“Driver Focused, Not For Everyone”
The Toyota 86 (and Subaru BRZ) are a throwback to cars of a bygone era; lightweight, low horsepower, and a sublime chassis developed by people who “get it” with minimal involvement from the bean counters, at least where it counts. This doesn’t mean the 86 platform hasn’t been met with some criticism since it debuted back in 2013, some of which is justified but most of which is short sighted at best.
The Toyota 86 is something that enthusiasts claim to want, harking back to performance heroes of the past that put performance and driver involvement first. Examples include things such as the original Mazda Miata/MX-5, Honda S2000, Lotus Elise, Toyota MR2, and perhaps even the god father of the segment; the BMW E30 M3. The 86 is a way of paying respect to the performance benchmarks of the past by utilizing the fun to drive, rear wheel drive, affordable formula but while also updating it to fit into modern times. Like its older brother the AE86 ‘Hachi-Roku”; the 86 focuses on driving dynamics, lightweight, and affordability and this allows the 86 the luxury of having very few competitors, with the Mazda MX-5 being perhaps the only serious contender in the segment.
The Toyota 86 is what I refer to as a “commitment car”, meaning that if you’re committed and willing to explore the limits of the chassis, then you’ll be rewarded with an experience that can be had in very few cars, at least at this price range. This is down to the fine tuning of the chassis and suspension system to maximize fun and performance, combined with Subaru’s Boxer engine platform to reduce body roll to something often only seen in purpose built race and track cars. This is something very impressive at any price range, and even more so for a sub $30,000 street car.
The 86 is also completely liveable as a daily driver; sure it doesn’t dual zone climate control, lane change assist, or cup holders large enough for the over-caffeinated soccer mom’s double XL caramel fudge mint coffee contraption but in short; that isn’t why you purchase this car. The 86 is easy to drive around town, easy to park, and has a respectable cargo capacity for the style of car. On the highway, the 86 cruises like any other car; and in many ways in similar to my previous car; the Mazda 3. Sure, the cruising RPM in 6th gear is a bit high (3000 RPM) but this is a small sacrifice to make for a slightly adjusted final drive ratio that better compliments the gear ratios and relative power and torque bands of the car respectively.
Speaking of power and torque, this is one aspect the 86 platform that is widely criticized. In my personal opinion; for what the car is, what it costs, and its intended purpose I feel it has plenty of power. It isn’t going to win drag races against.. Well anything really but that isn’t the point, again see “intended purpose”. However, what the 86 lacks is not power, contrary to popular opinion, but torque. Torque is something the 86 platform lacks, and the “torque dip” between 3,000 and 4,000 RPM is still present in the 2017 model 86 and BRZ. This can be fixed with a header and tune, however this may be what is putting potential customers off the car in stock form. They don’t know what they’re missing. Shame.
This doesn’t mean that the 86 is without its shortcomings. The infotainment system is lackluster and is extremely frustrating to use, especially when trying to play music via Bluetooth. A software update would fix this, but this same system is used on large number of models in Toyota’s range and has been for some time, and no software update appears to be on the horizon sadly. The next two are minor gripes; there is no fuel range indicator, but instead an old school gauge, I feel that this is something the car should have had, especially when it comes on cars that cost much less. Additionally, there is nothing that indicates on the instrument panel that the headlights are illuminated, however one exists to indicate when the high beams are active. I’m not going to get into other things, such as the “backseat”, styling, etc. as I believe this is something that is subjective and down to an individual’s own personal discretion.
From my perspective as a race car driver, the 86 represents what performance cars should be, and it just so happens to be the very discipline of car I enjoy driving the most. The driving position is superb, the clutch and shifter are extremely responsive, reminding me almost of my Honda Civic race car, and the feedback the overall car provides is extremely impressive for a street car running with dampers and bushing tuned for primarily street use and not for setting blistering lap times on track. The Michelin Primacy tires the car comes equipped with as standard are a summer performance tire and are indeed tires directly off a Toyota Prius (but as an option, and only on Prius models sold in Japan).
The tire compound is an aspect of the 86 I’m still not settled on, the internal conflict of race car driver and driving enthusiast is a struggle, and these tires don’t help that. Both aspects of me appreciate that the car was developed around these tires to highlight the agility and capabilities of the chassis platform while maximizing fun for the driver. However, the racing driver side of me feels that the tires are limiting the true performance potential of the car, and given a proper set of grippy rubber, I feel that the 86 platform could embarrass cars costing twice its price on any twisty road or race track even more so than it already does. That being said, the driver enthusiast side of me feels that the tires are perfect for the car (at least in a stock capacity) and really highlight the characteristics of the car. The brakes are very responsive, but after some “spirited” driving, slowly begin to fade which is slightly surprising, but some braided brake lines and possibly some upgraded brake pads could remedy this (more to come..) I’ll be autocrossing the car very soon, so all its relative shortcomings will be exposed and adjustments and modifications will be made where I see fit. Look for more of that in the second part of this review.
In summary, the Toyota 86 represents a real #TBT to sports cars of the past, and is something that anyone who considers themselves an enthusiast owes to themselves to take a spin in. The 86 platform has struck a balance between sports car driving characteristics and daily practicality while also being competitively priced allowing it to access a younger consumer demographic that other vehicles in the class will ultimately struggle to reach. Driving the 86 really does make every day feel like an episode of Initial D or Best Motoring and reminds me just how much joy can be had in the automobile.
Look for part two soon, which will focus more on my own personal experiences with the Toyota 86 after a few months of ownership. I will also cover how my first autocross event (PITL) went, and plans for any mods in the future as a result. This also means a “before and after test” of sorts will be conducted from one respective autocross event to the next.