Q: 2013 Toyota GT86 - will it gravel?

A: Yes and No.

Drove about 200km on back country gravel roads yesterday. And what did we learn?

On the No side:

  • There’s not a lot of ground clearance (well, duh!). Despite being careful, I graded the top of the central ridge a few times with the underbelly. Don’t think I’ve damaged anything, but its going up on jackstands tomorrow to see how much paint I‘ve lost underneath.
  • It REALLY doesn’t like deep gravel . About 30km of the drive was on a section that’s been freshly resurfaced and little driven on since, and Jeez were we sliding about, even at ultraconservative speeds. I’ve never driven a car that’s so skittery on the marbles - felt like driving on ice. I guess that’s what no weight and reasonably wide tyres buys you. Fun at times, not so fun when there’s no barrier between you and the 100m drop.
  • The LSD is very tight. I’ve noticed on tarmac that it’s (too) easy to kick the tail out accidentally at low speeds, and any sort of acceleration when you’ve got more than 1/4 turn of lock on involves squealing tyres. Gravel amplifies that to the point where it’s pretty much impossible to turn a tight corner without a bit of a drift flourish. The diff forces the inside rear to slip and the outside to do all the work, and centrifugal force just slides the back on out. Interestingly though, it doesn’t lead to any sledging, which is what you’d normally expect from a tight diff.
  • The traction control doesn’t like washboard surfaces - combine it with any sort of throttle and the light’s flickering nonstop. Makes it hard to get up a moderate but worn slope without turning off TC, which is mildly irritating.

On the Yes side:

  • This is the first time I’ve had access to a lowslung RWD car with an LSD on a gravel road, and it turns out that turning off the VSC and doing gravel-spitting standing starts is enormous childish fun (well, duh! again). Much more fun than laying 11s on tarmac (not that the ‘Yota can lay 11s on tarmac - “:”s maybe). And also much more fun than horsing around on gravel in a pickup - dunno why; it just is. It’s remarkably stable with the rears spinning, too - back end doesn’t slip off down the camber at all.
  • Once out of the deep stuff and onto well swept roads, normal mode on the VSC is really nicely calibrated for gravel. Seems unlikely that was a design objective, but whatever, I’ll take it. It allows a fair bit of slip-sliding: if you’re gentle you can steer it almost entirely on the throttle, with just a blip of steering to initiate the turn, and Nanny won’t step in unless you get as far as needing opposite lock. And when you take it too far and she does, she’s reasonably polite about it - doesn’t take your toys away, just gently gathers the back end in and gives you a moment to put some lock back on. That’s much better than my experience at low speeds on tarmac, where she steps in too hard and too late - gives me some hope for when I eventually manage to accidentally provoke her at higher speeds.
  • Turning VSC off, on well swept roads with less precipitous runoffs and decent visibility, allows a truly fantastic driving experience. I didn’t try full-on Ari Vatanen / Escort mode (wife in the car), but it’s very easy to settle into a curve-after-curve routine of slight flick on the entry, tail-out apex, and long gentle drift on the exit. The sort of driving-god stuff you’d love to be able to do on your favourite tarmac road but a deficit of talent and an excess of common sense and mortality doesn’t allow. Toyota/Subaru really have created a beautifully balanced and delicate piece of kit, and gravel lets everything happen slow enough for you to appreciate that: I was hardly over 50 km/h the whole way.

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So definitely another entry in the “it’s worth the compromises” side of the ledger. Although after 6 hours’ driving, my neck’s killing me - the stiff ride is definitely becoming a regular feature in the “wrong car for your only longhaul vehicle” column.