Untapped Potential - Toyota 86

2019 Toyota 86 GT Review – Untapped Potential

Words by Jennifer Jensen
Photos by Jessica Voruda

I want to love the Toyota 86, but I just don’t. There is so much untapped potential here and Toyota simply fails on capitalizing on those opportunities. 

First off, the 86 looks pretty amazing. It is a low-slung coupe that simply screams performance. It is incredibly enticing to have a sports car under $30,000 that boasts over 200hp and 156 lb-ft of torque along with a sub 3,000-pound curb weight. But the Toyota 86’s body is writing checks that its chassis simply can’t cash. 

The failings initiate under the hood. The Subaru-sourced 2.0-liter flat four is just weak. Full power comes on at the top of the engine’s rev range, which, in some cars, is pretty awesome to listen to, but in the 86 the engine note goes from annoying to really annoying to, “please turn this off”. Could an exhaust swap help? Maybe, but it’s a gutless wonder so even the hopeful accompanying thrust is lacking. O-60 arrives in a family-sedan-like six and a half seconds. 

Usually the trade off, especially in a smaller displacement engine, is better economy but the 86 fails to deliver on this end as well. We experienced less than 25 MPG in our combined driving over the course of a week. A Volkswagen Golf R may cost an additional $10,000 or more over the 86, it also has 300 horses prodding all four wheels and still manages 25 MPG. A GTI is more competitively priced and delivers so much more on a performance driver’s checkbox. 

Another letdown is the interior. For a car that looks so stunning on the outside you hope for a little pizazz on the interior. But here your hopes will be dashed once again. The cabin is well laid out and quite simple in execution, though the infotainment screen looks like an afterthought. It acts like an afterthought as well. Navigating the screen is nonsensical and the functions are simply not worthy of a Toyota product at any price. I expect more from this company. 

Looking around the rest of the cabin there is little in the way of storage, especially protected storage. The seats, however, are comfortable and placement of the steering wheel, pedals and shifter is all quite good. Which exasperates me even more. 

To compound all these issues, we had the “GT” edition of the 86. This is the mid-level variant that adds such luxury items as heated front seats and dual climate control along with a rear wing and some airflow managements under the body. So this is not supposed to be the bare bones base model!

I know that many other journalists have touted the fact that the Toyota 86 (and its cousin, the Subaru BRZ) are perfect drift partners because of skinny wheels and tires and the ability to play with a manual transmission. But I think these are excuses. The chassis is capable of handling so much more than what Toyota offers out of the box. 

That is one place the 86 does deliver…handling. Even though the OEM equipped tires give out early (part of the fun, I know), the car is tossable and fun to flick around. It would be much more fun if the engine wasn’t working so hard, or even if it sounded better doing that work. 

The manual transmission is good, but not the best in the business. I expected something akin to the Honda S2000’s shifter; short throws with a positive flick when engaged. Flying through the gears in the 86 I could get ahead of the mechanical mechanism as the car could barely keep up. 

The steering is decent as well. Could it be better? Yes. The weighting is a bit off to me, it feels too indirect and not hardwired to the road. The 86’s brakes are also adequate but nothing to write home about. They are one of the first things, on a long list, that I would want to upgrade if an 86 landed in my garage. 

I really wanted to love this car. But in the end, the Toyota 86 does one thing really well. It provides a platform, for a relatively low cost of entry, that the owner can then modify to make better. What frustrates me to no end is that Toyota has the ability to do this in house. Why not provide a luxury package for the interior? Why not provide a better engine option? Why not pull the best from the Toyota parts bin to make everything under that sexy body actually…back…it…up! I want to drop a small block V8 in here, rip out the interior and add a roll cage. Or, alternatively, slap a supercharger and an exhaust kit on the 86 and change out the suspension components and brakes. But that’s the problem with this car. It looks every bit the part of a sports car, but as it stands, it leaves me wanting.