-roku is perfect for racing, and for a young couple in love: No back-seated parents or in-laws will ever disturb the romance.

After these meditative thoughts, I still don’t feel prepared to hit the rack in the rear. So we stop by the wayside to ask for divine inspiration at the Shinto shrine of Sarutahiko Okami. During Martin’s driving, I often felt like praying anyway. Driving a hachi-roku is regularly likened to a spiritual experience, and hachi-roku otaku can be driven by religious fervor. So, let’s talk roadside religion in Japan.

What, ladies and gentlemen, can be wrong with a religion where the world was saved from eternal darkness and probable damnation – by a stripper? Not a stripper car, an exotic dancer. A religion where the stripper then gets married to a top dog god, and instead of “you can take the girl out of a bar, but you can’t take the bar out of a girl”, the two become pillars of the community of Japanese gods, and are revered in more than 2,000 shrines, such as this one, all over Japan? Try a stripper in another religion and see where that gets you. This is a religion that is even more efficient that the Toyota Way: I throw 100 yen in the box, ring the bell to get the deity’s attention, I clap my hands in case he overheard coin and bell, and I am done. Not even a hint of muda. Faster than a hachi-roku can go from zero to sixty, I receive the spiritual equivalent of a 90 minute High Mass of my Catholic youth. This is the pagan religion your padre warned you about, and now you know why.

Having received the proper divine inspiration, I am ready for anything, even if this means the back seat of the hachi-roku.

Gong. Fail. Klaxon.

My attack on the back seat is repulsed before it even gets going. It’s not the car’s fault. It’s mine. Whoever fed me in the past did not consider that there would be a low slung sports car in my future, designed by skinny engineers who live on a diet of raw fish and wasabi. The hachi-roku is not for fat people, at least not in the second row. In the front, I sat (once I sat) comfortably with my,  Frau Schmitto-san’s energetic attempts on my paunch notwithstanding, still overweight 5 ft 11 frame. In the back? Forgetaboutit.

While I try to free myself, Martin stands outside and pontificates:

 “For the driver, his car is great. However, one must be quick on ones feet to help the passenger from the car. This is a very low slung car. As a driver, you have to run quickly around the car, open the door, pull your passenger by the arm, and pull the poor person from the car.”

And then he does it. He grabs me, and pulls me out. By the legs. This is no car for backseat drivers.

There still is a little bit left of that divine inspiration, and I recall from last year’s hachi-roku indoctrination that the rear seatback can be flipped forward, opening a cavernous space “with enough room for all four tires when going to the racetrack” as Tada-san had said with a smile.

That is much better.

In a pinch, that car sleeps two (if you are really in love) in the comforts of a capsule hotel.

It’s downhill from here.

“This car really grows on you. It is getting more fun once you get the hang of it,” Martin says over his shoulder as I loll and laze in hachi-roku’s rear. The position is also good on the nerves: I can’t see outside.

Martin, having more space up front, gets effusive:

“I like it. It’s nice in the turns, feels quite sporting, especially on side roads, and it won’t kill you financially, because the cost of gas remains within civil bounds.”

We drive by abandoned (or still working?) copper mines, and finally hit civilization, represented by the remains of a white convertible that would look grossly out-of-place anywhere in Japan, and certainly does up here in the mountains.

I wonder how it got here. Did a G.I. and a car full of screaming Tokyo Roses, “Leader of the Pack” blaring from the eight-track, find their watchout, watchout death in a turn taken too drunk and too fast? Or are we looking at the traces of an abortive attempt on bringing the Hard Rock Cafe to Azumachōgōdo, Midori-shi, Gunma-ken 376-0304, Japan?

(Murilee Martin tells me later that “it looks like a 1963 Chevrolet Impala convertible that was once a lowrider project. There’s a big lowrider scene in Japan. The ’64 Impala is the ultimate lowrider, but this one is close. This is sort of like finding an old Skyline GT on blocks in the US.”

Last I heard, Murilee was on a flight to Tokyo. He just called me and asked whether he can borrow my wrench, they took his at the airport.)

At a rustic restaurant, we eat soba noodles, cold, as they should be eaten, and tempura, cold, as it really should not be eaten at all. As the only restaurant within a 30 mile radius, I guess you make the rules.

“When backing up, the view is a little limited. But the camera helps,” says Martin while we exit the parking lot. It’s good to have the top level trim.

Finally! REAL civilization! Our first roadside convenience store for 100 miles! We load up on strange drinks in small bottles, and chips with fish taste, and my favorite: Tiny fishes, dried in a bag. Oishii!

While we are at it, we take the opportunity of debunking two myths, namely that all Japanese cars are white, and that large cars don’t fit on Japanese roads.

After the sun sets, we meet again with our old buddies from in the morning: Half of Tokyo is done with Indian Summer (or whatever they call it in Japan), is calling it a day and is driving crawling back to town. The hachi-roku that had entertained us all day with raunchy revs and twittering tires suddenly becomes very quiet.

Martin also becomes introspective. I think he is in love. Me, too. Will this be a problem?

Be sure to tune in for the next episode of – Review from the Backseat!

Epilogue: In the morning after, a glistening hachi-roku was returned to its (well…) maker. The car had been washed, it had a full tank of gas. Before we gave it back. The car was checked whether there were any new blemishes in addition to the acorn-sized dentlet. None were found, we were good to go. Later, I asked a Toyota executive what would happen in the – strictly hypothetical, of course – case of us, god forbid, seriously damaging the car. His answer: “That would be most unfortunate and sad for all involved, and we want to avoid this.”

Disclaimer: Toyota provided the car. Martin Koelling paid for gas and car-wash. 

Bertel paid for cold noodles, cold tempura and sundry junk food.

 

 

 

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