Toyota 86 GT — Agile, zesty, best-in-class driving entertainment

By Jim Prueter

(January 8, 2019) Back in 2016 the Scion brand said, “Sayonara.” Well, not exactly, as several models just removed the Scion label off the trunk lid and replaced it with the Toyota emblem. Take the revered FR-S, for example. It’s a sporty rear-wheel drive coupe that sells below $30,000 and is now called the Toyota 86.

The name 86 pays homage to the similarly fun-to-drive Toyota Corolla GTS. Known globally as the AE86, it was one of the most iconic Toyotas in the mid-1980s. When it was first introduced, Corolla was the smallest car in the Toyota lineup. It was rear-wheel drive until 1984, when engineers made the switch to front wheel drive, giving Corolla a larger interior, making it more economical to build, and more efficient. It remains front-wheel drive to this day.

However, what most don’t know is that even though Toyota switched to front wheel drive, there was a rear-wheel-drive version using a completely different platform and layout under the Corolla name. Further, the rear-wheel-drive Corolla also had two versions — a two-door coupe and a three-door liftback — both of which were offered in two different trim levels; the Levin had fixed headlights and the Trueno had popup hideaway headlamps.

So, this variant of the rear-wheel-drive Corolla would be its farewell, with the culmination of everything that made the Corolla great: 4A engine, E80 code chassis, sixth generation — thus the name AE86. The 4A-GE was one of the best four-cylinder engines ever, designed to power small cars like the 86 and for Toyota Racing. Red line on the 86 was a monstrous 7,500 rpm. It only made 128 horsepower, but the 86 only weighed about 2300 pounds. Front-to-rear weight balance was perfect and made handling — with its live rear axle like those found in muscle cars — unbeatable. The AE86 went on to dominate every kind of racing imaginable, especially drifting.

1984-1987 Toyota Corolla GT-S

Production of the AE86 ended in 1987. But in 2009, Toyota, partnering with Subaru, revealed the FT-86 concept — a light body, low center of gravity four-cylinder, rear-wheel-drive pocket rocket – at the Tokyo Auto Show. With the Toyota MR Spyder and Celica leaving the U.S. market in 2007 and 2006, respectively, their lineup was absent a pure sports model.

In 2013, the FT-86 concept was realized and Toyota introduced the Scion FR-S, along with its sister twin the Subaru BRZ. Introduced simultaneously across the globe, the car was known as the Toyota GT 86.

With sports-car agility and superb driving dynamics at a budget price, the FR-S came with only one engine, a 200-horsepower 2.0-liter flat-four with either a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission. With Scion’s demise, the FR-S was moved to the Toyota showroom under the 86 name.

Fast forward to 2019, and little has changed from the stylish FR-S coupe that was launched for 2013 to the current Toyota 86. There’s been a mild mid-life facelift with the headlamps jazzed up a bit, the suspension stiffened some, aerodynamics tweaked, and the stability control given an additional mode, but it’s still powered by the 2.0-liter, four-cylinder boxer engine that now makes 205 horsepower and burns premium fuel.

It can be had with either a short-throw silky smooth six-speed manual or a six-speed automatic transmission, which seems rather silly for this car. The engine cleverly fits lower and farther back in the chassis for better weight balance, resulting in better handling. While 205 horsepower might sound inadequate, trust me, it’s not; the car weighs just 2,776 pounds.

The stylish 86 coupe is just 18 inches off the ground, has a lower center of gravity than a Porsche Cayman and sits four inches lower than a Nissan GT-R. The profile is sporty, cab-rearward, with a short rear deck and small spoiler. There are faux engine vents on the front fender sides with an 86 badge, and a long hood.

Inside our test 86 GT trim level, there’s seating for four, with scant room in the back seat. Suede-like material covers the substantially bolstered sport seats for a track-ready design. The 14-inch diameter steering wheel is the smallest ever in a Toyota, and it is leather covered for optimized driving grip. Thumbs up for the look and layout of the instrument panel, which has low-gloss texture for reduced reflection and glare.

My week spent testing the 86 took me, among other places, to a private race track in central Arizona. I found it to be everything you’d hope for in a performance oriented coupe and more.

This car isn’t about ma
ssive horsepower, fat tires and race-tuned suspension. It’s about the illusion of going fast at sensible speeds. In fact, the 86 rides on conspicuously skinny tires, the same used on a Toyota Prius, making it perfect for drifting. It also delivers impetuous auditory cues, thanks to resonator tubes that pump intake and exhaust notes into the cabin. The electric power steering is blink-quick and sports car heavy. Brakes are precise and overall engine response, while certainly not explosive, makes the 86 an absolute blast to drive. It’s far more fun than anything I’ve driven for under $30k. At that price, it’s almost like stealing.

New for 2019 is the 86 TRD Special Edition ($33,340), which joins the base model ($27,375) and GT ($29,505) in the lineup as the “Ultimate Performance” 86. It has Brembo Brakes, SACHS dampers TRD body kit, Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tires and TRD Exhaust. It also comes with bigger wheels and stickier tires, but no more power. It’s only available in a new exterior Raven black color with red and black fabric GRANLUX upholstery trim.

All trim levels of the 2019 Toyota 86 come standard with the STAR Safety System which features an Anti-lock Brake System (ABS), Electronic Brake Force Distribution (EBD), Traction Control (TRAC), Brake Assist (BA), Vehicle Stability Control (VSC), and Smart Stop Technology (SST).

The GT 86 remains a unique sports car in its class, apart from the Subaru BRZ, it’s nearly identical twin. There’s no supercharger or turbocharger, foot wide tires aren’t part of the deal. Ditto for massive horsepower and torque. Overall, the 86 is a great car that may necessarily not look or feel cutting edge. It doesn’t plug in or offer a long list of expensive options, audio systems and autonomous features. Just old school get behind the wheel grip it and rip it. You’ll have far more old-school fun for much less money.

Vital Stats
Base Price: $29,305
Price as Tested: $30,225
Powertrain: 2.0-liter 205-horsepower 4-cylinder boxer engine connected to either a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission.
Fuel Economy: 24-mpg City – 32-mpg Highway – 27-mpg Combined
Seating: 4

Crash Test Safety Ratings: Four star out of a possible five star for frontal crash test by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.

Where Built: Ota, Gunma, Japan

Competes With:
Fiat 124 Spider
Mazda MX5
Nissan 370Z
Subaru BRZ

Fab Features:
Unmatched agility and insane handling for the price
Excellent fuel economy
New TRD Edition