Toyota GR86 review: Affordable sports car proves you can’t put a price on fun
A more powerful engine increases performance while stiffer chassis improves the handling to create a truly great affordable sports car.
The Toyota GR86 makes me sad.
Not for anything it’s done but for what it represents, which is the end of something great.
The dinky two-door 2+2 will only be on sale for two years and when it’s gone there won’t be any direct replacement. Making matters worse, the UK’s entire allocation is already sold out.
As the world goes ever-more electric and tech-driven, there’s apparently no space for simple, light and sporty petrol cars any more.
Which is a tragedy when they can be as good as this.
Priced from £29,995, the GR86 is, predictably, the successor to the GT86, which won plaudits for being a relatively cheap and massively entertaining small sports car with not much power and not much grip but bags of character and driving thrills.
Based on the same platform, the GR86 is nonetheless a much changed car, with a bigger, more powerful engine, more grip and a heap of chassis engineering designed to answer the few criticisms of the old car.
Chief among those criticisms was always that the GT86’s 197bhp just wasn’t enough.
To answer that, the engineers have bored out the old 2.0-litre flat-four to 2.4 litres and thrown a heap of engineering expertise at it. Everything from the fuel pump to the valve stems have been reworked to make the engine lighter and more efficient. The result is 231bhp, and a step up in torque from 151lb ft to 184lb ft. The torque curve has also been flattened, offering a more linear progression and welcome additional pull at lower revs.
The chassis and body have also been given a thorough going over to handle the extra power, cut weight, improve rigidity and lower the car’s centre of gravity, all in the name of agility.
There are more lightweight, high-strength materials and additional bonding and bracing, which have helped bring a 50% improvement in lateral rigidity. The use of aluminium for the roof, wings and bonnet has helped bring down the car’s centre of gravity and the suspension has been tuned and strengthened. Even the driver’s seat has been redesigned in the name of weight saving.
The result of all that work is something more powerful and grippier than before but that still feels eminently playful and fun.
At 1,276kg, the GR86 proves that less mass is more important than tonnes of power. The benefits of a low kerbweight are that it’s chuckable and nimble in a way so many “faster” cars aren’t.
Whether you’re sweeping along a twisting mountain pass or making the most of a track day, the GR86 flits along with a beguiling deftness, flowing with the road rather than fighting against it. Direction changes via the slim steering wheel are immediate and true to driver’s input, while the body stays flat and controlled - or as controlled as you want. Like its predecessor, the GR86 is happy to dance and squirm around as much or as little as you like.
And you have confidence to exploit that because the whole car is so communicative. From the refreshingly light but feelsome steering to the seat-of-the-pants sensations the best sports cars deliver, you’re constantly fed information about exactly what the car is doing.
Buyers in Europe get the option of a 17-inch wheel with the same low-grip Michelin Primacy tyre fitted to the old GT but the UK is only getting the 18-inch wheel with a specially developed Pilot Sport 4 designed to offer more grip. Any fears that this gripper tyre might make the GR86 too planted are unfounded and the GR offers the same delightful balance between grip and slip as its predecessor.
The extra power of that bigger engine brings a welcome extra turn of pace - 0-62mph is cut from 7.6 to 6.3 seconds and the extra torque means you can spend less time hunting through the ratios. That said, the flat-four will still happily rev up to 7,000rpm and the manual shift is so light and snappy that there’s a real pleasure to flicking through gears.
The engine sound is now synthesised rather than being fed direct from the manifold into the cabin via a tube and although not the sweetest sound on earth it has a raw, raucous edge that’s in keeping with the car’s fizzing on-road attitude.
As a package, it is just a joyously direct and agile experience that puts the driver at the centre of everything and leaves you grinning from ear to ear.
For all the reengineering and redesigning under the skin, from the outside the GR86 is clearly related to the GT86. From a distance, the low, cab-backward silhouette is easily recognisable. There are relatively big changes up close, however, designed to freshen the car’s look and improve aerodynamics. The front features new headlights and a new grille with unique “G” pattern mesh that echoes the design of the GR Supra and Yaris. There are huge air dams flanking the grille and active air intakes behind the front wheels. At the rear the wings have been reshaped and a subtle duck-tail spoiler apes the upturned rear of big brother Supra.
Inside, the GR86 emphasises its brief to be a simple sports car. There are all the mod cons you’d expect - from a seven-inch touchscreen and USB ports to heated seats and digital dials but it’s unfussy and straightforward, perhaps even a little basic. There’s a proper handbrake, the heater controls are big dials and the digital instruments are a massive rev counter that incorporates the speedo and is flanked by a trip computer and fuel and temperature data. The seats and doors are finished in a mix of “Ultrasuede” and perforated leather and elsewhere solid but dull black plastics dominate.
Despite its relatively small footprint, you don’t feel crushed in the cabin. Even those well over six feet will fit and while the rear +2 seats are a waste of space, the interior feels surprisingly accommodating. Fold the rear seats down and it’ll even still hold a set of four extra wheels in the back for track days - another nod to Toyota’s vision of this as an enthusiast’s car.
Toyota bills the GR86 as an analogue car for the digital world which is, of course, a conveniently catchy marketing line. But it has a point. The GR86 feels connected and communicative in a way that so few cars are any more. There’s really only this and the smaller, less powerful Mazda MX-5 left to show how great small, affordable sports cars can be.
So yes, we should shed a tear that the GR86 is the last of a dying breed but while it’s here we should celebrate and enjoy it.
Price: £29,995; Engine: 2.4-litre, four-cylinder, petrol; Power: 231bhp; Torque: 184lb ft; Transmission: Six-speed manual; Top speed: 140mph; 0-62mph: 6.3 seconds; Economy: 32.1mpg; CO2 emissions: 200g/km