A new driving experience

If you’ve ever heard the acronym TGR, but hadn’t made the connection, then allow me to clarify – it stands for Toyota Gazoo Racing, the serious side of Toyota’s proud motorsport lineage.

After more than 60 years of participating in high-level world motorsport events, Toyota has proven to be a significant force capable of engineering excellence and durability. A hard-earned reputation with the bruises to prove it, in such events as the Nurburgring 24-hour and WRC FIA World Rally Championship. They’ve also won four drivers’ and manufacturers’ titles in the WEC FIA World Endurance Championship and recorded no less than five successive Le Mans 24 Hour victories, with Hilux taking part in the Dakar Rally.

Few global automotive manufacturers can say that their company president actively competes in arduous and gruelling motorsport events like tarmac rallies and the 5 Continents Drive. The enthusiasm for motor racing of Akio Toyoda, president of Toyota Motor Corporation, and the wealth of expertise Toyota engineers and design teams have accumulated over their many years in competitive motorsport, is the cornerstone of Toyota’s desire to create and deliver genuine driving excitement, which is now embodied in their GR performance series line-up.

In an evolution of the original Toyota 86 coupe, the new GR86 joins the performance prestige of its stable mates: the brutal GR Supra, the exhilarating GR Yaris, and the all-new GR Corolla coming in 2023.

The GR86 continues to embrace the core attributes that made the original 86 so well-liked and respected by motoring enthusiasts. Good driving dynamics, sporty looks and affordability in a front-engine rear-wheel drive format.

Only this time it comes with more power, improved dynamics and sports a sassy new look, making it truly worthy of the GR badge of honour.

Any good recipe can be shared between master chefs. It’s what they do and how they apply their own interpretation of the final dish which makes it special. If the BRZ enjoys the elegance, refinement, accuracy and skillful execution of Tai Chi, then the 86 follows the same mantra for perfection, but it likes to express itself using Taekwondo!

OK, for those of you who love the detail; if you were to run a tape measure over the new 86’s seductive external lines you’d find its 25mm longer with a 10mm lower roof than the previous 86, and the wheelbase is just a tweak longer at 5mm.

Front on, there’s Toyota’s distinctive GR design language with a large bold black ‘G mesh’ grill for improved air flow to the radiator, flanked by operational side vents assisting to channel air down the sides of the vehicle and incorporating ducts to direct air through the wheel arches.

The tapered LED adaptive front headlights, as fitted to our test vehicle, produce a crisp clean white light at night for safe and comfortable driving, even in the rain. Conforming seamlessly to the chic contoured body lines, they are emphasised by bright Daytime Running Lights (DRL). Set against the GR86’s broad front appearance, they further enhance the GR’s imposing good looks.

From the side, muscular bulging front and rear guards accentuate the GR86’s wide stance, and cocoon distinctive ten-blade gloss black 18-inch alloy wheels coated in a film of sticky 215/40R18 rubber as fitted to our test vehicle.

Confirming the 86’s GR pedigree are pronounced bold side skirts that sharply diverge at the rear, helping to steady and smooth air flow to allow the GR to slip stream at speed. It’s all complemented by a seductive swooping roof line that merges seamlessly with the sporty aesthetics of the slightly raised larger and unique GR rear spoiler.

Add in short front and rear body over hangs and those menacing deep side gills that you can imagine flexing in and out as the GR catches its breath after a rapid sprint. 

It all comes together to give this vehicle unique styling and personality.

There are two flavours available, interestingly offering manual or auto for the same price in both models. You can opt for the quintessential GT that has everything you’d need or up spec to the GTS for a little more individuality and indulgence. You’ll gain those Samurai inspired 18-inch alloys over the standard 17”, the front pews are covered in Ultrasuede with premium leather accent trim and heated for those crisp, cool Sunday morning drives along winding back roads. Aluminum pedals complete the racy ambiance of the cockpit.

As for our test GTS 86’s interior, restrained it ain’t, audacious and in your face would be a more accurate description.

Unlike the reticent, all black interior of the GT, swing open the door on the bold brassy GTS to reveal bright red carpets and door inserts, plus highlighted red stitching on the seats, the manual hand brake lever, steering wheel and gear shift boot.

Oh, and they added a red strip to the seat base- just in case you didn’t notice.

Was it a surprise? Yep. Did it elicit a stunned facial expression? You bet.  Did I like it? Well…

A sexy exterior, scintillating dynamics and a sassy interior to match; I didn’t just like it… I loved it!

Every time I got in, I felt special, and that’s what this vehicle is all about, the special factor.

The GR’s interior is clean and uncluttered. Gone is all the superfluous brushed metal and piano black garnishes to impress passengers. This is all about you, the driver, providing exactly what you need and nothing that you don’t.

There’s a simplified instrument cluster providing only information relevant to what you are doing that minute.

Around town you’ve the traditional tacho front and centre with a clear digital speedometer in the middle, volt and oil temp to the left, coolant, and fuel gauge to the right. Or select track mode for lap times, a G-force meter, engine power output data and a large dominant sliding tacho scale letting you use peripheral vision for gear ratio red line limits as you stay focused on the corner apex before powering through the exit into the straight.

For creature comforts, a large 8.0-inch touchscreen display in the centre provides DAB radio, Bluetooth connectivity for phone and audio, with Apple CarPlay3 and Android Auto4 compatibility. Coupled to a six-speaker sound system, the mid-range units have been strategically mounted high in the cabin for improved sound quality. What I really appreciated was the retention of physical shortcut buttons and knobs for volume and tuning, very handy when wearing driving gloves.

Below the screen are three large rotary dials for left and right temperature settings and AC fan speed in the middle. But the cool factor gains serious points for the red LED readouts in the middle of each of them, and the row of large chunky toggle switches for AC and heating functions. It’s just so easy to use. Nothing gets in the way, meaning you never have to fumble past the gear lever to operate them.

I liked the small design touches as well, the concealed coffee cup holders just below the Thunder Birds split trap door styled console lid, and the thoughtful increase in glovebox dimensions to carry those larger items like a phone or an iPod–yep there’s a retro aux port next to the two USB connections. Sony Walkman anyone?

Convenience, there’s plenty of that. The nicely leather-wrapped three-spoked steering wheel has buttons for audio, phone, active cruise control and vehicle settings operations. With good seat adjustment and the tilt and reach steering wheel, it’s easy to get comfortable.

Practicality isn’t often one of the attributes of a good sports car, so let’s just say the rear seat mainly resides behind the front seats for decorative aesthetics. Although, if you want to shoehorn in a yoga instructor or gymnast, be my guest.

Boot space with rear seats in place is a little larger than the glove box. However, Toyota did cleverly squeeze a tyre puncture repair kit and jack equipment under the deck. Fold the back rests forward (once you’ve levered the yoga instructor and gymnast out of the way) and Toyota promises a whopping 237L will be available.

By my rough calculation, this would allow hard-core track enthusiasts to squeeze in a spare set of four rims and tyres.

I’m more your two overnight bags, long winding county roads, picturesque scenery to a five-star retreat for the weekend kinda guy—but hey, if the smell of burnt rubber impregnating your interior for the next six weeks makes you happy, go for it!

At the business end, both the GT and GTS are powered by the new, 20% larger capacity 2.4-litre horizontally opposed four-cylinder power plant. Based on the original 2.0L block, it’s been bored out and reworked internally with several upgraded external ancillary components for cooling, fuel and air supply and will now unleash 174kW of urgency at a heady 7000rpm, with a maximum push of 250Nm at 3700rpm. That’s around 22kW and 38Nm above the power plant it replaces. 

On a dry day and in good form, you’ll be able to reel in that 100k marker in 6.3s in the manual or 6.8 using the paddle shifters on the auto. 

For a naturally aspirated engine, that’s brisk in any language.

Keep in mind our GR86 manual has a kerb weight of only 1,291kg, so you don’t need a hefty increase in power to alter the vehicle’s driving characteristics. 

Some would say, why no turbo? I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase absolute power corrupts absolutely. And for the GR86, I think they’re right. The earlier version felt as though it wasn’t giving its best unless you pedalled it firmly. Certainly, great fun, but in city traffic, not so much. Does that make it bad? No, not at all. I’d still have an earlier 86 in a heartbeat.

But you’ll notice the torque delivery of the larger 2.4, thanks to Toyota’s specific tuning on the intake, exhaust and the D-4S direct fuel injection system where they have achieved enhanced performance and sharpened the GR’s throttle response. 

It’s more aptly applied in the lower to mid-range response, making it feel stronger in lower rpm situations, allowing you to build speed and acceleration earlier and more consistently over the rev range. 

Are the differences huge? Not really, but they are enough to be noticeable and allow this new GR86 to demonstrate a greater willingness and flexibility over a broad range of driving conditions.  The result is you put in less effort to achieve the same, if not better, outcome.

But you’ll notice the torque delivery of the larger 2.4, thanks to Toyota’s specific tuning on the intake, exhaust and the D-4S direct fuel injection system where they have achieved enhanced performance and sharpened the GR’s throttle response. 

It’s more aptly applied in the lower to mid-range response, making it feel stronger in lower rpm situations, allowing you to build speed and acceleration earlier and more consistently over the rev range. 

Are the differences huge? Not really, but they are enough to be noticeable and allow this new GR86 to demonstrate a greater willingness and flexibility over a broad range of driving conditions. 

The result is you put in less effort to achieve the same, if not better, outcome.

There’s something special about a front-engine/rear-drive layout and how they drive. And the GR86 doesn’t disappoint. 

Fitted with a limited-slip Torsen3 differential on the rear axle, the fun factor just gets better.

The six-speed manual is a motoring enthusiast’s nirvana; bring back the manual! It has a wonderful short throw, accurate shift engagement and is just a joy to use. From the 3 and 9 hand position on the steering wheel, your hand drops easily to the left, no stretching or straining, just crisp quick shifts. Truth be known, I kept hoping for more red lights so I could work my way through the gears one more time.

Special attention has been given to all aspects of the vehicle, starting with an aluminum roof, bonnet and front fenders, plus weight savings in the engine and additional components throughout the GR86 have helped reduced unsprung weight, improving performance and agility. With greater power and torque on tap, all suspension, driveline and steering components have been strengthened to cope with the increased torque of the new 2.4-litre engine.

Throwing the digital speedometer digits into a rapid decline as the tyres bit down hard into the bitumen, the braking performance is best summarised as confident. This can be directly attributed to larger diameter ventilated brake rotors at each wheel, measuring a sizable 294mm at the front and nearly as big, 290mm, at the rear. 

Wanting a little more customisation for further driver engagement? No problem, the GR86 has got your back. 

Toyota’s Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) system offers five different modes ranging from “fully on” for street, to “all off” to allow maximum driver input on those local sporting club circuit days.

With a bigger, beefier tail shaft and drive shafts to ensure robust reliability with the added torque surging through the driveline, there are also chassis improvements to achieve a 50% greater torsional and 60% lateral rigidity improvement.

Combined with new spring and damper rates for greater dynamic control and ride comfort over smooth and rough surfaces, this new GR86 delivers the goods for an even more rewarding and engaging driving experience.

Standard across both GT and GTS are seven airbags, reversing camera with dynamic guidelines, ABS brakes, vehicle stability control, tyre pressure warning and front/rear seatbelt warnings. However, only automatic versions receive pre-collision braking capable of recognising cyclists during the daytime, and pedestrians, day and night. Adaptive cruise control, with pre-collision throttle management and reverse parking support brake, which can apply the brakes in the event that a collision is likely. Obviously a problem in a manual which would stall without the physical driver intervention of clutch disengagement. But the auto also gains lane departure alert and automatic high beam. Why can’t Toyota include the latter two in the manual version, given how it misses out on so many other safety features?

And why do you have to upgrade to the GTS to gain rear cross traffic alert and rear blind spot monitor regardless of transmission type?

In my mind, these aren’t luxury items but important driver safety features. I figure your safety and that of your occupants should be at the forefront of each manufacturer’s design brief, not a nice to have luxury item exclusive to the vehicle with the flashiest trimmings.

Reasonably priced, driver-focused, reliable sports-oriented performance cars are not an abundant commodity. Vehicles like the GR86 open up an entirely new driving experience for those who can’t afford (nor justify) the exorbitant price of a highly strung European garage ornament that rarely sees the outside world unless it’s sunny or someone is watching.

The GR86 delivers the ownership wow factor. It looks fantastic, sounds awesome, is so much fun to drive and doesn’t require you to take out a second mortgage.

This is a car that will do exactly what you ask of it, without complaint. There are lots of aftermarket goodies, so if you like to tinker you can customise until your heart is content. And should you take it to your local club drive day to test your limits while having a little fun in a controlled environment, you may just become a lifelong fan.

Vehicle: Toyota GR 86

Price: GT from $49,012 GTS from $51,429

  • Engine: Naturally aspirated 2.4-litre horizontally opposed four-cylinder.
  • Output: 174kW/250Nm
  • Transmission: Six-speed manual or auto
  • Fuel: 9.5L/100km
  • Safety rating (Previous 2012 ANCAP 5 Stars)

Toyota Warranty Advantage provides a 5-year unlimited kilometre coverage for your GR86. Extending to seven-years on engine and driveline. Plus, capped-price servicing of $280 for the first five years or 75,000km at intervals of 12 months or 15,000km, whichever occurs first.

Drive Editor - Ray Cully
Drive Editor – Ray Cully

About our Motoring Editor: Ray has been passionate about all things automotive since he first started collecting Matchbox and Hot Wheels models when he was five. Since leaving his executive role at General Motors (GM), he’s been sharing his driving experiences with Australian audiences for nearly 20 years, commencing his automotive journalist career with a popular WA-based magazine and was writing his own column in The West Australian for 8 years.

Ray’s strong love of automotive engineering and clever design has seen his articles and photography featured in prominent national magazines in Australia and the UK. He loves sharing his passion with other drivers, including via a long running stint as Senior Instructor for Land Rover Experience, providing training and education for new vehicle owners.

Recently Ray has been presenting on TV shows including Ready for Adventure and the very popular Caravan and Camping WA, to showcase some of the great products, vehicles and companies that make getting out and exploring Western Australia that much more enjoyable.