I’ll let you in on a little secret – I have a thing for budget sports cars. Yes, as much fun as it is to rock a Lexus RC F around a freeway cloverleaf and accelerate at NASA-level speeds, there’s only so much performance you can experience on a public road without endangering the general public or risking your own life at warp speed. A sports car with lower limits allows you to drive it closer to 10/10ths on public streets, which is often more enjoyable. As the old adage goes, it’s more fun to drive a slow car fast, than a fast car slow.
Enter the Toyota 86 GT. How have we not reviewed this car yet? A joint project between Toyota and Subaru, it’s designed to appeal to drivers of any age and income bracket. It uses the most elemental layout: front-engined, rear-wheel drive with a – What? Is this a manual transmission?! In a modern car?! It IS.
It’s a compact little coupe with a long, low sloping front hood and a short rear deck. The mouth is aggressive and the headlights make it look slightly angry. It’s the essence of sporty. Mesh engine vents in front of the doors and the black spoiler across the rear deck lend it some flair. The thin-spoke wheels look light and add a hint of nimbleness to the design. Design is subjective but we like the look. It almost hints at a baby Lexus RC F.
Inside is seating for four, though the back seats have very little leg room. The interior is decked out in black plastic, suede, leather, and bright silver plastic and is smartly designed. The front seats are cloth and are well bolstered to hold you in place during spirited driving. They’re heated. The gauges are simple but very stylish. The HVAC controls are simple, operate with a feeling of quality, and are intuitive to find. The radio controls are integrated into the touch screen. The touch screen doesn’t have many features to keep it from being distracting while you’re driving.
The naturally-aspirated 2.0L engine is a Subaru flat-four but with Toyota-designed direct injection. It sits low in the engine bay, well below the hood line. It makes 197 hp and 151 lb-ft of torque. Redline is set at 7500rpm. It’s not the smoothest engine we’ve experienced but it’s eager to rev and loves to be wound out to redline. There’s a dead spot in the torque curve at around 4000 rpm but if you shift at or near redline, it falls into the rev range above that dead spot and you feel nothing but persistent acceleration. It’s got a good sound and is sporty and fitting for it’s character.
The 6-speed manual transmission is a tightly gated gearbox but the gears are well spaced and the light clutch can be driven all day in traffic without your leg getting tired. Reverse has a lockout feature so you can’t grab it by mistake. Pull up on a collar on the shifter and it allows you to access reverse. There’s a limited slip differential behind the transmission and drive shaft for efficient acceleration.
Behind the attractive 17” wheels, the brakes don’t look like anything special but they really don’t need to be. The 86 GT is a fairly lightweight car and doesn’t require big expensive brakes to reliably haul it down from speed. Pedal feel is good, very progressive with no grabbiness or sponginess. The Michelin Primacy tires do a good job keeping the car planted and are very progressive once traction is exceeded and the car starts to slide. It’s easy to catch and control at the limit. The built-in default traction control keeps the rear wheels from slipping but if you press the Race Mode button, traction control and stability control are disabled and you can get it loose with a little speed.
Start it up and it idles smoothly. Shift into first and let the clutch out and the car pulls gently away. The clutch is light and the gearbox is smooth. The steering is sharp and a small turn of the wheel translates into quick directional changes. The bolstered seats hold you in place nicely as your driving gets more aggressive. Gentle braking scrubs off speed quickly as you’d expect for a small car.
Plant the throttle and it’ll do 0-60mph in about 5.5 seconds. It’s decently quick. Speed is deceptive. The engine sound doesn’t necessarily feel like it matches up with the performance so your natural inclination is to work it hard in order to get decent power out of it. Only then do you realize how fast you’re moving. The 86 GT is a car that begs to be driven hard and so we obliged it every opportunity we got. All the driver controls – steering, brakes, throttle, and shifter – work together well in the pursuit of driving pleasure.
Perhaps the best part of the car is the handling. It handles like a go-kart. Steering is sharp and it’s eager to turn in. The suspension is firm but not harsh, absorbing bumps stiffly like you’d expect a sporty suspension to. Lean is minimal and it’s stable through corners. And with only 191hp and narrow tires, it’s limits are low enough that you can drive it hard on public roads and still not get too illegal.
The tail can be induced to step out with the right amount of speed and a sharp turn of the wheel. When it does step out, it’s easy to catch and continue on. Every stoplight becomes a braking test. Every green light an opportunity to wind out the motor, shifting at redline, trying to extract every last bit of power. Every curve becomes a speed challenge. Soon you find yourself wringing every last ounce of performance out of it everywhere you go, ripping around like a hooligan, whooping it up, exploring it’s limits.
What would we change about it? Well, a targa top would be fun. And while we would have appreciated a little more power, part of the joy of the 86 is the fact that you have to flog it to get the most enjoyment out of it. Other than that, there’s nothing to dislike about the 86. It’s a fun and stylish little sports car. And coming in under $30,000, it’s priced to be affordable. Looks, performance, fun. What more do you need?