The automatic Toyota 86 / Subaru BRZ. More than just an easy drive.

THE TOYOTA 86 is mechanically identical to the Subaru BRZ save for one or two tiny details like fine suspension tune, so for dynamics and handling whatever you write about one pretty much applies to the other. I can vouch for this as we’ve got two 86/BRZs in our household, my manual 86 and my partner’s automatic BRZ.


If I ask nicely I’m occasionally allowed to drive the BRZ, and I have to say… I like it. Yes, even after I wrote this. But hold on, I’m not about to be swapping my own car for an automatic, because I still believe the fundamental principle of true driving pleasure is the mastery of difficult skills, of which a manual gearbox is an important part. Instead, I appreciate the automatic BRZ/86 for its important advantages over the manual.

The first and most obvious is no need to change gears, so it’s an easy drive in stop/start traffic. The second and less obvious is the quicker acceleration off idle for the same revs, which means quieter and less fussy progress. The automatic needs far fewer revs than the manual when driving normally around town, and there is a satisfying urge even down around 2000rpm where the manual is lifeless and sluggish. The paddleshift gearchanges work well too, they feel good and there’s no delay in shifting. The auto loses none of the inherently sharp and fun handling the 86/BRZ is renowned for, but does make it slightly tamer and simpler to drive as it’s easier to feed the power in smoothly. It’s also slightly quieter at cruise speed too, as the revs are a bit lower.

I’d even go so far as to say the auto is more fun around town. But at high speed, high revs…give me my manual any day, even though it’ll be no quicker than the automatic and harder work.

That’s the review bit of this post. Now you are probably dying to know the answer to this question:

Why is the automatic better?

The improved low-speed driving experience in the automatic is due to something called the torque converter.

A manual car joins the engine directly to the wheels, once the clutch is up, so any change in engine speed directly affects the wheel speed. That is why manuals have such wonderful immediacy of response to the throttle.

Automatics, on the other hand, do not usually have a such a direct connection unless they are the likes of the latest DSG systems. Instead, the engine in an automatic car with a torque converter spins a fan (impeller) in what is in effect a jar of oil. That oil then spins too, and there’s another fan inside the jar of oil which is connected to the rest of the drivetrain and the driving wheels, known as the turbine. As the oil spins, the turbine spins too. Between the impeller and turbine is something called the stator which is another kind of rotating fan device.

So with a torque converter there is no direct connection between engine and wheels, and the engine can spin its impeller faster than the turbine. With the help of the stator, this acts as a kind of gearing, so the engine can quickly get to an appropriate rev range and stay there for a while – you can see this in action when you accelerate at medium levels and see the engine revs stay more or less constant as the car gathers speed. In effect, you could say that automatics get extra gear ratios compared to manuals.

At cruise or in other conditions where appropriate torque converters can lock up so there is a direct connection between engine and drive wheels, and it’s at that point the automatic is most efficient. In many cars you can pick this point – select top gear, say 5th or 6th, and accelerate hard from say 80 to 100km/h but don’t floor it. You’ll see the revs rise, the car stay in gear, and after a moment when you get to 100km/h the revs will drop yet the speed remains the same as does the gear. What’s happened there is that the torque converter has helped accelerate the car. You may see the same behaviour on hills too.

It’s also interesting to look at what’s called the gear ratios for each car, because that tells us a lot:

86/BRZ Transmission Ratios


Six-speed manual

Six-speed automatic

Ratios: 1st





















Final drive



The numbers such as 3.626 and 3.538 refer to the number of turns the transmission makes to one turn of the engine. In the case of first gear, the engine turns 3.626 times for one turn (revolution, or rev) of the gearbox. The final drive is the differential ratio, and it’s the same thing – in both cases, the input drive turns once, and the output of the differential turns 4.1 times. 

Both the auto and manual have the same engine, same differential (final drive) gears and apparently the same engine tune. It is not unusual for carmakers to tune engines slightly differently between auto and manual

What’s interesting here is the difference in gear ratios (gears 1-6) for each car. The numbers for the manual are higher than for the auto. This means the manual is lower geared than the auto, or in other words, for any given speed the automatic will be using slightly fewer revs than the manual. The reason the car is designed this way is because of the gearing effect of the automatic transmission’s torque converter. This also has an effect on fuel consumption:

Fuel consumption (L/100 km) *


7.8 (manual), 7.1 (auto)


10.4 (manual), 9.6 (auto)

Extra urban

6.4 (manual), 5.7 (auto)

with the automatic beating the manual across the board. This is because of the higher gearing and ability of the torque converter to maximise engine efficiency. It is true that the automatic is a bit heavier (about 23kg), and that torque converters lose some energy compared to manuals, but neither factor is (for the 86/BRZ) enough to outweigh the improvement in engine efficiency.

Let’s take a look at top speed too:


0-100km/h (s)

7.6 (manual), 8.2 (auto)

Max. speed (km/h)

226 (manual), 210 (auto)

What! The manual is faster 0-100, and has a higher top speed! There’s a couple of reasons why. First, for acceleration, the manual’s slightly lighter weight helps (1275 vs 1298 for the Toyota 86 in GTS trim). Automatic cars are usually a bit heavier than manuals because of their heavier gearbox. But 23kg can’t account for a half-second difference.

Second, at full throttle there is no advantage to the automatic transmission with its torque converter, and the straight-through, more direct and efficient manual has an advantage. But that doesn’t explain it either.

Finally, there’s gearing – the manual’s lower gears are more suited to a sprint. Both cars have to change to third just before the 100km/h mark. If the auto could top 100km/h in second it might beat the manual, which is one reason why we really need to start thinking about 0-150km/h sprint times more suited to the performance of modern cars. Gearing is the real reason the manual is quicker than the auto.

As for top speed, that’s also gearing. Weight doesn’t make much difference to top speed, it’s more about drag but here the drag coefficient of both cars is 0.27. The peak power is the same too, so it’s all down to lower gearing. Sixth gear is lower in the manual, and as cars are designed to reach their maximum speed before they hit the redline in top gear, then the manual’s lower gears means it gets a bit closer to redline in top than the auto, producing more power at the wheels, so it can go that bit quicker. Note that for many cars, top speed is actually reached in one or even two gears lower than the top gear, not the case for the 86/BRZ with its sporty, closely-spaced gear ratios.

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  1. I’m no spanner head and only have a basic level of knowledge about transmissions so could be misguided here, and I prefer manuals for the reasons you state (engagement, control). However, I also find them to be always quicker than an automatic in some crucial driving situations. This is even compared to the DSG ones, which I have had limited experience with.
    The reason I find the manual quicker is that I can look ahead and consider the road and traffic and anticipate the best (quickest) gear to be in when driving a manual. If I am overtaking a car and am facing oncoming traffic, I might be in 4th gear and instead of shifting to 5th which an auto would do, I decide to leave it in 4th as I can see that I might have the opportunity to pass the next car in front of me too (e.g. a better sight line is about to come up). But I also might need to pull in and an automatic misreads this hesitation and shifts up to 5th and 6th. If the road is clear, I just punch the accelerator in a manual. In an auto, when I hit the throttle it has to kick back two gears because it misread my hesitation. This takes time.
    I know some autos can be put into ‘manual’ mode but this makes the process even slower. Unless you’re driving around in manual mode all the time you have to hit the button on the centre console, which takes even more time.
    There are other scenarios where this happens where you want the car to hold a gear but the auto won’t let you and you lose time and focus putting it into ‘manual’ mode (e.g. anticipating a change in traffic lights, merging onto a motorway and someone changes lane to leave you a gap).
    I guess the problem is that there is this extra step in getting an auto to behave like a manual, which you don’t need if you just bought the manual in the first place.

    1. Hi JohnGC

      Good points. However, modern autos get ride of quite a few of those concerns.

      First, they are now very quick to react so if you put your foot down there’s an immediate change.

      Second, if the vehicle has paddleshifts as most do, then there’s no need to switch into manual mode to select a gear. All you need to do pull the right shift back one (or two) to change down, and you’re ready to roll. The transmission will hold the gear for a few seconds, and then it will revert back to Drive. You can use this technique to prepare to overtake. All paddleshift cars have this feature, with the only exception in my experience being the HAVAL H9.

      This is easier and quicker than changing gears in a manual, but the only disadvantage is that if you don’t make quick use of the selected gear, then the car will go back to Drive. If you want to remain in manual control then the way to do that is to select manual with the gearshift itself; this is usually flicking it left or right, but sometimes further backwards.

      More on paddle shifts here:

      1. Thanks Robert, the linked article was very interesting, particularly the part about asking the ‘computer’ to change gears. I’ve only driven rentals with the paddles shift and probably gave up too easily before working out how to drive with them properly. I grew up on motorbikes and as one of the commenters noted, this may be something that has influenced my driving style to favour manuals. I have an F20 1 series manual and have rented the 1 series auto and prefer the manual, but now wonder if the auto is something I could appreciate with a bit more effort on my part. BMW make the auto standard now, with the manual a no cost option. This rubs me the wrong way, it should be cheaper, but given your praise of the auto, maybe I should live with one and learn how to drive with it.

  2. The AT will do 100kph/62mph in 2nd in manual mode. On E85 it takes about 6.6s and petrol around 7s. Changing the FD to 4.88 takes about a second off that, despite the extra gear change. 4.88 on AT has equivalent ratios to 4.55 on MT in gears 1-3. AT 4.88 4th is still 20kph longer than MT 4.55 4th. The biggest problem with the AT is that 5th is so long and 5th and 6th are so ridiculously close that it’s practically a 5 speed. Another issue for the track is you need both engine and ATF coolers for AT.

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