Front engine, rear wheel drive and a taut, lightweight chassis - three simple elements that have, for decades, symbolised the very best in driving dynamics and outright ability. Japanese manufacturers have for much of that time, managed to nail that formula as well as anyone.
Think back to the original Datsun 240Z, the first Mazda R100 rotary, and the original Toyota Celica. In more recent times, few cars have lived up to that simple brief as well as the Mazda MX-5. It might not be quite the car it once was now, but its legend is well and truly cemented built on a foundation of driving dynamics and enjoyment.
We knew when Toyota/Subaru launched their 86/BRZ twins that the potential was there for the diminutive coupe to become an all time great. The price raised eyebrows even before we knew just how good the car was. The time since launch (just over two years now) has only served to reinforce that opinion. Every time I’ve had the fortune to drive one, I’m reminded of just how beautifully balanced and precise these cars are. Crucially, I’m reminded of how much good, simple fun they deliver.
Toyota was adamant at launch that the 86 was the spiritual successor to the legendary 2000GT sports car. I’m not so sure. I’ve owned two Australian delivered AE86 Sprinters in the past few years and the 86 is as close to that now legendary formula as any car will ever get. Every time I drive an 86, I’m left cursing that I sold both my AEs.
There’s a lot to be said for not meddling with a good thing. When the company announced the 2015 model year 86 was going to be tweaked, and the words ‘revised suspension’ were used, nerves began to tingle. Why fiddle with a suspension set-up so razor sharp and precise? The 86 is one of very few cars that you drive and genuinely wish for more power and torque. That’s no criticism of the engine mind you, more a compliment for the inherent brilliance of the chassis, which feels like it can handle at least 50 per cent more power.
The good news is we worried needlessly but we’ll get to that later. First, let’s run through the changes for the 2015 model. The revised suspension set-up, according to Toyota, delivers better handling response and steering feel while enhancing ride quality. On test here, the top spec GTS model with the largest rims across the range will certainly put the ride quality claim to the test.
Revised suspension mounts, new oil seals and guide bushings and improved friction control within the dampers is said to result in decreased body roll and improved handling stability. An integral part of the suspension tweaks are the retuned shock absorbers with Toyota’s global 86 chief engineer Tetsuya Tada paying specific attention to their initial response and bump absorption. This was tested with the suspension at its limit and on wet road surfaces.
The top of the range GTS remains largely unchanged inside the cabin, with a reverse-view camera added and carbonfibre look trim across the dash fascia. While it might not be the real thing, it’s as good as imitation carbonfibre gets, and suits the boy racer theme of the 86 perfectly. The GTS manual can be had for $36,490, while the auto as tested here costs $39,290. That equates to a price rise of $800 for the auto. Spend more than ten minutes behind the wheel though and there’s little doubt the 86 continues to represent incredible value for money.
A new colour - crisp white - and a neat shark fin antenna atop the roof are the only exterior differentiators.
Inside, it all feels very familiar. It's like a go kart, as though you're sitting barely inches above the road surface. Forward visibility is exceptional, not so great rearward.
The seats have enough fore and aft adjustment to accommodate my 187cm frame, and the steering wheel is adjustable for reach and rake. Connecting to the Bluetooth system doesn’t take too long and it’s nice and clear once connected.
Straight roads are your enemy in the 86, and I find myself searching for corners wherever I can find them.
In normal mode, the six-speed auto with paddleshifters is smooth and precise, and the best mode for around town. In sport mode, shifts seem a little crisper and its overall ability is impressive. However, it has a tendency to hold the gear longer than may be ideal - at times it’s enough to make you hanker for a manual shifter.
The engine, sedate around town, growls with a sense of urgency as you work it toward redline. The 2.0-litre remains unchanged, developing 147kW and 205Nm. The 0-100km/h sprint comes up in 8.2-seconds for the auto (7.6sec for the manual). Those numbers aren’t mind blowing, but consider this: the 86 can weigh as little as 1220kg in base spec manual guise, so there’s not a lot of heft to be moved around. With mostly urban driving, the on-board readout showed 10.5 litres per 100 kilometres (claimed combined usage: 7.1L/100km). The 86 insists upon 98-octane premium unleaded.
You get the sense there's so much potential in this boxer four-cylinder, and if I owned one forced induction would be a must. That said, there’s a silky smooth hum to the engine’s naturally aspirated liberty and it sings to redline effortlessly whenever you ask it to. Only right at the peak of the rev range does it ever feel breathless and like it’s running out of puff.
Twisty country roads, outside of a racetrack, are the 86’s stock and trade. The chassis comes alive as the speed reaches 100km/h through wide sweepers and there’s a razor sharp precision to every nuance of feedback, every reaction to the surface beneath the tyres. Unlike some sports cars, the 86 is forgiving, too. Fly into a corner too hot, simply wind on more lock and the front end hooks in with surety and fires you through the corner.
We’ve tested the 86 on track many times and with the traction control turned off, the rear end will dance outside the line in beautiful oversteer but never in a threatening manner. The inherent chassis balance is so superb that the 86 never feels like it will bite you for simply trying to have fun. It's the opposite - the 86 is all about fun, and at this price, there is no better potential weekend track car.
Steering feedback is as close to perfect as you’ll find outside of the most accomplished supercars. You can feel every reaction from the front tyres, but never in a harsh or violent way that jars the wheel in your hands. The smallest steering inputs have the desired result, and caressing the 86 through your desired line is a challenge of immense enjoyment. The more supple dampers seem better able to cope with mid corner ruts and bumps, and front-end grip might be even better than it was.
The 86 is a car that will tease you to find the long way home – preferably with corners – on every drive. It’s a car that leaves the average punter feeling like they could be a professional JGTC driver.
Negatives are few. The audio system has an aftermarket feel and look to it. It works well enough, it just doesn’t look very stylish and it seems something of an afterthought.
The back seats are so cramped I question why Toyota bothered with them at all. I tried to fold a few smaller family members into the back seat and it wasn’t easy or comfortable. Even shorties struggle back there for longer than ten minutes.
The ride can still be a little jarring over really poor road surfaces, but that’s more a criticism aimed at councils and governments than Toyota. And, as promised, the suspension retune has softened the blow from the worst of the bumps.
The 86 has always delivered a connection between car and driver that few modern vehicles can muster, and it continues to do so. The competence of the chassis and steering and the synergy between them is so intoxicating that it leaves everyone who drives it longing for that connection from every car.
Personally, the entry-level manual that starts at just $29,990 remains the pick of the 86 bunch and the 9/10 score here reflects that. The auto gets an 8.5/10, but the fact you can buy an automatic 86 with all the fruit for less than forty grand is immensely appealing, if that's what you're after.
*Note:- some images of pre-facelift model.