Have you ever wondered, “What’s the point of tiny ‘boy-racer’ sports cars?” How much fun can a four-banger possibly be, right?
I thought all of that until I spent a few days in the 2019 Toyota 86 GT, and now I get it. Not that I would get one myself, but now I get what the fuss is about.
Toyota said they were going to pick up my loaner RAV4 and drop off an 86 GT for a week, and I thought, “Hey, that will be a fun car to drive.” But to be honest, I didn’t really know the 86 GT. So, then I looked it up and saw it only had four cylinders. Probably not so fast, I thought. Then I saw it was a two-door, rear-wheel-drive fastback that produced 205 horsepower. Alrighty, then. I was intrigued. More than 200 horses from a four-cylinder, naturally aspirated engine? Bring it on.
They brought it on, and my first impression was that it is probably one of the best-looking cars on the road, and I don’t normally think this of smaller cars. Because it sits so low, it’s nice that they carried the aggressive styling from the menacing nose all the way across the top of the vehicle to the track-ready tail. When you walk up to this car, you can’t help but wonder if it can deliver on the visual hype, but trust me, this is more than just a pretty boy-racer.
I love the color of the copy they brought, too. It’s called “asphalt”, and I appreciate the honest labeling. It really does look like a fresh coat of asphalt, and the name of this hue is especially fitting, because this car and asphalt are meant to happen.
My second impression was that it would be painful to get in and out of this car on any long-term basis. If you are under six feet tall, and if you wear size 40s or smaller (I don’t know women’s sizes), you’ll probably think this car has perfect roof height and racing seat width. For the rest of us, it takes about two minutes to get used to the squeeze, and that’s after planning carefully how to contort in order to drop into the seat. But let me assure you, it is worth the trouble.
Once behind the wheel, this 86 GT was a combination of best-go-kart-ever and best-video-arcade-game-ever. The gauges are refreshingly simple. You’re practically sitting on the floor. When you put it in gear (we tested the six-speed manual), it responds immediately. When you enter a turn, you don’t have to slow down at all, because the tires and suspension are ready for it. In short, it is the coolest, must fun little car I’ve ever driven.
I get why people want these, and I get why men like me in our mid-40s all-of-a-sudden want to go on a diet. Ladies, we’re not necessarily trying to impress you. We’re trying to fit more comfortably into these racing seats.
Shifting gears on the 86 GT is dreamy unless you’re trying to drive really slow through a parking lot. This is not a cruiser, not a grocery-getter, not a Home Depot helper. It’s not a cross-country star, either, but I’ll get to that in a minute. What’s fun is to push this car near redline before shifting, and then do it again until you’re up to speed. At that point, you just kick it straight over to fifth or sixth gear. You may think it normal to keep it in third for 35 or fourth for 45, but you’d be wrong. This little animal whines and vibrates like it has been leashed and doesn’t like it.
During my week with the 86, I never put it on a real track, but I did put it in track mode, and I did push it hard around corners. Seriously, there are several tight roadway turns in my town, and I took them quite often at full speeds, avoiding the brakes, while the car never barked tires, and it responded like it was no big deal. The racing seats become a comfort at that point, because you stay steady in place.
This is a fun car to drive. Most of the time.
This is not a fun car to drive on a two-hour business trip, at least not the manual version. I had to travel to Athens, Georgia for meetings, and on the way up I made the mistake of connecting to Hwy. 78 from Interstate 85. That route was excruciating, because I was stuck at one speed driving straight for such long periods of time. That racing seat I had become used to hugging me now felt annoying. It was also annoying to have so many people pull up and offer to race me. That doesn’t happen so often when I’m driving my Town & County or Suburban. Probably kids en route to the UGA campus, I guessed.
I find it funny that some reviewers ding the 86 for not having enough technology on board. That’s not why you’re buying an 86. I love that the clock is an old-school digital readout in the dash. I love that the climate controls are chunky dials. I even love that there is no standard satellite radio in these cars, because you just don’t need it these days. I love that they didn’t just migrate the Corolla technology package into the 86. No, it seems to me that the 86 keeps the spirit of its Scion FR-S predecessor and brings a little more of that indy cool factor to the Toyota lineup.
You do still get the touchscreen interface offering satellite navigation, Bluetooth phone connectivity and the rest, though I will say the Pioneer system we tested was way too slow in switching between these functions. I hope it was just our unit and not the norm, but from what I’ve read elsewhere, it may be the norm for the 2019 models. (Fix it, Toyota.)
There is a lower trim than the GT, simply called the 86, and then there’s the 86 TRD (Toyota Racing Development) on the top side. The TRD version is roughly the same as the GT, but it comes with the higher performing Brembo brakes, Sachs shocks and Michelin Pilot Sport 4s. The TRDs only come in black with a special edition red-orange-yellow stripe, and the company says they’re only making 1,418 of them. A basic 86 starts around $27K, the GT around $29K and the TRD just north of $32K.
If you’re not planning to put this car on a closed-course track, don’t bother buying it unless you set aside a budget for speeding tickets and taxi fares once your license is suspended. You’re much better off in something like the new Corolla Hatchback, which is almost as much fun on country roads, much more comfortable on highways and city streets, and much easier on the budget (starts around $20K).
I agree with the cast of the old British “Top Gear” television series, who insist cars are either meant for the road or for the track but not both. The 86 is built for the latter.