The Toyota 86 has been on the market for several years now, but it’s no longer Toyota’s only sporting machine.
The recent return of the Toyota Supra has been greeted by many Toyota fans, but for the 86, it might be a problem. Japanese market Supras will be available with a turbocharged four-cylinder engine making around 200 horsepower, and at some point, Toyota’s going to ask, “Do we really need to have two small, modestly powered sports cars on the market?”
So, if you’ve been thinking about snapping up a Toyota 86, now’s your chance. Originally introduced as the Scion FR-S, the 86 is a small 2+2 coupe that is just practical enough to work as the fun second car for those with families, and is equipped with just enough power to be interesting.
Established in partnership with Subaru (which gets the mostly-identical BRZ) the 86 has been on the market for a while now. Sales have never taken off as most sports cars are a niche product these days, and it’s only a matter of time before Toyota eighty-sixes the 86.
When we’re all driving high-riding, hybridized crossovers, will the 86 be the one we look back on and wish we’d bought when we had the chance? Let’s take one for a spin and see.
The proportions are classic, the front end is not. In profile, the 86 looks exactly how you’d want your sporting machine to appear, with a long hood, short trunk, and short overhangs.
The serpentine front bumper, on the other hand, is going to turn some buyers off immediately. The FR-S was pretty good looking, so it’s a shame that Toyota has given the 86 the sort of face you’d find sitting at the Slytherin table at Hogwarts.
Happily, a neutral colour like black really dulls the effect, leaving you with a right-sized sports car that looks nimble and eager just sitting parked. Seventeen-inch wheels are standard fitment, with a TRD version offering 18s.
If you don’t remember the brand, Scion was Toyota’s sub-branch aimed at the youth market. Apparently, someone at Toyota decided youths didn’t care one whit about interior materials, so mostly made them out of hard plastics and rubbery panels. The cars were durable, and about as attractive as a Rubbermaid trash can.
The 86 takes this back-to-basic ethos, fits some truly excellent seats, and calls it a day. On the plus side, medium-sized drivers will love the ergonomics of the 86, which has excellent pedal placement, a perfectly positioned shifter, and a small-diameter steering wheel.
The back seats look really small, but they’re actually just large enough to fit smaller car seats for those who still have to haul kids around. Those seats also fold almost completely flat, which means you can fit a full set of winter wheels and tires in the back, and drive them down to your local tire store to get swapped over.
Interior storage is at a bit of a premium, but there’s a nook for your smartphone, and enough cubbies to tuck the essentials away. It’s a small car, but very livable.
As I mentioned, the 86 was co-developed with Subaru, who did most of the engineering. The heart of the car is a 2.0-litre boxer engine (always a Subaru hallmark) which here has been fitted with Toyota’s direct-injection system, and tuned to 205 horsepower. Not too shabby.
However, peak torque is a mere 156 foot-pounds, and it’s all the way up the rev range at 6,400 r.p.m. If you’re out on your favourite backroad and get stuck behind a truck, you’re going to need a proper straight to make a safe passing manoeuvre.
On first blush, the idea of having a relatively slow sports car seem like an oxymoron. The Mazda MX-5 feels quicker than the 86 right out of the gate, thanks to shorter gearing and more accessible torque.
However, the more you drive the 86, the more it rewards good driver habits. You have to work a little here, without a turbocharged engine to lean on; the 86 needs you to rev-match your shifts properly, and manage your throttle, and pay attention to your braking and steering inputs.
If we’re to liken it to a video game, the 86 is basically the “Hard” mode. And, because it’s only modestly powered, it’s not like we’re talking about sliding sideways around Marine Drive like it was a level on an X-Box game. The 86 is a delight at perfectly reasonable speeds.
There is, however, a caveat. In the wet, the 86 is quite a bit more tail-happy than the very similar Subaru BRZ. A bit of restraint – or failing that, traction control – helps keep everything in line, but the Subaru’s a little better suited to our wet North Shore weather. Of course, picking out a set of slightly grippier tires helps too.
Overall, though, the 86 is one of those cars that keeps getting better the more you drive it. It’s not for everyone, but it’s bound to be spoken fondly of years down the road.
At $29,990 to start, the 86 just barely qualifies as affordable. The GT model, at $33,260, is about the same price as a modestly equipped VW GTI or Subaru WRX, both of which offer more power and practicality. However, the 86 might just offer more fun.
Infotainment options have an aftermarket appearance, but are perfectly functional. Eight speakers seem more than enough for such a small cabin, but the 86 is quite loud on the road, so the stereo gets a workout.
Fuel economy figures are just OK for a four-cylinder, at 11.3 litres/100 kilometres in the city, and 8.3 l/100 km on the highway. Mostly, the 86 hits these figures, a naturally aspirated engine being more predicable than a turbocharged one. Premium fuel is required.
Nimble handling; great feedback from the controls; surprisingly practical.
Can feel underpowered; outperformed by many hot hatches; fuel economy isn’t great.
The checkered flag
Filled with old-school attributes, fun to drive, and equipped with just enough space to work as a daily driver.
Mazda MX-5 RF ($39,900): Equipping the MX-5 with a folding hardtop makes it a better all-weather proposition, without sacrificing much in the area of performance or storage. It also looks just fantastic.
Compared to the 86, the MX-5 is livelier to drive, and more flexible. Mazda updated the MX-5’s engine for 2019, and the improved top-end power really makes it feel special. With the 86, you have to dig a little to find joy beneath the surface.
On the other hand, the 86 has a lower price point, and those rear seats and larger trunk make it a much more practical daily driver. Perhaps, someday in the future, Mazda and Toyota will work together and build the perfect blend between the two.