Perfection? Not quite, but nothing this usable gets so gloriously close for the asking price

Ninety minutes. That’s all it took to sell build slots for the two years’ worth of Toyota GR86 production that’s coming our way.

And after that? You may already know this, but there won’t be any UK-bound cars after that. In 2024, the ‘B’ measures of the EU’s General Safety Regulation standard come into force in Europe and short of re-engineering the thing, Toyota isn’t able to bring the GR86 up to scratch, so that will be it. Yes, there’s a small chance extra slots will become available before then, but given that those would need to be poached from other markets, don’t count on it. Even then, any requested car would need to be assembled at Subaru’s Gunma plant in Japan (the tie-up established for the old Toyota GT86/Subaru BRZ continues), shipped and registered before 7 July 2024, which is when the legislative portcullis slams down.

So, for anyone who has paid their £1000 deposit, bloody well done. For the rest of us, time to discover what exactly it is we’ll be missing out on, at least until GR86 examples reach the secondary market, at first almost certainly with premiums attached.

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Sounds mad, doesn't it, though you have to imagine premiums will be demanded. This isn’t some limited-edition Ferrari – only a four-pot Toyota with less shove than a Golf GTI. But as the GR Yaris has already shown, if you build something that grips the imagination of ‘ordinary’ petrolheads and price it sensibly, demand can outstrip that of every supercar on the planet combined and then some. At £29,995 for the manual version, the GR86 is priced very sensibly indeed, and short of Porsche asking Cayman money for the next 911 GT3, the level of genuine, cash-waving demand for this little sports car won’t easily be surpassed.

So what do the lucky deposit holders have in store? In essence, an evolution of the charming but rough-edged GT86, which was introduced in 2012 and enthralled anyone and everyone who drove one in anger (especially in the wet) but never did the numbers for Toyota. Only 7500 were sold over here in nine years, and even if it's unlikely the car was loss-making, there’s no doubt it made scant profit. What it did for Toyota’s perception both of itself internally and in the eyes of enthusiasts was far more valuable. The GT86 paved the way for the eventual revival of the Toyota Supra, then the red-hot GR Yaris and now its own successor, the GR86, all under the aegis of the Gazoo Racing sub-brand whose initials have come to be widely respected and even revered.

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As per the silhouette, the GR86 is front engined and rear driven, with 2+2 seating. The 1998cc flat four of its GT86 predecessor has been reprised but only after major surgery. Because the architecture of the car doesn't allow for an increase in the stroke, the bore has dramatically grown instead, so this unit is now oversquare and sits at 2387cc.

The extra capacity along with stronger con-rods, thicker crankshaft pins, a redesigned intake manifold, larger intake valves, new valve springs and a larger throttle body all play their part in raising 197bhp to 231bhp and 151lb ft to 184lb ft. Turbocharging? Still nowhere to be seen, and while that may mean the outputs remain at the tame end of the spectrum, kerb weight for the manual GR86 also remains nicely low, at 1276kg – just 37kg more than the GT86, though Toyota claims that if you took two identically specced cars, GR would be 10kg lighter than GT.

With the exception of the tyres, the engine is probably the single biggest change to the package, and everything else is either unchanged or subtly evolved. The GR86’s brakes and electrohydraulic steering are carried over directly from the GT86, as is the Torsen rear differential (albeit with added cooling fins) and final drive ratio, though the gearsets are new for both the manual car and the automatic because of the changed nature of the 2.4’s delivery.

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Inside the snug but not claustrophobic cabin, the firm but decently supportive and now 5mm-lower-slung seats feel very familiar indeed, as does the GT-style view out. It still works well, the driving position and the street-fighter ambience. But equally, while the material finishes have come on somewhat and the dashboard upper has a rubberised feel, the place still seems built to a cost. I suspect most owners (rumoured to be 430 lucky souls in the UK) will happily accept the compromises – plasticky toggles, scratchy plastics, Alcantara that looks aftermarket – and in fairness the touchscreen display can be loaded with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, so that’s a vast improvement on before. Still, a Mazda MX-5, while cramped compared with the larger GR86, is more sophisticated both in look and feel.

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As for chassis, the GT86 is now a decade old and the improvements the GR86 achieves in terms of torsional rigidity are impressive but also of a magnitude you would fully expect to see after all that time. Small diagonal struts across the joints between the front suspension and the subframe are said to improve the consistency and manner in which the front tyres transit load and the bonnet also has a new diagonal reinforcement. More rigid nut fastenings have also been deployed and, all said, lateral rigidity at the front of the car is up 60%.

At the back, the figure is 50%, thanks to similarly uprated fasteners to attach the suspension mounts and a new ‘full ring’ system of braces that connects the upper and lower portions of the chassis in the part of the monocoque structure that orbits the rear seatbacks. Because the GR86 is more torquey than the GT86, the rear anti-roll bar also now connects directly to the subframe, which has itself been made more rigid.

Finally, those tyres. Toyota has opted for a considerably more serious compound of rubber than it deployed for the GT86. Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tyres replace the old car’s easy-going Primacy rubber. Cue concerned expressions all round. At least the new tyres keep the same 215-section width used for the GT86, which suggests that grip hasn’t been overly prioritised. But still. The GT86 isn’t, and never was, intended as a lap time kind of car, and it’d be a travesty if its successor were to have tumbled down that particular rabbit hole.

But it hasn’t. Good grief, it hasn’t.

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Our day with the car is split between time on track at the flowing Monteblanco circuit and the special surrounding roads not far from Seville. The surfaces of each are equally fine; so much so that it’s difficult to tell how compliant or otherwise the passively damped GR86 will prove in the UK, though we can at least explore other important attributes.One of those is the car's ability to ride the line between grip and slip with balletic ease, even on dry asphalt. It still wants to play and, if anything, the added stiffness at the rear might make the GR86 even more playful than the GT86, which is saying something (the old BRZ always seemed the tamer of the pair).  

The fine basics are recognisable, too. The sense you’re sitting almost over the back axle, but still with pinpoint control over which way and to what extent the nose darts here and there, remains. It’s enhanced, even – again, you have to suspect, because of the improvements in torsional rigidity. That must also be behind the car’s greater inclination to tuck its nose towards the inside of corners when goaded by any sort of lift of the throttle, little or large.

The GR86 is continuously flickable and tweakable, and because the boxer engine is buried low and close to the bulkhead, there’s relatively little weight bearing down on its leading axle and this benefits not only steering response but also front-end grip. Short of the driver being clumsy, there’s no reason why the GR86 should understeer. The car feels fabulously light on its toes and possibly just a little nervous at the front, though only in an engaging fashion.

What’s less impressive is the steering column, which still lacks much in the way of adjustability for reach and means taller drivers will need to get cosier with the pedals than they’d ideally want. This is probably the car's only real ergonomic fault, aside from the rear seats being all but useless for anything but luggage and small children.    

Back to dynamics and the good news is that, while both ends move in commendably uniform fashion during cornering, the back axle of the car is even more lovable and engaging than the front. The GR86 will change direction neatly and tidily and with balance to spare but what it really wants to do, you sense, is carry slightly excessive pace into a corner, then smudge the tyres of its driven rear wheels ever so slightly out of line on exit. It does this with natural, reassuring ease and at sensible speeds. You could own this car, never get above 60mph and still experience all it has to offer.

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Well, perhaps that's not quite true. There’s an uphill corner at Monteblanco that’s taken fast and blind and that curves gently right as you head up and over its highest point. It’s a little like Raidillon at Spa, and I mention it only because coming down from the crest of the far side, the GR86 adopts an exquisitely delicate four-wheel slide well up into fourth gear. I’m no racing driver and if I can get the car dancing like this, anybody can. It’ll do that sort of thing, this Toyota, and while the raw elements of the upgraded chassis are good, the set-up is clearly also exceptional. This car knows exactly what it wants to be.    

On the road, things necessarily cool down, but the GR86 is no less enjoyable. Spring and damper rates are slightly higher than they were for the GT86 and while body movements aren't especially sophisticated, there's a pleasing simplicity to the way the GR86 maintains its ride height and resists roll. Maybe progress is a little fidgety, but not unacceptably so. More important, the car feels lighter than its 1276kg, and while the chassis's relationship with the asphalt might be a little unvarnished, it's also delicate and communicative. You tend to find yourself guiding this car with your fingertips, feeling out what the front tyres are doing and subconsciously using the feedback to carry momentum. It's all very intuitive.

Not that you need to carry quite so much momentum any more. While its GT86 predecessor made peak torque beyond 6000rpm, the GR86’s efforts arrive not just earlier but in a different time zone, at 3700rpm. The effect of this improvement isn’t night and day but you’ll notice it straight away and in two ways.

First, the car is less frustrating to drive on tortuous routes when speeds rapidly rise and fall. It gets up and goes more easily, if still not anything like as readily as your average turbo hot hatch. Second, you can alter the cornering attitude of the car more easily, and that’s the real benefit. Adjustability is the raison d’être of the GR86 and the new bigger unit helps its cause considerably.

The engine is otherwise slightly forgettable, as it was in the GT86. Even with more muscle than before, a freer-spinning top end and synthesised tones to beautify the agricultural boxer soundtrack, this powertrain remains more functional than anything else. Neither is it fantastically efficient, the GR86 managing a combined 32.1mpg. By comparison, the more powerful, turbocharged 2.0-litre unit in the four-cylinder Supra manages 38.7mpg and a top-spec MX-5 more than 40mpg.

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The verdict? Not as straightforward as you might think. My feeling is that were the marketplace better populated with light-ish junior sports cars possessing naturally aspirated engines and manual gearboxes, you’d probably find that one or two had sweeter engines, slicker gearboxes and nicer cabins than the Toyota. The caveats of the GT86 remain, in other words, and the GR86 continues to leave head room in all those areas.

But this fantasy world overflowing with sub-£30,000 purist sports cars is just that. It doesn't exist any more, and even if it did, there’s no guarantee that anything the sensible side of a Caterham Seven would beat the GR86 for handling. And that's what really matters with these kinds of cars. This is an involving, transparent, joyful and appreciably serious driving tool that's usable daily, classically attractive and doesn't cost the earth. We need more cars like this, not fewer, and it'll be a quiet tragedy when the GR86 takes involuntary retirement in 2024.

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Richard Lane

Richard Lane
Title: Deputy road test editor

Richard joined Autocar in 2017 and like all road testers is typically found either behind a keyboard or steering wheel.

As deputy road test editor he delivers in-depth road tests and performance benchmarking, plus feature-length comparison stories between rival cars. He can also be found presenting on Autocar's YouTube channel.

Mostly interested in how cars feel on the road – the sensations and emotions they can evoke – Richard drives around 150 newly launched makes and models every year. His job is then to put the reader firmly in the driver's seat. 

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