- What’s Best: Razor-sharp handling, steering, looks
- What’s Worst: Harsh engine note, antiquated interior tech
I’ll say this right off the bat: “86” may be the most ballsy name for a sports car today. After all, when you’re named after a veritable legend of Japanese car culture – the Corolla Levin/Sprinter Trueno AE86 from the ‘80s, denoted by the badges on the 86’s front fenders – you had better be able to bring it. For the 86, that means affordable, fun-to-drive RWD dynamics above all else, though they’ve thrown together a pretty nice styling package as well.
Even in black, the 86 looks a treat; very squat and wide, with very cool 17” wheels (the biggest you can get is a set of 18s, and only on the top-spec TRD edition), large twin-tailpipes, and even a rear diffuser. The 86 may mimic the AE86 in name, but it’s got more going for it on the styling front than that car ever did, to the point where I actually had a middle-aged Acura driver pull up beside me at a stoplight to heap praise on the 86, even with its stealthy black paint job. Even a peek under the hood comes with a surprise in the form of red-painted intake manifold (yes, like a Ferrari) that no longer has a “Subaru Boxer” plaque crowning them, though it does still use a “boxer” flat-4 developed by Subaru and shared with the BRZ.
It makes 205 hp and 156 lb-ft of torque, but you do have to rev it to get to peak power output; peak hp comes at 7,000 rpm, peak torque at 6,400 rpm. It’s not a huge amount of power, either, so yeah, you’d better get on it. Then again, it makes 24 more hp than the Mazda MX-5 – its closest and most obvious competitor – so there’s that.
One thing the MX-5 does have over the 86, however, is that it’s actually a little more cultured than the Toyota. That’s not something usually said about the MX-5, but the 86’s boxer engine is not the most civil beast; it’s very rough and metallic/almost gravely at idle, positively howling as you near that sky-high redline.
Then again, it may seem like it’s howling because with the 86, you really get the feeling that you’re sat in a pretty raw, bare-bones vehicle. The doors are light, the seatbacks are pretty thin (though they do have pretty significant side bolsters), the dash seems to have little in the way of sound-deadening and there are two cupholders (with a slot alongside that allows you to fit a mobile device so as to not waste a cupholder). This is an all-out assault on the senses, this is, and for many, that’s exactly what they’re looking for from their sports car. It should be said, however, that taller folks like yours truly will find it roomier in here than in MX-5/Fiat 124 twins. Especially in the legroom sense, as the footwell is large enough so as not to crack your upper shins.
There’s an infotainment screen but it’s a pretty old-school looking affair with small buttons to its left. Don’t look there for a backup camera, either; it resides on the left side of the rear view mirror as soon as you select reverse and while it’s a wide-angle view, the size of the screen overall means you have to focus a little harder on it. The camera itself is also mounted on the left of the rear fascia, so the view you see through the backup cam is a tad askew. You have to adjust your angle of attack a little as a result, but I did eventually get used to it. Oh, there are back seats, too, but that’s gotta be an effort to reduce insurance costs or something because they are pretty vestigial, even if they do have child seat anchors.
Indeed, best you forget all that and concentrate on the drive, simply because few cars at this price level (the 86 starts at $29,990; my mid-spec 6M GT version starts at $33,260) deliver driving thrills quite like this. Maybe not so much in the powertrain sense, but in the handling sense, this baby is all aces.
It starts with the steering rack which, while electronically assisted, is properly heavy and so high on feel that you’d swear it was a hydraulic set-up. Bumps are felt in detail without being jarring, and the steering ratio is such that very little lock needs to be applied to produce a response from the front end (which you need to be careful of in tighter spots, as that hood stretches deceptively far ahead of you), with a nice meaty feel to the rack no matter the speed. All that stuff I said about the car feeling pretty bare-bones? Well, the steering sure wins it some points back.
Of course, a car’s steering is only part of the story when it comes to the handling; if a car’s turn-in is instantaneous but causing it to roll to and fro, then it kind of defeats the purpose. Not so the 86; it feels planted in almost any circumstance, save for longer high-speed sweepers as those are what tend to overwhelm the tires a bit. Which, it needs to be said, are pretty cheap (and, at 215 mm, pretty skinny) Michelin Primacy rubber that yelled at me on turns that I have taken many times before in many different sports cars, and I don’t remember any of them sounding like this. Does make it easier to get the back end to step out, however, if that’s more your thing.
It’s not so much my thing, but a proper manual transmission is absolutely my thing and the 86 does not disappoint. There are six speeds (obviously), each one accessed via a precise (if a little stiff) gear lever that never had me missing a shift. You will likely get better fuel economy with the optional automatic, but why the heck would you want to go that way in a car like this? I guess there’s an argument for the transmission acting as quickly as the chassis or the speed at which the engine revs, but really? An auto? In this? No way, José.
Stick with the manual, save yourself a couple of bucks and be sure to go ahead and enjoy one of the most fun drives you can have for under 35 grand, and a small piece of automotive history, too.