Toyota GR86 review – new coupe takes the challenge to Porsche’s Cayman 2.0

A new engine, revised chassis and subtle exterior and interior upgrades result in one of the best sports car bargains for a generation

Engine now delivers what’s required to enjoy everything the chassis offers dynamically
Gearbox shifts could be sharper, steering meatier

There’s more power, up from 200hp to 231bhp, but it’s the 33lb ft of additional torque bringing the peak to 184lb ft that makes the difference. It now arrives at 3700rpm, nearly 3000rpm lower than in the old engine and it’s the most significant improvement, transforming the car without removing any of the original’s infectious character. 

The wrapped example driven here on road and track is still a prototype ahead of its European debut on 2 December, but it feels pretty finished and production-ready to us. And, fans of compact, light (1275kg), affordable (the GR86 will cost less than a GR Yaris) rear-drive sports cars will be pleased to hear it’s pretty bloody good, too.

> Litchfield Toyota GR Yaris 2021 review – superstar hatchback picks up expert tuning

An evolutionary approach has been taken with the GR86, although the majority of the changes are more than a simple tweak, especially so when it comes to the engine. Out has gone the thrashy, torque-lite 2-litre naturally aspirated flat-four and in its place is a 2.4-litre non-turbo boxer unit. It’s still from Subaru’s engine department (Europe won’t be getting the BRZ equivalent this time around) but its increased swept volume, thanks to a bore increase, combined with a new intake manifold and exhaust, new fuel pump and water-cooled oil cooler results in a motor that no longer requires you to thrash it to within an inch of the valves making a break for freedom. 

There’s more power, up from 200hp to 231bhp, but it’s the 33lb ft of additional torque bringing the peak to 184lb ft that makes the difference. It now arrives at 3700rpm, nearly 3000rpm lower than in the old engine and it’s the most significant improvement, transforming the car without removing any of the original’s infectious character. 

From the off there’s more intent from the engine and exhaust note. It’s not over the top like a German hot hatch with all its exhaust valves open, but there’s more depth and detail to the sounds being generated. It’s less thrashy, more thrummy. Yet the sound isn’t what grabs your attention because it becomes very apparent very quickly that the GT86’s Achilles heel has been dealt with, and that Toyota’s little coupe is a gem when it has an engine that allows you to dive headfirst into its talents. 

The willingness to rev hasn’t been lost but it’s now matched with an ability to make progress, too. And with the revs picking up quickly you’re immediately into the engine’s new-found wave of torque that brings the car alive. Peak power still arrives at a high 7000rpm but it no longer feels as if it’s straining for the redline.

Two six-speed gearboxes are offered, either a manual or automatic. The former is carried over from the GT86, with a new synchromesh on fourth gear to improve the shift and the gear shifter itself has been redesigned to fit more snugly in your hand. The final drive has also been altered, as rather than chase top speed (it’s still 225kph) GR wanted to prioritise fun over outright performance.

Therefore, its straight-line performance remains supermini quick rather than hot hatch worrying, but the 86 has always been more about how it behaves through the wiggly bits at the end of the straight. And to take advantage of the GR’s new level of ookph the chassis’s rigidity has been increased by as much as 60 per cent across the front of the car. This has been achieved by fitting cross-members between the suspension legs and the chassis to improve loading on the front tyres and reduce lateral forces. The suspension mounts are now connected to the body with stronger fasteners and a diagonal frame for the bonnet replaces the previous car’s honeycomb item. 

Similar strengthening changes have been made to the rear suspension, with the double-wishbones more tightly secured to the frame and the inner wing panel now also directly connected to the rear chassis section, creating a continuous structure. All of which reduces the twisting effect of the body by 50 per cent. Add in a lower centre of gravity on a car that already had one of the lowest, plus a 53:47 weight distribution and the GR86 is one seriously impressive coupe. 

The revisions to the springs and dampers, along with the addition of a rebound spring and aluminium engine bracket, combine with the revised EPAS system to deliver a consistent front end that’s easier to place on the road and through a corner than its predecessor, which was pretty good at this stuff, too. The steering is a touch light on its initial input and doesn’t build much weight thereafter, but each small adjustment is met with the expected response that allows for incredibly precise positioning in, through and out of the corner. 

There’s a neutrality to how it handles that allows you to build up and work beyond its limits. There’s hardly a hint of understeer and when you start to work the throttle through a turn, the chassis works as one, the GR86 taking an attitude that feels like all four wheels are gliding across the surface rather than the rear attempting to reach the corner exit first. There’s a Torsen torque bias diff rather than a locking one, but it’s well suited to the car’s nature and performance, adding a level of precision and clarity when you start to ask more of the rear axle. 

On track at higher speeds it makes for a reassuring companion as you put more load through the car, operating within its sweet spot as you adjust the balance mid-corner to suit your requirements. There are no spikes to catch you out, and once you have pushed beyond its limit the moment from grip to slip is reassuringly linear and natural, your wrists rolling instinctively as you catch any slide. With the stability control switched off the slides are progressive and the engine’s additional torque gives you more to play with. The new track mode, which slackens off the electronic safety net but still provides some intervention, allows you to push around the GR’s, and your own, limits as you explore what’s on offer.  

Two tyre sizes and options will be offered, a 17-inch wheel that will be fitted with a Michelin Primacy tyre as before and a new 18-inch wheel that GR has opted to fit with a Pilot Sport 4 tyre, on which the car was developed and that was fitted to our test car. Any fears this has robbed the GR86 of the GT’s ability to wag its tail can be put to bed, the PS4 is a great tyre but no party pooper. 

There are larger brakes, with 294 and 290mm discs front and rear, offering good feel on road and coping with quick track work well. Although while the initial bite is strong and consistent, once you’re into the meat of the braking zone you can sometimes find yourself applying more pressure than you initially thought would be required. 

There are external changes hidden beneath the camo-wrap, but Toyota assures us that every vent and duct serves a genuine mechanical purpose rather than a cosmetic one. In terms of proportions, it still looks small and well-formed, with its design a blend between the GT86 and the Supra

Inside are some sizable changes including new front sports seats – good body grip, well-bolstered and with a good range of adjustment – and a new steering wheel that’s meaty without being overly chunky. The new TFT instrument dials and infotainment system are much improved and far better integrated than before, just as the quality of the plastics, leather and faux-Alcantara has stepped up, too. 

In a world where we are being asked to do more with less, improve efficiency, reduce waste and use only what we need, the GR86 feels like the perfect car for the 21st Century and beyond. Perhaps others should take note and follow Toyota’s path.

Price and Rivals

Totoya hadn’t confirmed the prices by the time we drove the car and doesn’t expect to until its December reveal. But, it has said it will be the entry car to GR ownership and sit below the GR Yaris, a car that starts at $40,285 and the last GT86 started at less than $38,000 so you can probably guess what a GR86 will cost. 

In terms of rivals, Mazda’s evergreen MX5 RF costs from $34,130 but will have its work cut out against the new GR. Audi’s 1.8 TT Sport starts at $36,590 and Porsche’s Cayman 2.0 at $60,100 but on this early showing the GR86 is going to be very hard to ignore. 

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