A car like the 10Best-winning Toyota GR86 isn’t supposed to happen in this age of SUVs and electrification. Small and affordable coupes like the rear-drive GR86 are pretty much dead. And yet, Toyota has just refreshed its almost-one-of-a-kind sports car, and it isn’t just good, it’s great.
We adore high-powered coupes such as the 760-hp Ford Mustang Shelby GT500, but more than often, their massive output makes exploiting their street capabilities a lawyer-on-retainer proposition. In a car such as the 228-hp GR86, there’s no big engine to make up for your cornering mistakes. What you do get is a sensation of speed that runs through the chassis and controls.
Since the architecture of the GR86 is largely the same as the 86 that preceded it, we’d call it a major refresh and not an all-new overhaul. It does look different, as Toyota changed enough of the exterior design to distinguish the new car from the old. It’s a well-proportioned and downright handsome car with a sleeker greenhouse. Toyota also strengthened the structure with front and rear reinforcements. Previously, the 86 featured an aluminum hood. The new car adds an aluminum roof and fenders to help offset the weight of the new structural components.
A very important change is under that aluminum hood. The old 2.0-liter flat-four that thrummed and moaned has been bored out to displace 2.4 liters. Horsepower rises from 200 in the previous automatic version and 205 in the old manual to 228 across the board. Aside from the sound of the old engine, it had to be revved to 5400 to yield its 156 lb-ft of torque in the manual. The new larger engine makes 184 lb-ft at a much more usable 3700 rpm. The intake and exhaust plumbing has been smoothed out to improve airflow, and a plastic intake manifold replaces the former aluminum plenum equipped on manuals and features larger ports that feed a revised valvetrain.
From behind the wheel, the changes are obvious. The added 23 horsepower may not sound like much, but an 11 percent gain is a meaningful improvement in a 2838-pound car. That extra power helped shove the manual-equipped GR86 to 60 mph in an impressive 5.4 seconds and conquer the quarter-mile in 14.0 seconds at 101 mph, nearly identical to its Subaru BRZ twin. The engine is livelier, more responsive, and happier as it spins to the 7500-rpm redline. It sounds better too. There’s a speaker to amplify the engine sound, and the sound intensity varies depending on the drive mode, but it’s good enough to make you believe it’s the real thing.
Automatic buyers, which Toyota predicts will be the majority, will find six speeds and paddles on the steering wheel. Revisions include additional clutch plates and a new torque converter to cope with the newfound, well, torque. With the automatic-specific Sport mode engaged, the shift strategy smartens by holding on to gears and wisely downshifting during hard braking. Automatic buyers will also be able to add safety features such as adaptive cruise, collision warning, and lane-departure systems provided by Subaru’s EyeSight dual cameras peering through the windshield.
We naturally gravitate to the six-speed manual gearbox, which has also been treated to refinements and strengthening. The shift lever travels through the gates with a smooth and positive movement. The clutch pedal is on the lighter side, but the engagement is spot on. The GR86 lacks active rev matching, so you’re on your own for throttle blips when downshifting. The pedal positioning makes heel-and-toeing somewhat tricky, but with some tweaks to your foot placement, it’s possible. Both the automatic and manual retain the Torsen limited-slip differential, now with taller gearing.
The GR86 will be offered in two trims: a $28,635 Base and the $31,325 Premium. Both come with front and rear LED lights, a digital instrument cluster that changes depending on drive mode, an 8.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system that no longer looks like it’s from the dial-up-internet era, and a tastefully executed, no-frills interior that puts function first. The Base model rolls on slide-happy Michelin Primacy H/P tires, size 215/45R-17. Moving up to the Premium nets a duckbill spoiler on the decklid, aluminum pedals, heated leather seats with suede inserts, and, most important, 18-inch wheels and Michelin Pilot Sport 4 shoes, size 215/40R-18. When equipped with the grippy summer rubber, the GR86 clawed its way around the skidpad at 0.98 g.
Piloting the GR86 around the winding roads of the Catskill Mountains reveals that the revised damper tuning is adept for daily use—neither too soft nor too firm. But the true revelation is navigating the straights and curbing of Monticello Motor Club. Toyota tells us it has tuned the GR86 differently in comparison to the BRZ by using a stronger front knuckle, a stiffer front anti-roll bar, and different springs. At the lateral limits, the tuning differences are immediately apparent. Where the BRZ’s tail feels more planted, the Toyota’s is more eager to step out of line. The vertical motions of the 86’s wheels feel sharper than the BRZ’s. The Subaru feels more like a comfort setting to the GR86’s sportier tune. Either way, both are a delight.
A new column-mounted steering motor controls the marginally quicker steering rack. Turn-in is crisp and quick, body roll is contained, and the thin-rimmed leather-wrapped steering wheel sends positive communication as the front tires begin to give up grip. But the most talkative feedback comes through the seat pan as the chassis proudly alerts you that you’ve reached the limit. The rear tires step out as the GR86 threatens to move forward sideways only to be reeled back in by subtle steering-wheel motions. It’s the neutral cornering balance, which can be easily upset into oversteer by aggressive throttle applications, that makes these cars so much fun to drive at the limit.
All versions of the GR86 come with the same brake package as the previous car. Sliding two-piston calipers clamp 11.6-inch rotors in the front, and 11.4-inch rotors are pinched by sliding single-piston units in the rear. While street driving or autocrossing may never expose much fade, Monticello’s full course did. Previously, Toyota offered a Brembo brake package with larger rotors and fixed calipers front and rear, and we’d like to see that option return. Slowing down from Monticello’s fast straights is enough to overtax the GR86’s brakes. Under less stress, stopping from 70 mph required a scant 156 feet. Working the pads harder from 100 mph down to zero lengthened the distance to 325 feet. Toyota promises that track-capable brake pads will be sold as an accessory. Other bolt-on options include a cold-air intake, a short-throw shifter, and a cat-back exhaust system.
The GR86’s sub-$30K starting price includes a one-year membership to the National Auto Sport Association and one performance-driving class. Two years of no-cost maintenance is part of the deal too. The Toyota GR86 and Subaru BRZ’s recent comparison-test win is proof that excellent budget coupes aren’t extinct, at least not for a few more years.
2022 Toyota GR86 Premium
Vehicle Type: front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, 2+2-passenger, 2-door coupe
Base/As Tested: $31,325/$31,325
DOHC 16-valve flat-4, aluminum block and heads, port and direct fuel injection
Displacement: 146 in3, 2387 cm3
Power: 228 hp @ 7000 rpm
Torque: 184 lb-ft @ 3700 rpm
Suspension, F/R: struts/multilink
Brakes, F/R: 11.6-in vented disc/11.4-in vented disc
Tires: Michelin Pilot Sport 4
Wheelbase: 101.4 in
Length: 167.9 in
Width: 69.9 in
Height: 51.6 in
Passenger Volume: 78 ft3
Trunk Volume: 6 ft3
Curb Weight: 2838 lb
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 5.4 sec
100 mph: 13.8 sec
1/4-Mile: 14.0 sec @ 101 mph
130 mph: 27.2 sec
Results above omit 1-ft rollout of 0.3 sec.
Rolling Start, 5–60 mph: 6.5 sec
Top Gear, 30–50 mph: 9.1 sec
Top Gear, 50–70 mph: 8.4 sec
Top Speed (C/D est): 140 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 156 ft
Braking, 100–0 mph: 325 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft Skidpad: 0.98 g
C/D FUEL ECONOMY
Observed: 23 mpg
EPA FUEL ECONOMY
Combined/City/Highway: 22/20/27 mpg