Picture it, Virginia, 2022. It was a dark December night, and I was rushing to the dealership after leaving a company Christmas party.
This was the night that I would pick up my 2023 Toyota GR86 Premium in Trueno Blue. I had been waiting for what seemed like forever, even though it had been just under two months. I arrived at the dealer and saw my new car parked right out front, waiting for me to take her home. The paperwork was signed and I had the keys, so it was truly mine. When I first saw my car, it had all the plastic wrappings from the factory still on. Taking those off was an amazing experience, akin to unwrapping an early Christmas gift. I had been hesitant about my color choice, but as I took the wrappings off, all doubt disappeared.
I picked up my car with six miles on it, and I realized that the next 994 miles were going to be agonizing, as I wasn’t supposed to rev over 4,000 rpm during the 1,000 mile break-in period. I decided I’d obtain those miles post-haste, and 18 days later, I hit the 1,000 mile mark at the very start of a holiday road trip. I immediately learned two things:
- Wow, this engine loves to rev!
- Wow, the Active Sound Control is absolute trash!
Active Sound Control is what Toyota calls the fake engine noise engineered into the car. Above 4000rpm, the piped-in audio from the ASC system kicks in hard, and it sounds exactly like someone took a recording of the garbage disposal in my kitchen sink. Thankfully, unlike the GR86’s bigger, half-German stepbrother, the ASC comes from a dedicated speaker in the dash that can easily be unplugged. It can also be disabled by a Toyota dealer for those wary of messing with a brand-new car.
The Driving Experience: Simply Sublime
Toyota can be forgiven for the fake engine noise, however, because the driving experience is sublime. This car turns in with an immediacy and accuracy not found in rivals like the Miata. This is due to having a firmer suspension, as well as drastically increased chassis rigidity over the prior generation 86. The steering feels slightly more numb than it did previously, but that’s not to say that it isn’t communicative. It’s light and precise and as communicative as an electric rack is likely to be, especially at the price point.
The manual transmission is good but not great; I think the manual in the ND Miata is smoother and has a better feel. I’m considering buying a heavier shift knob because it’ll smooth out some of the notchiness. The clutch is light, although not as light as some Hondas.
Undoubtedly the most substantial upgrade for the new GR86 is the engine. The new 2.4 liter boxer engine produces 228 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque, up from 205 horsepower and 156 lb-ft produced by the prior generation’s 2.0 liter boxer. The numbers don’t tell the whole story though; to truly understand the difference, you need to drive the previous generation. There was nothing wrong with the old motor, but at times it felt lacking in power. Rather than adding forced induction, Toyota fixed this by adding displacement.
I could spend another two paragraphs getting into the nerdy details, but suffice it to say that the new GR86 is not underpowered. It has passing power on the highway. You can win a race against a minivan. You even have usable torque for puttering around town. There are always people who will clamor for more power, but it doesn’t feel like a necessity, and Toyota likely doesn’t want internal competition with the 2.0 Supra. Notably missing from the engine is the torque dip present in the last generation. When looking at dyno charts, the dip still exists, but is more of a torque plateau and isn’t noticeable when actually driving the car.
Speaking of driving the car, as you drive down curvy backroads, all of the components come together to create a cohesive, incredible experience. The engine revs higher and the gear lever snicks into place as you downshift. The chassis feels glued to the ground as you turn harder and power out of the corner, ready to take on whatever is next. At that moment, the car feels as if it is an extension of the driver, much in the same fashion as Mazda’s ethos of Jinba Ittai, or “horse and rider as one.” The difference being that the GR86 feels like a well-tailored suit, while the Miata feels like compression gear.
Styling and Interior: Hits and Misses
I suspect that Toyota and Subaru spent most of their development money on powertrain upgrades, but they spent some money on the exterior and interior as well. The GR86 gets a new design bringing it more in line with the rest of the GR sub-brand. The front fascia is simple yet aggressive and fits the spirit of the car quite well. My GR86 is painted in Trueno Blue, which is a beautiful, deep, rich dark blue with a frankly ludicrous amount of metallic sparkle. It seems to be one of the most popular colors, and it’s easy to understand why after seeing the car in the sun. The Premium model receives a duckbill spoiler that adds a little flair, as well as 18” matte black wheels wrapped in Michelin Pilot Sport 4 rubber. It’s 24° F outside so the summer tires are currently beyond useless, but it’s a nice touch from Toyota.
The interior has been worked on as well, receiving a needed update. Unfortunately, this is where my gripes begin. The interior lacks storage space the prior generation had, and storage was already minimal. The front seats no longer have a pouch on the seat backing, and the center stack is missing the cubby from the last generation. The cupholders have been redesigned and have slightly less space. I tend to use the passenger seat as my phone and other small items, which is fine until I have a passenger.
The seats are also annoying, as I have yet to find a comfortable seating position. Toyota lowered the seating position because they lowered the roof, and the seat bottom is significantly shorter than my upper leg. This causes extreme sciatic nerve pain in my right leg. The seating position will probably not bother most people, but I have lower back issues that are easy to trigger. On the bright side, the premium seats do a fantastic job of holding you in place during hard cornering, and notably, the heated seats are *chef’s kiss*. They heat quickly, and the higher setting makes you wonder if the seats have opened a portal directly to hell.
For the second generation, Toyota has included a digital gauge cluster rather than a simple information display. It displays lots of useful information and gives the car a more premium feeling. The infotainment screen is now cohesively integrated into the dash, and all the buttons, knobs, and switches feel well placed and easy to use. Best of all, there is less than a single cubic inch of glossy piano black plastic in the car, and yes, I checked that. That is who I am as a person, don’t judge me. The interior has an overall feeling of quality and purposefulness that seems nicer than the price tag might suggest.
After a Mazda6, the GR86 Checks All My Boxes
When I chose this car, I knew vaguely what I wanted. I previously drove a 2015 Mazda6, and after a trip to the Tail of the Dragon, I realized that my driving skill was reaching the limits of what the car was capable of. I wanted a car that was smaller, rear wheel drive, and sportier. I had long considered the Miata, but after an extended test drive at the Tail, the driving experience was not what I wanted.
I had also experienced the A90 Toyota Supra, but it had so much power that by the time I was having any fun, I was traveling at speeds that would have eventually landed me a weekend trip to the state-sponsored hotel. I even considered buying a Mustang but quickly changed my mind after having one as a rental. If the seating position in the GR86 is rough, the seating position in the Mustang is somehow worse. I am still unsure how Ford managed that, but I’m willing to chalk it up to the base model seats.
Dear reader, if you were unable to tell, I love this car. I have some gripes, but Toyota did right by enthusiasts when they created the GR86. These days, far too many manufacturers are sacrificing sportiness and precision for comfort, economy, and fuel regulations. In the era of tiny turbo engines, I love and appreciate that Toyota went against the grain.
There is something magical about a high-revving, rear wheel drive, naturally aspirated, manual sports car, and every year more seem to die at the hands of slow sales. It probably won’t be long before electrification makes this kind of car obsolete, and I suspect there will not be a third generation of this platform. I would go so far as to say that focusing on driving experience alone, the GR86 is the best new car you can buy short of spending $63,400 on a Porsche 718 Cayman. Granted, I’m a bit biased, but I couldn’t miss the chance to get one while I still could.