An affordable rear-wheel-drive sports car with a limited-slip differential, and just enough torque to break the rear wheels loose.
Finally; the Toyota end of the BRZ/FRS equation has a proper name. Toyota has dropped the Scion brand (and the name ‘FR-S’) in favour of what this car should have been called from the start. The Toyota 86. In case you are interested, that’s actually pronounced “eight-six” not “eighty-six” if you were to stick with the tradition of Japanese pronunciation that is derived from the classic Toyota AE86 or “Hachi-Roku.” From its inception the “FR-S” was called the Toyota GT86 over in Europe, and now we in North America have finally been graced with a name that echoes back to the twisty mountain passes, and smoking tires of a twilight Tōge run. And as if to celebrate, they have produced the 2018 Toyota 86 Special Edition, which has been resting its haunches in my driveway this week.
While we have had a go in the new 86 already (reviewed here), the 86 Special Edition comes in at $32,555, and adds a few features that make it a bit more premium. The extra chunk of money will get you some leather seats, a push button start, a TFT screen in the gauge cluster, dual-zone climate, a rear spoiler and a bunch of 86 badges in often random places. In case you hadn’t yet noticed, those features are very close to what you would get in a Subaru BRZ with Sport-Tech trim. Why do the 86? Well, because it has a pretty killer paint job which at first I thought was red, then realized it was orange. It’s rather striking, and that, coupled with some neat “86” badging (save a poorly placed black 86 decal on the rear bumper), makes it notably different from the standard 86. The BRZ has always been the slightly more “premium” of the twins, so it’s worth noting if you want the Toyota-branded version, this is how you get it with all of the comfort goodies, included heated seats.
I’m lucky enough to have driven essentially every version of this chassis, and I can tell you that this 86 Special Edition drives pretty much like all the other ones; which is quite well. The steering is very impressive for an electric rack, the turn-in response is excellent, the centre of gravity is low, and the chassis balance is perfect. It errs on the side of understeer on corner entry but can be neutralized with a dab of brakes or a boot-full of throttle. I found the suspension to be a bit more supple than the first generation FR-S and the body control over road undulations is good. Don’t expect Cadillac ride quality in one of these but you could easily commute to work.
The flat-four engine in the 86 produces decent horsepower when wrung out to the redline (205 horsepower) but still is lacking in torque. While 151 lb-ft. is decent if you are tapping off the rev-limiter at the track, the lack of low-down grunt does get tiresome, especially with the way the torque curve is laid out. If you toggle to the torque/horsepower graph on the TFT screen in the cluster, you can see a handy-dandy illustration of the torque dip that plagues this engine design. There is a serious dip at about 3000 RPM, and it doesn’t come back until about 5000 RPM. This makes the 86 feel sluggish when just casually driving on the road. Thankfully you as the driver have the choice to flog the car to its 7,000 RPM red line, where you will find that it is quite happy to scoot you along at an acceptable pace. The impressiveness of the speed in the 86 does not come in a straight line though; it’s the way it can carry itself through corners. The balanced chassis allows you to throttle-steer your way to very impressive cornering speeds. Slap a set of good track tires on one of these and get ready to drop your jaw at the lap times they can produce in the right hands.
That being said, there are some compromises for the performance. Even in this new iteration, I still wouldn’t call the 86 “refined”. Lots of noise and vibration makes it into the car, the transmission makes lots of unsettling racecar noises, and the fit and finish (while better than the first years) is largely unchanged. The 86 Special Edition gets the dual-zone climate you would see in a BRZ, and some more creature comforts (heated seats). It also get some nifty orange stitching around the cabin and well placed Alcantara. Unfortunately, the touchscreen infotainment system is not very good, and still looks like an afterthought.
The point is, the 86 isn’t about luxury. And it shouldn’t be. It’s an affordable rear-wheel-drive sports car with a limited-slip differential, and just enough torque to break the rear wheels loose. So I have in the past, and will continue to, forgive it for its rough edges. It would rather engage you in the driving experience than keep you comfortable. The shifter is great, delivering positive short throws, but I’m not a fan of the clutch. It feels vague and unnecessarily spring loaded. I’ve tried one with the spring removed (common mod by owners) and the clutch feel can be improved massively. The pedals are spaced for some heel-toe action, and it’s fun to row through the gears which is a blessing, considering the gearing is fairly short and you will be shifting often. The world needs more engaging manual cars like this. Badly.
I turned out some pretty decent fuel economy over the week. The 86 is light, and I averaged 9.4L/100km mostly in the city. I was able to monitor my fuel economy on the TFT screen along with some other useful info, like oil and coolant temperature, voltage, and a lap timer (even if the lap timer is largely useless on the track, as you have push the button manually when you cross the finish line). The screen isn’t a necessity in a sports car like this, but it does gussy up the cabin in a good way.
The 2018 Toyota 86 Special Edition is certainly something to consider with its cool badging, solid heritage, great colour. It’s worth checking out the Subaru BRZ Inazuma though (reviewed here), as it commands a similar price, and has Brembo brakes. Either way, it’s nice to have choice in the rear-wheel-drive sports car world. No, it isn’t the most practical car: the rear seats are still largely useless and the trunk isn’t exactly spacious, but I will continue to love the 86s and BRZs as long as they continue to deliver this driving experience.