2022 Toyota GR86 Road Test | Nailing the fun per dollar formula

The Toyota GR Corolla may be the latest enthusiast darling on Toyota’s shelf of Gazoo Racing performance cars, but don’t let it distract you from the also-brand-new and already-on-sale 2022 Toyota GR86. Sure, you’ll be able to pay a gonzo markup for a rally-bred, turbocharged Corolla hot hatch eventually. And it may very well be worth the wait. That said, the GR86 is already at dealerships; it’s beyond cheery to drive, and the price is more than agreeable. 

From the moment you open the door and step in, there’s no doubt the GR86 is a car built for the driving enthusiast. The seat is situated low in the car, low enough that it would annoy anybody who doesn’t value a low H-point. You drop in, and the ergonomics of everything are spot on. The steering wheel has enough adjustment for anybody to get comfortable. My right arm is laying happily and comfortably across the center console, and the shift knob just happens to be right there. A proper, manual handbrake sits near the shifter, and it’s so much more satisfying than pressing a little button every time you park or take off. Even the pedals are perfectly placed, and while the clutch is light, it offers all the feel and feedback you might want.

The GR86 won’t win any awards for having the most beautiful or feature-filled cabin, but the buying proposition is better for it. Instead of pumping it full of modern tech niceties like multi-color ambient lighting, massive touch control displays and exotic materials, the GR86 prefers simplicity. Fanciful extras like those are items that are great to ooh and ahh at, but they’re not going to make slamming through the gears or flowing through your favorite road any more visceral.

There’s also beauty in a car with only 228 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. I know, it’s weird to be happy that a car isn’t any more powerful than it is, but in the case of the GR86, more power wouldn’t necessarily correlate to more fun. Toyota says the new 2.4-liter naturally aspirated boxer-four is enough to motivate the two-door coupe from 0-60 mph in just 6.1 seconds. So, quick enough to still shove you back in the seat, but not so quick that full throttle applications are just a stab-and-out before you’re grossly breaking speed limits.

You could express a similar sentiment about the previous 86, but the new engine fixes its largest flaw: a mid-range torque dip so obvious that it’ll forever serve as the definitive example of “mid-range torque dip.” That engine weirdness was enough to leave a sour taste in my mouth throughout the previous generation’s entire run, but now it’s gone, and the new boxer-four provides a lovely crescendo of torque all the way up to redline. The piped-in-but-real intake noise combined with the fake noise played over the speakers — if we had our druthers, we’d turn off the fake crap — is working overtime to smooth out the gruffness of this high-revving engine. It’s still a buzzy and vibrating Subaru four-cylinder, but there’s a level of refinement that takes it yet another step above the old 2.0-liter. This, combined with fixing that pesky torque dip, transforms the Toyobaru twins from exceptional handling machines with so-so engines, to complete sports car experiences. No asterisk required.

The chassis pairs delightfully with this new engine, too. It’s as easy to control (and be a hooligan with) as it gets for rear-drive sports cars. Much of this feeling is thanks to it being such a lightweight — our Premium manual transmission tester tips the scales at just 2,833 pounds.

The GR86 enters every corner with a rush of eagerness and willingness. The relatively small brakes — you don’t need a lot to stop this car — clamp down with authority whenever you step into the stiff pedal, and the mass around you never once feels heavy. Speed gets scrubbed in a hurry, and then you get to taste just how nicely balanced the car is through a corner. Enter, and you can dance between the edge of confidence-inspiring neutrality and sideways shenanigans with the throttle for as long as you care. Meet a hairpin on a deserted road? Just kick the throttle, and the rear kindly sets itself into a controllable and comfortable slide.

Now, keep in mind that it was this easy to swing the rear end around even with the Michelin Pilot Sport 4S summer tires available on this version of the GR86. Get the base model with the Prius-spec rubber, and it requires even less effort. If your main impetus is going sideways, though, I still favor the Premium trim and its performance tires. They’re skinny with 215-section-width patches at all four corners, and they’re keen to do as you please. If you want the car to hold on and stick in a fast corner, they’re happy to oblige the speed. Meanwhile, they don’t take much away from the car’s approachability and restless craving for slip angle.

You can learn a lot about car control with the GR86. Its steering rack is one of the most feel-some electric racks in the business. The low center-of-gravity — thanks, boxer engine — brings you closer in touch with the car’s balance and grip levels. Plus, the traction control and stability control systems are seemingly tuned with the tire-smoke-happy enthusiast in mind. You can turn it all off with ease, play around with the ESC Track mode, or leave all the systems on to keep the car pointed directly forward. Pick your personality.

As some new enthusiast-oriented vehicles have shown us, getting the little things like climate and audio controls right isn’t something to be taken for granted. The GR86 aces this test with some of the easiest to use (and read) controls in the business. Combine the bevy of knobs and switches with Subaru’s basic-but-user-friendly infotainment system, and the cabin is a model for maximum function and simplicity. If the task is simply to get from A to B, there are no frills to get in your way.

Of course, the ride isn’t going to coddle, and Toyota’s higher rear spring rates versus the BRZ’s result in a ride with just a smidgen more stiffness felt from the rear of the car. That said, it’s a little more peaceful to spend long highway stints in than the previous-generation car due to a quieter cabin. Don’t expect any amount of luxury here, though. The Premium trim has heated Alcantara and leather-covered seats and a respectable-sounding JBL audio system to enjoy inside. Just curb higher-than-those expectations at the door.

The GR86 is a budget sports car, and it executes this formula as well as anything else on the market today. If you’re open to a convertible, the Miata is its own little bundle of joy, but nothing else with a fixed roof provides the same level of fun and engagement as the GR86 (and Subaru BRZ) does for its price. 

I’d even wager that it’s underpriced on the fun-per-dollar scale for performance cars available to buy in 2022. Even when you compare the GR86 to similarly powered front-drive performance cars, it looks like a blazing deal. A GTI starts at $31,270 these days. The Civic Si isn’t a whole lot cheaper at $28,315, and the Elantra N is $33,195. My GR86 Premium tester (with a few small add-ons) came out to an agreeable $32,432. Of course, you’re more than likely going to run into markups if you want some of these small, sporty cars right now, but if any of them are worth paying a few bucks more, the GR86 is the one. Pick the Subie if you prefer its styling, but me, I’d rather be looking at the GR86 in the driveway.

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