As most city residents headed out of town this Holy Week, a lot of car nuts took the opportunity to go on fun drives in the nearby provinces. The grace period between Holy Wednesday and Easter Sunday always provides the ideal setting for some enjoyable driving because of the traffic-free roads. It reminds me of a recent road trip that was memorable even if it was held on busy days.
Near the end of last year on a perfect weekday morning, the motoring media all gathered at the Lexus Manila showroom to begin a journey North. We were there to drive all the cars Toyota launched last year: the face-lifted Innova, the new Camry, the Fortuner and Hilux equipped with new engines, the updated Vios, and these two babies.
Team Top Gear, composed of me, Vernon, art director Jaykee Evangelista and managing editor Stephanie Asi, were split into two. I was paired with Jaykee, and Vernon and Steph ended up having to entertain each other on the long drive. There was also a reason we were rendezvousing in the Lexus showroom, the Lexus hybrids were included in the vehicles to be driven.
Determining who gets to drive what became a first-come, first-served affair. As soon as you arrive you get to choose what vehicle you want. Of course, the later you came, the less keys were left in the designated box. Jaykee and I ended up with a Toyota Camry 2.5V while Vernon and Steph got a Lexus GS 450h. Hmm.
After Jaykee loaded his ’80s era music playlist, we headed for NLEX with Top Gear’s art director behind the wheel. It was a loose convoy of current-model Toyotas and Lexus vehicles on the expressway that day. At first I had my doubts of the capability of the Camry because we were ‘just’ in the smaller 2.5-liter powered variant, and not the 3.5-liter range topper. But my doubts were erased when Jaykee tried to catch up to the 86 coupes we spotted ahead of us on the SCTEX. Faster than I could say, “Jaykee is that a speed camera inside the white AUV on top of the overpass?”, we were hurtling past the SCTEX speed limit.
Our fear was confirmed when an SCTEX traffic enforcer politely asked us to pull over at the Tarlac exit. It turns out we were doing, well, clearly past the 100kph posted limit (even factoring in the speed allowance). Since we were legally caught at an illegal velocity, Jaykee handed his driver’s license over like a proper motorist.
In Pangasinan we stopped at our first gluttonous encounter in Matutina’s, where we ate the biggest crabs in my recent memory. Later we found out one of the 86 drivers also got a little excited and was also asked to pull over, as well as one of the Innovas. Yes, even Toyota’s MPV got into the spirit of things. The SCTEX sure made a minor killing from our convoy that day.
After we had our fill of carbs and crabs, the car keys were raffled off and Jaykee and I got a nondescript remote fob. It was my turn to drive so I went to the parking lot and pressed the unlock button. An orange 86 with an Aero package lit up before my incredulous eyes. From here it was straight to Baguio via Marcos Highway. Hell yeah.
The other half of Team TG weren’t doing too shabby either. Vernon and Steph ended up in a Lexus RX 450h. But on a winding road on a mountainside, I’d pick the 86 over just about anything else. Wouldn’t you?
I drove this time, and even the fact that this 86 was an automatic did nothing to dampen my spirit. Sure, I still believed real man drove stick, but at this point the charm of the 86 Aero was getting to me. The massive wing and body kit was a bit too attention-getting for my taste, but anyone can see that the sports car spirit was still in there somewhere.
I opened the long door and got in. After the initial discomfort of contorting my body into the snug seat, I settled in and marveled at the 86’s interior. Everything looked sporty and practical. The steering wheel felt perfect in my hands. The climate controls were simple rotary knobs. Aircraft-style switches toggle the air conditioner functions. Carbon fiber bits laid out around me reinforced the racy feel. The parking brake lever is positioned nearby, just waiting for a quick pull to kick the back out. The short shift knob is covered in leather, and like a woman’s enticing derriere, it calls out to you to grab it. In other words, the car makes you start falling for it the moment you sit inside.
Deactivate the traction controls ONLY if you know what you're doing
We began our ascent via Marcos Highway, and soon after Jaykee nodded off. This was not surprising given that we in Top Gear live in an almost perpetual state of sleep deprivation. But that doesn’t mean I was going to take it easy going up Baguio so as not to disturb whomever co-worker Jaykee was dreaming of at that moment. No, the temptation of the 86 was too strong.
You remember days like these
As expected the Toyota coupe was a natural going up the mountain, even in a less demanding road like Marcos Highway (compared to Kennon). You can brake later than you want, and go faster than you thought you could. The compact chassis and the firm suspension gave me more confidence to push the car. Even the transmission was a marvel. It blipped everytime I slowed down and eased off the throttle, giving me immediate power when I stepped on the gas again.
Soon the other 86 in our convoy, a white manual TRD edition, appeared on my rear. And we both tackled the turns as we went up, overtaking the buses, trucks and vans in our path. Yes, all the good things you heard about these cars are true.
About two thirds of the way up we caught up with Vernon and his RX450h. I was tempted to overtake many times, but I wondered if my editor would take it personally that I surged past him. The other 86 also held back, perhaps following my lead. Later on Steph would tell me Vernon felt pressured by the twin 86s on his tail. But in the end we all reached our hotel safe and sound without any unnecessary road drama.
There's Vernon and Steph
Dinner was at the superb Forest House Bistro & Cafe, which in my opinion is one of the best places to eat in the City of Pines. The food is great and it’s near enough to the less polluted parts of Baguio. We ate bagnet, drank coffee, listened to music, and just hung out by the resto’s cozy fireplace. It was the perfect cap to a perfect driving day.
To my left is Al Mendoza, our veteran columnist
The rest of the trip was also pleasant. We went down to Thunderbird Resort in La Union the next day, with Jaykee driving the 86 downhill this time.
Jaykee Fujiwara will be our downhill driver
At the resort we had massages, swam (well, just Steph because she thinks like a kid when she sees water), and had another hearty dinner.
We just happened to park right in front of the sunset
On the way back after a night in Thunderbird, we drew lots again and I finally got a Lexus: the CT200h hybrid. Lexus marketing officer Carlo Chungunco accompanied us and explained why he loved his brand so much. Vernon and Steph’s luck ran out and they didn’t get a Lexus this time. Instead they got a Hilux, which isn’t a bad pickup at all. But on a long drive to Manila like the one we were facing, I’d pick the car with an ‘L’ logo.
Jaykee drove because he had yet to try a Lexus vehicle. Despite being a compact car, the CT200h comfortably fit Jaykee, Carlo and I. To give you an idea why that is such a feat, I am the shortest in this group at 5' 11”.
Jaykee likes the rich feel of refinement
The drive to Manila was relaxing in such a refined vehicle as the CT. I fell asleep listening to Jaykee’s ‘80s playlist emanating from the audio system. My body was cosseted from the imperfect road by the Japanese luxury car’s suspension. Eventually even Carlo succumbed to the CT’s relaxing nature and nodded off in the backseat.
This Toyota and Lexus event didn’t really have a specific purpose other than what the event’s title was: Ride and Drive. There was no car being launched, no fuel economy contest, no competition to highlight the vehicles’ features. It was just pure driving—especially to those *ahem* fortunate enough to pick exciting cars. And for car nuts like us, that’s all we really want in a long drive, Holy Week or not.
Road trips are made for views like this