What happens when you find yourself building the last affordable sports car in America? If you’re Toyota and the model in question is the GR86 coupe, you double down on the character that’s made it a unique choice in a world where the rest of the performance pack has moved on to mightier pastures.
When it first appeared in 2013 (as the Scion FR-S), the compact GR86 two-door was a breath of fresh air, a cheaper, 7/8ths version of Nissan’s pricier 370Z that presented a fun-to-drive alternative to Detroit’s muscle car hegemony. Today, however, the Z has moved up the food chain, adding twin turbos to its list of charms (where it joins the revived Toyota Supra as the apex of Japanese speed). Meanwhile, the Ford Mustang, Dodge Challenger and Chevrolet Camaro have all scaled dizzying heights of horsepower.
On this redrawn landscape, the GR86 presents a startling contrast. Whether you pop the hood, put it up on a hoist or simply take a turn behind the wheel, you won’t find any high-tech brawn or advanced chassis controls elevating the car’s driving experience well above that of the original. Refreshed for the current model year, Toyota has instead built a worthy continuation of its fixed-roof, rear-wheel drive machine that prizes a simple, lightweight platform and nimble handling above overwhelming power.
In a world gone mad for intimidating spec sheets, does the 2022 Toyota GR86 retain enough of its charm to lure enthusiasts away from the near-constant smoke shows populating rival showrooms? I opted to take a turn behind the wheel to find out.
Leaving Well Enough Alone
Although it’s been positioned as a major redux, it’s fair to point out that most of the GR86’s platform has been carried over from the previous edition of the coupe, with details like suspension tuning providing the most major points of divergence. The body, too, has been lightened through the use of additional aluminum (roof, fenders and a returning alloy hood), which helps keep the car’s weight at a respectable 2,838 pounds. That’s only 200 or so pounds of added mass compared to its Scion ancestor, which is a remarkable lack of bloat a full decade later.
Sticking to a familiar chassis script is far from a negative, given that the Toyota GR86 (which was badged as just the “86” the year before) has long counted balance and poise as key attributes. It’s the drivetrain that has instead received the lion’s share of the attention for 2022, as the older 2.0-liter four-cylinder gives way to a 2.4-liter mill.
Rated at 228 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque, keen eyes will note that this represents not just an addition of 23 ponies and 28 lb-ft, but that the latter comes on at a much lower 3,700 rpm. It’s enough to change the Toyota’s personality even at modest speeds, where puttering around in traffic no longer feels like a game of hide-and-seek between the engine’s power curve and its standard six-speed manual transmission (a six-speed autobox is also on offer).
Quicker Than Ever
Even with only a modest improvement under the hood, the Toyota GR86 is objectively quicker than its predecessor, slipping under the five-and-a-half second mark in the sprint to 60 (slicing nearly a second off its old time). From the driver’s seat, that additional explosiveness isn’t as noticeable as the improved smoothness with which the deeper-displacement engine delivers its gymed-up grunt. Gone is the fun-sapping torque tumble that was a regular feature of the older Toyota’s experience, and in its place is predictable power delivery absent any glaring gaps.
It’s a perfect pairing for the rest of the GR86’s mechanical package, which exudes both confidence and playfulness at nearly every corner encounter while providing a comfortable enough experience when driven as a calm commuter. Chatty steering and an equally communicative set of springs and dampers makes it easy to catch any yaw before drift becomes untoward, with the car firmly planted thanks in part to a standard Torsen limited-slip differential. Without enough engine attitude to upset the mid-apex applecart, the Toyota provides a friendly introduction to the world of performance driving, much in the same way the (lighter) Mazda MX-5 Miata roadster does for those who require rooflessness.
It’s a stark contrast to nearly every other rear-wheel drive sports car currently available, most of which easily add 50 to 100 horsepower on top of the Toyota even in their base trim. Entering a world where momentum is key and papering over any oopsies on corner exit can’t be accomplished by simply flattening your right foot is a territory seldom explored among affordable automobiles, making the GR86 a lonely pilgrim in a land where even similarly-priced compact hatchbacks turbo their way past its dyno numbers.
Living Out Loud
Part and parcel of the Toyota GR86’s lightweight ethos is that you’re asked to accept a somewhat stripped down package as part of the bargain. That’s not to say that the coupe is missing any equipment — my Premium trim tester came with a somewhat laggy, but fully-featured infotainment touchscreen, along with automatic climate control and a digital gauge cluster — but its thinly-insulated cabin is also a surprisingly noisy bit of business when tooling down the highway. Tire hum in particular rose to a level where I had a hard time hearing podcasts without the stereo volume cranked to an uncomfortable level.
Then there’s the practical considerations of the GR86’s 2+2 seating arrangement; the rear row is more accurately labeled a deep storage bin rather than human accommodations. It won’t be an issue for those who intend to test the Toyota on twisty two-lanes, but it’s a harder sell compared to the hatchbacks and SUVs that dominate at the vehicle’s price point.
Has the Moment Passed?
About that window sticker: the Toyota GR86 starts at a modest $27,700, with an additional $2,600 required to slip into the Premium’s slightly more upscale cabin. This is roughly the same ask as the entry-level Mustang, with the Camaro coming in at $3K less (and the Challenger $2K more). While Detroit’s base muscle cars might lack the total tire-shredding terror of their pricier V8 editions, each boasts a horsepower and usability advantage over the GR86, particularly when it comes to delivering a larger trunk and realistic rear seat.
What they don’t offer is the kind of connection to the road that the svelter Toyota provides so effortlessly (nor do they come with the full year of National Auto Sport Association membership that the GR 86 provides gratis). Harder to quantify on a spreadsheet, the soul of the GR86 sets it apart from its larger coupe peers, asking to be evaluated on the content of its character rather than the numbers it posts at the end of the quarter mile.
It’s a compelling argument, and yet one I can’t help but feel has been somewhat blunted by time. A decade ago, Toyota and Subaru’s twins felt like a revelation in a world that had almost forgotten the joys of attainable street performance. Today, the GR86 makes an impression that, while still unique, is no longer new, continuing a long line of iterative product design that is a trademark of both brands.
Context matters, and on the current landscape the coupe’s decision to make “slightly more of the same” its calling card might not carry the same weight with enthusiasts as it did during a more fallow period for exciting automobiles. In a perfect world, the Toyota GR86 and its Subaru BRZ sibling would receive the attention they deserve, but today’s turbocharged realpolitik might instead shuffle them further to the periphery where only the most dedicated of purists pays them mind.
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