The GT86 has evolved into the GR86, gaining a bigger engine, a stiffer shell and chassis tweaks. Is it now affordable sports car perfection?
In the GR86, Toyota has all but perfected the already very good sports car that was the GT86, while keeping true to that car’s values. The only trouble? Getting one is easier said than done, and it’ll soon disappear.
It might have a new face and a new name, but in a lot of ways, the Toyota GR86 isn’t quite as fresh as you might think. The shell is largely carried over from the outgoing GT86, albeit with some modifications (we’ll get to those soon), and the basic suspension setup is much the same. It’s also still arguably more Subaru than Toyota – once again it features a Subaru flat-four, and is built by the Fuji Heavy Industries-owned brand at a factory in Ōta, Gunma.
Such is the way with making a sports car in the 2020s – given the miniscule volumes involved, you can’t hurl too much money at developing such vehicles. Just look at the new Nissan Z (a car we’re sadly denied in the UK), which carries over all sorts of parts from the ageing 370Z.
But in all the ways that matter for a sports car, the GR86 has been improved. Most notably, under the bonnet. While some particularly vocal commentators on the Internet would have you believe the GT86 is crying out for turbocharging – something many firms in the aftermarket duly provided – the new one sticks to a naturally-aspirated engine, but a much larger one.
It displaces 2.4 litres, up from 2.0, providing a useful uplift in power to give a new figure of 231bhp. You also get 250Nm of torque, 45Nm more than before, but what’s arguably more important than the increase is where the peak figure arrives – from 3,700rpm, instead of 6,600 in the GT86. There is still a torque dip, but it’s much shallower.
The body has been comprehensively stiffened, with additional structural bonding and a more prolific use of high tensile steel. The suspension components have been thoroughly tweaked too, with the intention of compensating for the increase in power without taking things in too hardcore a direction.
The centre of gravity is now 10mm lower, and the body’s torsional rigidity is up by 50 per cent. Famously, the GT86 was offered on the same kind of Michelin Primacy tyres found on a Toyota Prius, something that continues on cars sold in other markets using the base-spec 17-inch wheels. In the UK, you can only have it on 18-inch wheels shod in the much grippier Pilot Sport 4.
A starting price of £29,995, cheaper than many hot hatches, proved all too tempting for UK buyers – the entire British allocation (thought to be fewer than 500 cars) sold out in 90 minutes. It’s only going to be on sale for two years due to incoming Euro NCAP crash test changes, so if you want one, you’ll need to sign up to a waiting list and cross your fingers for cancellations, or hold out for used examples to arrive on the market. Wandering into a Subaru dealership and buying one of the jointly-developed BRZs is a Plan C, but as that car won’t be sold in Europe at all, you’ll have our work cut out.
To find out what’s in store for those who placed their orders in time, and to see what everyone else is missing out on, we headed to Spain to have our first try of a production version on both road and track. A prototype we tried last year impressed, so hopes were high.
Getting behind the wheel, the GR86 feels very familiar, and while it’s still not the plushest sports car out there, Toyota’s mild cabin alterations go a long way to adding a premium touch. The infotainment system is probably the weakest point of the car – it has the feeling of an aftermarket system, and the navigation crashed a couple of times on our road route. In any case, we’re more interested in the way the GR86 goes, and the answer is, very well indeed.
Compared to the average modern turbocharged sports car, the GR86 may lack outright muscle, but in reality it offers up all the performance you could ever need for road driving. The old car could at times feel sluggish, but now, there’s just a little more urgency to the way the car behaves at full throttle.
You ideally still need to be spinning the flat-four up relatively high, preferably above 5000rpm, but it’ll also pull forwards reasonably well when engine speeds are lower. So, for more everyday driving, it’s more flexible, while on a good bit of road, you can get away with leaving it in third gear for the sort of corner that used to require second.
Not that downshifting is a chore – far from it. There are more satisfying manual shifts in the dwindling stick-shifting population still around, but the GR86’s six-speed transmission – carried over from the old car – offers a short and reasonably accurate throw. Plus, the pedal spacing is near ideal for heel-and-toe downshifts, enhanced further by the brisk response of the naturally-aspirated engine. There is an automatic version we haven’t tried, but few buyers bother with it, and based on our experience of that box in the GT86, it’s worth swerving unless you’re unable to drive a manual.
As before, the corners are where this car really shines. There’s heaps of front end bite, and stacks of communication at both ends of the car – it always lets you know how much grip there is. Step over the line, and the GR86 will gleefully slide without ever feeling intimidating, even without turning the traction control off fully. The Track mode, which partially dials back the electronic aids, offers a great halfway house, with a tail-happy attitude backed up by a safety net that never feels like it’s killing the fun. The steering meanwhile is fast, well-weighted, and very predictable.
Even with the tweaks, the chassis remains fairly soft, meaning there is a reasonable degree of body roll. But that’s in keeping with the car’s character – it was never supposed to be firm and uncompromising. The GR86 is a car that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and this is where it has the edge over more expensive, more powerful and more complex rivals. They may be faster around a track, but more fun? Doubtful.
There’s an unbridled joy to the way the GR86 covers ground, with its playful nature and a sense that it won’t bite if you do the wrong thing. It effectively stands in a class of its own – a Mazda MX-5 probably comes the closest to emulating its effervescent nature, but I’ve never come away from driving a standard version of that car with as big a grin as was generated by the Toyota.
Granted, much of what we’ve said here could be applied to the GT86, but in its replacement, Toyota has taken the recipe and pretty much perfected it. All more the pity that it won’t be around for too long.
|Engine:||2.4-litre flat-four petrol|
|Power/torque:||231bhp / na|
|On sale:||Sold out|