Way back in the day, Toyota was known as a racing company. The Toyota 2000GT proved to the world that Toyota could make impressively fast cars, and the AE86 proved that you don’t need a million and a half horsepower in order to be fast. The Toyota 86 embodies both these classic Toyotas in a single, well-balanced sport compact.
And just like the 2000GT, Toyota doesn’t even make them. Every Toyota 86 is made in Subaru’s factory in Gunma, Japan, along with its sister car, the Subaru BRZ.
But we can’t be too harsh on Toyota. Before the 86 came along (then introduced as the Scion FR-S, before Scion as a brand bit the proverbial bullet) it had been 6 years since the last Toyota sport compact was produced in the Celica. Since the late 2000s, sport compact cars had been on their way out as a body style, with most carmakers either eliminating them from their lineups (as Toyota did when they killed the Celica) or turning them into luxury grand tourers, priced out of reach for the common masses.
Then, in 2012, Toyota and Subaru returned with the first truly affordable, front engine, rear-wheel-drive sport compact car since the legendary Supra ended production in 2002.
Powered by a 2.0-L naturally aspirated boxer engine (again, from Subaru), the Toyota 86 gets 205 hp and 156 lb-ft of torque. Power is routed to the rear wheels either through a 6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters. The automatic has also been programmed to feel like a dual-clutch, but rest assured there is definitely no clutch in the tranny.
Zero to sixty is done in 6.2 seconds on its way to a top speed of around 145 mph, give or take a mile.
Those numbers might make it sound like the 86 is abysmally underpowered, but since the whole chassis only weighs 2,846 lbs, the 86 is delightfully nimble. The design mirrors the aesthetics of the classic AE86 which emphasized handling over brute strength. To that end, the 86 is equipped with a mechanical Torsen limited-slip differential and a sport-tuned independent front suspension and a double-wishbone in the rear, exactly the same as the AE86.
In order to keep costs down, the rest of the car is surprisingly barebones. On the outside, you get automatic LED headlights and heated power mirrors, but you get the sense that Toyota wouldn’t have used them if they even still made cheaper parts.
The GT trim gets a rear wing, and if you head up to the limited TRD Special Edition, the 86 comes with a new chin spoiler, fancy graphics, Brembo brakes, and Sachs Performance adjustable dampers.
If you were expecting to find sensors for blind spot monitoring, lane departure warning, or adaptive cruise control, you won’t find them on the 86.
On the inside, the 86 gets away with the barest of modern amenities. A 7-inch infotainment sits in the middle, and the GT gets an additional 4.2-inch vehicle data screen between the instrument gauges. The driver sits in a manually operated 6-way adjustable bucket seat which can be heated in the GT trim, but not vented. Keyless entry and push-button start again only comes on the GT. If you opt for the base 86, you’re sticking a key in the steering column just like it’s 1999.
But at least you're comfortable. The seats are trimmed in microsuede, as are the tops of the doors and dashboard. The steering wheel and shift knob are both wrapped in leather with contrasting stitching, and you can get the seats in leather if you go for the GT. Manual air conditioning comes on the base 86, while the GT gets dual-zone climate control.
At base, the Toyota 86 costs $26,455. The GT trim brings that price up to $28,585, and the TRD Special Edition goes all the way up to $32,420. There aren’t a whole lot of options to add to the car, so those prices pretty much it barring freight and taxes.
This is the part where we normally talk about cars that compete in the segment, but the Toyota 86 is basically it. Ford no longer sells the Focus RS in North America, the new Toyota Supra is now in a price bracket well above the 86, and everything is either muscle cars or luxury coupes.
About the only car that even comes close is the Mazda MX-5 Miata. The base-level Miata comes in at $25,730, 181 horsepower, and with a folding roof. It also has available driver assist options like lane keeping and blind spot monitoring.
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However, the Miata is vastly less practical than the 86, which although not the most spacious of vehicles, it certainly has more room for luggage than a Miata.
Strangely, the closest competitor to the Toyota 86 is its sister car, the Subaru BRZ. Both cars are essentially the same (remember: they’re made in the same place by the same people), although if you want a cheap manual sport coupe the base-model BRZ clocks in at just $25,795.
So if you want an inexpensive manual sport compact, you might as well save yourself 650 bucks and get the Subaru.
Sadly, we might not see the Toyota 86 for very much longer. Sales in 2018 are less than a quarter of what they were at their height in 2013, and it seems unlikely to improve as we head into a future filled with autonomous and electric vehicles. Consider the 86 the last hurrah from an era of minimalist performance designed to be fast and fun both on the track and in the streets.