It's been three years since the Toyota 86 first exploded onto the Australian new car market with a sub-$30k starting price and the promise of 'proper' rear-wheel-drive dynamics. Initially a consistent top-seller in the local sports car segment, that success has not been matched globally. And now in 2015, sales here are so far down more than 30 per cent year-on-year.
So why has the love affair worn off? Was it all just hype from the very beginning, or is the Toyota 86 as legitimate now as it has ever been?
Since its June 2012 launch, CarAdvice has scored the two-door four-seat Toyota 86 nine out of 10, or better, in each and every review. And since that debut year, the 86 has been offered in two trims: a $29,990 entry-level GT and a flagship GTS, like the Ice Silver one tested here.
Starting at $35,990, though, the top-spec GTS is fast approaching rear-wheel-drive staples the Ford Falcon XR6 ($36,090) and Holden Commodore SV6 ($36,790) – both of which offer more power, more torque and legitimate seating for five.
Stretch a little further and performance benchmarks such as the front-wheel-drive Ford Focus ST ($38,990) and Volkswagen Golf GTI ($40,990) come into play, along with the all-paw Subaru WRX ($38,990).
Notable standard kit on the 86 includes fog lights, 16-inch alloy wheels, cruise control, a reversing camera, seven air bags, a six-speaker stereo with a 6.1-inch touchscreen and Bluetooth phone connectivity with audio streaming.
The top-spec GTS adds LED daytime running lights, HID headlights, satellite navigation, heated part-leather seats, dual-zone climate control, a push-button start, 17-inch alloy wheels and a rear spoiler.
Importantly, apart from a three-year/100,000km warranty and three years (or 60,000km) capped-price servicing, regardless of trim, all 86 variants also get a torsion limited-slip rear differential – and on a car like this, that matters…
Inside, things are basic but clean. There are simple and easy to use climate controls, a faux-carbonfibre dash panel, frameless rear-view mirror and, for the driver to enjoy, a white-faced central tacho with accompanying digital speedo.
Comprising fabric centres and red-stitched leather flanks, the 86’s sports seats are not only comfortable and supportive, they also do a terrific job of preventing occupants from sliding around.
Only able to accommodate two passengers, the backseat is undoubtedly snug. But while the heavily scalloped seats are easily best reserved for bags or emergency use only, taller folk can still be accommodated (though toe and legroom are both limited).
Ensuring more than a modicum of practicality, the Toyota 86 rear end is home to a 218-litre boot, which, by dropping the one-piece rear seat backrest, can be expanded to fit up to four full size wheels or two golf bags – fairly impressive.
Annoyingly though, three months after the car launched, Toyota decided to swap the 86’s spare alloy wheel for a puncture repair kit. By contrast, Subaru has kept the BRZ’s spare wheel, providing a real point of difference between the two models.
Despite being the source of much debate across internet forums the world over, the 86’s 2.0-litre ‘Boxer’ – or horizontally opposed – four-cylinder engine provides enough ‘go’ to lazily meander through the city, hovering around 2000-2500rpm.
Co-developed with Subaru, the FA20 86/BRZ powerplant produces 147kW of power at 7000rpm and 205Nm of torque at 6600rpm.
Disappointing many vocal enthusiasts, like the BRZ, the Toyota 86 has always been and so far continues to be, entirely naturally aspirated. That means no turbocharging or supercharging of any kind.
On the road the 86 feels small and light, and that’s because it is. Measuring 4240mm long and weighing 1275kg in GTS trim (1257kg in GT spec), the Toyota 86 is 55mm shorter than a Nissan Pulsar hatch and 11kg lighter than a three-door Kia Rio Sport.
Seemingly a good starting point for efficient performance, claiming 7.8 litres per 100km fuel usage (7.1L/100km for the auto) and 7.6 seconds 0-100km/h, the 86 is neither fast nor frugal. In fact, for context, the turbocharged quartet of the Ford Fiesta ST, Peugeot 208 GTi, Renault Clio RS, and Volkswagen Polo GTI are all faster and more economical.
But the Toyota 86 is about more than that, isn’t it? It’s about fun and engagement. Right?
Leaving the city behind us we head out into the 86’s natural habitat: the twisties. And it’s here that the car really starts to cement its wares.
Nestled low into the cabin, the driving position is near ideal. Pedal placement is bang on for heel-and-toe shifts and the round, button-free steering wheel is lovely to hold in the hands – no flat-bottom nonsense here.
After mere minutes behind the wheel, the analogue speedo on the left of the tacho is quickly forgotten in favour of the digital display directly in front of you. The remaining fuel and engine temperature gauges on the right-hand side, models of simplicity and clarity.
The 86’s squishy black dash-top material and driver and passenger knee pads are nice touches, while vision out is not bad – despite a heavily raked rear window and larger C-pillars.
Sight up and blast through corner after corner, and the thing putting the biggest smile on your face will be the electrically assisted rack and pinion steering.
An absolute standout of the car, the setup can feel a touch heavy at lower speeds and when parking, but once speeds increase, it really comes into its own. Delivering razor sharp response and high levels of engagement, it makes the 86 easily one of the best and most fun cars to point at a set of bends.
Doing its fair share to add to the excitement is the gearbox.
Teaming short, slick throws with accurate gating, the six-speed manual is excellent. Be warned however, as, unless you are super gentle, it will ‘thud’ into first gear whenever you’re at a standstill – every set of lights for example. The clutch is fairly light and somewhat vague when taking off too, though works well once on the move.
Brakes, on the other hand, are less of a strong suit.
Featuring larger discs than on the base GT (and ventilated all round), the GTS’s two-piston caliper front/single-piston caliper rear package never feels particularly bitey around town and demands firmer pedal applications to produce decent stopping power. That said, once out of the city and in the hills, the combination of higher speeds and slightly higher brake temperatures leads to better performance and improved confidence.
Impressively blending comfort and compliance with accuracy and agility, the 86’s chassis is a gem. Sitting mostly flat, the ride is firm but there is some softness and roll dialled in to create not only a forgiving setup but a flexible one too.
Letting the well-sorted underpinnings down a little are the 215mm-wide 45-aspect eco-friendly Michelin Primacy HP tyres. Although wider and lower in profile than the standard 205mm-wide 55-aspect Yokohama tyres fitted to the base GT’s 16-inch wheels, the French rubber can’t match the Japanese alternative for outright grip.
Copping plenty of grief of its own, is the 86’s 2.0-litre direct injection engine. Make no mistake, this thing is no powerhouse. And, despite having its induction noise crammed into the cabin via some plastic piping, it doesn’t sound particularly nice either.
Sounding flat and tinny on full throttle, the engine does offer reasonable midrange between 3000-4000rpm, but its real sweet spot is between 6000rpm and its 7450rpm rev limit.
In fact, it’s that very ‘sweet spot’ that highlights the two ways to best drive a Toyota 86: gently putt it around town, keeping revs to a maximum of around 3500rpm, or consistently give it a boot full and mercilessly chase down maximum revs. Drive it in between these two styles and that’s when the engine feels lacklustre and in need of some form of forced induction.
Outright engine performance aside for a second, the 86’s throttle response is right up there with the car’s steering – top notch. Sure, the punch attached to the right pedal may be less than you might expect in a ‘sports’ car, but the actual throttle response is sublime.
Whether it’s lifting off or squeezing it on, the car responds to throttle inputs – even finite ones – immediately, adding yet another element to the bond between car and driver. And it’s that bond, that relationship, where the Toyota 86 really excels.
This is a car all about driver involvement and driver engagement, and it nails the brief. It’s not the fastest, most powerful, or most cutting edge car around, but what it is is pure and honest. It demands, yet equally rewards, good driving and commitment. And that’s what makes it so much fun.
As fun as the car is to drive though, it’s not all gold stars for the Toyota.
The infotainment system is looking and feeling its age – along with the mid-90s digital clock – and its operation isn’t as fluid or intuitive as more modern systems.
The reversing camera is handy but the 86 lacks rear parking sensors. The stereo can handle some high-volume Deadmau5 love, which is a plus, but on more than a couple of occasions the Bluetooth would not automatically reconnect to paired mobile devices (necessitating ‘manual’ reconnections). Over our week with the car, operation of Bluetooth-sourced music also proved glitchy, sometimes able to be driven from the in-dash unit, while other times having to be controlled from the paired device itself.
Even with these issues in mind, it’s hard to know why Australians have fallen out of love with the Toyota 86. It’s the only rear-wheel-drive sports car you can jump into from less than $30,000 (before on-road costs), it’s smartly packaged overall and hugely entertaining.
Perhaps for the 86, some of the shine has worn off. It’s no longer the newest, most exciting sports car proposition on the new car market – that title no doubt now bestowed on the all-new fourth-generation Mazda MX-5 that launched just last week with a starting price of $31,990. But as one of the market’s best and most pure driving experiences, it’s far from mere hype. And as long as there are those who simply love driving, there will always be a place for the Toyota 86.
Click on the Photos tab for more 2015 Toyota 86 images by Tom Fraser.