The 2018 Toyota 86 harks back to a simpler time. A time when television was limited to three channels, children would play outdoors and sports cars were only about three simple elements: a front-mounted engine, rear-wheel drive and a gearbox that you actually had to shift by hand. The best ones were tightly wrapped in curvaceous, yet svelte bodies that would typically elicit catharsis.
There aren't too many cars like that anymore -- especially affordable ones -- and the future appears bleak. Even the 86's chief engineer, Tetsuya Tada, admits as much: "Looking at the current automotive industry, the talk is all about autonomous driving, electrification and artificial intelligence," Tada said in a recent interview published by Toyota.
"What that's doing is giving rise to a lot of strict regulations, and that limits our capacity to make emotional sports cars; it's getting much more difficult to do that," he said.
So as I plunk my body down into the 86's deep-bucket driver's seat, I'm transported to the good ol' days, when cars were smaller, simpler, and consequently, lighter. My test vehicle, an 86 GT Black, tips the scales at a mere 2,776 pounds. The Toyota 86's cockpit is a nice (albeit dated) place to be, too. Cabin materials are middling, but that's fitting for a car that, as tested, will set you back $28,585.
The GT Black and the identically priced, similarly equipped GT are the ones you want. The differences between these two trims amount to color differences. The GT has body-colored mirrors with body-colored end plates and supports for the matte-black rear wing. The GT Black, as the name implies, has Raven-black mirrors and a matte-black rear wing with Raven-black supports and end plates. The GT and GT Black trims add $1,410 to the 86's base price, but come with a suite of features including LED foglights, that matte rear wing, aerodynamic underbody panel, heated mirrors, Smart Key, push-button start, dual-zone climate control, 4.2-inch TFT Multi-Information Display -- which includes a lap timer plus a G-meter -- an alarm and heated seats.
But most importantly, the GT trims offer a six-speed manual transmission, and thank goodness for that.
If you're concerned about track times, you'll want the 86 TRD Special Edition that hits dealerships in August. I got to drive that version for a few laps at Auto Club Speedway, and with the added grip from that car's Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tires, it's clear that cornering speed is the TRD's priority, as opposed to drift angles in the lower-spec 86s.
Behind the 86's compact steering wheel, I anticipate the sort of giggly good times I've enjoyed in FR-S/BRZ/86 models since the coupes debuted in 2012. I push the engine-start button, fire up the 2.0-liter flat-four and ready myself for a good time.
Even plucking about my neighborhood is fun in the 86. With many cars I've tested recently, I've had to drive them in anger to provoke character from their chassis. That's not the case with the 86. Instead, it always feels on edge.
You can feel every road imperfection, but this Toyota is damped well enough so that the bumps don't result in bruises. And because you have just 156 pound-feet of peak torque at your disposal from only 6,400 to 6,600 rpm, as well as a modest 205 horsepower that arrives at an ionospheric 7,000 rpm, you can full-throttle short-shift into third gear in a 25-mph school zone with Johnny Law watching, and he won't even bat an eye.
This car's clutch action feels a little less crisp than previous Toyobarus I've driven, perhaps due to its life as a hard-driven journalist test car. It also takes a little more effort to coax the transmission into fifth and sixth gear than I remember. But despite the gearbox wear, the short-throw shifts remain snappy and engaging. Indeed, this should be a fun week.
After a rip over the Santa Monica Mountains from Supercar Sunday in the San Fernando Valley to Neptune's Net north of Malibu for a spot of brunch, before I know it, afternoon has fallen. Time ticks a little faster when you're living with an 86. Not long after I return home, a colleague of mine summons me to Angeles Crest Highway for a sunset swing through the twisties.
The 86 GT Black comes shod with 215/45R17 Michelin Primacy HPs; not the stickiest tire, but the lower-grip Michelin rubber makes the car as pliable as Silly Putty as soon as you dial up some opposite lock. Somehow at speed while serpentining through Angeles Crest Highway's ribbons, though, the 86 feels a smidge more planted than its looser tires would suggest. Well-calibrated electric power steering aids this confident sensation.
The GT Black may not wear the grippier Michelin Pilot Sport 4s of the new 86 TRD Special Edition, but my tester feels comfortably at home getting its neck wrung on Highway 2.
Thankfully the engine, particularly its characterful induction noise, offers plenty of entertainment because the 86's infotainment is rather disappointing. A standard 7-inch Display Audio touchscreen rides front and center in the 86's cabin. It's not a bad-looking unit, but its lack of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto looks bad to the modern consumer. That display connects to an eight-speaker Pioneer audio system that sounds as embarrassing as flatulence in a crowded elevator.
Dusk begins to filter through the canyons and passes of the San Gabriel Mountains, and akin to the childhood rule of having to be in the house as soon as the street lights flash on, I feel a similar urgency to get off the mountain as soon as the 86's projector LED headlights automatically illuminate to help me safely exit LA's premier driving playground. The 86 earned its set of compulsory LED headlamps when it was refreshed into a Toyota for the 2017 model year. The lamps offer bright, crisp lighting with equally impressive LED high beams that will inspire confidence if you want to embark on a spirited night drive.
After a week and more than 600 miles of mostly highway driving with the Toyota 86 GT Black, I was able to eek out 27 mpg. Pretty good considering about 10 percent of those miles were devoured on canyon roads. The 86 earns an EPA-estimated 24 mpg combined for manual versions, but with the six-speed automatic, the EPA bumps its estimate to 27 mpg combined. It's reassuring to know, then, that your sports car won't cost you too much at the pump, even if you're more liberal with the throttle.
It may feel dated inside, and lack the torque and horsepower to make it a true thrill ride, but the 86 is one of those cars that provokes hesitation when you have to give back the keys. I still would rather have a Miata because it offers an open-top experience that leans more toward grand touring than sport, but the 86 does a great job at nipping at the MX-5's heels. It's absolutely one of those sports cars enthusiasts will appreciate.