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2022 Toyota GR 86 first drive review: An enthralling second act

Toyota powers up and refines its lightweight sports coupe.

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In the decade since the Toyota 86 (neé Scion FR-S) and Subaru BRZ twins launched, they've become fixtures at autocrosses and road course paddocks. These lightweight, affordable, rear-wheel-drive coupes offer a perfect track car foundation on which to build. And for the 86's second act, Toyota is giving it more of the good stuff without changing what makes this car so inherently great.

Bigger boxer, still no turbo

You've asked, I've asked, we've all asked, but a turbocharged engine still isn't in the cards for the new GR 86. Thankfully, a larger naturally aspirated boxer engine does bring more oomph to the party. 

A new 2.4-liter four-cylinder spits out 228 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque -- 23 hp and 28 lb-ft more than the old 2.0-liter engine. More importantly, peak torque is available at 3,700 rpm instead of the previous 6,400 rpm for better grunt whether you're bumming around town or romping around your favorite road course.

Like before, the GR 86 will be offered with either a six-speed manual or automatic transmission. The stick shift gets a carbon synchronizer to improve fourth-gear engagement, as well as new bearings and lower-viscosity fluid for smoother shift action. The automatic gets a higher-capacity torque converter to deal with the engine's extra thrust and additional clutch discs for better power delivery characteristics. 

For those wondering about fuel economy, official EPA numbers aren't available yet, but Toyota estimates the manual 86 will return 19 mpg in the city and 26 mpg on the highway. With an automatic, the estimates increase to 20 mpg city and 30 mpg highway.

Around the Monticello Motor Club track in New York, the GR 86's new drivetrain makes a great first impression. If you drive the outgoing 86 back-to-back with the new GR 86, the livelier midrange grunt and throatier exhaust note make themselves known. Giddy-up is much livelier in the new car while accelerating down straights and hustling out of corners. On this same course, the older 2.0-liter car is always working up to the power at the top and feels dead in the middle of the engine's rev range.

It's not turbocharged, but the bigger 2.4-liter engine delivers a healthy 228 hp.

Jon Wong/Roadshow

The GR 86's throttle response is better than before, making rev-matching for downshifts a breeze, though the spacing between the brake and gas pedal is rather far apart. Other than that, fluid shifter action and a light clutch pedal make hammering the GR 86 hard around a track easy and thrilling.

As for the automatic GR 86, the updated transmission swaps cogs in a smoother and quicker manner, but manually shifting with the steering wheel-mounted paddles leaves a lot to be desired. There's a noticeable delay to shift commands and the rev-matching for downshifts is clunky.

Sharper and more composed

The GR 86's chassis has a number of tweaks that improve handling like new front crossmembers and rear ring structure. The MacPherson-strut front and rear double-wishbone suspension setups get reworked dampers, new springs with front rebound coils and bigger antiroll bars to go along with a Torsen limited-slip differential like before. 

Bigger and stickier Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tires on the GR 86 Premium are a welcome sight.

Jon Wong/Roadshow

A new electronic power steering system makes for more direct action while throwing the GR 86 into a turn. Base models ride on 17-inch V-spoke wheels wrapped with 215/45 Michelin Primacy HP tires, while Premium trims get 18-inch matte black rims covered in 215/40 Michelin Pilot Sport 4 rubber. The brakes carry over unchanged with single-piston calipers biting down on 11.6-inch front and 11.4-inch rear discs. 

To keep weight in check with the GR's additional body reinforcements and beefed-up drivetrain components, the roof and front fenders are now made from aluminum, which also helps lower the coupe's center of gravity. The aforementioned power steering system is lighter than the old setup, and even small items such as a resin fuel door and lighter front seat frames are used to reduce heft wherever possible. The result is a 77-pound weight gain to 2,811 pounds for the 2022 base manual model.

Out on the track at Monticello, the GR 86 Premium is a riot to toss around, and much more buttoned up than the 86 it replaces. Steering response is snappier, quickly tucking the front end into corners, while body roll is minimal and the Pilot Sport 4s keep things nicely stuck, allowing you to roll into the throttle earlier on corner exit. The GR 86 handles high-speed side-to-side transitions with aplomb and feels surefooted when driven hard. Getting the rear to step out is easily done with the throttle and it's a cinch to control with some countersteering.

More power and a reworked chassis make the new 86 a track star.

Jon Wong/Roadshow

Saddling up in the base car with the skinny Primacy HP tires is more of a slip-and-slide experience. There's more tire sidewall squirm at turn-in, and it has lower cornering capabilities and not as much overall grip, requiring a more gradual throttle application out of bends. The base car is definitely more of a handful to drive hard, but hugely entertaining in its own right thanks to the 86's balanced chassis.

After a day of lapping, the brakes on my GR 86 tester show signs of wear. The brake pedal is softer and clamping bite isn't as ferocious, which is understandable. My issue is that my track runs were extremely brief, limited to two laps of Monticello's short 1.6-mile south course in the morning and one lap of the full 3.6-mile course in the afternoon. That doesn't bode well for the GR 86 being able to survive a typical 15-to-20-minute session at an open track day.

Taking it to the streets

Driving the GR 86 Premium on the roads around Monticello reveals a firm, but far from jarring ride. On twisty ribbons of pavement, the GR 86 is fun to wheel around, which should make regular commutes much more interesting. The front seats are nicely bolstered, keeping occupants comfortable and locked in place.

A straightforward cabin with comfy front seats greets you inside the new GR 86.

Jon Wong/Roadshow

What still isn't comfortable for most people are the 86's back seats, which are lacking in the leg- and headroom departments. Kids will manage, but you probably don't want to put adults back there unless you like watching them suffer. With the back seats folded down, Toyota says there's still enough cargo room to carry an extra set of wheels, a jack and some tools for track day exploits.

The 86's cabin layout is simple and easy to navigate, with large, clearly labeled switches. All GR 86 models get smartly placed soft touchpoints like leather on the steering wheel and shift knob, padded armrests and suede trim on the upper door panels. Premium models upgrade to Alcantara and leather seating, two-stage heated front buckets, aluminum pedals and contrasting black and silver trim.

The Toyota GR 86 Premium's interior is jazzed up with Alcantara and leather seating.

Jon Wong/Roadshow

Infotainment is handled by a serviceable 8-inch touchscreen system offering wired Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Bluetooth, satellite radio and a six-speaker audio setup on base cars and an eight-speaker unit on the Premium. Active safety technology goodies are limited to automatic transmission cars only, but they have standard automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning and auto high beams.

On the outside, the 86's overhaul includes new fascias front and rear, as well as redesigned fenders and flared rocker panels. The G-mesh honeycomb grille inserts are a nod to the 86 joining Toyota's family of GR performance vehicles, while the fender vents reduce wheel well turbulence and larger side skirts help improve straight-line stability at high speeds. All GR 86 models feature full LED lighting and black side mirror caps, while Premium cars get adaptive front lights and a sweeping duckbill spoiler that makes the rear look an awful lot like the previous-generation Aston Martin Vantage, which is cool in my book.

The 2022 Toyota GR 86 hits dealers in November.

Jon Wong/Roadshow

Value performer

When the 2022 GR 86 hits deals in November, Toyota officials say it'll be priced under $30,000 including destination costs -- a small increase over the current 86's $28,105 starting MSRP. Honestly, having to part with a little more scratch for a more powerful, better-handling and sharper-looking sports coupe isn't something I'd gripe too much about. I'm just glad Toyota is keeping the GR 86 alive and giving it a healthy redo, to boot. Now, when does the turbo get here?

Editors' note: Travel costs related to this story were covered by the manufacturer, which is common in the auto industry. The judgments and opinions of Roadshow's staff are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.