Toyota’s made-for-drifting sports car offers a well-balanced ride in a niche segment
What’s in a name? When Toyota decided to kill the Scion brand after the 2016 model year, it renamed the portfolio. The Scion FR-S became the Toyota 86—a nod to the rear-drive Toyota AE86 introduced in 1983 as part of the fifth-generation Corolla lineup, which gained cult status among drift fans—for the 2017 model year.
This is the rear-wheel-drive 2+2 sports coupe on a platform co-developed with Subaru, which sells it as the BRZ. The cars were tuned to be lightweight, affordable drift cars and open the door to experience grassroots racing relatively inexpensively.
The FR-S was about $26,000 USD, and the price increased slightly when it made its metamorphosis to a Toyota and added some content. The Toyota 86 starts at $27,140 USD with a manual transmission and $27,860 USD with an automatic. The more upscale 2017 860 Special Edition starts at $30,040 USD with a manual and $30,760 USD with an automatic transmission. Toyota will offer 860 of them in Supernova Orange and another 860 in Halo White, all with black racing stripes, a black spoiler and side mirrors, and chrome finish on the wheels. The interior is also awash in black with orange accent stitching.
It is a lot of driving fun for the money. We drove a Euro-spec 86, which is similar to the Toyota 860 Special Edition that will be sold in the North America. The pool of cars we cycled through had an assortment of winter tires for a drive that went through Switzerland and Germany with a dip into Lichtenstein and Austria. Toyota has also taken the car to Lapland (northern Scandinavia) to test its prowess on ice with studded tires.
Even with winter tires, the steering, handling, and agility of the 86 is unmistakable. It reminds you of what it feels like to spend a few days touring scenic countryside, with a variety of speeds, road types, and an endless number of roundabouts providing a great chance to experience the smooth, short-throw shifts of the six-speed manual (expected to account for 60 percent of sales) and the nice feel of the clutch.
To fete the name change, Toyota did more than change the badge on this global car. The appearance and driving dynamics were upgraded, as well. There is a new front fascia with an air dam and new rear lower fascia. The overall look is wider and lower while adopting Toyota styling cues and tweaks to make the car more aerodynamic.
Inside there is a new steering wheel that is smaller but thicker with more control buttons. The materials, such as the suedelike material that covers the hard plastic of the dash and soft parts of the door including armrests, are nicer. The seats still adjust manually, but there are improved seat bolsters that were much appreciated after long days planted in them. Being a driver’s car, cupholders look like an afterthought. The rimless rearview mirror is fresh, but the lack of modern connectivity conveniences, such as an updated infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, is not. The system did, however, provide some interesting information—crossing borders in Europe, it let us know each new country’s alcohol limit and advised us we needed extra spare light bulbs, safety vests, and a tow rope in Alpine regions.
Global chief engineer Tetsuya Tada, chief engineer of Toyota’s Sport Vehicle Management Division and an accomplished driver and race champion, had a couple goals in engineering the 86. The car was to be compact with a low center of gravity and perfectly balanced so the driver feels connected to the road. The 86 was not designed to be the quickest car on the road, but it should inspire the buyer to drive, tune it themselves, and drive some more.
Changes to the intake manifold and exhaust on manual cars adds 5 horsepower, bringing it to 205 hp. (It remains 200 hp on cars with an automatic transmission.) Torque from the 2.0-liter Subaru flat-four boxer engine is unchanged at 156 lb-ft at 6,400 rpm. And the axle ratio has been lowered from 4.1:1 to 4.3:1. We found the car to have plenty of low-end torque then a mid-range hesitation before another jump in power at 5,500 rpm that lasts to redline at 7,200 rpm. And although the car was designed to drift, we got no such opportunity during our trek across Europe.
Tada used his race experience to improve the car’s dynamics, and the result is a car that responds to every input in a seamless and natural manner. The 86 has a more rigid body and improved suspension, stability control, and aerodynamics. He stiffened the chassis and tuned the suspension to be stiffer in front and softer in the rear with a larger rear anti-roll bar. The snow mode on the Scion was replaced with a second ABS mode for the track. There is also a Euro-spec narrow rear spoiler. The upgraded 4.2-inch thin-film-transistor display in the instrument cluster shows fuel economy, g-meter, lap times, and other vehicle information.
Alastair Moffitt of the Toyota Europe Motorsports Group said the 86 is an important car to invigorate Toyota’s sporty image while promoting a car perfect for racing with little modification needed.
The Toyota 86 appeals to a 30-year-old male buyer, and the 860 Special Edition was designed for older men who had a sports car when they were younger and are indulging themselves again once they become empty nesters. The 860 adds amenities such as heated seats and side mirrors as well as dual-zone climate control.
The 86 is on sale now in the U.S., with California expected to be the biggest market. Toyota sells about 50,000 globally each year with the U.S. accounting for as many as 10,000 of the annual sales. Toyota figures about 70 percent of sports car buyers are enthusiasts who know exactly what they want and don’t cross shop. It is tough finding a direct competitor to the 86. The closest would be the Mazda MX-5 Miata RF and the Fiat 124 Spider, but cars such as the Ford Fiesta ST have helped invigorate the affordable performance car segment.
As for expansion of the 86 lineup, Tada shot down speculation of a convertible or a turbo. The platform and vehicle structure were engineered to accommodate a convertible, but Tada said, to his chagrin, the business case is not there. He does not expect the idea to get the green light.
As for the turbo—that is a big no. The 86 is a perfectly balanced car with a naturally aspirated engine, Tada said, and a turbo would make it nose heavy. A turbo is being saved for the Toyota Supra, which is being engineered with BMW. Think of the next Supra as a bigger, more powerful brother to the more affordable 86.