- Max Speed
Why are we here?
Well, we’ve discussed the Toyota GR86 from the confines of the international launch and found it excellent, but suspicious souls that we are, we wanted to try it on UK roads where the tarmac is a little less forgiving than the Spanish launch test route. Hence we’ve just driven this one for 700 miles through England and around Wales, and included a racetrack and a rally course just for good measure. The car has also been thoroughly Oliver Marriage’d, who managed a drift battle with… himself. But that’s another story. All in the name of science. Obviously.
Give us the bad news first.
Well, no matter how glowing this review might be, the bad news is that the entire two-year UK allocation of GR86s (some 430 units), sold out in 90 minutes. So you can’t actually buy one at this point. But please don’t stop reading. Turns out the European crash safety regs regarding that low bonnet hit hard in 2024 (the ‘B’ measures of the General Regulation Standard), and Toyota can’t justify re-engineering the car to satisfy the new rules seeing as the GT86 (the previous generation) didn’t exactly sell its socks off.
Yep, no matter how much enthusiasts crow about wanting small, light, manual coupes with rear-wheel drive, if they don’t sell enough, then manufacturers will stop making them. Or at least bringing them to the UK. Which is a shame. But not for those people who snapped them up.
So, reprise the upgrades over the GT86?
Well, it’s still a two-door coupe with rear-wheel drive and an engine in the front. Good. There are manual (cheaper) and auto options, and the car starts (started) at £29,995, which makes it conspicuous value. But where the GT86 had a slightly breathless, naturally-aspirated 2.0-litre flat four, the GR86 (now a Gazoo Racing product) has a 2.4. That raises outputs from 197bhp to 231, and torque from 151lb ft to 184lb ft, still without forced induction.
That doesn’t sound much, but when you realise that maximum torque is now delivered at 3,700rpm instead of 6,700, and that the car isn’t much heavier than the outgoing one (spec-for-spec, it’s supposedly a little lighter), it’s going to make a difference to the driving experience.
What about other stuff?
Well, it looks a bit different. And there’s been a lot of strengthening and bracing going on: only a few elements of which you can spot by poking around the car and opening the bonnet. Struts and bracing have evolved everywhere, and when you include geek-tastic minutiae like stronger nut fastenings and subframe-mounted anti-roll bars, you get a car that’s 60-per cent stiffer at the front and 50-per cent stiffer at the back.
That’s a good thing, because it gives the suspension a reliable and consistent base from which to push. And that suspension is 10mm lower than before, with changes to geometry, springs and dampers (there’s been a tiny 5mm extension of the wheelbase and a dropped driver’s seat), although that was a marginal call as it still sits too high for some.
The manual has also been tightened up, and there’s a new interior. So this is more than just a name-change and a fettle.
So… is it any good?
Short answer, yes. Longer answer… you need to spend some time with it to appreciate just how good, because the first time you drop into it, it feels a little bit more grown-up than the GT86 and that can smack of mission creep and middle-aged spread. For a start, it looks a bit heavier. More rounded, though ultimately happier in the family line-up of GR products. That’s a visual trick though: this car has more aluminium hidden away, which means that it’s a tiny bit lighter than the old car spec-for-spec. Not enough to really notice, but certainly not the other way.
The interior is nicer than before and it all works well, though there’s a noticeable feeling that the engineering money was spent elsewhere. It’s not bad as such, but certainly nothing to write home about, or spend too long fondling. But that’s fine, what we want here is a driving experience rather than a limousine. And you get quite the driving experience.
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Stop stalling and tell us what it’s like!
Well, stalling might be literal, seeing as the car we had was quite grumpy in the first two gears. Although that could well be something to do with it being very fresh and needing a little bedding in. You certainly get used to it after a bit, but it was noticeable. Then you notice that the car is quieter - though not quiet - through the suspension, and the steering, brakes and control surfaces all work really well as a team. The ‘box is positive and precise, the steering accurate and not too light. Although the wheel itself is a bit big for our taste. This is all good stuff, but didn’t feel like a step-change.
The revelation comes when you start to go even a little bit faster. Because where you had to rev the absolute valves off the last one to get it going (which could be argued as a feature), the GR86 steps up at around 4,000rpm and gets going with much more purpose. That means a gear up in most corners thanks to eminently sensible gearing, or much more accessible speed.
And then you realise that where it felt a bit grown-up at first, Toyota has delivered on the driving experience once again. This really is a fabulous car in which to learn about rear-wheel drive chassis dynamics. Because the GR86 is fun without being scary, and does everything with clear indications of what’s going on at both ends of the car.
You want to cruise? Just do so. It’ll be a happy little commuter that’s a bit surface sensitive and thumpy on a badly-surfaced road. Push a bit further and you get hot hatch vibes and good ground-covering ability: nimble, small enough for a B-road, fun to rev out without risking licence or safety.
But given a private road or track, there’s more. Too fast into a corner? You’ll get light understeer which you can kill by backing off. Push harder and the back will break away, but the swap between things-happening-to-the-front and things-happening-to-the-back is flagged up early and consistently. Which means you can then play with the throttle and get the car to dance about a bit, all without the feeling of incipient doom you get with some rear-wheel drive cars.
The Track mode is absolutely grand for this: a little quarter-turn of opposite lock without a full breakaway, learning without too many consequences. In fact, the GR86 mimics a car with a much longer wheelbase: there’s not too much snap, and it makes you feel confident and secure. There’s a lot to be said for a snake’s-belly centre-of-gravity and a flat-four up under the bulkhead. You can’t argue with physics.
Of course, if you get somewhere with some run-off and want to play, you can switch everything off and trust the Torsen diff in the back with your ego, but the essential nature of the car doesn’t change. So you can learn in relative safety. Next-level drivers will always want for power and more of a knife-edge, but not a single one will ever say that the GR86 isn’t fun. It drifts. Easily and with vim, and doesn’t destroy a set of tyres every lap. It’s brilliant.
What are the downsides?
Well, the interior is a bit plasticky, the ride is a bit unsettled on really bad roads and it’s all sold out, but not much more than that. The standard-fit (in the UK) Michelin Pilot Sport 4s are more expensive than the old Primacys and you can only have it in six colours - black, silver, grey, white, red or blue - but that’s about it.
So is it still a 9/10 in the UK?
It didn’t feel like it, at first. But the longer you spend with the GR86, you realise that it’s not a fatter older-brother to the GT86, just one that’s been to the gym a little bit. It’s got a spread of abilities that seem to be dying out, and a vibe that it’s been made for people like us; people who like driving for driving’s sake, rather than exclusively as transportation.
The other thing that keeps cropping up is that there really aren’t many cars out there like the GR86 for the money. Yes, there are sweeter, nicer-sounding, more powerful engines out there, and there are cars that are faster with nicer interiors, but nothing quite like the generous balance that the Toyota offers. It’s genuinely lovely, and obviously made by people who like what we like.
Photography: Mark Riccioni