Winnipeg Free Press

Toyota's 86 puts the 'sport' back in sports car

by Haney Louka . Dec 15 2017
Haney Louka / Winnipeg Free Press

Haney Louka / Winnipeg Free Press

Affordable, rear-drive coupes are a bit of a rarity these days. Sure, there are offerings from Dodge, Chevrolet, Ford, and Nissan, all starting around $30,000, but each represents a different variation on the theme.

With a starting price of $29,580, the Toyota 86 has the distinction of being the lightest of the bunch — by several hundred kilos — with a strong emphasis on handling over muscle.

Named as an homage to the rear-drive Toyota AE86 Corolla from the mid-’80s, the new 86 represents a level of purity that is otherwise missing from the market.

Of course, the 86 isn’t exactly new. It started life in 2012 as the Scion FR-S, along with its all-but-identical twin, the BRZ, which is still available at your local Subaru dealer. This is a unique joint effort between the two Japanese brands, and the BRZ is the only Subaru model without all-wheel drive. The cars do, however, have a flat-four “boxer” engine under the hood: it doesn’t get any more Subaru than that.

But starting with the 2017 model year, the Scion brand has joined the ranks of Saturn, Pontiac, and Mercury in automotive history books, and only a couple of its orphaned models found a new home in parent-company Toyota’s showrooms: this 86 and the Corolla iM hatchback.

Despite the 86 being a five-year-old design, there isn’t a heck of a lot that is new in the transition from Scion to Toyota. Its front fascia is a bit more aggressive, thanks to a larger air dam. Lights have been revised front and rear, and the unique 86 logo appears on the front fenders and in the headlight clusters.

Inside, the same logo appears on the new steering wheel and in a suede-like insert on the dash. That soft material is a small but welcome change to remove some of the hard plastic that otherwise characterizes this car’s interior. There’s new fabric on the seats, too.

The interior is basic, with typical three-knob HVAC controls and an audio head unit that looks like it would be a cinch to change out for more interesting aftermarket options.

Minor tweaks have been made to the suspension and stability control systems to improve handling, and power on manual-equipped versions is boosted by five horses and the same number of pound-feet in the torque department.

Not enough, if you ask me, but this car has never been about straight-line performance.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the joy this sports car brings to its driver. It’s amazing to feel the response that a lightweight, performance-oriented ride can provide. The car’s a looker, to be sure, but those looks would be nothing without the goods to back them up. Responsive steering, flat cornering, confident braking.

And from behind the wheel, the car just fits. Well-shaped and supportive seats, a thick-rimmed steering wheel, properly placed pedals, and a short-throw shifter make it clear the driver is the focus. How refreshing.

I have one major complaint about the 86, though, and it has to do with that boxer engine. And it’s the same issue I have with every naturally aspirated (read: non-turbo) Subaru boxer engine I’ve tried: it always sounds and feels strained, even when merely keeping up with traffic. It has decent low-end grunt, but there is no reward for spinning the revs up toward redline. Instead, it just gets louder.

A car that looks this good and handles this well should have an engine to match, period.

So when reflecting on the alternative rear-drive sport coupes currently available, buyers will need to decide where their priorities lie. A Mustang EcoBoost has a nicer engine. A Challenger brings retro muscle to the party. And a Camaro will turn heads, even if the thing is nearly impossible to see out of.

Perhaps the closest competitor to the 86 is the Nissan 370Z. It also starts at $30,000, but outweighs the 86 by about 300 kg. To compensate, it’s way faster, thanks to a 332-hp V-6. Despite it being an eight-year-old design, it still looks sharp and goes like stink.

The 86 is available in three models: the $29,580 6M that we are reviewing here; that automatic 6A (add $1,200 and take away some fun — what kind of math is this?) and the $32,555 Special Edition, which adds creature comforts such as heated leather seats, push-button start, a rear spoiler and other goodies.

Standard on the 6M are 17-inch alloys, eight-speaker audio, rear-view camera, limited-slip differential, air conditioning, keyless entry and cruise control.

Toyota Canada

Toyota Canada