It’s hard to believe it, but the Toyota 86 — the car formerly known as the Scion FR-S — and its sibling, the Subaru BRZ, turned five years old in 2017. I got to spend a week with the latest 86, which was all gussied up in TRD factory modifications, to see how far it’s come.
When this car came out, it was hailed as a return of the pure sports car; Mazda Miata aside, we haven’t had access to a decently-priced, fun, light, 2-door coupe in quite some time. But, born out of a Toyota-Subaru partnership, we got one. We got a couple of them, actually: the rear-wheel-drive BRZ was also added to Subaru’s formerly-all-AWD lineup. It won lots of awards when it first debuted. Many, including Top Gear, named it “Car of the Year.” But five years on, how are things progressing?
Well, they aren’t necessarily. Years in, it’s still a blast, but the sum of its parts is still not quite as much fun as comparably priced Detroit muscle cars — most of which have retained their big bruiser V8s while adding more economical and lighter 4-cylinder turbo engines. More on that in a bit.
This particular model that Toyota graciously loaned me for a week does feel a bit more special than the average 86 or BRZ, via the addition of some TRD bits and bright orange paint. This car is all about the driving experience, and it generally delivers. It’s a, pardon the cliche, point-and-shoot type of car. It doesn’t need a lot of input or driving ability, it just goes where you tell it like an obedient spaniel. Pitch it into a tight off-ramp and it sticks to the road better than some cars that cost twice as much.
This 86 featured TRD springs, which was “more of a good thing” from a handling standpoint — but the ride was much less pliant than in a regular 86 or BRZ. It still generally retained the typical 86’s handling characteristics, in the sense that you could tell when it was going to let loose with some sideways antics — and it’s still just as easy to control as it was when it debuted.
The engine is really peaky, and you notice the lack of low-end power almost all the time. At speed, it can be a lot of fun — but I’m not really a believer in the “driving a slow car fast is better than driving a fast car slow” mentality. It’s still slow, and while it’s one of the new true sports cars left, it’s still really lacking in power. That is an omnipresent fact that is hard to forget, no matter how great it goes around corners.
Inside, the ergonomics are great: The steering wheel and seats, in particular, are perfection. The deep bolsters take some climbing to get over, particularly since this is a low car, and it’s been made even lower thanks to TRD. But once you get in, you feel like you’re about to drive something fun. The wheel falls perfectly to hand and helps you get the car pointed wherever you want it to go. The shifter is good, perhaps not the best I’ve driven, but it’s nice to use a proper manual whenever possible. The rest of the interior feels cheap, with lots of hard plastics and dated-looking materials.
But in the end, a car is only as good as its competition, and the 86 starts at $26,225. With the over $2,000 in TRD mods that my loaner came with, it was almost $30,000. That gets you a 2.0-liter Boxer engine with 205 horsepower at 7,000 RPMs and 156 lb-ft of torque, along with 21 miles per gallon in the city and 28 mpg highway, if you’re into that sort of thing. It also gets you super fun handling, but you’re stuck with a fairly cheap feeling interior.
By contrast, the 2018 Mustang starts at $25,585 for the EcoBoost Fastback, which features a new 2.3-liter engine with 310 horsepower and 350 lb-ft of torque. Oh, and fuel economy is still a bit better, at 21 mpg city and 31 mpg hwy. Yeah, it’s heavier, but it’s also got more room inside for you and your stuff. I haven’t driven the new EcoBoost Mustang, but I can tell you that its predecessor was a lot of fun — more fun, even, than the 86.
There’s a new Supra coming, in another joint venture for Toyota, but I fear that it will cost twice the 86’s starting price — which will leave a big performance gap in the lineup. As automotive performance has moved on since the 86 and the BRZ came out five years ago, the 86 and BRZ have only felt slower and more underpowered — and without a more powerful version (that doesn’t really seem like it’s on the way), the 86 and BRZ will only continue to feel more outdated — and increasingly outshined by the competition.