Eagles Canyon Raceway is not what I expected from a racetrack an hour outside of Dallas. I assumed the track would be flat and fairly featureless, but it's the exact opposite. The 2.7-mile course has 15 turns, a long back straight and over 200 feet of elevation changes -- much of which occurs on blind corners. It's the perfect place to get a hot lap ridealong in Toyota's new GR 86 sports car with pro drifter Ken Gushi at the wheel.
We don't get to do a full lap of the course, as the track is also open for hot laps in a number of Toyota and Lexus products and the main straight is set up for car swapping. On top of that, some cones are set up on the track to modify corners and keep speeds a bit lower, including the addition of a chicane. But nonetheless, it's enough for the GR 86 to make a great first impression.
The car I'm riding in is a GR 86 Premium equipped with the standard six-speed manual transmission. Every GR 86 has a new, naturally aspirated 2.4-liter boxer 4-cylinder engine making 228 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque -- 23 hp and 28 lb-ft more than the outgoing 86. While the base GR 86 has 17-inch wheels with Michelin Primacy HP all-season tires, Premium versions get 18s wrapped in Michelin Pilot Sport 4 summer tires.
The first thing I tell Gushi is that I don't get carsick, so he can push it and go as fast as he wants, and boy does he ever. The whole time he's listing off specs and facts about the new GR 86, talking about how it compares to the old 86 and why that makes a difference on track -- all while driving basically flat out and sliding around some corners.
As we set off, the first thing Gushi points out is how the GR 86 sounds. Its exhaust note is higher pitched than the old car even at low speeds, and it's way louder. Most importantly, it actually sounds good: It's not droning or monotonous, but throaty, rowdy and full of character. The noise was one of my biggest complaints with the old car, so I'm glad the new one sounds more fun.
Immediately noticeable is how much less body roll the new car has. In a somewhat surprising move, the GR 86 and Subaru BRZ ride on a new platform instead of an evolution of the current model's chassis. Its center of gravity is lower, partially thanks to the use of an aluminum roof and fenders, and body rigidity is up by 50%. Toyota says the GR 86 weighs around 2,800 pounds and is only about 24 pounds heavier than the old car.
Peak torque comes in at 3,700 rpm, much sooner than the old car's 6,400-rpm peak, and that makes a difference even from the passenger seat. Gushi says he can keep the GR 86 in each gear longer without needing to upshift or downshift, even on corner entry and exit. From the right seat, the acceleration feels noticeably more punchy than the old 86.
I have to take a minute to talk about the styling, too. The GR 86 looks damn good, especially in white. I like the GR 86's grille and front bumper treatment more than its Subaru BRZ sibling, and the fantastic front fenders flow nicely into the aggressive side skirts. Despite being over an inch longer, the new car looks smaller than the old one -- partially because of the tapering greenhouse and the phenomenally sculpted rear haunches, as well as the car's lower stance. The Premium trim gets a huge ducktail rear spoiler that I think looks awesome, but the base car's decklid is also good.
The interior is also a massive step forward. The front bucket seats are well-bolstered and comfortable; the base cloth fabric is nice, but I definitely prefer the Premium's Alcantara and leather trimmings. Every GR 86 has a leather-wrapped shifter, steering wheel and parking brake, and the door panels and dash have other soft-touch materials and leather-covered pieces. The design of the interior is still pretty simple and similar to the first-gen car, but it doesn't look as cheap. There's a standard 8-inch infotainment touchscreen with a crisp display, and I like the row of toggle switches underneath. One of the best changes is the also-standard 7-inch digital gauge cluster, which has some great graphics.
Obviously it's tough to get a real feel for the GR 86 after not even a full hot lap, but I'm coming away from my ride impressed. I didn't think it would feel as noticeably different from the old car as it does, even from the passenger seat, and the sharp styling and nicer interior make a huge difference. Plus, it sounds like the GR 86 will stick extremely close to the current 86's $28,105 base price.
Amid the rapid onset of hybrids and electric cars -- including those from Toyota like the BZ4X -- and lots of talk about the death of the "real" sports car, it's encouraging to see Toyota focusing not just on keeping the 86 around, but making it even better.
2022 Toyota GR 86 rocks its new sports car looksSee all photos
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.