2017 Toyota 86 Review: It Could Win Your Heart, If Only You'd Give It a Chance

We always say we want a car like the Toyota 86. So why isn't it selling?

Toyota

Welcome to Critic's Notebook, a quick and off-the-cuff car review consisting of impressions, jottings, and marginalia regarding whatever The Drive writers happen to be driving. Today's edition: the 2017 Toyota 86.

I was driving the Toyota 86 through the streets of north Brooklyn around 10 p.m. when I made a wrong turn. Usually, doing so prompts more than a little swearing; this time, though, I felt an odd peace settle over me, and seconds later I was seized with that relentless, unknowable drive to...well, drive. I switched off the GPS and headed east, letting green lights decide my direction. It felt like the car was driving me, carrying us away from the city lights where it didn't belong. 

An hour later, I found myself in an expansive industrial area filled with factories, warehouses, right angles, and absolutely no other people. If the car was a dog, it would have been wagging its tail. 

A few seconds later, it was.

The answer is always Miata has become something of an automotive axiom, but what of the Toyobaru? The 2+2 sports coupes built by Toyota and Subaru, the ones with a 50 percent front/50 percent rear weight balance, a standard manual transmission, and a historic name recalling rear-wheel-drive drift machines from decades past? The kind of car we begged for—pleaded for—only to receive it, then turn around and demand more power? Can it too be the answer—if not always, then at least occasionally enough to win your heart? 

To really find out, I spent four days flinging a 2017 Toyota 86 with some TRD add-ons around the one of worst places imaginable for such a car: New York City.

Toyota

The Pros:

  • It's reductive to boil the Toyota 86 down to being great in the corners and bad in the straights, but at least half of that statement is undeniably true: It's fantastic in the turns. The car's 50/50 weight balance is immediately noticeable, and the chassis has a natural tendency to return to center no matter what direction it's being pushed. My test car was fitted with the optional $639 TRD lowering springs and $550 TRD sway bar kit, which dropped the ride by about an inch, stiffened things quite up a bit, and gave the 86 a devilishly sharp bite.
  • As long as we're tossing out aphorisms, the old axiom "It's more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow" definitely rings true here. It's often more enjoyable tossing a "slow" car around near the edge of its approachable limits (in, say, an abandoned warehouse district) than it is piloting a supercar meant to do 150 miles per hour at half that speed. With a rev-happy flat-four engine, rear-wheel drive, and a limited-slip differential, it's laughably easy to get the rear to step out at or under the speed limit—and just as simple to reel it back in. 
  • An hour behind the wheel of the Toyota 86 will remind you what driving is all about: road feel, gear shifts, and a buzzy exhaust that pops and bangs at just the right times. The steering is direct and chatty, waking your hands up and reminding those atrophied nerve endings that you used to feel things, dammit, before uncommunicative electronic power steering systems conquered the world. The clutch is light enough for city driving and the six-speed manual transmission is a joy to run through. An optional TRD short shift kit makes it even more fun.
  • The standard backup camera is a nice touch, and the low positioning of the reverse lights on the rear bumper makes it easy to use at night.
Toyota

The Cons:

  • The dated interior looks every bit like a six-year-old design, despite Toyota making small tweaks in 2017 like adding faux-suede "Granlux" trim. To be fair, the Toyota 86 is not trying to be a luxury car, or even dress up as one for Halloween. Options are sparse, and you'll have to spring for the 860 Special Edition (a $3,000 bump in starting price) if you want simple pleasures like leather seats or dual-zone climate control. Forget about a sunroof. The cloth buckets are plain and a little stiff, and there's no place to put your right elbow while driving unless you check the box for a $237 armrest option. A super-lux interior would look out of place here, but it's possible to design a simple space without it feeling cheap. 
  • The TRD lowering springs make the Toyota 86 extremely uncomfortable on anything but smooth, freshly-paved streets. Even when I slowed to a crawl, hitting a pothole was always a calamitous, head-knocking event, and the general craptitude of New York City's roads was hard to ignore. Well, try not living in New York, you jerk, you're thinking. Ah, but this is the kind of suspension stiffness that you have to be on guard for, where an unseen bump on any road won't be the fun kind of surprise.
  • I'll finally say it: The Toyota 86 needs more power. It's a cliche that comes with the car at this point, but like the 86's brilliance in the corners, it's also impossible to deny. The 205-horsepower flat-four engine generates most of its torque above 4,000 rpm (peaking at 6,400), and the motor feels ungainly until that point. Toyota tried to compensate for that a bit by shortening the gearing—which brings its own drawbacks for daily driving. The company is adamant that adding a turbo would screw up the weight distribution and throw in needless cost and complexity, and Toyota likely doesn't want the 86 to tread on the upcoming Supra's turf. I'm just as adamant that this car would reach the next level with 50 more horsepower.
  • Premium fuel required. Really?
Toyota

The 2017 Toyota 86, Ranked:

Performance: 4/5

Comfort: 3/5

Luxury: 2/5

Hauling people: 3/5

Hauling stuff: 3/5

Curb appeal: 4/5

“Wow” factor: 4/5

Overall: 3.5/5

Toyota

The Bottom Line:

When Toyota officially killed off the Scion brand in 2016 amid poor sales, it may have had another purpose in mind: saving the 86 in the American market. The company also spared the iA and iM, and those rebadged offerings will live or die based on their own economic merits. That's a perfectly acceptable fate. But Toyota knew the FR-S—already sold elsewhere as the Toyota GT86—could give it some much desired enthusiast cred, and maybe become something special along the way.

Six years is a long time in the automotive world. Toyota understands that, which is why it's promised to revamp the platform entirely and add a roadster in the next year or two; there's also rumors of the same hybrid tech that's reportedly headed to the new Supra. In fact, Toyota seems to be positioning itself for an extended run at the enthusiast market, potentially offering two rear-wheel-drive drop-tops for the first time since the Clinton administration. (That's not even factoring in the newest murmurings that they might be resurrecting the Celica nameplate, as well.)

There's one thing that could ruin the party before it even begins, though: the price. The Toyota 86 starts at $26,255, which is seems like a pretty great deal for an enthusiast-focused car. But when you consider that competitors like the Mazda Miata and Ford Focus ST both start below that and offer more in the way of both standard features and options...the math looks a little fuzzier. And once you reach the $30,000-plus level where my test car was optioned to (again, still without things like leather seats)...well, now you're in Ford Mustang territory. Even if you're not directly cross shopping pony cars and Japanese drift machines, it's impossible to ignore the value imbalance in the 86 as you move up the pricing scale.

But can you put a price on a car that's just as capable of possessing a driver as any (Dodge) Demon these days? This is a car for people who love the act, the ritual of driving, for whom every moment behind the wheel is a treasured break from everything else. It's a car for people who want to imbue every quick trip to the grocery store with satisfaction. It's a car for people who treasure a link to the past more than progress for progress' sake. If they don't make 'em like the Toyota 86 anymore, that's partly because we don't buy 'em. Don't forget, there's a reason Toyota discontinued the Supra in the first place. Everything from ride-sharing to crossovers to lower teen driving rates have drained the already-niche market even further since then. That this car even exists is something of a miracle.

Back in Brooklyn, driving along the notorious Brooklyn-Queens Expressway—which looks like it was bombed by the Russians—the road surface came through with almost-terrifying tactility. Pretend you're at Monaco, I told myself through gritted teeth while sandwiched between a cement truck and a maniacal cabbie at 60 mph. But as I focused, I could also feel the car in its element—the front wheels charging confidently wherever I pointed them, the limited-slip diff keeping it together out back, and the chassis staying glued to the asphalt. Suddenly, pretending wasn't so hard.

Toyota

By the Numbers:

Price (as tested): $26,255 ($31,544)

Powertrain: 2.0-liter naturally-aspirated flat-four engine, 205 horsepower, 156 pound-feet of torque; six speed manual transmission; rear-wheel-drive

Fuel Economy: 21 city, 28 highway

Top Speed: 136 mph

A few nobodies the Toyota 86 beat out to win Top Gear's Car of the Year in 2012: BMW 1 Series M, McLaren MP4-12C, Porsche 911, Lotus Exige S, Ferrari F12berlinetta