In an age that seeks to remove the driver from the equation as much as possible with features like radar-guided active cruise control, lane keeping assist, and automatic collision avoidance braking, the Toyota 86 is a breath of fresh air. Instead, the Toyota 86 (and its Subaru BRZ twin) is for those who just enjoy driving, and want something that will entertain instead of sedate. With a rear-wheel drive set up, a standard 6-speed manual transmission, and a classic two-door coupe style, the 86 is a sports car in every sense of the term.
Formerly known as the Scion FR-S, the Toyota 86 took on a variation of the name used by the rest of world (GT86) once the Scion brand was shuttered in 2017. The new 86 name specifically recalls the legendary Toyota Corolla AE86, which became a favorite of tuners and drifters.
That name speaks a lot to the purpose of the car. The Toyota 86 is seen as the spiritual successor of the AE86 by both Toyota and car enthusiasts. As you can imagine, it’s a joy to drive. While it isn’t the most powerful sports car in the world with only 205 naturally aspirated horsepower, it’s still sent through a slick 6-speed manual transmission to rear wheels (an automatic is also available for those who are three-pedal adverse). The 6-second 0-60 mph time isn’t anything to be proud of, but the car makes up for it in other ways, specifically when the road starts to take a bend.
Most importantly, the car is balanced perfectly between front and rear, with completely neutral handling that makes it feel like the car is changing direction from a point directly under your seat. The 86’s direct and tight steering connects you to the front tires, creating the proverbial driver-machine connection that so many seek in a sports car.
The result is a car with incredibly accessible handling. In many sports cars, the limits of cohesion are so far beyond what you’re able to responsibly reach on public roads. That’s not the case with the Toyota 86, which is able to swing its tail out nearly on command. However, unlike many other cars which can feel somewhat out of control for drivers inexperienced with the sensation, the 86 almost coaches you through sliding the rear tires. You can actually feel the car telling you that if you add a hair more throttle mid-turn, you will start to kick the tail out. In our opinion, a more perfect car for teaching drifting does not exist.
The interior of the 86 is also very driver-focused, or at least that’s what Toyota calls it. The dashboard is a slab of uninteresting black material, with a touchscreen infotainment system that looks like it’s straight out of an aftermarket catalog from the ’90s and lacks functionality for satellite radio, Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. The digital clock looks exactly like the ones found in Toyota products found through the 1990s and early 2000s. While Toyota wants you to think they were going for an “old school” look in the vein of the AE86, it seems more likely they had an ironclad contract with a part supplier or a very deep parts bin they’re still pulling from.
However, the interior of the 86 and the BRZ allow it to stand in sole representation of a small niche of the market; they’re the only small 2+2 coupe you can currently buy. While the Mazda Miata and its Fiat 124 Spider cousin fit in the affordable small sports car niche, they can’t quite match the 86 in daily practicality due to their convertible nature. At the same time, the Ford Mustang and Chevy Camaro are in a different ball park in terms of vehicle size; the Toyota 86 is a much smaller vehicle.
The Toyota, on the other hand, was designed from the start to be able to fit a set of four mounted racing tires in the back so you could take it to the track. While many buyers won’t use their rear area for that specific purpose, it still translates to a significant amount of cargo room that will be useful for many buyers. There’s even a small backseat suitable for children, or really short friends.
All in all, the Toyota 86 is one of the most unique cars on the road. For those who want to explore the dynamics of rear-wheel drive, it provides an entry point without too much power that can cause the inexperienced to get in too much trouble too quickly. Driving an 86 regularly could probably make you a better driver with just an ounce of intention on your part, with skills that would easily translate to more powerful cars down the road.