Do you like fun? Joy? Happiness? I have discovered this in car form, and it is the 2017 Toyota 86. Fret not the garbage-speak of too little power. It has enough power to do donuts, and that’s all that matters. It’s light. It’s tossable. It’s everything that’s missing from my life, and I need one now.
(Full disclosure: Toyota apparently makes me want to drop everything and figure out how car payments work, so they dropped off a new 86 at my house for a week with a full tank of gas.)
The Toyota 86 is not entirely new. It’s the lightly reheated version of the Scion FR-S for 2017, with a new name and a new badge now that Scion is dead. RIP Scion.
It still shares a 2.0-liter Subaru boxer four-cylinder engine with Subaru’s version of the car, the BRZ. The car received a tiny power bump with the branding change, along with the “86” name the rest of the non-Scion-getting world has been using from the start.
Surprisingly, Toyota has stuck with the same Michelin Primacy HP model of tire that forums have derided as hard, grip-less “Prius tires.” They’re the tires that once helped one of my FR-S-owning friends eat a curb. However, perhaps the issue has been overstated, as these summer 240-treadwear tires didn’t seem as if they would actively try to kill you with too much mad dorifto action in an evasive maneuver, at least on the warm days we had for this test.
When the Toyobaru twins came out five years ago now (!), they were heralded as the second coming of Car Jesus: relatively lightweight, inexpensive rear-wheel-drive coupes that came with manual transmissions. The Scion FR-S and Subaru BRZ were the fixed-roof fun cars Mazda wouldn’t sell us. Finally, convertible haters like myself could experience true vehicular happiness in a new car without worrying about a garbage folding roof.
You can stats yourself to death with comparisons as to which cars have more power, less weight, more features, or whatever. That’s been the true downfall of the Toyobaru twins in the past.
This is actually the first Toyobaru I’ve gotten to drive, so I’m not familiar with the first cars. Yet as far as I’m concerned with the current version, the buff book comparo nerds complaining about a lack of straight-line speed couldn’t be further from the point. None of that matters when you’re behind the wheel.
There is one real reason why you’d buy a Toyota 86: you like driving.
It’s not a luxurious car by any measure. The ride is on the stiffer side, such that you have to watch out for coffee sloshing out over speed bumps. There’s enough room for one or two people to daily-drive it comfortably, but it’s by no means spacious.
But for somebody who understands that there’s joy to be had in driving, none of that matters. You want a car you can fling around with great abandon and rip the occasional donut in because you can? The 86 was made for you.
Most of the Toyota 86's interior is simple, clean and logically laid out, save for a giant wart in the middle of the dash. The 86 has that same unforgivably terrible infotainment-ish unit that I hated from the new C-HR. It doesn’t even look cleanly integrated into the nice fuzzy field of Alcantara-like “Granlux” cloth that covers the center of the dashboard. It is an absolute parts-bin afterthought and so frustrating to use that it’s unreal.
The 86 I tested came with the base model stereo, although the “upgrade” listed online appears to only add navigation to the same garbage unit. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto—again, basic options you would find available on a Mitsubishi Mirage that costs less than half of the base-model 86—are nowhere to be found in either available unit. Satellite radio is also not available, although there is integration with a mobile app you called Aha that allows you to access additional stations.
The sound quality in the 86 was fine enough for what the car is. It’s the inexplicably kludgey interface that makes me wish they’d replace the entire unit with a big hole in the dashboard.
Finding radio stations, for example, either makes use of the “scan” function—which briefly pauses at one before moving on to another automatically—or a series of up and down arrow buttons. There is no simple knob to find specific frequencies, thus requiring you to do a lot of irritating, repetitive button-pressing if you’re in a location with weaker radio signals.
It was easy enough to link my phone through the car’s Bluetooth connection, however, songs always started to play though my phone’s speakers for a couple seconds before eventually popping out of the car’s stereo.
Woe be the person who tries to plug that Bluetooth-connected phone in to charge through its USB port and still wants to hear music. Once during my week with the car, both the “USB” and “Bluetooth” interfaces on the head unit seemed to think that the other function had control of my iPhone’s audio, at which point, neither wanted to work. I was later able to switch back and forth until one worked with it, but that’s a lot of annoying steps just to get your car to play music.
This is a car that I would take in a heartbeat over the newest Porsche 911. I’m serious! The 911 has gotten so big and weighed down by technology that I’d rather have a Toyota of all things that’s lighter, simpler, smaller, and easier to chuck around like a hooligan. In other words, the 86 has the potential to woo disillusioned fans of other sports cars back down to the basics.
As such, it deserves to have its own stereo that fits the interior design and expected use of the car. A confusing screen-heavy interface in a car this focused on driving simply doesn’t work. While the screen at least works well for the back-up camera, I still believe there need to be more physical buttons and knobs that you can easily use without taking your eyes off the road.
Thankfully, there are also volume and audio preset controls on the steering wheel, but it doesn’t make up for how frustrating the rest of its functions are.
Rowing through the gears at low speeds was just as amusing as it was on track. Every time I got in the 86, it instantly improved my mood. It’s just a simple, fun car to drive.
For many American car buyers, the 86 wouldn’t be practical. The ride is on the harsher side for regular road use, the small backseat has two token butt-buckets that are not built for human legs unless the front passengers are very short, and the interior is comfortable ergonomics-wise, but very basic. But for me, and my daily needs, it was perfect.
Sure, the 86's usability falls flat if you regularly transport more than one other person. It’s probably out as a primary vehicle for most parents as soon as the words “build a diorama” start to creep into your kids’ assignments. Its ride may feel harsh to some on longer highway trips or rough roads.
And no, it won’t haul those rare larger, taller and more awkwardly shaped purchases, like that full-size wax sculpture of Jari-Matti Latvala you impulse-bought for the living room.
But for most days, if there are only one or two people using the car, you can get coffee. You can go to work. You can get groceries, although the 86's lightweight trunk lid takes a surprising amount of effort to slam shut all the way. You can fold the rear seats down, which then gives you space for an entire set of spare 86 wheels in the rear.
You probably can’t make a junkyard run for approximately 1/4 of an old Porsche, but that’s really the only outside case I have for not trading my normal compact car in immediately for something smaller. Most of the time, as a single person, I have more space than I need.
The 86's smaller size makes it so much easier to maneuver and park than my usual “practical” sedan. The 86 comes with a back-up camera that helps with this as well, and it doesn’t sit so low that you’re constantly scraping on things. I also adore the big lift-up ring Toyota uses to lock out reverse gear, as no one is going to accidentally jam your transmission into the backwards gear without performing an extra-special feat of stupidity.
The manual 86 comes with hill-start assist to keep you from rolling backwards, but the car itself is so easy to control that I never really felt that kick in to save me.
The engine is on the louder side compared to most of its new marque-mates at Toyota, but it isn’t too irritating. If Subaru is the sound of your people, there is no shortage of ways to make it louder.
As someone who prefers flat-fours without coolant, however, the 86’s engine note neither excites nor displeases me. It is just there. It is an engine, and it moves the car.
None of these things bothered me enough to care. Go slowly and keep the little plastic stopper in your coffee lid if you encounter speed bumps or potholes.
The best way to describe how the Toyota 86 drives is playful. It’s not too tail-happy right out of the box, despite the hachiroku callback for a name. It’s catchable in a slide.
It doesn’t have as much body roll as the current Fiat 124 Spider, but it’s still easy enough to feel the car’s weight transfer from one side to the other in a turn. It thrusts you forward from the rear wheels as the most fun cars ever made always do. It also pivots effortlessly in a tidy, neat circle, should you want to sacrifice some tires to make beautiful smoke and noise.
The shifter is a short-throw joy—easy to use. The clutch engages fairly quickly high in its pedal travel, but that was something I could get used to if I were to sell a kidney on Craigslist to buy one of these cars right now. (No lowballers; I know what I have.)
While the steering is an electric rack, it thankfully wasn’t distractingly numb or light. I do wish there was more weight to the steering, but it still did the job of letting me know when the car had grip, or hit a bump, for example.
Its power and torque specs—205 horsepower and 156 lb-ft of torque in manual trim, according to Toyota—are precisely adequate in the 86, which has a listed curb weight of only 2,774 pounds. A Torsen limited-slip differential seamlessly ensured that as much of that power gets to the ground as possible.
I found no problems with the 86 that couldn’t be solved with more throttle. That’s part of the joy. Wringing speed out of something like the 86 requires some work shifting back and forth, and revving the snot out of that little boxer. That’s why you buy a manual transmission in the first place, isn’t it? It’s such a similar driving experience in that regard to a vintage Fiat 124, or even my own Porsche 944, yet it’s in a modern car that is far less likely to kill you if you get hit by an F-250.
That’s all good, because this is a car that begs you to misbehave. Corner faster! Rev more! Carry more speed! Brake later! Do more donuts! (It is very good at donuts.)
You want a car that’s fun at track days and on back roads, and don’t want a convertible. You derive more joy from handling than horsepower, and you relish the thought of having a car you can wring out in every gear. You also don’t have to routinely haul larger items or more than one other full-size person.
Also, you appreciate a good donut or five.
There isn’t a single car out there on the road that produces the same amount of giggles per dollar and is still relatively practical as a daily runabout. The base model I had for the week rang out to $27,120 (MSRP plus delivery processing and handling fee). It’s more pure in purpose than the hot hatches and more pragmatic than the convertibles, though it is small.
And because it’s still a Scion at heart—albeit a slightly sharper, Toyota-badged facelift—there aren’t a lot of options you can add onto that price. You either like black cloth interiors, or you buy something else.
Other coupes that are in its price range include the Chevrolet Camaro and Ford Mustang, which have more power but also significantly more weight. Other small rear-wheel-drive, fixed roof coupes that can be had with a manual, like the BMW 228i, are entry-level luxury cars over the $30K mark.
The only other car I can think of like the 86 is its twin, the Subaru BRZ.
If light, chuckable cars are your thing, this is a car that will make you smile to walk out to. When the biggest complaint I have is about the stereo being awkward to use—which happens with annoying regularity on every new car as more companies are replacing simple, tactile buttons with complicated screen interfaces—you know the car is good. The Toyota 86 is the fun coupe we all wanted, and 2017 model is sharper than ever, both in looks as well as that ultra-tiny bump in horsepower.
Many of us have written this car off for various reasons over the years. I always felt the wrong company made the engine. But the whole package is good enough that I really can’t see a reason not to get an 86 if most of your travel is with one other person max, or you have the space and funds for a fun-car.
I am not looking for a new car right now. Mine isn’t broken yet. But I do think I want one of these next.
[Correction: The 86's tires squeal a lot more than more purposeful summer rubber, but these seemed soft enough that we originally assumed they couldn’t be the “Prius tires” forums deride so much. Turns out, we were wrong: the standard Toyobaru wheel has been riding on Michelin Primacy HP tires since 2013, per a Toyota representative. We’ve since reached out to Michelin to see if anything has changed with the tire itself, and tweaked the copy above to be more accurate.]