Toyota GR86 review: persistence pays off for the sports car nobody else was brave enough to make
Reading the press coverage from the launch of the Toyota GT86 in 2012, you could be forgiven for thinking Toyota was about to make a killing. We – myself included – were fawning in our praise.
Can you blame us? Here, at last, was the antithesis to the creeping twin evils of bloat and remoteness that had characterised new cars for the prior 10 years, backed by the reliability inherent in the Japanese firm’s badge.
Except that the GT86 rather proved the point that more involvement, more rawness, wasn’t what most buyers actually wanted even if they had thought they did. While you could hardly call it a flop, it didn’t exactly fly off the shelves; people were put off by the headline power figure which, while sufficient, couldn’t stand up to pub bragging rights. The slightly anonymous looks and tacky interior didn’t exactly help, either.
Happily, though, Toyota has decided that there are still enough people who value the purity of the driving experience over such caveats.
So here’s the GT86 Mk2, renamed GR86 to bring it into line with Toyota’s Gazoo Racing-derived performance sub-brand whose initials already grace the Supra and hot Yaris.
That isn’t the only change Toyota has made, though; the styling has been finessed and the interior lifted upmarket somewhat, in a bid to further increase the GR86’s desirability.
Great to drive
Noisy at speed
Cramped rear seats
Um… nope, that’s about it
An end-to-end journey of the M4 is, of course, not the GR86’s natural territory. Even so, it needs to perform well enough on such a trip without the driver needing to spend the next few days in a darkened room – for usability is part of its remit, too.
Happily, it isn’t hard to pick your GR86, because there’s only one model and one engine, which means the only choice you have is whether to choose the automatic or not. (Hint: don’t.) The only options are metallic or pearlescent paint, which keeps things even more simple.
And while the GR86 is no luxury car, neither is it poorly equipped. As standard you get cruise control, climate control, heated front seats, adaptive LED headlights, automatic lights and wipers and the all-important TorSen limited-slip differential. In the all-important rear axle.
If you opt for the automatic model, the cruise control becomes adaptive and you get a front-facing sensor system that also gives you automatic high beam, lane departure alert and a pre-collision system. The payoff is that you lose 0.6 seconds from the 0-62mph time and 6mph from the top speed.
You’ll pay a fiver shy of £30,000 for the basic car, which actually seems pretty reasonable in this day and age; by comparison, even the most basic Audi TT will set you back a shade over £34,000, while a BMW 220i M Sport Coupe will set you back more than £37,000.
Both of those cars are down on power compared with the Toyota, too, to the tune of between 30 and 50 horsepower, and neither can match the Toyota’s warranty offer, nor the company’s reputation for reliability, both of which are second to none at the moment.
The good news continues inside; yes, the GR86 does feel cheaper than those two prestige rivals, but it is nevertheless a marked improvement over the horrible scratchy stuff you used to get. Granted, there’s still quite a lot of black plastic, but it’s much better quality than before, and the straight, horizontal lines are easier on the eye than the odd, disjointed curves that you used to find in the GT86.
There are now splashes of red dotted around the interior to lift it, which helps, and the bits you touch on a regular basis – the switchgear, the door handles, the gear lever and so on – all feel slick and high-quality. The net result is that the GR86 feels like an altogether more plush product than its predecessor did.
You get four seats, the rearmost two with Isofix child seat mountings, but don’t take it as a given that you’ll be able to fit children back there; even with the front seat folded and wound forward, its quite hard to manhandle a big Group 2 or 3 car seat through the gap, and when in place there’s almost no leg room, so you have to wind the passenger seat forward to a point where it’s almost unusable.
Adults, meanwhile, might just get away with a very short trip, but not much more, thanks to the almost complete lack of head and leg room; a BMW 220i Coupe is a much better bet if you need to use the rear seats with any sort of regularity.
The same goes for the boot; the BMW’s 390-litre load space rather blows away the 226 litres of the Toyota. Having said that, there’s still enough room for two or three overnight bags, while the 50/50 split-folding rear seats mean there’s enough flexibility to allow you to thread longer items through the boot’s rather narrow opening.
Let’s talk about the engine first, for this was always one of the criticisms of the old car – more precisely, its lack of low-down grunt. The previous naturally-aspirated, 2.0-litre engine, with its four horizontally opposed cylinders, kicked out a healthy enough 197bhp but next to the instant response of most modern cars it always felt a little unspectacular.
The GR86 could hardly be called a revelation by comparison, but a 400cc increase in capacity has brought some much-needed torque at the bottom of the rev range (not to mention a not-inconsiderable slug of extra power, with a peak of 231bhp), with the effect that the car now feels brisk off the line, if not tear-your-face-off quick.
Having said that, the power swells as the revs increase, giving you just reward for holding on to each gear, and while the “boxer” engine’s warble won’t be to everyone’s taste, it’s considerably more exciting than the turbo-suppressed and artificially amplified engine tones of the GR86’s rivals.
The net result is that the GR86 cruises happily on the motorway; at such speeds you can now accelerate briskly without recourse to the gearbox.
As you might expect of a sports coupé, it’s not the calmest cruising experience; you get that tinny sort of road noise reverberation through the body, as though the bodyshell has the acoustic qualities of a guitar’s sound box, resulting from a bare minimum of sound deadening. The ride can be a bit bouncy off some bumps, too.
But, by sports car standards (and even by the standards of some firmly-sprung saloon cars), the GR86 is pretty supple, both around town and on a motorway. Larger ruts and imperfections can give you a bit of a jolt, but if you have plenty of distance to cover the GR86 isn’t too wearing.
Find a twisty route home and the GR86 rewards your patience. Put simply, it offers an analogue driving experience rich in feel and response the like of which is almost impossible to match in this day and age.
In fact, the only car that gets close is the Mazda MX-5 RF which, although it’s a convertible, is a rival purely because it’s pretty much the only other car for similar money with the same sort of focus on the purity of driving experience.
Which is better? It’s hard to say without driving them back to back – but I’d say the GR86 is the leaner, faster, more thrilling of the two, whereas the MX-5 allows you more rope.
And where the old GT86 was criticised in some quarters for not offering enough steering feel, the GR86 offers more. Granted, it still isn’t an exemplar but there’s just about enough to give you a good sense of what’s going on at the nose. Not that you actually need it; the chassis is so mobile and reactive that you can feel the car’s attitude change as you adjust the steering angle and the accelerator pedal.
Slippery when wet
Certainly, it isn’t difficult to find the limits of the GR86’s traction. You can do so unintentionally, such as applying a bit too much accelerator on a cold, wet roundabout, which might make it a little too nervy for some.
Yet this is one of the most deliciously progressive cars, so when it slides you can bring it back under control joyously easily. And so you find yourself not bothering to go light on the throttle too much, because you know you can dial in a switch of lock to catch each slide if the GR86 does decide to twitch its tail.
Naturally, this might incline you to be a little more careful in faster bends, but this is where the genius of the GR86 comes in because at higher speeds there’s enough grip that you can lean on the outer tyres with confidence that it’s not about to spit you off.
It’s as though the car’s been set up to be loose at lower speeds, but hunker down and bite into the road surface as you go faster, with the result that you can hustle it safe in the knowledge its limits are much higher.
What’s more, the GR86 is forgiving if you get carried away; it’ll warn you when you’re getting close with a little gentle understeer, before rotating gently towards the limit. Even then, lifting off brings the tail back into line without too much of a snap.
As the road opens out you can explore the upper reaches of this lovely engine’s rev range, where its low-down burble becomes a harder-edged wail and where the power soars, tempting you to hold on to each gear before snicking the stubby lever into the next ratio. OK, so the shift action isn’t quite as sweet as an MX-5’s, but it’s not far off – and given that most performance cars only give you a fairly anodyne paddle shift these days, who’s complaining?
The Telegraph verdict
Despite the name change, this is very much a case of evolution rather than revolution. But that’s all the GT86 needed.
Toyota has clearly listened to criticisms of the old car, which was compromised by its tacky interior, slightly gutless engine and occasionally remote steering. All three of those complaints have been directly addressed and as a result the GR86 is a driver’s car that’s much harder to find fault with – especially for the price.
Of course, you won’t be negotiating the Gotthard Pass every day of the week, so it’s gratifying to know that the GR86 is also decent enough at motorway cruising for a couple of hours. Yes, there are better cars for that task, but the trade-off is that they aren’t as direct or as raw when you want to have some driving enjoyment.
And fun is indeed where this car’s emphasis lies. It’s hard not to drive the GR86 with a grin on your face. The fact that it acquits itself pretty well in other areas, and should be reliable too, is simply the cherry on top.
On test: Toyota GR86
Body style: two-door coupé
On sale: now
How much? £29,995 on the road (range from £29,995)
How fast? 140mph, 0-62mph in 6.3sec
How economical? 32.1mpg (WLTP Combined)
Engine & gearbox: 2,387cc four-cylinder petrol engine, six-speed manual gearbox, rear-wheel drive
Electric powertrain: N/A
Maximum power/torque: 231bhp/184lb ft
CO2 emissions: 200g/km (WLTP Combined)
VED: £1,420 first year, then £165
Warranty: 3 years / 60,000 miles (extendable by 1 year / 10,000 miles at each main dealer service, up to 10 years / 100,000 miles)
Spare wheel as standard: no (not available)
BMW 220i M Sport Coupe
181bhp, 44.1mpg, £37,245 on the road
Don’t knock this entry-level BMW; the 220i sits in quite a sweet spot, about part-way between the TT and the GR86 in terms of excitement and usability. It’s a brilliant all-rounder too. You get a huge boot and generous rear seats, an upmarket interior and excellent fuel economy. And while it isn’t quite as involving as the Toyota, it’s still pretty good fun. It doesn’t come cheap, though.
Audi TT Sport 45 TFSI
242bhp, 35.3mpg, £38,730 on the road
The TT is not long for this world, but you can still grab one if you’re quick. The entry-level 40 TFSI gets closer to the GR86 on price, but this version is more of a match in terms of power. This is a smart, slick coupé that still has one of the most beautifully crafted interiors of any car – but it can’t get close to the GR86 for deftness, agility or sheer excitement.
Mazda MX-5 2.0 Exclusive-Line RF
181bhp, 37.2mpg, £32,250 on the road
You get less grunt and less warranty with this convertible hard-top MX-5, though there’s no doubting it’s just as much of a riot – perhaps even more so – to drive. It’s still as lovely as ever inside, too, and despite now being almost seven years old it doesn’t yet look dated. Really, your decision will ride on whether you value the Mazda’s open-air option more than the Toyota’s rear seats and boot space. Either way, you won’t lose.