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Toyota 86 review long-term – update 7 – track test

The Toyota 86 is one of the few cars designed for motorsports as opposed to just looking the part. Three years on, we have a verdict.

BACK IN 2012 Toyota set the sportscar world alight by ignoring the more-power, faster-times path of measurbator pointlessness that the industry has pursued for so long. Instead, they focused on the driving experience and delivered a light, rear-drive coupe with sharp handling – but also one designed as a weekend weapon for motorsports enthusiasts. Many cars are show, some are show and go, and just a few like the 86 are show and go week in, week out.
 
I’ve owned mine for three years and have lost count of the sprint days, hillclimbs and other events I’ve used it for, so it’s about time to report on how it goes. Here’s the summary – bloody good.
 
What you want from a track car is fun and reliability. The 86 has been utterly reliable up to its present 65,000km. The only items it’s had are brake pads, rotors, brake fluid (lots and lots of DOT 5.1 high-temp brake fluid) and tyres, all of which are consumables. It helps that the car is lightly modified – the suspension is KYB Extage springs and shocks, the rotors are Dixcel, the pads are Ferodo, brake lines are braided, the current tyres are Toyo R1Rs, a harness bar has been added and that’s it. Everything else – wheels, engine, aero – is stock standard.
 
Note the emphasis on brakes, which has to be the #1 mod for roadcars on tracks because very few cars have brakes designed for the punishment of tracks.  Your second modification should be driver training, and then you can think about power, more grip and the like.
 
The 86 has never missed a beat or given a moment’s concern, ever. Some people enjoy fiddling with the car between runs, I don’t, so reliability is important. And it’s not just me either, there’s lots of other road-registered 86s that do a lot of entry-level motorsports and there don’t seem to be any inherent design problems that everyone is complaining about, so the conclusion is Toyota have built a strong, robust sportscar.
 
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But enough about the reliability, and let’s talk about fun which is key to it all. That means a drive which begins with the setup, and there’s three modes you can run the car in. You can leave all the stability aids enabled which is the default, then there’s VSC Sport mode accessed by pressing the VSC switch once:
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This mode allows a little bit more tyre slip before VSC is engaged. Or you can hold the button down for three seconds which disables VSC almost entirely, leaving it to just help a bit with understeer by braking individual front wheels. In all modes ABS remains enabled. Here’s what VSC totally off looks like:
 
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Which to choose when?  Novices should leave everything enabled, because typically new drivers take poor lines which leave them insufficient space to correct problems they notice too late and lack the skills to fix. If VSC kicks in when you’re learning the art of track driving, then it’s often a sign you’re not driving smoothly.
 
The VSC sport mode is a good one as you pick up experience, as here you’re permitted a little more slip before the electronics help bring the car back into line. On faster tracks VSC makes little difference, as with the 86 at speed sideways is slow. As an example, at Phillip Island using a set of Nitto Invos I ran several 1.57 laps with VSC Sport on, and VSC entirely off.  VSC sport will slow you down on slower tracks – tight second-gear corners – where you need to slide the car around more to get a quick lap.
 
The other mode is everything off. Here you’re on your own, if you make a mistake the car won’t help. You can spin off the track, drift…the car is all yours. This is the most fun mode, but the highest risk. The 86 may be relatively slow and viceless, but it can still deliver a nasty shock and plenty have been written off on tracks.
 
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So with your electronics set to balance your personal choice of risk vs fun, out you go onto the track. The 86 has a pleasingly immediate throttle response (especially the manuals), but once the initial surge is delivered there’s not much left. Nevertheless, the sensation of speed is amplified by the low ride height, seating position, lack of sound insulation, general rawness and engine note. It’s all about the feels, not the numbers. 
 
On the straights you had better be acquainted with your rear view mirror because you can expect to be passed by just about everything. The 86 is slower than most GTis, all WRXes, Evos, almost all Lotus Elises, 350/370Z…it’ll even struggle against a 200SX which is much older. About the only car you can reliably pass on the straights is a stock MX-5, or something historic laying down an oil trail. The 0-100 time of 7-8 seconds isn’t great, and there’s only 205Nm of torque to push against the rapidly thickening wall of air as you edge towards top speed. You’re still accelerating past 210km/h though which is as fast as mine has been. Gearshifts are snick-quick, but the ‘box is not as perfectly smooth as some others. To me, that adds a little bit of character, your view may be different.
 
But the 86 isn’t for the straights, it’s for the corners and here is where the fun begins. You can heel’and’toe shift even if the pedals aren’t perfectly placed, then you find the car is sharp, responsive, balanced and you can play with lift-off oversteer. Even on third and fourth gear corners there’s power-on oversteer to be had if you’re up against the traction limit, and definitely on second-gear curves. Your line can be adjusted by throttle, the car gives you plenty of warning before it bites then responds quickly and predictably, understeer is there only if you can’t drive and it’s in the curves you can make up lots and lots of time on other cars. The 86 is as fun as cars get at this price point or even above, and certainly more enjoyable that many faster cars which are less involving.
 
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Like any car, the 86 has its own set of tips and tricks. Deciding between second and third for a corner, for example. My rule is that if in doubt, go for the higher gear as you tend to drive faster that way. Generally in the 86 if you need to turn the steering wheel ninety degrees or less then it’s a third-gear corner, more than ninety and it’s time for second gear – but that’s just a guide. Sometimes you can get to second, but you can’t fully apply the throttle so you may as well be in third. The 86 is quite oversteery which is fun, but slow so it rewards smoothness and weight transfer – just because a corner is flat doesn’t mean to say minimal steering input isn’t worth focusing on. Braking is very easy, thanks to ABS and electronic brakeforce distribution (EBD).
 
What’s the 86 lacking? Primarily just power. The faster a car goes, the more braking you need to do, and what were flat-out easy corners become more difficult, requiring a lift or even braking so there’s more for the driver to to do and enjoy. But the thing about power is that it’s like a drug – you become quickly accustomed to it and need more and more for the same thrill. Handling on the other hand never gets old, and that’s really the ethos of the 86. The car is fast enough that any corner on the average racetrack requires some focus, even if it’s only to get it as smooth as possible as you go through flat out. Power also means bigger crashes if they happen, and more wear and tear on the car – personally, I’d rather be able to afford an event a month in a stock car than half that in a modified one, or waste sessions under the car with tools. Still, if you do want to modify your 86 then there is a universe of changes you can make with multiple options for wheels, bodykits, lower diff ratios, engines (cold air intakes, superchargers, turbochargers, ECU tunes, exhausts, E85 conversions) and so much more.
 
On the basis that effort spent improving driver performance is more fun, rewarding and better for safety than making the car go faster, one change I’ve made is this:
 
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It’s a Trackart harness bar with a four-point harness. Holds you very firmly in the seat which is good for feeling what the car’s doing, and reduces fatigue on long runs. The stock seatbelts are unaffected so the car remains road-legal.  More on that in a future post. You can also see the headrest is reversed for use when you’re wearing a helmet.
 
A note on tyres. The stock tyres, either the 205/55/16 Yokohama Decibels or 215/45/17 Michelin Primacys can be run on tracks if the pressure is increased 3-4psi. There’s not a lot of grip or sharpness from either, but they do work so don’t feel you need to spend big on rubber for your very first track day. You can of course buy much stickier and wider tyres which grip better in the corners, but then you’re often adding rotating weight and might need a brake upgrade beyond rotors/pads/fluid/lines. You also then start to decrease the power/grip ratio which will mean quicker times, but more fun? That’s debatable. That said, the 86 can be sharpened up nicely with new suspension, wheel alignment, tyres and the like.
 
One interesting little problem was fixed like so:
 
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At around 150km/h in a crosswind the 86’s bonnet is prone to flapping. This is noticeable at Phillip Island on the run down to Honda. The racetape fixed the problem, probably by preventing air getting up inside the bonnet. A few 86/BRZ owners have had the same issue.
 
So far we’ve discussed trackwork, but there’s much more to motorsports than racetracks. The 86 is a superb motorkhana car – personally I don’t like all the cones which confuse me, but given the 86 is rear-drive, has a proper parkbrake and lots of power in first and second gear it’s great around ‘khana courses – I have found that the electric power steering can get overwhelmed though, something Toyota warn against and that I hope is fixed in the next version of the car.
 
Then moving up a bit to hillclimbs – a standing start, about a minute’s drive and then flying finish – the 86 is in its element with tight, twisty courses where the top speed is usually less than 120km/h and fourth gear is forgotten. It even does dirt well too…provided your definition of “well” is constantly working hard to keep the car going where you want, even in a straight line. Stock standard it’s an oversteery handful on loose surfaces, not fast but oh so rewarding!
 
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The summary is simple; the Toyota 86 is a tough but simple vehicle designed for motorsports and driving enjoyment. Every car enthusiast should be thankful the car exists and it shows all the other manufacturers just how to make a sportscar that is truly worthy of the name.

Related links:

Want to join a club for your Toyota 86 or Subaru BRZ? Here’s a list

Clubs offer many benefits; knowledge from others, CAMS licenses, cruises, motorsport events, access to club sponsor discounts and more. Toyo are sponsoring the NSW 86/BRZ Club, with discussions ongoing about the remainder of the national clubs.  

The clubs we know about are:

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Toyo even ran a track day for 86/BRZ owners. Here’s a couple of images:

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  • Wes Tan

    Hi Robert, great to read about the mods on your 86, I’m hoping to take mine to the track sometime. Re: the bonnet – don’t track events require 2 methods of bonnet fastening in case one fails? I’ve also had a constant issue with my park brake – the rear left clunks loudly when I gently engage it while transitioning to a stop at traffic lights & I don’t think it will hold up to handbrake turns! Toyota have checked it & said there’s nothing wrong with it. I wonder if other 86 owners have a similar problem.

    • The average track day rules CAMS L2S events which allow the safety latch standard on all modern cars as a bonnet fastener, so no modifications required. Refer to http://www.cams.com.au for more details, or what’s called the Supplementary Regulations for a specific event.

Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper is the editor of PM4x4, an offroad driver trainer and photographer interested in anything with wings, sails or wheels. He is the author of four books on offroading, and owns a modified Ford Ranger PX which he uses for offroad touring. His other car is a Toyota 86 which exists purely to drive in circles on racetracks. Visit his website: www.l2sfbc.com