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’re doubling down on the character that has made it a unique choice in a world where the rest of the performance package has moved to more powerful pastures.
When it first appeared in 2013 (as the Scion FR-S), the compact two-door GR86 was a breath of fresh air, a cheaper 7/8 version of Nissan’s pricier 370Z that offered a fun alternative to Detroit’s muscle-car hegemony. Today, however, the Z has moved up the food chain, adding two turbos to its list of charms (where it joins the revived Toyota Supra as the pinnacle of Japanese speed). Meanwhile, the Ford Mustang, the Dodge Challenger, and the Chevrolet Camaro have all scaled dizzying heights in horsepower.
On this redrawn landscape, the GR86 presents an amazing contrast. Whether you open the hood, lift it on a hoist, or just twist behind the wheel, you won’t find any high-tech muscles or advanced chassis controls that elevate the car’s driving experience far beyond 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 values a simple, lightweight platform and nimble handling over overwhelming power.
In a world gone mad for intimidating spec sheets, does the 2022 Toyota GR86 retain enough of its charm to draw enthusiasts away from the near-constant smoke shows that crowd competing showrooms? I decided to get behind the wheel to find out.
Leave alone well enough
While 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 the chassis tuning offering the biggest departures. The body, too, has been made lighter with the use of additional aluminum (roof, fenders and a returning aluminum hood), which helps keep the car’s weight at a respectable 2,838 pounds. That’s only about 200 pounds of extra mass compared to its Scion ancestor, which is a notable lack of bloat a full decade later.
Sticking to a familiar chassis script is far from a negative, as the Toyota GR86 (which was only badged ’86’ the year before) has long counted balance and poise as key attributes. It’s the powertrain instead that has received the lion’s share of attention for 2022, as the older 2.0-litre four-cylinder gives way to a 2.4-litre mill.
Rated at 228 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque, keen eyes will note that not only is this an addition of 23 ponies and 28 lb-ft, but that the latter arrives at a much lower 3,700 rpm. It’s enough to change the Toyota’s personality even at modest speeds, where navigating traffic no longer feels like a game of hide and seek between the engine’s power curve and its standard six-speed manual gearbox (a six-speed Autobox is also on offer) .
Faster than ever
Even with just a modest improvement under the hood, the Toyota GR86 is objectively faster than its predecessor, slipping under the five-and-a-half second mark in the sprint to 60 km/h (nearly a second off its old time). From the driver’s seat, that extra explosiveness isn’t as noticeable as the improved smoothness with which the larger-displacement engine delivers its well-trained grunt. Gone is the fun torque drop that was a regular feature of the older Toyota’s experience, and in its place is predictable power delivery with no glaring gaps.
It’s a perfect match for the rest of the GR86’s mechanical package, exuding both confidence and playfulness in almost every cornering encounter, while still offering a comfortable experience when driven as a smooth commuter. The chatty steering and an equally communicative set of springs and dampers make it easy to catch any yaw before it drifts away, with the car firmly planted in part thanks to a standard Torsen limited-slip differential. Without enough engine tuning to upset the mid-apex Applecart, the Toyota offers a friendly introduction to the world of high-performance driving, much like the (lighter) Mazda MX-5 Miata Roadster for those who require rooflessness.
It’s a stark contrast to almost every other rear-wheel drive sports car currently available, most of which easily top the Toyota by 50 to 100 horsepower even in their base trim. Entering a world where momentum matters and where it’s not possible to cover up all the oopses exiting corners by simply flattening your right foot is territory rarely explored among affordable cars, resulting in the GR86 a lonely pilgrim in a country where even similarly priced compact cars are available, this turbocharged hatchback makes its way past its dyno numbers.
A key part of the Toyota GR86’s lightweight ethos is that you’ll be asked to accept a slightly stripped-down package as part of the bargain. That’s not to say the coupe lacks all equipment – my premium trim tester came with a slightly sluggish but full-featured infotainment touchscreen, along with automatic climate controls and a digital instrument cluster – but its thinly insulated cabin is also surprising noisy business when driving tools on the highway. Tire hum in particular rose to a level where I found it difficult to listen to podcasts without the stereo volume being turned up to an uncomfortable level.
Then there are the practical considerations of the GR86’s 2+2 seating arrangement; The back row is marked as deep storage space rather than human accommodation. It won’t be a problem for those intending to test drive the Toyota on twisty two-lanes, but it’s a tougher sell compared to the hatchbacks and SUVs that dominate the vehicle’s price point.
Is the moment over?
About this window decal: 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 question as the entry-level Mustang, with the Camaro being $3,000 less (and the Challenger being $2,000 more). While Detroit’s base muscle cars may not have the total tire-shredding terror of their pricier V8 editions, each offers a horsepower and usability advantage over the GR86, especially 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 sleek Toyota offers so effortlessly (nor do they come with the full National Auto Sport Association membership that the GR 86 offers free). The GR86’s soul is harder to quantify on a spreadsheet, but the GR86’s soul sets it apart from its larger coupe peers and demands to be judged 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 I can’t help but feel that it’s become somewhat jaded over time. A decade ago, the Toyota and Subaru twins felt like a revelation in a world that had all but forgotten the joys of attainable road performance. Today, the GR86 makes an impression that, while still unique, is no longer new, continuing a long line of iterative product designs that are hallmarks of both brands.
Context matters, and in the current landscape, the coupe’s decision to do “something more of the same” may not carry the same weight among enthusiasts as it does in a more fallow age for exciting automobiles. In a perfect world, the Toyota GR86 and its Subaru BRZ sibling would get the attention they deserve, but today’s turbocharged realpolitik might instead push them further to the periphery, where only the most dedicated purists pay attention.
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