Affordable sports cars may be somewhat of an anomaly today, a pipe dream of sorts in the wake of a shrinking segment that has seen more exits than grand entrances into this niche segment.
The Mazda MX-5 is one of the better-known proponents and continues its lineage to this day. MG, with its TF, was another player that has since disappeared, while Toyota’s MR2 also had its time in the sun locally, but that too was short-lived.
Thankfully, in 2013, Toyota made an emphatic return to the compact sportscar realm with the 86. A jointly-developed product with Subaru, the 86 brought a front-engined, rear-wheel-drive sportscar that was cheap as chips and pandered to the enthusiast craving thrills on a shoestring budget.
It was universally welcomed. Both the 86 and its BRZ twin cousin truly nailed the brief, but there was a little matter of power – or lack thereof – that was somewhat of a contentious topic. With 147 kW and 205 Nm at 6,600 r/min, the car felt rather underwhelming below 4,000 r/min and only began to feel like it was making strides above that twilight zone, but the powerband was relatively short as it fizzled out too soon. There were attempts to give it more power by aftermarket tuners that strapped a supercharger, which bumped up power and torque, but there was a fly in the ointment with this approach.
While it had gained a much-needed power bump, it took away the playful nature of the **Hachi-Roku**, which could be enjoyed at lower speeds, thanks to skinny tyres. This exercise proved rather expensive, too and essentially voided your factory warranty in favour of a rather scant aftermarket warranty from the tuning company. It’s a story for another day. Suffice it to say I do not recommend it.
The latest GR 86 picks up from where the 86 left off in that it still boasts the fundamental model brief of Waku Doki – loosely translated to fun-to-drive. While the new model is still based on the outgoing 86, the GR86 takes things up quite a few notches. For starters, it ditches the old 2.0-litre boxer engine for a new 2.4-litre boxer, but still naturally aspirated, which is all the better for it. Power now sits at 174 kW at 7,000 r/min, and torque is 250 Nm at 3,700 r/min. That latter figure and where it peaks in the rev range makes a world of difference, but we’ll touch on that later. Among other new changes, the GR86 now has proper performance tyres - Michelin Pilot Sport 4S measuring 215/40/R18 at each corner. These offer significantly better grip levels, particularly once you begin to up the pace and want to take a corner in the most accurate manner possible. Also, the vehicle’s structural rigidity has increased by 50%, giving this model excellent body control, which adds to the sublime handling.
Well, it is a marked improvement over the outgoing model, but it is still minimalist in its approach, which I have no qualms about. The boot, too, has now been given a rubber mat that neatly covers the spare wheel, but don’t expect to load a cow in there; that’s not what this car’s about. Instead, slide into the low-slung driver’s seat and crank up the new engine, slot first gear through that slick 6-speed manual transmission and nose the car onto the road.
Thanks to its diminutive size, it remains an easy car to drive and place on the road. What does immediately grab your attention is the drivability of the engine. There’s more than adequate torque at the bottom end that you can short-shift the gearbox and still make decent momentum for daily trudges. However, chase the rev needle to its 7,500 r/min ceiling and what impresses is the smoothness of the powerplant and its keenness to stretch its legs. And this is accompanied by good forward performance to keep you engaged. There’s a piped-into-the-cabin faux engine sound, which is not as annoying as some of these synthesised contraptions I’ve experienced in other brands. The steering wheel remains feelsome and tells what the front tyres are doing and how much grip you have. As mentioned, the car feels more buttoned down due to those grippier tyres, but you can still provoke the GR86 to go sideways if you are so inclined. The traction control has two modes; Track or Off, and the latter lets you easily slide the car, much like the previous vehicle, with little fuss, and that’s where the GR86’s unique selling point comes to the fore.
At R733 500, the Toyota GR86 remains somewhat of a niche offering, and will appeal to buyers looking for rear-wheel drive dynamics without shelling over a R1m to do so. Yes, inflation has moved the model northwards in terms of price compared to its predecessor, but it remains relatively attainable in the grand scheme of things. Also, with a normally aspirated engine on offer and little in the way of complex electronics, running costs and overall ownership should prove favourable.
Yes, you could likely buy a Hyundai i30 N or Subaru WRX for similar money, but neither offers rear-wheel drive dynamics, making the GR86 a niche offering if you discount the anaemic Mazda MX5. So, should you buy the Toyota GR86, then? Well, if you enjoy the unadulterated and unfiltered thrill of driving, then the answer is a resounding yes!