“They don’t make ‘em like they used to.” In a world of rapidly accelerating electric vehicle adoption and increasingly pervasive advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), this saying seems especially true of new cars.
But Toyota’s GR 86 is a throwback to the days of naturally aspirated, combustion-powered, rear-wheel-drive, manually shifted pure sports cars, and fans of the genre should be thrilled at the opportunity to drive a superb example of this dying breed.
The “GR” in the car’s name refers to the Gazoo Racing team of Toyota president Akio Toyoda, and the boss’s enthusiasm is surely a contributing factor to the car’s excellence. This is even though the Toyota GR 86 is actually made by Subaru and is powered by Subaru’s signature flat four-cylinder horizontally opposed “boxer” engine.
The “86” part of the name refers to the last rear-drive Corolla from the 1980s, code-named “AE-86.” That car is now remembered fondly by fans and was the inspiration for this car’s name when the first generation debuted in 2012.
This is the car’s second generation, and it marks an immense improvement in its ability to deliver thrills thanks to upgrades to that Subaru engine. In the first-generation car, that engine’s character was agricultural, as it tends to be in Subarus, with sluggish throttle response and a growling engine sound that seemed more suited to a tractor.
The updated engine is 20 percent larger, at 2.4 liters, thanks to an increase in cylinder bore diameter from 86 mm to 94 mm. Toyota’s contribution to the Subaru engine is the company’s D-4S fuel injection system that combines direct injection with traditional port fuel injection. The inclusion of port injection aids the engine’s responsiveness, while the direct injectors are beneficial for peak power, as the cooling effect of the fuel evaporating directly in the engine’s combustion chamber permits the GR 86’s 12.5: compression ratio.
The result is a rating of 228 horsepower and 184 lb.-ft. on premium fuel. Toyota says that our six-speed manual transmission test car accelerates to 60 mph in 6.1 seconds, which matches our seat-of-the-pants impression. The available automatic transmission, which defeats the purpose of a car of this character, takes 6.6 seconds to reach 60 mph.
One of the GR 86’s vital traits is its’ light weight. While carmakers truly don’t “make ‘em like they used to” in this respect because of the need to meet modern requirements for crash safety, the GR tips the scales at 2,851 lbs. The rival Mazda MX-5 Miata, by comparison, weighs 500 lbs. less, though it gets by with 47 fewer horses under the hood.
Unlike the convertible Mazda, the GR 86 is a fixed-roof coupe, and it has a pair of rear seats that amount to wishful thinking for carrying passengers. The real value of the Toyota’s rear “seats” is that they fold down, providing a pass-through from the trunk. This, combined with the trunk’s low opening height, means that the car’s small 6.26-cu.-ft. trunk can be exploited to its maximum cargo-carrying capacity. The Miata’s seat doesn’t fold and the small trunk opening make getting anything into the available space a challenge.
The GR 86’s chassis is built from a combination of high-strength steel, hot-stamped steel, and aluminum, with structural adhesive added to materials’ joints for increased rigidity. The car features high-strength bolts for attaching subframes and suspension components. A pair of diagonal braces run from the front suspension strut towers to the firewall, but a proper strut brace bridging the gap between the two seems like obvious low-hanging fruit for an easy additional increase in chassis rigidity.
Similarly, the GR 86’s front struts and rear shocks are “sport-tuned” but do not feature any notable advanced technology for precise control, so this is another area where a future high-performance version could offer an upgrade.
The 86’s steering benefits from stiffer rubber bushings in the steering rack mount. A new electric power steering system incorporates a steering column-mounted motor and control unit. Steering feel and response through the three-spoked, leather-wrapped steering wheel is excellent, ensuring that the driver knows what the front tires are doing so the driver can accurately chart the 86’s course to corner apexes.
On the tested Premium model, grip to reach those apexes is thanks to the car’s 18-inch Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tires which mark a substantial upgrade in grip over the base car’s 17-inch Michelin Primacy HP tires. Power to the rear wheels is optimized by the 86’s Torsen limited-slip differential. Non-branded brakes are 11.6-inch front rotors and 11.4-inch rears,
Playing with the GR 86, the six-speed shifter is precise, ensuring the driver gets the intended gear with minimal thought or effort. The clutch action is good but falls short of the silky friction point feel provided by the likes of the MX-5 or Porsche’s 718 Boxster/Cayman sports car.
While the GR 86 is intended as a sporty toy, there will be times when the driver just wants to relax, so fortunately Toyota has provided a simple, easy-to-use infotainment system with physical rotary knobs for radio volume and tuning. The car’s touch-screen interface is also suitably simple, delivering the driver the desired functions without them having to first enroll in a community college course on its operation.
It is the same for the simple climate control system and for the seat heaters, which are operated by a pair of console-mounted switches that are in plain view and whose function is obvious.
The goal for support systems in an elemental sports car like the GR 86 is to provide the required functions unremarkably, giving the driver what they want without distracting from the experience of enjoying the car.
Our test car’s price is $31,325, including delivery and processing, making the GR 86 a remarkable value. So here it is: an affordable, fun, beautiful sports car, just like the ones in the good ol’ days. That means that for as long as Toyota keeps offering it, the GR 86 shows that sometimes, they do still make ‘em like they used to.