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Toyota 86 long-term review – Welcome

Our Robert Pepper has owned his Toyota 86 for more than 12 months – so he knows what he likes and doesn’t like. Read his Toyota 86 long-term review.

Run by: Robert Pepper

Travel: 38,000km

Purchased: January 2012

Read our review of the Toyota 86

EVERYBODY’S GOT A SHORT ATTENTION span these days, so if you want the summary here it is – the Toyota 86 is the best car I’ve owned. Now off you go, I’m sure there’s another story or two on your Facebook feed by now.

If you’re still reading though, you’re probably wondering what “best” means. I wonder that myself too sometimes. It doesn’t mean the best towcar, most practical car or even the fastest car I’ve owned. It simply means it’s the car that I’m most glad I bought, the one that brings the biggest smile to my face, the one with the least regrets. Which is a big call, so let me elaborate.

I believe cars should fulfil dual roles of utility and pleasure. There’s no reason, these days, to drive a boring white-goods appliance of a car, even if you’re not a car person. Cars should, and can be, desirable, beautiful, enjoyable, and at the same time practical. Your smartphone manages to be simultaneously attractive and useful, just like your spouse of course. That’s as it should be, considering you spend so much money on the thing and so much time in it. You choose which one I meant…

Comprehensive Car Insurance

So the 86 hits the mark for me, and if it was human I’d marry it. I bought it because I’m a driving enthusiast who wanted something that would indulge my penchant for going fast, or sideways, or both (on a track, of course). Over the past year I’ve done numerous trackdays, dirt time trials trials, motorkhanas, skidpan sessions and hillclimbs. In each the 86 has been a joy, and dependably reliable too. Some cars throw up a little problem here and there, so you can never quite trust them, like an otherwise docile dog occasionally snarling, and you know it’s not playful. But the 86 never misses a beat, so it’s one of those cars you begin to trust, which is the bedrock of truly enjoying a vehicle. Unless of course you’re into old British cars in which case the enjoyment starts when you’re picking which of your tools to use. So where others are jacking up their cars, and breaking into sweat and selecting spanners between runs, I’m sipping coffee and watching the action. Then I drive mine home. I might not have the fastest time, but I’ve had trouble-free, low-cost sportscar fun and that is the essence of the 86, driving pleasure distilled, refined and badged by Toyota, or Subaru.

Long-Term Toyota 86 - Welcome

You see, some sportscars aren’t sportscars, just a pretty body on an average chassis, the singer who looks the part but relies on recordings to deliver. In contrast, the 86 is the real deal. The signs are subtle, but there if you know where to look – the tacho is front and centre, because you don’t look at the speedo when competing. The seats are low and superbly supportive, and you see out the windscreen the front wheel-arches, which is not only pretty but helps with car positioning and control. Electronic stability control is two-phase and can be entirely disabled. The headrest is reversible so you can wear a helmet in comfort. The battery is on the opposite side to the driver, and recessed as far as it’ll go in an asymmetric engine bay. The engine itself is as far to the centre and rear as possible. The interior doorhandles are positioned to permit a rollcage. There’s a limited-slip diff on just about every model. The small area between the wing-mirror and A-pillar is glass for better visibility, not plastic for cost. You can check fuel levels without turning the ignition on. I could go on, but everywhere you look there’s evidence that what we have here is a for-real, ground-up sportscar, not a wannabe pretender with go-faster stripes. In the same way Range Rover owners can look across at the likes of BMW X6s and Audi Q7s and think “I have a true 4X4 and you don’t“, so too can 86 owners look at anything else on the market, even those much faster, and think “I have a true sportscar”.

All this design leads to a driving experience that is unmatched for the money and only approached by the likes of the telepathic-steer Lotus Elise or the Porsche Cayman. The 86’s throttle response is immediate, the steering is quick and doesn’t so much tell you what’s happening, you feel it directly. The handling is both precise and accurate, and the harder you push the car, the better it gets, there’s no disappointing fall-off in dynamics, performance or sense of confidence. The car will understeer if pushed but will certainly oversteer under power and can be rotated into a corner under brakes, if you try hard enough, so there’s a range of dynamics to enjoy and explore. The limit arrives with plenty of notice, and if there’s any malicious side to the car I’ve yet to discover it but not through lack of experience – all spins have been strictly driver error! You can leave stability control enabled or set to sport mode and have a handy backup, or switch it off and squeal tyres at the limit. On dirt the car is a handful, wheel-spinning happily into third gear past 100km/h with the attendant work on the steering wheel – and that’s before you get to a corner. If you don’t consider that fun you’d best give up sportscars and try chess. On racetracks the car lacks power on the straights, so the likes of Sandown are boring but again the low ride and sense of speed means its more fun than the pure numbers would suggest.

Long-Term Toyota 86 - Welcome

And the 86 is rear-wheel drive. Now we can debate all day about the merits of rear- vs front-wheel drive, but in reality these days the better FWD cars like the Focus, Fiesta and Megane are superb handlers, dazzlingly quick and you don’t notice torque steer. So many people buy sportscars based on myths or things they’ve read – convertibles can’t be stiff, front-wheel drives understeer, the silly focus on 50/50 front/rear ratios – many of the finest sportscars on the planet break these rules, and most drivers cannot tell the difference anyway, only ‘noticing’ things because they feel they should, a placebo sort of effect if ever there was one. As an example, I had a friend drive my 86 and he thought it was front-wheel drive.

Now it is true that there’s a limit to how much power the front wheels can take which is one reason why really high powered cars are rear or all wheel drive, but that limit isn’t important at this lower end of the market. Yet for me, rear wheel drive is critical. That is because I like to drift, and no amount of engineering is going to be able to deliver me continuous tyre-shredding sideways satisfaction if the rear wheels are just trailing. If you don’t intend to destroy tyres by power-sliding, then rear-wheel drive isn’t critical, simple as that. If you want a little fun oversteer around a circuit then again the better front-wheelers can certainly deliver that if you tip them in right.

Of course, the 86 is not the only rear-wheel drive sportscar. There’s older, cheaper cars like the 200SX, MX-5s and more. One advantage the 86 has is 5-star safety, as while we all hope we’ll never crash if I’m going to stack a car I’d rather have my off in a modern vehicle with lots of airbags, crumple zones and a strong occupant cage than an older car which lacks all those features. And for those that want it, the 86 has electronic stability control to help prevent that expensive mistake in the first place.

Yet for all this some people would argue that the 86 is no sportscar, based on numbers, and those people are known as measurebators, because they are missing the point as surely as someone who says a sunset isn’t beautiful because there’s not enough daylight to appreciate it. Anyway, the 86’s 0-100 time is in the order of 7.5 seconds. This is, frankly, slow, even if you use the excuse there’s a gearchange to third just before 100. Don’t ever try and win a drag race in an 86 because you will be embarrassed by mediocre front-wheel-drive sedans and any chance of success will require an unseemly amount of revs and effort. If your idea of fun is gut-wrenching acceleration followed by smashing the brakes – as it appears to be for our local hoons – then the 86 is not for you. But that’s like trying to play music by gorilla-smashing the hell out of drums rather than the sweet rhythmic delicacy of the skilled flute player. Toyota took a daring step of fitting the car with not so grippy tyres so the drivers would have to work – enjoy – the task of putting power to the ground. Contrast that with most of sportscars which are focused on going as fast as possible for as little effort (enjoyment) as possible. Instead, the 86 demands, then rewards effort and involvement, and the car feels faster than it is. But, I’ve never met a kilowatt I didn’t like, so, yes, more grunt wouldn’t go astray.

So, sportscar it is. But sportscars are often hard to live with. Take, for example, one of my favourites, the Lotus Elise. Nobody owns one as an only car (well, nobody sane) because it is too low, too small, lacks luggage space and is generally just too impractical. Unlike the 86, which while not reaching hot-hatch levels of sensibility does very well indeed for its price and design. Coupe it may be, but there’s four seats although the front row occupants are going to have to pull their seats forwards if the people in the rear are are going to be even uncomfortable. There’s the option for a full-size spare, and enough boot space for shopping or even a 12 year old’s bike, front wheel removed. The 86 can carry four of its own tyres too, a trick any other sportscar would struggle to match, let alone a coupe. It’s a low car, but not so low it’s a problem even if some driveways take more than than in say a Corolla, rear visibility is a little compromised, fuel economy is not great considering the size and weight – around 7-8L/100km and 98RON only – but none of that takes away from the fact that the 86 is a liveable daily driver in general, and especially considering its sporting credentials. Which is another reason I love it, because I like my cars to be multipurpose.

So far I’ve not got a bad word to say about the 86, but now we get to other cloud on the horizon next to the one marked Lack of Power, and that’s quality. The car is cheap, and Toyota spent all their money making the thing handle like a Porsche Cayman, leaving no funds left to do much about the fit and finish. So let’s start – steering wheels peel unattractively, the paint job is pathetically thin and swirl-prone, the cars make odd rattles here and there, and in general the car is more plastic cutlery than silver service. If you spent time in the aforementioned Porsche you will see the difference between the two is not in the fun of driving but in the overall quality, trim and finish. Not to mention more power.

But even the quality problem is, in a way, endearing. I don’t mind a car that talks back, that you feel part of, that connects you to the road. Today’s cars insulate the driver so thoroughly from the experience of driving that for the enthusiast the excitement is dulled through abstraction. Imagine how close you’d be to the action in a powerboat, then think about the experience of windsurfing – you’re in the environment, not on it, and the smile factor rises accordingly.

So the 86 is a true driver’s car, but almost by definition that makes it a poor grand tourer for interstate trips. Yes, it can be done, but I’d prefer not. Sixth gear is fairly low, the ride is harsh, and while on a sporting drive you revel in that communication from the car there’s no way to turn it off if you’re cruising. Again, this is where the likes of the more expensive rivals like the Cayman come into their own, better able to span the dual purposes of sportscar and tourer.

Long-Term Toyota 86 - Welcome

I talked before of a car being more than for simply getting from A to B. For some, this means about driving fast. For others, this means personalisation – interior trim, wheels, different exhausts, antenna, lip kits, tail lights and more. The aftermarket scene has embraced the 86 with a fervour unprecedented in modern times, and there is a dizzying array of accessories to make your 86 unique. This, too, is part of the joy of ownership. Not so much for me as mine is almost stock, but others take great pleasure in creating their dream look. In fact, the 86 is expressly designed just for this customisation, and indeed in some markets is sold as a bare car direct to the aftermarket for exactly this purpose.

Some people reading this will own 86s, and I hope they agree with some if not all of this review. But it’s not for them. It is for those considering an 86, and my job here is to give those people the information necessary to make their own decision. So, some words in summary.

If you intend to enjoy grassroots motorsports of whatever flavour you like, the 86 is not only the best car on the market – think of another that does dirt roads, drifting, tight motorkhanas as well as track days and is so modifiable – it’s the best value too. It is a liveable daily driver, but if you need more practicality such as better rear seats, higher ride, more space or the like then buy a hot hatch. If you merely want to drive fast with little effort then again the hatches and particularly the quick all wheel drives like the WRX are your choice as the 86 will demand more skill and effort. If your intentions include many long-distance trips then more configurable, electronic cars which transform from track toy to tourer would suit your needs. If your enjoyment of cars means you want refined quality and an air of luxury as well as handling, then buy a Porsche, BMW M, Audi R or similar. If you kind of like the 86’s looks but want to change it, buy one and do just that. Or just get an 86 anyway, it’s not a car people tend to regret buying, least of all me.

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5 Comments

  1. Richard Houlton
    April 13, 2015 at 2:19 pm — Reply

    I don’t regret my BRZ either, which for me is a perfectly practical daily driver (except for slightly grumbly 56 year old knees getting out of it LOL). My BRZ’s predecessor was a 2011 Megane RS which was way more powerful, and had a chassis/driveline seemingly capable of breaking the laws of physics. It was very quick and massive fun, but where the Megane was hugely capable and flattered the driver (a complete numpty could drive a current Megane RS fast), the BRZ is subtle and delicate and more finessed in its responses, and it rewards you for driving it better to get the best out of it. A drive I did late last year on the Great Ocean Road and surrounding hinterland roads (by myself and mid week) was a revelation. I’ve rarely felt more a “part of” a road car than I did on that day on those roads in that car (I think the last car I drove were I got a similar “connected” feeling was a 70’s Carrera). And when you have it above 5000rpm a lot of the time (something you can accomplish quite legally on those roads) it doesn’t really feel under-done in the power department either.

  2. OnlinePredator
    September 18, 2015 at 11:29 am — Reply

    MX5?

    • September 18, 2015 at 11:38 pm — Reply

      It’s an option. More expensive, less practical. More or less same fun. Big difference is the roof.

      • OnlinePredator
        September 20, 2015 at 11:54 am — Reply

        And build quality. Sorry but its a direct competitor. If you want 4 seats then yea 86 but if not, and you do track days then mx5

  3. Dasher
    December 27, 2016 at 8:29 pm — Reply

    Have a 2013 86GT..previous cars include: WRX, 2XMX5’s. PRB (Lotus Super 7 replica), Honda TypeR…all outstanding in their own way..WRX relentlessly fast anywhere, MX5’s great fun, good ride and open adding to the experience, PRB a motorcycle on wheels that every enthusiast should have when the mood takes them and the sound of that Type R engine was fabulous but not so the diabolical ride. The 86 is a bit bit rough around the edges, sounds a bit coarse and the standard brakes went south on my first track day. BUT this is a great little car for 29K plus ..put some DBA street track brakes and pads on for a pittance myself and the added some decent track tyres and it is outstandingly good fun at Wakefield park. I put my golf clubs in the back, take the grandkids to the movies, drive it everyday, take on the occasional trip down the south coast and it rewards me very day……oh don’t believe all this BS about lack of torque..use the right gear! I am thinking of upgrading to a near new GTS with auto (yes auto..to make daily life easier as I am getting lazy in my old age and the half second difference to 100K means nothing to me..test driving one this week…if I don’t like it I can easily put up with what I have) Oh did I say wonderful chassis and best steering outside my non assisted Lotus replica. Finally 35,000 spirited kms with nary a problem. Thumbs up.

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Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper is a motoring journalist, 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, and that's when he isn't racing his Nissan Pulsar. Visit his website: www.l2sfbc.com or follow him on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/RobertPepperJourno/ or buy his new ebook!