New sports coupé has the unenviable challenge of replacing probably the best affordable driver's car of the 2010s

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What you’re about to read is almost certainly the most superfluous drive verdict that Autocar will publish this year, because the sports-car-buying public of Britain has long since made its mind up about the Toyota GR86.

In 2022, as it turns out, a new rear-driven coupé with a particular reputation for driver appeal sells out faster than the town’s best artisanal bakery on Saturday morning.

I’m a sucker for the way the digital instruments mimics both the outline and piston stroke of a boxer engine when you switch on the ignition (what a child).

We can point to the frenzied enthusiasm of early first-drive reports on this car (one of which was written by yours truly; sorry not sorry) to at least partly explain why two years worth of allocation for this car sold out in just 90 minutes. But the pervading narrative that has surrounded all discussion of the GR86 since even before those reports landed – that, in a context in which fewer and fewer cars of its ilk are even being considered, surely this has to be one of the very last combustion-engined, affordable sports cars that Europe will ever see – must be the biggest factor of all.

Who would believe, then, that the reason this car will only survive on sale anywhere in western Europe until July 2024 has nothing whatsoever to do with emissions? Who would have dared suggest, on the back of the glittering praise of those reports 10 months ago, that it might be anything other than phenomenal to drive on UK roads?

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Well, don’t worry, you lucky deposit-holders: they haven't screwed it up. That’s not the reason why the new '86 has been held in stasis for a few months in Toyota GB holding areas at Burnaston and Burgh Heath. As Autocar understands it, following the GR86’s European press launch at Monteblanco circuit in Spain, certain highly placed Gazoo Racing project engineers thought its stability-control software could be improved. It should have been a simple update, but it took a little longer than expected.

Now, however, UK deliveries are finally under way. They will continue throughout Europe until summer 2024, when changing safety legislation that mandates the fitment of certain cameras and sensors to all new cars will, rather regrettably, force the withdrawal of the GR86 from sale, both here and on the continent. 

Were it not for that legislation, this new sports car could probably have continued on sale right the way up to 2030, believe it or not. Its emissions aren’t really much of a factor for Toyota Europe’s corporate average, as its volumes are small enough to be relatively insignificant. But in order to make room for the necessary sensors, Toyota says, the GR86’s body-in-white would have to be entirely redesigned for a different windscreen angle and roof height, very likely making it less aerodynamic in the process. And it clearly isn’t worth making the car demonstrably worse in every other region in which it will be sold just so that it can continue to be made available in ours.

Which brings us up to date on where we are now with this much-anticipated new sports car – and why. If your name is down for one, you will doubtless be feeling pretty smug. But should you be? Will the GR86’s driving experience on UK roads, and perhaps the odd track day, be worth the wait, the hype and hubbub, and maybe even some of the inevitably inflated delivery-mileage second-hand prices? Or should you instead consider cashing in on those prices yourself?

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Having just spent a long day in a UK-spec car, I’m relieved to say that it didn’t disappoint (I bet you were glad to be sitting down for that bit). Sports cars as distinctive as this one, which go about their business in such an emphatic and engaging way, seldom disappoint anyone. But there are just one or two caveats to acknowledge; little details that make this car ride and handle a bit differently on British blacktop than we might have expected and than any GT86 ever did.

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The GR86 I drove in late 2021 was a late-model prototype whose interior, we were told, wasn’t representative of final production standard on material fit and finish. Then, when my colleague Richard Lane drove a finished car several months later, his impressions of the cabin weren’t exactly glowing. Now I see why. Just as was the case with the old '86, there are parts of this new cabin that really do look disappointingly cheap, and it turns out that they really weren’t prototype parts.

There’s a low, legs-outstretched driving position, a supportive seat, simple instrumentation, sound primary ergonomics and even quietly impressive oddment storage (for a sports car). As for some of the fascia plastics and the interior door handles? Well, let’s just assume they’re light and say no more.

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The GR86’s heavy clutch and springy manual shift action remind me of one of those deeply mechanical three-pedal drivelines of an early-2000s Subaru. It’s like meeting an old friend who has been abroad for 20 years.

The engine sounds spikey and thrummy around idle, just as you would hope a hard-working flat four might. Better still under load, until its detail gets drowned out by a few decibels too much of Toyota’s Active Sound Control piped-in engine noise. Even at its most artificial, though, the GR86’s in-cabin sound track isn’t irksome; it’s a breath of fresh air.

The power delivery is a huge improvement on what went before. The GR86 wakes up and comes usefully on song from little more than 4000rpm, and then, all with such free-spinning range and instant response, it goes right on revving to the far side of 7000rpm, making it at once more seriously and broadly rapid and still worth working hard. Perfect.

Has there been a shade of tactility lost from the steering? Perhaps – but maybe only due to the new car’s 18in wheels, performance tyres and what looks like a slightly smaller-diameter steering rim, all of which might have obliged Toyota to turn up the power-steering calibration just a smidgeon. 

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But that loss of tactile feel certainly isn’t what’ll make this ‘86 feel different from the last one when you find a proper country road to judge it on. Rather, it will be the outright grip and the restless energy that the chassis seems to have gained – and, just possibly, the fractional shade of super-accessible cornering poise and the fluent touring ride that it has given up.

The GR86 is a sports car to take more seriously than its predecessor was, for better and for worse. It not only goes harder but also turns in more crisply, carries speed more securely and wants to engage that bit more with the revs and the noise and the whizzing adrenaline of speed for their own sakes, instead of just cutting loose in the twisties. It’s a bit less about accessible fun at low speed and more about fun at any speed.

On British B-roads, it feels notably grippier and more firmly sprung than any GT86 ever did. And yes, its ride certainly does bristle and fuss a dose more over sharper lumps and bumps than did the GT86’s, and its axles roar a bit over coarse, open asphalt.

Whereas the GT86 felt like some ‘80s Japanese drift car reincarnated, the GR86 is more like some ‘90s hardcore JDM import. Its character has shifted, perhaps only slightly but critically. And the plain truth is that some will approve and others won't.

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Whereas the more tender body control and grip level of the GT86 made it a car that needed no second invitation to show some handling adjustability, the new GR86 isn’t quite so indulgent. It wants to be driven harder and flung a little more determinedly at a bend before it will start to express much rear-driven attitude. Blame the bigger wheels and the standard-fit Pilot Sport 4 tyres for that (UK showroom spec means you can’t avoid them).

Rest assured that the GR86 will skid its heart out ultimately, and like very few other sports cars on which you might have spent £29,995. But skids aren’t all this car is about any more. It’s more complex on the palette than its predecessor, ready to ask more of you and do more for you than the GT86 ever was.

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It’s very good indeed, in short; and yet it’s not quite the same sporting prospect that some of us got so excited about a decade ago when the GT86 arrived. Would more UK buyers be excited by this faster, grippier take on the '86 experience, though? If things had been different, might the GR86 be about to find the commercial success that its predecessor struggled to produce?

It’s a question almost as superfluous now as the one with which I started, needless to say. But considering the reputational gain that Gazoo Racing has conjured these last few years and everything that a GR badge on a sporty Toyota now stands for, surely you have to wonder how it could not?

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Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Toyota GR86 First drives