2022 Toyota GR 86 First Drive Review: The Same Cheap RWD Shenanigans, Only Better
With a bigger engine, more power, and a welcome dab of refinement, the Toyobaru’s second round is a victory lap.
"Designed by enthusiasts, for enthusiasts." That's how Toyota's marketing people talk about the 2022 Toyota GR 86, and I can't think of a more apt description. It takes a lot—or at least a CEO who really, really thinks cars should be fun to drive—to drop a brand-new, affordable, naturally aspirated, manual-equipped, rear-wheel-drive sports car in 2021 when the whole market is dominated by... well, everything but that stuff.
If you ask people at Toyota, this wouldn't have happened if the top guy, I'd-rather-be-at-the-track-than-the-boardroom CEO Akio Toyoda, hadn't pushed for it. That hype is real. So we probably have him to thank for the second go-around of this sports car joint venture with Subaru, now packing a bigger engine, more power, better tech, and a dab of refinement, but no major changes to the recipe that fans loved—and that critics said just wasn't enough.
2022 Toyota GR 86: By the Numbers
- Base price: $27,700
- Powertrain: 2.4-liter four-cylinder | 6-speed automatic or 6-speed manual | rear-wheel drive
- Horsepower: 228 @ 7,000 rpm
- Torque: 184 lb-ft @ 3,700 rpm
- Cargo volume: 6.26 cubic feet
- Seating capacity: 4
- Curb weight: 2,811 pounds (base MT) | 2,868 pounds (premium AT)
- Fuel economy: 19 mpg city, 26 highway, 21 combined (MT) | 20 mpg city, 30 highway, 24 combined (AT) (manufacturer est.)
- Quick take: If you liked the Toyobaru before, you'll love this one. But the lack of turbo power probably won't convince any skeptics.
What's New (and Not So New)
It's shocking to think the Toyobaru has been with us for about a decade now. When it started life as the Subaru BRZ and the Scion FR-S—remember Scion, kids?—the idea was to deliver an affordable, small, RWD sports-car experience, something that by then had almost disappeared from the market, except for the Mazda Miata and a few stragglers like the Hyundai Genesis Coupe.
The emphasis was on handling and track-readiness, not outright speed, which made it popular with a small set of believers but misunderstood by mainstream American performance car buyers swayed by big horsepower figures and straight-line speeds. On any given month over the past few years, Ford sold about 20 times as many Mustangs as Subaru and Toyota dealers moved BRZs and 86s. (The FR-S was rechristened the 86 in 2016 when the Scion brand was folded into Toyota; it had always been called that in other markets, a nod to the legendary rear-wheel-drive AE86 Corolla of the 1980s.)
But the true believers included the two companies behind these cars, and they were passionate enough to give it a second go. Or maybe they both move enough Outbacks and RAV4s that they can do whatever the hell they want from time to time.
As with the outgoing model, Subaru led the manufacturing, engineering, and development—both the new 86 and BRZ's guts are all Subaru again—and Toyota led the design work. There's a Subaru boxer engine once more, now a larger 2.4-liter four up from the old 2.0, and boosted to 228 hp and 184 pound-feet of torque, a roughly 20 percent gain on both counts.
While the Toyobaru sits on the same platform as before—making this a thoroughly worked over "new" sports car, not unlike the upcoming new Nissan Z—significant upgrades include new rebound springs, frame and cross member enhancements for extra rigidity, functional external vents meant to improve steering stability, and a strut stabilizer bar now connected directly to the subframe. The cabin has been improved with a few more premium touches and more modern tech. But even the automatic option still offers just six gears, which feels delightfully archaic by 2021 standards.
The good news is Toyota and Subaru didn't screw this up. It feels like every new car model gets bigger, fatter, heavier, and less engaging with each iteration. Yet the GR 86 (now adding "Gazoo Racing" to its name; we'll see if that catches on) and 2022 BRZ are just one inch longer overall, marginally longer in wheelbase, actually half an inch shorter than their outgoing versions, and have only gained about 80 pounds. They still come in well under 3,000 pounds.
In other words, Subaru and Toyota kept things light and tiny, such that any weight and size changes are almost insignificant. That alone is an impressive engineering achievement, and it does a lot to keep the cars' spirits intact.
It doesn't look drastically different, either, but it does look better. The front and rear (including taillights) have been totally revamped for a slightly more mature look, with the former giving off serious Porsche Cayman vibes. It has a sleeker shape overall, and from some angles almost looks like a baby Lexus RC F—which I didn't mind. The front fenders and the roof panel are now made of aluminum to keep weight down, too. Finally, I'm glad to see the tasteful ducktail spoiler on the Premium trim replace the somewhat gaudy old rear wing. That was a little too 2000s for my taste.
Speaking of trims, we get just two now: GR 86 and GR 86 Premium. The Premium version gets that spoiler, black 18-inch aluminum wheels, nicer heated front seats with leather and Alcantara, and an eight-speaker sound system, versus six speakers for the base car. Other base-car features include 17-inch wheels, chrome-tipped dual exhausts, sport bucket seats, cruise control, and a leather-wrapped shift knob. Either can be had with the manual or the automatic.
On the Track
This first drive review represents my impressions of the new GR 86 after several hours of hot laps at Monticello Motor Club in upstate New York and about an hour of street testing, bolstered by many, many years of experience with the outgoing car. The Drive will bring you a deeper assessment when we can test the new car at length, but this is a machine I knew extremely well off the bat.
Frankly, I was thrilled to start my Monticello adventure in an old Hakone Edition 86—that car feels like hanging out with an old friend at this point. Thanks to varying states of lockdowns, I've done precious little track driving over the past year. I needed to get a feel for things again. What more could I want than a small, not-too-powerful RWD sports car with a stick? Hit the big Track Mode button, turn off stability control, and go.
Right away, I was reminded of how for-gearheads-only the 86 is with its bolstered seats, annoyingly high-uptake clutch, raucous boxer engine, and tight gearbox. I also remembered how communicative and forgiving it is. As I did my hot laps and got a better feel and visual sense for the track, minding how best to connect the dots between apex points, the 86 offered constant feedback. The steering and chassis feel told me how far I could push the rear end out, and how fast. It lets you know exactly when you're about to screw up and how to correct for it, and how far it's willing to be pushed. Pretty far, honestly—the 86 is easy to learn but takes a lot to truly master. I couldn't have asked for a better partner to help get my sea legs back.
That is, until I drove the new GR 86, which is an objectively superior car. And a more fun one to drive on a track like this. It's a master class in approachable limits.
Straight-line speed has never been the 86's strong suit, but in adding almost half a liter of displacement, the new GR 86 does zero to 60 mph in 6.1 seconds in manual form. That's close to a full second quicker than before, and you had better believe it makes a difference on a back straight. It now charges ahead with an urgency I never felt in the old car. It may not keep turbocharged sports cars awake at night, but it can take care of business. The power bump here is noticeable and welcome, as is the flatter torque curve, which makes a massive difference in thrust.
Next, there's the steering, which is an all-new and less heavy electric unit. It has a lighter, smoother, slightly more boosted feeling than before, but even with fewer vibrations than the outgoing car, it still offers a ton of road feel. It's actually even more communicative. Ready to slide on command? The GR 86 tells you how. The full Monticello course had not one but two bus stops, and I felt like a kid in a playground figuring out how to attack them faster and faster each time—all while the car eagerly encouraged my bad behavior and let me know when to dial it back. The ride quality was noticeably smoother when I did it as well.
Eventually, I started seeing how far I could get the back end to slide, to feel just how stupid I could get—all with a gigantic grin on my face the entire time. And all with the utter confidence that the car had my back. Without overwhelming horsepower, it's nigh-on impossible to get into real trouble in this thing unless you abandon all caution.
(By the way, most of us had more fun on the base car's cheaper Michelin Primacy HP tires, which have less grip than the GR 86 Premium's Pilot Sport 4s, and thus are more poised for these kinds of shenanigans.)
Obviously, the manual transmission is where it's at. Subaru and Toyota kept that factory short-shifter action we all loved. The six-speed automatic wasn't bad out on Monticello, however. The paddle shifts may not be DCT levels of fast, but they don't slow you down when you're rowing your own in a performance setting. But I switched back to the manual test cars as quickly as I could because I'm so glad they're here. It would've been insane for Toyota to launch a two-door sports car with only an automatic available.
In the end, I felt the magic of the GR 86: On the track, it's not just a great partner, it's a great teacher, too. That's true whether you're a total novice, a moderate looking to get better, or an expert. You won't find many better options from the factory than this—and especially at this price range.
On the Street
Toward the end of the day, I finally scored keys to a GR 86 allocated for street duty, and while I'd need a longer test to form a fuller opinion, let's just say that the "more of the same, just generally better" thesis applies away from the track too.
Most of the old 86's roughest edges have been sanded down but not off, thankfully. Too many sports cars fall into the trap of "refinement" with subsequent generations. Not here, though. The GR 86 is a bit less irritating to live with day-to-day now, but it keeps its character intact. For example, the clutch uptake remains high—I and a bunch of other auto writers had a bad habit of stalling out the old car—but it seems more livable here.
The manual shifter is still one of my favorites, although the one in the competing Miata is a little smoother and a little shorter overall. Whatever Subaru and Toyota have done to the suspension is appreciated because the ride quality is a big improvement that obviously doesn't come at the expense of handling.
On the inside, the GR 86 feels like a bunch of Scion designers got pulled out of retirement for One Last Job. By that I mean it's still very much a Subaru economy car interior, with the economy car plastics molded into aggressive-looking buttons and switches, as if meant to appeal to a teenage driver who describes everything they love as "fire." But the car has to start under $30,000 somehow, and that's gonna be how.
I didn't get enough time to really test the infotainment system, but it looks about five years behind most modern cars, a far cry from those big-tablet systems you find on other Subarus. Then again, do you want something like that on your affordable sports car? The stereo isn't anything to write home about either; but again, none of that is the point of the GR 86.
I do appreciate the new digital instrument display above the steering wheel, which adds different designs for the various drive modes, a startup animation, and functions like a G-meter and power/torque chart. It's done in a minimalist black, white, and red scheme so it doesn't detract from the car's driving-purist ethos. It's a welcome addition here. Beyond that, if you need a ton of creature comforts, find a different car. As with the tire situation above, I think the GR 86 is best in its cheapest spec.
And how's that new 2.4-liter four on the road? It's definitely loud like it was before, yet not quite as onerous under hard acceleration. But the power boost is a fantastic addition to this recipe. With the GR 86, you no longer struggle for power at lower rpms, waiting to build up your revs for any real sense of speed. There's clearly a good amount of real-world thrust it didn't have before.
But there will always be those who demand more power, who want a better platform to tune for big power gains—an STI version of some kind. The GR 86 still isn't that car, and as good as it is, it's still not what a lot of people (or at least keyboard warriors) wanted. You'll still either love or hate it with little in-between.
In short, if you liked—or own—the last-generation Subaru BRZ or Toyota 86, you're going to love this one. It's not only faster, but it's also considerably more fun and with fewer of the qualities that made it occasionally suboptimal for daily driving.
If you still think it isn't powerful enough or fast enough or loud enough—if you're still here for years of forum rumors and blog posts saying it might get a turbo "soon"—this won't change your mind. But we should all be glad it's here to party with us.
Just as it was way back in 2012, the new GR 86 is a breath of fresh air. Even more so now, in a market that's become increasingly unkind to sports car buyers. But between this, the new Nissan Z, and the upcoming Acura Integra, maybe—just maybe—there's more to the world than crossovers.
Reach the author at email@example.com.
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