Around the Driving.ca office, I’m frequently – and rightfully – mocked for my auto-mechanical purism. “I’m Elliot, and I can’t work unless I have a steam-powered computer with a carbureted keyboard,” ribs videographer Clayton Seams. Beady-eyed technophile David Booth presumably thinks I’m an endearingly wrongheaded fool, and I have yet to agree with our managing editor Jonathan Yarkony on just about any matter of taste – but hey, it’s not my fault that power steering is a sin. They aren’t going to change my mind.
My first car is an early-production Porsche 944, which in my mind is quite nearly perfect. Balanced, comfortable, reliable, and surprisingly capacious, the 944 has served me well for nearly 100,000 km. It isn’t quick off of the line, but that means I can floor it all around town and feel like I’m zooming without actually going fast enough to get myself into trouble. It offers great analog feedback, torquey satisfaction, and predictable behaviour for spirited runs, all while simultaneously coddling passengers in enough comfort even for cross-country road trips. I‘ve slept in it, moved furniture in it, and even made… wait, what?
Anyway, I’ve never been keen on the Toyota 86. I’m not opposed, just not a fan. Early BFR86GTSZs had hideously plasticky interiors, with tacky fake fender vents and sprawling forests of Little Trees air fresheners so common that I can only assume they’re factory. I think the noses are a touch long, and like a dachshund’s stumpy little legs,the wheels are comically small.
I made the mistake of mentioning this during one of our office arguments over the semantics of sports car vs sports coupe, and that I hadn’t actually driven one yet. Naturally, Jonathan told me to add one to my review docket.
“Am I being punished?” I asked.
In principle, the 86 checks many of the same boxes as the Porsche: affordable, moderately-powered, reliable, balanced, and joyful. It’s plentiful, accessible, and well-supported – truly a people’s sports coupe. And with the recent announcement of a new version on the horizon, it made a lot of sense for me to call in a favour and get behind the wheel of the outgoing car before it disappeared.
My press car was due to be retired very soon, so I raced to Toyota on a Friday afternoon for my car, which I could have until the following Wednesday. One last hurrah before the walk out to the woodshed, then.I piled my gear into the boot, dropped into the seat, and … damn. These things got … good?
When it comes to trims, Toyota’s done this right by offering an easy choice for either type of 86 buyer. There are variations, but the two primary flavours of 86 are base and GT. Coming in at just over $30,000, the base model offers enthusiast car-builders a bare-bones platform that they can buy, plate, drive home, and then replace everything, as 86 drivers are wont to do, or at least until Officer Taraso pulls their plates. It’s a bare canvas, with wheels, bumpers and seats that one can only assume are meant to be replaced with aftermarket alloys, wide-body kits, Bride buckets, and so on.
For $4,300 more, buyers who just want a ready-made sporty runabout, sans the extensive tuning experience, should see the GT package as a no-brainer. Mechanicals remain the same, but this version offers nice suede-like interior trimmings, an exterior appearance package with a sporty little spoiler, a smart key, dual-zone climate control, piercing LED foglamps, larger 18-inch wheels with grippy Pilot Sport 4s, and excellent bolstered sport seats, and with inbuilt side airbags!My tester was one of these, and should I start thinking about a RWD winter car ten years from now, I’ll probably be looking for an unmolested GT.
You don’t really buy a car like this for a luxury interior, but the 86 affords some surprising comfort. Having said that, there are things to be aware of, particularly pertaining to accessibility. Tall drivers are sure to appreciate the deep pedal box, though shorter ones will experience some annoyance. At 5-foot-8, I had to move the seat far enough forward that my knees consistently collided with the wheel on entry and exit, and that still wasn’t enough to make the rear seats usable, even for a child. The bucket seats on the GT model hugged me comfortably, but they may not be totally accommodating for all body types. That said, the layout is intuitive, cupholders are secure and don’t impede gear changes, and you get the digital familiarity of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto on a screen you can actually turn off. A rotary volume knob would be nice, though.
Toyota will sell you all sorts of TRD performance upgrades, but I’m not convinced most buyers will ever need them. Like many enthusiasts, I’d pin my driving ability at the good end of “okay.” While I’m under no delusions about my prowess, I’ve done countless midnight runs through Caledon’s winding Forks of the Credit Road, and am reasonably confident in my lines and technique. As-tested, this stock 86 GT is great for someone of my ability level.
Turn the traction control off – which you will, because it shudders uncomfortably on hard acceleration if you don’t –and head for the twisties, where the car is delightfully tight and exhibits few complaints on entry, and without any significant drama on exit. It does have the torque to break the rear tires free, but as long as you’ve settled the car on turn-in and attentively counter-steer, you’ll be fine.
Suspension is stiff but livable, and body roll is controlled. Paired with the unforgiving sidewalls of those 18-inchers, most drivers will find the stock suspension and sway setup about as aggressive as they’d want in a daily driver bumping over frost-heaved tarmac. I’m sure the TRD bits are fabulous for the single-digit-percent of the time you’ll spend cornering, but stock – at this power level, no less – is plenty.
That means we have to talk about power, though, and it’ssomething this car doesn’t have all that much of. A (pluggable) tube running from the intake into the cabin makes the naturally-aspirated engine sound mean, but you’ll experience faster 0-100 km/h times in the RAV4 Hybrid. I’m unfazed: The 2.0L is plucky enough for you to have some good fun with this chuckable platform, and without the expectation of fiery doom. It’s efficient, too. Split between highway travel and heavy-footed vrooming, I averaged 9.9 L/100 km. It’s not the cheapest out there to run, especially on premium fuel, but it’s not too shabby either.
Having said that, the outgoing 86 has garnered a certain infamy for its unusual power delivery. Known colloquially as “torque dip,” the Subaru-sourced 2.0 L flat-four pulls happily until just over 3,000 rpm, at which point it briefly plateaus, then dips down some 15 per cent before starting to climb back up at around 4,500. You can dive into those weeds on the bazillion enthusiast forums littering the web, but the basic takeaway is this: short-shifting the car around town, you get a fun bit of power through the lower-to-mid rev range, and that’s grand. Go for something more aggressive, however, and you must suffer some asthmatic mid-range stumble as you work to keep the crank as close as you can to 7,500 rpm. Don’t hit that redline though, because that fuel cut-off is violent. The upcoming 2.4Land its 1.1-second reduction of this car’s 7.3-second 0-100 km/h time will be a welcome improvement, but don’t discount this meanderer just yet.
My biggest gripe? The electric steering rack is precise and direct, but I find the lack of mechanical feedback unsettling. I feel the car puckering through a bend and I know the steering wheel is doing something, but there isn’t much to read there. Sure, it’s more livable and much easier on my carpal tunnel and yada yada yada, but old manual racks actually enable you to feel and respond when your fronts break traction.
This Toyota follows my 944’s footsteps in more delightful ways than I’d anticipated, but I’m inclined to fall back on my old Teuton for the steering alone. That said, the 86 is a joyful machine that may not be fast out of the gate, but certainly encourages you to keep your foot down until you get there. I’m serious about my winter comment, too. A perfunctory search of the used listings shows these things are holding their values annoyingly well, which is a bummer for me but really only furthers the 86’s case.
Analog fetish aside, my time with this car was a pleasure. Its affordable-performance crown has been well-earned, and though the indelibly-linked tuning world may not necessarily be my scene, I’m glad that folks have such a meritorious canvas for their enthusiasm.
The new GR 86 is going to be here soon, but seductive as it might seem, the new model’s anticipated improvements don’t diminish this outgoing 86’s strengths. Keep an eye on those dealer clear–out events, because there is some proper joy to be had in this pointy little number.
And as for my stubborn nonsense? Reality check: it’s 2021, and cars have power steering now. Deal with it, dork.