It’s hard to believe that Toyota’s small, inexpensive, lightweight performance coupé has been around for more than eight years. I was in my early twenties when it first launched, and as the exact demographic for the car, found it hard to resist snapping one up at the time. First being sold as the Scion FR-S, the two-door was re-branded as the Toyota 86 when the Scion brand went defunct. Along with its identical twin, the Subaru BRZ (reviewed here), the cars have seen immense popularity in the grassroots motorsport world. This is the 2020 Toyota 86 GT, equipped with the six-speed manual transmission.
I have a love-hate relationship with this car, and it really boils down to what the buyer intends to use it for. We now live in a world that is completely dominated with high-horsepower, turbocharged, all-wheel-drive behemoths. At just under 2,800 pounds, the Toyota 86 is a refreshing throwback to a recipe that captivates enthusiasts around the world. It’s a genuinely small, rear-drive two-door with excellent chassis tuning, a manual transmission, and handsome looks. No matter how you look at it, that’s a total win.
Ever since the launch of the FR-S and BRZ in 2012, rumours have circulated around the Internet that a more powerful engine will eventually surface. The horizontally opposed four-cylinder (thanks Subaru!) displaces just two liters, and is naturally aspirated. Output was bumped in 2017, and the 86 is now rated at 205 horsepower at 7,000RPM. Torque remains a paltry 156 lb-ft. at 6,400RPM, and there is a significant torque dip in the mid range that makes the car feel even slower than it is. A sprint to 100km/h takes over six seconds, a time that has been bested by Toyota’s own Camry sedan for over a decade now.
The personality of the flat-four and the grumbly noise makes the 86 feel anemic in a straight line, and the updated engine in the most recent Mazda MX-5 (reviewed here) is a real sweetheart. The Mazda isn’t substantially quicker, but between the two, feels more eager off the line and is more of a joy to row through the gears with. The 86’s six-speed manual transmission isn’t bad, with good engagement and excellent clutch feel, but the shifter has long throws and isn’t anywhere near as precise as segment benchmarks like the MX-5.
In the corners, the 86’s personality comes alive. The steering feel is some of the best in the industry today, and the car changes direction with a degree of sharpness seldom seen in 2020. It’s precise and corners sharply, and should you desire some forced oversteer, the Toyota will drift easily as well. The old adage of being able to drive a slow car fast really applies here, with the 86 being remarkably fun to pilot in just about all situations. I’ve also had the chance to drive various examples of 86/BRZ models at the local autocross circuit, and they’re a joy also thanks to the Torsen limited-slip differential on all models. Regularly, 86-cars of various colours and trims take the podium at these events.
Toyota Canada rates the 2020 Toyota 86 GT at 11.3L/100km in the city and 8.3L/100km on the highway, for a combined 9.9L/100km. It’s worth mentioning that this rating is for the manual transmission model tested here, while the automatic is rated at a combined 8.7L/100km. The 50-liter tank requires premium 91-octane fuel, due to the compression and high-strung nature of the engine. Comparable entries like the Mazda MX-5 and Nissan 370Z also require premium, so this isn’t isolated to the Toyobaru twins.
Stepping inside, the 86’s interior is designed with simplicity in mind. Materials used are decent, with a suede-like covering over the dashboard. Ergonomics are quite good, with a decent driving position and good visibility around, even considering the low height of the car and the small windows. The seats are decently comfortable, and at some point throughout the car’s life, they have extended the seat rails so taller folks like myself can actually fit. Everything is simple to a point where there are very few failure points to go wrong in the long run.
That said, the cabin and its features are also one of the car’s weak points. For example, the touchscreen infotainment system is compatible with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, but looks like nothing more than a double-din head unit that a Future Shop employee installed in 2005. It also doesn’t have a volume knob but instead uses two separate buttons for volume control. The rear-view camera has a tiny display in the corner of the rear-view mirror, and is barely visible. There are no active safety features, and outside of automatic headlights and LED fog lamps, no upscale features of any kind.
Canadian pricing starts at $30,150 for the base model with the manual transmission. The GT tested here adds heated seats with leather bolstering, dual-zone automatic climate control, LED fog lights, 18-inch TRD wheels, a rear spoiler, smart key, and an upgraded 7-inch infotainment system with eight speakers and smartphone connectivity. It costs $34,450, a $3,300 premium over the base model. The GT is also the lowest trim available with the automatic transmission, which is a $140 premium over the manual. New for 2020 is a Hakone Edition in a special Hakone Green paint scheme with bronze wheels – it’s about $600 cheaper than the GT.
This far into its life cycle, the 86 is now showing its age. Pricing has changed the game too – when the cars were new, the Subaru BRZ was the more expensive option. Somehow, it’s gone the other way now, with the BRZ starting at $27,995 and even the limited-production tS model at $33,795. The MX-5 is a bit more expensive when comparably equipped, but the roughly $5,000 premium is absolutely worth it. It’s a much more modern platform, and the engine is significantly livelier than the Toyota’s. The elephant in the room is the Nissan 370Z (reviewed here), which starts at less money and has a V6 with more than 300 horsepower.
It’s becoming harder and harder to find an honest performance car at a price point that the average young enthusiast can afford. Front-drive hot hatches like the Honda Civic Type R (reviewed here) and Hyundai Veloster N are definitely increasing in popularity, but the best recipe for entry-level motorsports success is still a lightweight front engine, rear-drive car with a manual. The 2020 Toyota 86 GT is definitely getting long in the tooth and in need of some modernization, but with an attainable price point and sharp driving dynamics, the formula is still one for success.