Everything has gotten expensive and heavy and complicated, so it’s almost a miracle that Toyota produces something that’s none of the above. The Toyota GR86 feels like a car that Toyota stopped building two decades ago and if you’re in the market for a new sports car it’s hard to make an argument against it. This is the car the Internet says it wants and the only thing that’s changed is it’s better in almost every way.
[Full Disclosure: Toyota gave me the car and a tank of gas for a week. It was a pretty good week.]
Price: Starts at $28,995 (Tested the Premium trim at $33,095 with destination)
Engine: 2.4-liter boxer four, 228 hp, 184 lb-ft
Transmission: 6-speed manual, 6-speed auto available, RWD
Fuel Economy: 20 city/27 highway/22 combined
Body Style: Two-door coupe
Why Does It Exist?
A fair question. Toyota spent much of the early part of the 2000s offering cars that were as beige on the inside as they were on the outside. For a long-ish period of time the fastest Toyota you could buy was the RAV4 with the V6. That’s embarrassing for a company that brought the world 2000GT, Supra, Celica, and Hachiroku AE86.
In 2013, the company showed the world it could do better with the production of a car they called the Scion FR-S (and Subaru called the BRZ). Scion is gone, so we currently get the car as the GR86. This is the second generation of the platform.
The bigger why, though, is that Toyota’s CEO Akio Toyoda told people they’d stop building boring cars. Big talk for a company that makes the Prius. And then you look at the 2023 Toyota Prius and realize he wasn’t just jawboning.
What Makes It Tick
Did I mention Subaru? This is important. Subaru is responsible for the motor in the BRZ/GR86 twins and, because it’s Subaru, it comes with a 2.4-liter, four-cylinder boxer engine. I have a Forester, and the persistence of the boxer engine in cars like the Ascent feels almost like a bit that’s gone on too long, but EVs are coming so why even bother changing it. The biggest benefit, of course, is the motor is flatter (the pistons go side-to-side in an H pattern as opposed to the traditional up-down of an inline-four). A flatter motor means a lower center of gravity and that’s good for sports cars. This is a sports car.
I’ve had the chance to drive a couple of the first-gen cars and neither of them felt underpowered and, at the same time, no one will complain about them adding more juice. I’m pro-naturally aspirated motors, especially now that they’re so rare, and I credit Toyota for not slapping on a turbo and instead making the motor bigger (growing from 2.0 liters to 2.4 liters). Horsepower is up 11% to 228 hp and torque climbs even more, increasing to 184 lb-ft compared to the old motor’s 156 lb-ft. There’s no replacement for displacement, et cetera.
On the suspension side, all the cars get the fairly traditional MacPherson strut setup in front and a multilink rear with “GR circuit-tuned” coil springs and shock absorbers. Toyota and Subaru like to make a big deal about how these cars are different and the suspension piece is where this is most obvious.
The Toyota uses iron steering knuckles (the piece that connects the steering tie rods/suspension arms to the hubs/bearings that carry the wheels) and the Subaru uses a seemingly nicer aluminum knuckle. Additionally, the Toyota has a traditional rear stabilizer bar and the Subaru BRZ has a more advanced design.
Check out this video with Best Motoring legend Keiichi Tscuhiya and you’ll see the BRZ’s chief engineer point this out with a body-less car that’s half-Toyota/half-Subaru:
I’m not suspension engineer, but I know one, so I asked Huibert Mees what he thinks about this setup:
I see what’s going on. Toyota mounts the stabar (stabilizer bar/sway bar) to the subframe which means the forces from the stabar need to go through the subframe rubber mounts in order to get to the body. In the Subaru, the brackets holding the stabar are attached directly to the body through the subframe bolts. This means the forces from the stabar go directly into the body without deflecting (and being filtered by) the rubber subframe bushings.
A more direct acting read stabar will help tighten up the steering. By the way, the rear suspension has more impact on steering feel than the front. Believe it or not. That’s why I always liked rear suspension design more than front. The rear is far more influential on how a car behaves and feels than the front. That’s why you will often see simple MacPherson struts on cars but then a very complex rear. Porsche 911’s are good examples of that.
It would be fun to drive these two cars back-to-back to see how obvious that is, but it’s impossible for me to extrapolate the differences otherwise (and it’s possible I couldn’t if I had both of them).
Tsuchiya goes on to wail on the cars a bit and says the Toyota has “soft muscularity” per the translation and, yeah, maybe stop reading here because I can’t top that. Also, just for funsies, here’s Tsuchiya giving the full Best Motoring in an AE86, this car’s predecessor:
What a legend.
How does it look?
A kid who goes to school with my daughter walked up to the car and immediately went: “Wow, you have a Ferrari!?!” I’m not sure if the surprise was more that he was seeing a Ferrari or that I, the dorky dad who plays card games with his parents, would somehow have been granted access to a Ferrari.
It’s not a Ferrari. It’s a Toyota. He should know, his parents have two Toyotas. To be fair to the kid, it’s more like a Ferrari than it is like any Toyota he has ever seen in his short existence. Multiple people who saw it were surprised it was not an Italian car and seemingly impressed.
My impressions are a little more complicated. I’m a fan of the simpler first gen FR-S/BRZ. Credit to the designer who can make a car look athletic and fast without sculpting it with a dozen character lines that go nowhere (ahem, Supra). Was it too simple? Maybe. The new GR86 is not simple. There are curves here where there were once creases, even if the whole body is roughly proportional to what came before it.
The GR86’s most impressive angle is rear three-quarter, no question. The trunkline creates a lovely focal point that draws the eyes and highlights the much improved taillights and duckbill spoiler. On the side, too, are wider fenders that slope gently into a curved rocker panel that’s picked up with a vent to exhaust the brakes. The front is maybe a touch fussy, but the headlights do gain more character and the whole affair is a major improvement.
How’s the interior?
nside, the car is even better. There’s no reason why an affordable sports car needs an extremely fancy interior and, yet, the outgoing FRS was cheap-to-a-fault. Every part of the old car felt like an afterthought. Clearly, Toyota/Subaru took the feedback and made an interior that’s centered on the driver and still a nice place to toss a few quarters into the pond of existence.
There’s even a backseat, though it’s more like the apple slices-instead-of-fries option at McDonald’s in that it’s primarily intended for children and even then largely theoretical. With no front seat passenger my daughter could sit rather comfortably in her booster seat and was amazed that she got her own window.
Can one love a gauge cluster? I love the GR86’s gauge cluster. Mimicking the Boxer engine, I assume, you’ve got what appears to the driver as a round screen in the middle and two smaller, rectangular screens on the side. In normal driving mode you get a big tach in the middle and your choice of data on the sides. I adore the little interactive dyno graph on the side that shows horsepower and torque depending on your RPM. In track mode you get a more racing-oriented linear tach in the middle that lights up with bar graphs as you rev higher.
The difference between a gimmick and a feature is purely a measure of emotional effectiveness and not any actual utility. A lot of cars, now, will shine the brand’s logo on the ground when you open the door. The whole world can see you drive a Kia at night! I find this gimmicky and all it does is make me slightly embarrassed. But that’s me. If you’ve worked hard all your life and your Telluride is a measure of that success then the little ground light is as important a feature as the motor or the roof or any of the rest of the car.
All the little details of the gauge cluster are not a gimmick to me. They’re a key feature to me. Even the font choice in the GR86 is important. Everything looks just a little early-LCD. A little TI-86. It’s perfect.
What’s It Like To Drive?
There’s no way my wife has read this far so I’ll tell you a little secret: I put the carseat in the back of the GR86 to take my daughter to school (that’s not the secret part). My parking spot is behind a building and there’s a narrow drive that connects it to a wide avenue with good sight lines. The first day we left for school I thought I’d delight my daughter by revving the motor a bit as I turned onto the avenue and, oops, I may have tapped on the gas a little more than I initially intended and sent the car gently sideways. Stability control kicked in and so it did that little ESC shimmy you’re used to if you drive like an idiot often enough. My daughter giggled.
What am I supposed to do the next day? Similar program, but this time there’s a bit of moisture on the ground and Track Mode may have been engaged (with the manual transmission you can dial down stability control by pressing the button). My daughter hollered with joy.
I say this not to intimate that I drive like a moron. With a kid in the car I’m extra cautious. It’s just that the GR86 is so predictable to drive and so nicely balanced that I knew I was not in danger of causing any harm to other people, myself, or my little one by engaging in a little playful inertia.
For the week I had the car I kept trying to find a twistier, more undulating road to unsettle it. To unsettle myself. I never found it. The six-speed shifts with a pleasurable action and, though I know intellectually that it redlines at 7,400 RPM, emotionally it felt more like 10,000 RPM. Did it sound great at high revs? Not really. Did I care? Also not really.
Toyota claims a 0-60 MPH time of 6.1 seconds and that number seems easily achievable without much effort. All models get a mechanical limited-slip differential, but the base model still gets the 17-inch Michelin Primacy HP summer times. This being the Premium trim, my GR86 came equipped with 18-inch wheels and Michelin Pilot Sport 4 summers (215/40R18 if you’re curious). These are the tires to have, pretty much always.
If there’s one qualm about the driving experience is that, while I’m not an expert heel-and-toer, the pedals slightly misaligned. My size 11 Onitsuka Tigers aren’t super broad but the throttle pedal seems a little off and a little too narrow. Perhaps with different feet it isn’t an issue?
A slightly wonky noise and imperfect pedals do not ruin the driving experience. Far from it. The new Supra is not particularly memorable to drive and I got to mash it around an autocross course and even feebly drifted it. The GR86 is extremely memorable and much cheaper.
What else do you people need out of life? If you want a Miata, get a Miata. If you have a kid and maybe want to transport actual items get a GR86. Even if you didn’t have a kid maybe you should get the GR86. I’m trained, as an autojournalist, to love the Miata. And I do. We are fortunate to live in a universe and a dimension where both cars exist simultaneously. It doesn’t take a lot of indoctrination to also love the Toyota.
I say this a lot and the repetition is intentional: It’s a great time to love cars. Sure, you gotta wait for stuff, but instant gratification turns you into a miserable twerp over time. Right now, for about $33,000 (in theory), you can walk into a Toyota dealer, right past the Camry and drive out with a RWD sports car with an honest-to-Gozer manual transmission. A good sports car. A sports car that looks and feels right. Maybe a great sports car. And if that’s not your thing you can get an AWD turbo rally hatchback.
Live life kids. It doesn’t get better. Maybe it does. But you don’t know that for sure. Here’s a list of things that happened between my 18th and 25th year on this plant: Enron, 9/11, 2nd Gulf War, Norbit, The Columbia Disaster, Hurricane Katrina, and the Great Recession. Tomorrow’s not promised to any of us so drive the cars while the cars are good, dammit.
The New 2023 Toyota Prius is Sleeker, Bigger, Quieter and More Powerful, So Why Am I Bummed Out?
The Genesis GV60 Performance Is A Tire-Frying Hypnotoad That Beats The Tesla Model Y In Many Areas
The ElectraMeccanica Solo Is Way More Fun Than Its Looks Would Have You Believe
The 2023 Kia Telluride X-Line And X-Pro Are People Haulers For Off-Road Adjacent People
Got a hot tip? Send it to us here. Or check out the stories on our homepage.
Support our mission of championing car culture by becoming an Official Autopian Member.
Photos: Author, Joel Johnson, Toyota