Cars like the Toyota 86 rarely happen once, and they sure as hell don’t happen twice. The fact it’s lived to another generation is the single most surprising thing about its successor, the GR 86. And I can prove it’s real — as I type this I’m wearing the same dumb grin I had when I drove it. Actually, my face may be permanently stuck this way.
That’s beside the point. The GR 86 is unsurprising because it’s the same rear-wheel drive sports coupe you know, love and begged for a decade ago, with the same happy-go-lucky spirit and democratic philosophy on oversteer. Except now, it’s more eager to wake up and more prepared to keep up. And wasn’t that all the original 86 was ever missing, anyway?
Full disclosure: Toyota corralled myself and a bunch of other sweaty journalists at Monticello Motor Club in New York for a day of track driving, street driving and helmet fitting. Apparently my head size is “large.” They also put us up in a swanky hotel.
Testing conditions: Driven on one of the hottest days of the summer in the Northeast so far, in humid but otherwise clear circumstances.
If the last Toyota 86 — a.k.a. the BRZ in Subaru speak, or the Scion FR-S for the youths — was the second coming of Car Jesus as Stef Schrader put it in her review of the old car, I suppose that makes the GR 86 the third. Except third Jesus doesn’t sound as important; and besides, this car shares its platform with the last one and even looks pretty similar, if you really unfocus your eyes. So it’s still kind of the second Car Jesus — but better. Car Jesus II+.
The “better,” in this case, is mostly owed to the new engine — a 2.4-liter, naturally aspirated flat-four replacing the 2.0-liter motor in the old car. It makes 228 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque, an improvement of 23 HP and 28 lb-ft over the first generation. Also, all that torque hits at 3,700 RPM now. Remember that for later! We’ll come back to it.
That’s not to say the engine is all that’s new about the GR 86. The chassis has been stiffened up from front to back, with new diagonal cross members connecting the front suspension to the frame and a ring of steel behind the cabin that ties the upper and lower bones together. The net result is a 50-percent improvement to lateral rigidity.
An aluminum roof contributes to a lower center of gravity and helps keep the curb weight in check, which hovers around 2,850 pounds depending on transmission and trim. As with the previous car, the new one can be had with a 6-speed manual or an automatic with paddle shifters.
For all this, Toyota tells us the GR 86 will start “comfortably” under $30,000, including destination. The old 86 started at a shade above $28,000 with destination included by the end of its run. That’s a good sign!
We’ll get to the theatrics you came for in a moment, I promise. I won’t waste time explaining how the GR 86 looks with words, because you can see it in pictures yourself. I think it’s quite sharp, for the record.
But I do want to take a moment to talk about the interior, because aside from moaning about the lack of a turbo, interior quality is the main complaint I’ve seen lobbed at the Toyobaru kids over the years. I suspect my threshold for tacky plastics and the tactile feedback of switchgear is lower than most, because my only car is a Fiesta ST. I’ll admit that I didn’t have a wealth of time to focus on these things while there was an open track in front of me. That said, absolutely nothing about the interior jumped out at me as excessively cheap, flimsy, or indicative of the car’s stature as the entry point of Toyota’s performance family. I’d be perfectly happy spending every day in this interior.
Of course, the requisite enhancements to the infotainment system and instrument panel make the GR 86 feel more modern. The 8-inch touchscreen is noticeably larger than whatever Nintendo Switch-sized panel was affixed to the dash of the outgoing car, and I genuinely like the new digital speedometer and tach. (Which is saying something, because I feel digital instrument cluster design is almost universally terrible these days, but that’s a soapbox for another time.) Also, I’ll applaud Toyota and Subaru for strangely keeping the auxiliary audio port around, even though the company that makes your phone ditched it five years ago.
One quirk of the instrument cluster is the torque and horsepower graph to the left of the main dial. A line trailing the Y axis of the graph will move across it as you apply throttle, to inform you of the engine’s current place on the torque curve. I found this useful as I acclimated myself to the car. I doubt I’d care much for it a year into ownership, but that side of the panel can cycle through other groups of information, so it’s not like you have to stare at it if you’d prefer not to.
Toyota thoughtfully provided both the new GR 86 as well as the old 86 for our little track day, as well as automatic and manual versions of each car and both standard and Premium examples of the new one. Trim happens to be really important when discussing the way this car behaves on track, because it comes with different rubber depending on which package you opt for.
The base GR 86 gets the same 215/45/R17 Michelin Primacy HP tires the old car had, while the Premium benefits from a set of much grippier Pilot Sport 4s wrapped around 18-inch wheels. Yes, you can have more dumb fun with the shittier tires; that said, it’s not impossible to break loose with the stickier rubber, you just have to push a little harder to do it. Personally, I prefer point and squirt traction, but then I’m not especially skilled in the dark arts of oversteer.
No matter what it’s riding on, the GR 86 is a joy. Handling-wise, I struggled to suss out differences between the new and old cars; if I’m splitting hairs, maybe the GR 86 felt a little more sure-footed thanks to those aforementioned lateral rigidity enhancements. For the most part, they behave about the same when changing direction: snappily and gladly, with poise. Steering is relatively light in the new car like in the old one, with a slight degree of on-center play that leaves a little room for improvement, but certainly isn’t pronounced enough to be off-putting.
Perhaps longtime 86 or BRZ owners will notice differences I won’t in corners. But one difference everyone’s sure to notice is the additional torque, and particularly when it strikes. The new 2.4 builds power far more rapidly, and you don’t have to keep it at the absolute top of every gear to get the most out of it. The GR 86 is just a friendlier car to push in that way. And when you do push it, it certainly feels like it has more to give.
Toyota had us lap Monticello’s short course to begin the day, a ribbon of asphalt full of mid-speed bends and few straights. In the GR 86, I could pretty much get around the entire track in third gear if I wasn’t overtly concerned with getting the fastest exit out of every corner. But you’d never want to do that in the original 86, because you’d suffer putting the hammer down out of slower turns, or quickly run out of steam on straights as a consequence of having less overall power. The GR 86's more accommodating torque curve especially benefits the automatic.
That engine is the real game-changer with the GR 86. It makes the car feel more responsive overall, and I suspect the once-deafening clamor for forced induction will die down a bit with this generation.
I took to the undulating, forested roads of Monticello in one of the standard examples Toyota had on hand, with its inferior tires and cloth seats. Out on the road, two things stuck out at me.
First, the ride is harsh. “Of course it is, Captain Obvious” I’m sure you’re thinking. But, the judder from each imperfection in the asphalt was likely a bit dampened compared to the jolt my Fiesta would’ve shot up my spine. If you’re especially concerned with comfort, you’re not finding that here. The base seats were surprisingly pleasant, though.
Second, I much prefer the clutch pedal in the newer coupe. The old 86's bite point was really far back, and right behind it was an audible “clonk” with every complete depression. The GR 86 doesn’t emit this discomforting noise, and I found the clutch more intuitive, particularly with takeoffs. The gearbox is perfect for those who prefer notchy, short throws. If I had one gripe, diagonal movements, like shifting from third to fourth, were met with more resistance than I’m used to on my car, where it’s typically one swift stroke. Not a deal-breaker, but something to get used to.
Those minor observations aside, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the GR 86 on the street. The beauty of a car like this is that its lightness and immediacy make it captivating at any speed. As it happens, I’ll be driving the new BRZ in a few weeks, and I’m especially curious if some of the changes that Toyota’s engineers made to the suspension components and electric power steering will leave the Subaru feeling a bit lifeless by comparison. One representative told me the stories of CEO Akio Toyoda being underwhelmed by the steering feel of the new car were in fact true, and those tweaks were made at the last minute in response to the boss’ criticism.
Every GR 86 comes standard with this sad excuse for back seats. Seriously, I’m not even that tall at 5'10", and you’re never getting me into the backseat of this car with my kneecaps intact, unless the driver or front-seat passenger I’m sitting behind also lacks kneecaps.
If you’re sitting in the front seats, though, you’ll have a swell time and you’ll be safe, with a seven-airbag system that now includes a driver’s knee airbag, something missing from the previous generation. The automatic-transmission models get the brunt of Subaru’s EyeSight active safety features, including pre-collision braking, adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning and lead vehicle start assist, which will let you know if you’re caught nodding at a traffic light and the car in front of you has taken off. You’ll probably be woken up by the blaring horn behind you, but a little extra nudge doesn’t hurt.
Toyota is very excited about the GR 86's range of new Gazoo Racing-branded accessories, including bronze 17-inch wheels, performance exhaust and air intake kits and strut braces and stabilizer bars. But the coolest add-on isn’t any of those — it’s the Kicker subwoofer you can get in the trunk. I know this because the particular car given to me on my street drive had one, and it does a whole lot of bumpin’ for a tiny car. If I were buying a GR 86, I’d strongly consider it. The speakers in my Fiesta are doing a whole lot of rattling these days.
It’s difficult to recommend a particular configuration because Toyota hasn’t issued a definite base price or how much the Premium package adds to the total. With that trim level, you get heated, leather-trimmed bucket seats with Alcantara inserts, blind spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alerts, a bit more aluminum in the interior along with contrast stitching, 18-inch rims and a handsome duckbill rear spoiler. Those are all nice to have and I’m a sucker for Alcantara, but in the current 86 a similar package will tack on $3,000 to the price tag. This car isn’t about luxuries, and either trim level can be had in either transmission — for the GR 86, that’s really the only option that truly matters.
These days there aren’t many GR 86 alternatives out there on this side of the pond, at least in spirit.
The closest (if you exclude the BRZ, of course) is the Miata, which already starts cheaper than the existing 86 but is also lighter and less powerful. Then you’ve got the under $30K hot hatch set that includes the Veloster N and Volkswagen GTI; front-wheel drive, though obviously more practical to live with. The WRX is an option within that price bracket too if an all-wheel drive sedan is more your flavor, though that car is about to be replaced. Besides, at that point you’re starting to stray pretty far from the GR 86's nimble, tail-wagging ethos. Toyota’s own GR Supra 2.0, which has all of 27 more horsepower than the GR 86 but will probably start around $15K more when all is said and done, is a non-starter.
One question mark is the upcoming Nissan Z. Like the GR 86 and BRZ, the new Z is a rear-wheel drive coupe, and it appears Nissan will offer a manual option with it. It could also be considerably more powerful out of the gate if those rumors of 300 horsepower are true. But cost is still up in the air. If the Z does manage to hit $35K as some have hinted it may, it’ll definitely make choosing one of the Toyobaru twins considerably tougher.
There is nothing pretentious about the GR 86, and that’s why it feels so special among modern performance cars. It’s like an excitable puppy that’s been hit with a car ray. It knows exactly what it is; you know exactly what it is. You’ll have lots of fun together, whether you’re a seasoned driver or a novice, whether you feel strongly about doing all the shifting yourself or not. It’s like its predecessor in that sense, except even better, because now it has a powertrain a bit more equipped to keep the fun rolling. If you don’t mind the lack of space, or you’re looking for a reasonably-priced back road toy, you shouldn’t second guess it. It’ll never second guess you.