Toyota GR86 2023 review – a last hurrah for the affordable sports coupe

No minor revision, the GR86 delivers thrills beyond the reach of its iconic predecessor – if you managed to get hold of one...

Evo rating
from £32,495
  • Engine now delivers what’s required to enjoy everything the chassis offers dynamically
  • You can't buy one

The Toyota GT86 is dead, long live the GR86? Sadly not. At least not for us. Two years and the new model runs nose first into a brick wall of European safety legislation that outlaws the famously low-slung bonnet carried over from its predecessor. It would have necessitated a complete redesign of the front end and Toyota wasn’t up for that. The initial UK allocation of around 430 cars sold out in a matter of minutes. Another batch became available this year, but predictably, each one was quickly spoken for.

At the launch briefing in southern Spain, we witnessed much bigging up of what it means for a Toyota to wear a GR (Gazoo Racing) badge, justifiably surfing the huge wave of critical acclaim for the GR Yaris while acknowledging the happy fact that, with the introduction of the GR Supra MT, the new GR triumvirate is now available with a gear lever and a clutch to satisfy customer clamour.

But what we really want to know is has Toyota’s chosen methodology to raise the GT86’s game retained the raw spirit and honesty of the original? In other words, is the baby still splashing about in the bath water? No, the GT86 wasn’t perfect, far from it. I can’t think of another sporty coupe that blurred the line between fun and frustration so expertly. But in a strange way, the perceived shortcomings – the need to rev given the naturally aspirated 2-litre flat-four motor’s paucity of low and mid-range torque, the raw and gravelly engine note, the unyielding ride over less than billiard table smooth tarmac, the rather spartan interior – added some characterful gnarl to an otherwise pristine front engine/rear drive concept, albeit one strategically hobbled in the rubberwear department to generate more entertainment at lower speeds. Toyota’s much loved Sir Skid-a-lot playbook.

The company won’t have failed to notice, however, that many aftermarket tuners had their own playbooks that embraced more power and torque (extracted via turbo or supercharger) and fatter tyres – modifications aimed at digging deeper into the low c-of-g chassis’ talent reserves while posting straight line shove more in sync with the GT86’s sharp, sassy styling.

All part of Japanese performance car culture, of course. The GR86 aims to unify both camps with more grip (Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tyres on 18-inch wheels for the UK, though 17s and the GT86’s Primacy rubber will be optional in other markets) and a jump to 2.4 litres piling on an extra 35bhp and 33lb ft, the resulting 231bhp and 184lb ft cutting the 0-60mph time by over a second to 6.3sec, though top speed is unchanged at 140mph. Peaks aren’t the whole story. More relevant to real world driving, maximum torque is now delivered at 3700rpm instead of 6700rpm, promising an entirely different order of in-gear flexibility and general driveability.

The things that were considered core GT86 attributes, though, carry on. They’re well-rehearsed and merge the acuity and feel of the steering with the satisfaction to be had from changing gear, the supplementary signals decoded by the seat of your pants and the modest distance between your bum and the skin of the road. Sacrosanct assets all enhanced for the GR86 according to team GR. There are too many detail and fine detail changes to list here but, apart from the beefier engine, the big news includes a stiffer bodyshell (especially regarding the suspension’s supporting structures), a spec-for-spec weight reduction by 10kg thanks to the use of more aluminium, a 10mm ride height drop with accompanying changes to geometry, springs and dampers, fettling of the GT86’s short-throw 6-speed ‘box for sweeter shifts when cold and a significantly smartened and upgraded interior with the driver sitting 5mm lower, further sinking the c-of-g of a platform also treated to a 5mm wheelbase stretch.

We drove the GR86 on the fabulously smooth and twisty hill roads west of Seville at its launch, and later on some of the most unforgiving surfaces during our eCoty 2022 test, and the larger capacity boxer motor is a revelation, hauling lustily from modest revs in fourth and fifth yet red-lining with perhaps still greater throaty urgency than the previous 2-litre unit, feeling smoother and sounding slightly more sonorous in the act, no doubt a consequence of some flattering sonic augmentation from the cabin’s speakers.

When you do reach the redline (accompanied by a rather irritating warning beep), the gearbox enables swift, fast shifts, with a pleasingly positive action across the gate and into gears. It's just a shame that the purity of the powertrain is marred slightly by the non-linear throttle calibration, which gives a big hit of response at the top of the pedal and comparatively little beyond halfway. 

The GR86 isn’t as gratuitously pointy or initially throttle and brake adjustable as the GT86 but, without doubt, its nose is nailed to the tarmac and the super-direct steering is more than ever a paean to precision and finely graded feel. Transitioning to oversteer is more progressive and rewarding, not least because it happens at grown up speeds. The Track setting’s electronic intervention is beautifully judged if you want a safety net and the chassis’ great balance endlessly exploitable if you don’t. Maybe best of all, the engine’s robust swell of torque is an active partner in the process lending the overall dynamics a more contoured and confident feel.

Just as impressive, the stiffer bodyshell and linked suspension work reap results in all sorts of areas but nowhere more than body control and ride. The rather crude and binary nature of the GT86 in the payoff has been finessed to the point where economy of motion no longer results in a ride that squeaks the rubber seals in the door frames. The very worst pockmarked roads can transmit some harshness through to the cabin, but by and large, the GR86 just feels planted, potent, pliant and pure of purpose.

Not a fan of the styling. The more bulbous look – presumably to be more like the GR Supra’s – is less exciting than before and, to drive, some of the GT86’s strong character and charm have been sacrificed. That said, measured by any metric you care to choose, the GR86 is a faster, fitter and more roundly rewarding steer, hence its second place finish in evo Car of the Year 2022, coming out ahead of the incredible Ferrari 296 GTB and McLaren Artura as one of the finest performance cars on sale today.

Prices and rivals

Somewhat academic now, the second wave of GR86's commanded £32,495 apiece – at that price, there aren't many cars that are quite so richly rewarding unless you delve into the used market. There are just three paint options: red, white and black to match GR’s brand colours.

The Mazda MX-5 is both smaller and less serious in both 1.5- and 2-litre guises. The closest to the GR86 in ultimate spec is the 182bhp Homura version that costs £32,410. Overall the Mazda’s less focused and less capable than the GR86, but the Homura does come with a limited-slip differential, lowered Bilstein suspension and lighter BBS wheels, which on such a featherweight car do make a tangible difference. 

> Toyota GR Yaris review – the modern homologation special at its very best