(Everyone please welcome Speed:Sport:Life alumnus and Cayman owner John Kucek to these pages. Upon hearing that John was going to the famous Burgerkingring, I asked him to get me a review of a car not available here. Strictly speaking, he did what I asked him to do. Frankly speaking, if he comes back next time with a review of a Toyota iQ or any other badge-engineered cars we’re firing him! — JB)
“Get me a couple of forbidden-fruit car reviews”. Jack’s words were still ringing in my ears as I gingerly walked up to a rental counter in Dusseldorf a few weeks later. I knew what this particular outfit had to offer, having been here almost three years earlier to the day on another Nordschleife-bound excursion, and it was good stuff. Imagine numerous E92 M3 Coupes, with the Competition Package even, lining the airport garage tower stalls. There was an Aston V12 Vantage standing on display in the terminal, the circular kiosk next to it touting its availability “from 169 Euros a day”. At least, I think that was the gist. It could have been 169 Euros per hour, but since most of my comprehension of the German language has been cobbled together from watching Inglourious Basterds on repeat, I might have been wrong on that count. Either way, the fact that a run-of-the-mill rental counter in Germany even offers such metal bodes well for my reservation, a “Premium” class upgrade that promised a new BMW 1er, VW GTI, Mercedes-Benz A-Klasse or similar.
“Or similar” apparently translates in German to “or vaguely reminiscent of”, because the cars available to me when we arrived weren’t the newly released Mk7 GTI, A45 AMG and M135i I had been crossing my fingers for, but instead an Audi A3 1.4TFSI, or a *gulp* Toyota GT86. I suppose you could call the A3 forbidden fruit since we’re without a current-generation A3 for the time being, and even when one does arrive stateside, it’ll be in sedan form only, the Sportback shape of the first-generation car apparently now verboten on these shores. But the Toyota? Sure, the badge on the back might be forbidden here, but any fanboy with fifteen minutes and an eBay account can make the swap from Scion to Toyota happen. So, I was left with two car choices that were more fruity than forbidden. Still, I was here to conquer the Nurburgring: I couldn’t do it in a FWD car. It had to be something properly driven, something that could kill you if you really tried – although the ‘ring can do that to you all by itself if you aren’t careful.
And therein lies its appeal, its mystique. This track still has an air of danger to it, as former stop on the Formula 1 calendar (before the modern GP track was built next door) that killed or maimed so many greats and continues to do the same to tourist drivers and riders year after year. I left most of those details out when selling the side trip to my girlfriend, since if I stood any chance at all of visiting the place with her in the car, it had to at least seem like a fun day out. It is still quite possible to die in the “Green Hell”, but you usually need to be lacking either common sense or two driven wheels (perhaps both) to do it – most of the casualties here during the Touristenfahren public drives are motorcycle riders. In fact, we witnessed one such accident on our second day there – a bike nosed into the Armco at speed after a time-trial-prepped BMW E36 wagon got out of shape, leaving fluids on the track and nowhere for the rider behind him to go. Poor fellow left the circuit in an ADAC air ambulance, and as is often the case with accident reports on the ‘ring, the public was left in the dark as to his outcome. It’s estimated that a dozen or so folks lose their lives to the Nordschleife each year, translating to more than one per month during open season. It’s possible that what we witnessed was one such unlucky soul taking his very last lap.
You can’t have any of that in your head as you’re circling the track, however, because there’s far too much going on to even begin processing grim statistics. What in-car videos and images completely fail to capture is the staggering elevation changes that take place over a single lap. They say the track rises and falls nearly a thousand feet between start and finish, putting to shame any roller coaster extant. Such is the sensation you get when you’re driving the place – you’re strapped into a roller coaster that is controlled directly by the size of your manhood. Also, there are other drivers ahead, behind, and – often- directly next to you enduring their own roller coaster rides. Most of the time, they’re lunatic Germans in modified GT3 RSs, M3s and Renaults that give exactly zero fucks about the racing line or passing you in a safe manner. They just want to get past you post-haste, so that when they download the lap video from their GoPro later, they’ll find they were that much closer to the factory’s published time for their car.
I didn’t bother to look up the factory time for a Toyota GT86. Maybe there isn’t one – lap timers probably don’t count that high. But honestly, it wouldn’t matter anyway – we’re not going for outright speed here. As a retired racer once told me, there’s no sense in trying to be fastest at a track day – there’s always somebody faster. The best approach is to try to improve a little bit every time I go out, and while I’m at it, glean some driving impressions and try not to die. Obviously, the not-dying part worked out surprisingly well, despite the best attempts of ze Germans. In terms of driving impressions, I walked away from the FRSGT86 feeling enthused, as well as slightly melancholic.
I had a BRZ press car for a week earlier this year and absolutely loved it. On the street, it felt truly keyed in – every control reacting to your input intuitively, instantly. I had the chance to autocross it as well, and despite the laughably bad OEM tires, I still posted close to the fastest time of the day – at a Corvette club event, mind you. The Hoosier-shod-Z06 drivers were none too amused. From the rental counter in Dusseldorf to the village of Nurburg, a route which takes you over a mix of autobahn and hilly country roads for the better part of two hours, the impression behind the wheel of the GT86 was much the same. As it should, considering it’s a carbon copy of the BRZ. Nice steering, easily-modulated brakes, crisp throttle response, precise shifter. By now, I’m looking forward to a few laps.
The track is packed on this late summer Friday afternoon. DTM is at the Grand Prix track this weekend, so the whole village is busting at the seams. Coupled with the region’s waning annual warm season, now every keen driver within a day’s drive has come out to enjoy a few laps, or watch others doing the same. Having secured four laps on a Ring card, the only thing standing between us and destiny is a thin automated gate arm. Card swiped, gate arm up, we’re off. Flooring it down the main straight under the bridge toward Tiergarten, I’m reminded of the unavoidable truth that I hadn’t been confronted with on the street: the Toyobaru twins are slow. Pissy slow if you’re on a racetrack. I’m getting passed by everything from warm hatches to 5-series estates, which I’ll assume were not diesel just for the sake of my GT86’s pride. But by the first series of real corners near Haffenbach, I’ve already put that out of my mind. I’m instead focusing on keeping the Toyota’s slithery tail in line, since any unexpected drift antics can put me either into one of the perilously close Armco barriers, or worse, into another driver or rider. I decide to keep the ESP on, but in the looser-reined Sport mode, hoping it’ll prevent any major slides without simultaneously overcooking the brakes.
It overcooks the brakes. By about the four-minute mark on track, an area of raucous downhill bends, the brakes are starting to stink and the tires are ready to give up the ghost.
You already knew this, but if you’re planning on tracking a FRS/BRZ, upgraded tires and brakes aren’t recommended, they’re required. Unfortunately, I had no such options for this excursion. Better nurse it through the next uphill section and stay right – way right – on track. At least it’s a good way to take in the scenery, which is, it must be said, pretty spectacular. After a short breather from any heavy braking zones, the GT86 has regained some of its composure and I decide to press it a little harder. The next section is my favorite, a snaking portion between Karussell I and Dottinger Hohe, the last miles of bends before you’re spat back out onto the main straight to count your blessings and give your car a healthy pat on the dash. Through this section, the GT86 is on point – it lets you trim your line with the slightest whiff of throttle lift, and if you misjudge the corner exit a bit, it eats up the curbs in stride. Still, more power and more grip would go a long way toward furthering the enjoyment.
Perhaps the GT86’s only fault is the sheer accessibility of its limits. That might not sound like a bad thing, and on the street, it probably isn’t. But for someone that intends to really get the most out of the thing by taking it to track days and using it to hone their own driving craft, the Toyobaru twins come off as being a bit one-dimensional. In order to really use the car safely, you’ve got to fit better, stickier rubber – and by the time you do that, the stock car’s lovely adjustability all but goes out the window. Then, instead of sliding around, balancing on the edge of grip and feeding every nuance back to the driver, it’ll just grip and go. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have enough nearly enough go to match the grip.
They’re a bit of a double-edged Hanzo then, these cars. On the street, they tempt you with tail-happiness and sensory feedback, begging to be unleashed on a track – and when you finally have one on a track, you’ll wish you had left it on the street. I’m sure the vast majority of FRS/BRZ/GT86 owners will be perfectly happy enjoying their cars’ nuances within the confines of public roads, and in that setting, I truly enjoyed what the car had to offer. But for those looking to stretch their vehicles a bit further, to use it as a tool to access greater performance and develop their own skill at the same time, there are better options out there for the money – both in the used market, and new. I’d suggest checking out Jack’s R&T piece last month for precisely the two I would prefer.