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Toyota GT86 v GR86: how Toyota perfected the affordable sports car

The GT86 bucked all the usual sports car trends in 2012, then the GR86 honed that recipe to perfection

It doesn't feel all that long ago Toyota was the blandest of bland, the beigest of beige car brands. When evo issue 001 was published, Carlos Sainz’s Corolla was vying with Tommi Mäkinen’s Mitsubishi Lancer for the WRC title, a brace of Toyota GT‐Ones had taken on the Le Mans 24 Hours, and the Celica and MR2 were mainstays in the company’s line-up. But in the years to come, performance cars disappeared from Toyota brochures while, elsewhere in the range, cars like the RAV4 morphed from inventive lifestyle vehicle to anonymous SUV dross. Despite a (slightly baffling) eight-season F1 campaign from ’02 to ’09, Toyota was a resolutely unsporting brand. One of the biggest car companies in the world, an industry powerhouse, but for enthusiasts – nothing to see here.

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So it was perhaps a surprise when the GT86, created in partnership with Subaru, sprang onto the stage in 2012. Together with its Subaru BRZ counterpart, it was a car that pushed against the tide: less power, less weight, less grip – the antithesis of the automotive arms race. Even if it wasn’t embraced quite as wholeheartedly as Toyota/Subaru might have hoped in terms of sales or praise (evo was guarded in its reviews, applauding the car’s ethos more than its execution), it’s gone on to become a cult hero.

Rightly so. Driving one today, everything that’s so fundamentally right about it comes flooding back: the just-so-ness to the driving position, the pedal set-up, the control weights, the suspension with just the right amount of give for British roads, the dimensions that are just the right size. All of the shortcomings, too: the low-rent, tacky interior (with the ubiquitous red digital clock Toyota must have bought a serious job-lot of in the 2010s), the gearchange that’s notchy and knobbly from cold, and the 2-litre boxer’s dearth of low-down torque.

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The skinny, low- rolling-resistance Michelin Primacy tyres are a double-edged sword, giving the GT86 up-on-its-toes handling at all speeds but a tendency to stumble into oversteer abruptly. With the stability control switched on, it cuts in so jarringly, nipping the brakes to straighten the car, that it’s more unnerving than the tyres letting go in the first place.

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They’re subjective niggles rather than problems as such, but they limited the GT86’s appeal; 2022’s GR86 replacement fixed them all, and morphed the 86 into a more grown-up car, a more rounded proposition, without losing its sense of fun.

More than two-thirds of the car is all-new, and while the boxer uses the same block as the GT86, it’s bored out to 2.4 litres; yet it is no heavier, thanks to thinner cylinder liners, resin rocker covers and other measures. A chunk of extra peak torque arrives 3000rpm earlier, meaning steep hills no longer require a downshift or two, and rice pudding skins can no longer rest easy.

A significantly stiffer shell helps make the handling more precise, and measures such as liquid-filled engine mounts make the car more refined too: a long journey in a GT86 can leave you feeling drained but the GR86 is a much more useable car, yet equally exciting to drive at all speeds. More exciting, in fact; not for nothing did the GR86 outscore both Ferrari 296 GTB and McLaren Artura on eCoty 2022. Meanwhile the increase in weight over the GT86 is negligible and the same goes for the price (£32,495).

When you could still buy the GR86 from new, that is. The two batches of UK-bound cars have now been spoken for, and European safety protocols mean that a substantial redesign of the car’s shell would be required to sell it on our shores in the future.

Spurred on by Akio Toyoda, Toyota’s arch-enthusiast chairman, the Gazoo Racing division – the slightly odd name for which there isn’t a direct English translation – has supported the World Endurance Championship through lean times, continues to investigate hydrogen-fuelled engines as a future power source for road and race cars, has become a dominant force in the World Rally Championship (Toyoda is currently in talks with the FIA about finding a way to support a return of Subaru to the championship too) and spawned the brilliant GR Yaris road car in the process – and the equally brilliant GR86.

Perhaps the GR86’s greatest significance is that it is likely to be the world’s last brand-new affordable conventional sports car to be launched. It’s a cruel set of circumstances that means it’s not an attainable one. Because it’s a brilliant concept, and one which crystallises all that the GT86 set out to achieve.

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