2023 Toyota GR86 Auto Review: Not aging well enough
How does the new automatic GR86 hold up a year after release?
2023 Toyota GR86 automatic review
Words and pictures by Mitchell Weitzman
A short year ago, I had my first opportunity to drive the newly redesigned GR86 sports coupe, albeit with an automatic transmission. Regardless of the fun-draining auto slushbox it came equipped with, I came away mightily impressed with the revamped 86, signifying a notable step forward in refinement and an even better chassis. However, a year later and behind the wheel of another automatic-equipped GR86, I'm left barely lukewarm despite the natural talent, and again absolutely reaffirming my opinion that if you're dead-set on adding one to your garage, you have to get the manual. As a result, the automatic car does not have enough going for it to recommend as a fun performance car. There's more than the just the transmission at fault here, and with no manual divinity present, other annoyances become increasingly present. Even with the laundry list of items that follows, there is at least one aspect that is still undeniably brilliant.
Rest assured that I'm not here only ragging on the unfortunately ancient six-speed automatic with flimsy plastic paddles behind the wheel; That is far from the only sin the GR86 commits. Starting with the interior, I remember liking the cabin last year, finding it a nice upgrade over the original's, but now with another year of trying other cars with similar price points and purposes, it's a complete letdown. I had even recently favorably compared the interior of the GR86 to a Mazda Miata, and how wrong I was after testing both again in close proximity. Besides some supportive and attractive looking seats, this is a genuinely flimsy and toy-store interior with some of the cheapest pieces in any new car on sale today. Take for instance the interior door handles, being thin and hollow plastic, and in use, come across feeling like they belong in a large Lego car. If anything, that might be an insult to Lego.
Half of the controls for the climate control are overly large, curved switches with a metallic look to them that are anything but metal. Aviation-inspired? Maybe, but why are they so big? And once your finger presses one, you might be left thinking what poor 2004 econobox these were stolen from at the Pick-n-Pull. And the backside of them, because they curve out so generously, just do yourself a favor and don't feel what is behind them unless you want more disappointment from the poster child of cheap plastic injection-molding processes; I think the buttons on Hungry Hungry Hippos have a more quality and solid feel to them. Look, I could go on and on here, but the fact of the matter is this interior is so far below what can be expected now at an over-$30,000 price point, with hard plastic riddled literally everywhere. The terrible attempt at microsuede to introduce some texture in the cabin also looks like it was bought in bulk from wish.com. It's funny because, at first glance, the interior is nicely shaped and purposeful looking - even the pictures probably make it look cool. Yet, life is three-dimensional and that's where it fails. I can't forget the left side of the steering wheel, where there's an ungainly bulge outward that is an easy knee-basher.
I can't knock the space, as you should honestly be thankful there are any rear seats rather than none, so it's welcome to have them for any emergency purposes. The front seats are quite good, with necessary lateral support, but lacks the minute adjustments I want. With a bottom that is too flat and without any controls to angle the front higher, I never caught myself in a driving position I was truly comfortable in for a sports car. Further, the seat cannot be lowered enough even for my modest 5'10" height, and the steering wheel also has a limited range for height control. I was left feeling too high in the cabin, sitting on top rather than in it, compounded with a wheel that was too low.
Electronics in the GR86 are slightly, er, catastrophic. The center display for the infotainment is easy enough to figure out, even if it looks like an aftermarket unit from Best Buy circa 2014, but that's not what I'm talking about. Toyotas are known for annoying beeps and bongs, but the GR86 is on another level and actually has defective noises I've written about before that remains the subject of total oversight. As is routine in almost every new car, starting the car without your seatbelt fastened results in several loud chimes, I guess to remind you you are in fact in a car in case you forgot. Dumb, but whatever - lots of other cars have adopted this stupidity despite the car not moving and a transmission in park. I learned the real issue when taking pictures of the car, the result of me getting in and out and repositioning the car a lot with it left running. While it is common for cars to nag you if you start driving with your seatbelt undone, which is perfectly fair as that is actually dangerous, the GR86 will beep slow and then faster in typical Toyota fashion. However, the downfall is that once you reach that time threshold where it beeps with that increased ferocity, even if you stop and put the car in park, the beeping will not cease; All other cars will stop the beeping once you put the transmission into park, but not the GR86. Even with the car in park, and me not even in the car - I left it running, closed the door and walked away - I could still hear it chiming inside like a bomb was about to go off. This is not an issue that will apply to many, many drivers - almost all of them will likely never experience it unless moving it in your driveway perhaps - but seriously, this is such poor oversight and programming showing a lacking and laughably bad intelligence . The other - oh yes, there's more - annoyances include a chime that will ring endlessly if you turn the engine off with the door open (it will beep even with the car off lol).
Then there's the active safety systems that are on by default. Unlike other Toyotas, the GR86 is built in conjunction with Subaru, and so instead of Toyota's own active safety systems, we have the highly overreactive Subaru's EyeSight. Now, I'm not discounting safety in the slightest, but I actually felt more unsafe at times with EyeSight than if it weren't there at all. For example, continuing with the annoyances, the standard features include a beep every single time the radar cruise control picks up a vehicle in front of you. Luckily, if you venture deep into the vehicle settings, you can turn this off. What I couldn't stand, though, was how aggressive the automatic braking and collision warnings were on the GR86. In everyday traffic, like when releasing the brake normally to start forward progress as the traffic light turns green, at least a dozen times I got a collision warning notification about rear-ending the car in front of me as we both pulled away. Additionally, there were times when it would hit the brakes on me when creeping along with traffic in a similar situation for absolutely no reason, which is more dangerous because now I've got to worry about a car rear-ending me from behind because mine has decided to suddenly stop.
Backing up into tight parking spaces, even controlling motion via the brake pedal with active brake pedal application, the GR86 would come to an abrupt halt and slam the brakes if you got 'too close' to something, which was still about a foot away when it occurred. The system is so intrusive and annoying as a whole that it inhibits everyday driving, usability, and sanity. Thank the heavens that all of this can be disabled, but then you'll be left with nothing at all. So it's either you have all of it, which doesn't work for me, or none of it, which also sucks. I cannot iterate enough of how not a single other car I've tested has behaved in such an inconvenient way in this regard. It was so intolerable and questionable that my friend even asked, "what the hell was that?" the first time it crammed the brakes on us in a parking lot and then again at a traffic light that had turned green. I'm not bitching about this to for the sake of bitching about it because I'm biased or whatever arbitrary garbage assumption you might have: This is 2023, this is a brand new vehicle, and this is unacceptable.
Whew! That out of the way, now for the fun stuff? Nope, there's more! Yay! The electronic overlords are again willing to reduce your joy and have programmed the traction and stability controls to only be fully disabled while you're at a complete stop. While driving, you can partially turn off traction control, but only when below 30 MPH, and once you're above 30 MPH, you must accept defeat as Skynet - I mean traction control - comes back online. The silver lining is a playful halfway track mode setting that can be activated seemingly at any speed. However, this is supposed to be a sports car - There's even a GR badge for Gazoo Racing for crying out loud, their factory works racing team that competes in the FIA World Endurance Challenge and World Rally Championship - yet you can't turn off traction and stability control unless you're at a complete stop? That's an example of boardroom and proverbial garbage.
Power comes from a 2.4L flat-four 'boxer' engine, a Subaru unit, that helps keep weight low in the front and thus aiding in its center of gravity for agility. Rated for 228 horsepower and 205 pounds-feet of torque, the GR86 moves you in ways the old 86 never could, but when equipped with the long-legged automatic, this GR86 never feels quick at all. The stopwatch might sound okay, being comfortably under six seconds when timing 0-60 MPH, but there's just no oomph nor shove that you might hope for; You can definitely blame the gearing, with second gear redlining at over 60 MPH for that one, and a sixth gear that spins at a lowly 2,000 RPM at 70 MPH. I hear the manual improves upon this with its shorter gears, which would bring the extra pace needed, or at least the feeling of punch in the seat of your pants. You'd also think a small little engine like this would be economical, but it really isn't, with the GR86 averaging 25.5 MPG during our time together. A lot of that was spent driving in the rain, which doesn't help, but my 1993 BMW 325is, with an old 2.5L six-cylinder and a five-speed manual, averaged the exact same efficiency through years of ownership. That fuel mileage figure is also about six short of a Mazda Miata, and even five short of the GR Supra 2.0 four-cylinder. Adding fuel to the fire of disappointment is a motor that sounds broken at times due to the unpleasant mechanical clanks (especially at startup) and its impression of a cheap blender under load. If you're looking for a musical and smooth engine, this ain't it. Smoother than the old one? Sure, but that doesn't mean it's a smooth ICE compared to a six-cylinder let alone other inline-fours.
And now about that transmission, because it deserves to be melted down and recycled. If you're already going for an uncompromising sports car, willing to make the necessary sacrifices for driving thrills, why you would get an automatic? If you want the traditional and real sports car experience, you and the car both deserve a manual. With other cars, you can argue about how good the dual-clutch transmission is of Car A or B, but here we're left only with an archaic slushbox; Shifts are never brisk and reacts slowly to manual inputs via the crappy paddles. The long gearing of the automatic does no favors, which lead the GR86 to hunt for gears often and downshifting when it shouldn't need to because it exposes gaps in the powerband. If there is a displacement increase compared to the old model, you wouldn't know it when driving the automatic.
Slower speeds are where the transmission really gets lost, literally. I found numerous instances of slowing and turning off a main road and when getting back onto the power, there would be nothing there, as the transmission would be in-between gears and confused what to do next, like there's an internal task board with several immediate items due and unsure which to tackle first. Certain aspects remind me of traits from old single-clutch automated atrocities, like those found in E46 M3s or even old Toyota MR2s; The resultant jerks and motions should not be felt in a modern automatic. Whichever hill you choose to die on in the endless manual-versus-automatic debate, the fact is that the automatic in the GR86 is a very poor one - simple as that. Maybe, just maybe, it was done on purpose to guide buyers to the manual, yet I see and hear plenty out there with the melting slushy instead. I can't help but feel sorry for anyone who does buy an auto GR86 because of all the fun they're missing. The manual offered isn't the greatest stick-shift ever, but it is a solid, positive, and fun unit regardless, and does bring a great deal of fun back to the GR86. By putting the primary focus on the driver interaction, the woes are forgotten rather than exemplified.
I can hear the forums chanting, "Stop bashing the GR86, it's a golden child that deserves to sit on a perch because it can do no wrong!" like a cult. Yes, paragraph and paragraph of disappointment, but the GR86 does a few things right, too. Simply put, despite the still-lacking engine, driving position that doesn't quite hit the mark, and a chintzy interior, the GR86 has one of the best chassis of any new car on sale today. You want handling supremacy? The GR86 is up there with the best in the world, at any price. In fact, this car drives and corners so good, you could forgive basically every single other shortcoming. Even if I do think the steering could use more feedback, the wheel still feels positively alive in your hands compared to numerous other new cars on sale; You get the sense that this inanimate object is a living and breathing being beneath your finger tips; Left-right commands are dealt with fluid and immediate continuity. While it might sound cliche, enough to where even I've used this metaphor before, but this is the kind of car where enthusiasts and journalists describe as telepathic. If you can think it, you and the car can do it.
Understeer is not applicable to the GR86 except in the most extreme (usually misjudged settings and scenarios where the fault is on the driver), with gracious grip from the Michelin Pilot summer tires and a fluid mechanical balance that seeks out corners like the T-1000 after John Connor. The rubber might be of a narrow 215-width variety, but these lend malleability to the experience through a well-executed judgement of grip verse feel. The confidence on hand is beyond most other sports cars thanks to the inherent faith provided through the controls to your mind and muscles. Resulting apexes are honed out like white on rice, and if you're missing apexes at a track day, trust me when I say it's not the car - it's you. With high adjustability, the chassis invites you to get back on the power early to drive right out to corner exit pitch-perfect every time with precision. Want to be a hooligan? Mash the throttle (assuming you first came to a complete stop and turned off traction control) and revel in the magic balance of what happens when this car starts facing lateral instead of straight like the classic tofu-delivering AE86 by which this draws its lineage. Other cars have sloppy and unexpected transitions to and from oversteer, but the GR86 just slides not like second nature, but first nature. A quick correction and you never find yourself fighting the car, just guiding it and going with for the ride. Grip comes back smoothly, along with a huge grin as you just want more. And more.
Want more proof this chassis is god-defining? I drove the GR86, shod on Michelin summer tires, in light snow. Shoot, I even passed a Sheriff in their 4WD SUV on the freeway in the snow! The car was incredibly stable as I kept to the tracks of other cars during a Spring dusting in Placerville, and never gave a moment of fear even at 55 MPH. Things were a little different in a parking lot that hadn't been driven on with a full inch on the ground, but I still got around just fine. There is a snow mode preset, but it didn't work well in the parking lot, finding it better to just fully disable traction and stability control. And yes, it drifts ever so pleasantly and gracefully in the snow, even at 4 MPH in slow-mo.
Another accolade goes to ride quality and suspension when driven with aggression. I don't mean the ride when just cruising, which can be stiff, but that's expected for a sports car, but rather when dealing with bumps mid-corner at speed. Refusing to be upset by sudden impacts when the suspension is loaded up (something that brings about issues with other and pricier sports cars, like the GR Supra even), the GR86 shrugs them off and keeps going without any fuss, seemingly just gliding right over. The Honda Civic Type R is too stiff to deal with imperfections and just kind of hammers them back into the ground, but it's the GR86 that just hovers and goes regardless of the surface.
A car cannot be considered perfection by enthusiasts solely for the reason of existing. Existing is not enough, and you might have given up on this review early on, thinking that I'm just brand-bashing or whatever nonsense, but if you read the whole thing, you'll understand my take on this car. Like I just wrote above, you can't just put a car on a pedestal because it exists; People like that turn a blind-eye to shortcomings through their own bias. The GR86 has a lot of problems, like the crap interior, a dismal engine when paired with an also-dismal automatic transmission, and annoying electronics that are among the worst of any car. The transmission part can be remedied with the manual (which is probably the only way this car should even be offered), yet the real star, a standout among standouts, is a chassis with handling befit of actual Drift King Keiichi Tsuchiya.
Is that enough, though? With so many drawbacks, I think I'd want to look elsewhere. The performance you get for the price is outstanding, but it's hard to get past an interior that is stolen from an old Corolla. So, what else could you get instead? Well, you could do a Mazda MX-5 Miata, the only other rear-wheel drive dedicated sports car for the same price. It's even more uncompromising due to size, a choppy ride, and a loud interior, but it's as fun to drive (when both are manuals), and you get the sensation of wind in your hair as a convertible, something the GR86 cannot offer being a coupe.
You could go for something totally different and unexpected: the Hyundai Elantra N. For the exact same price, you can have a nearly-300 horsepower, turbocharged pocket rocket from Hyundai with a manual and a bona fide Nurburgring-grade chassis and handling performance. Sure, it's front-wheel drive, but as I wrote in that review, it's the more fun car to drive, being stupendously involving on my favorite roads. Drifting won't be an option, but on real roads and in the canyons, the extra power and the shear poise make it such a winner, not to mention some usable rear seats from an extra set of doors and the same fuel mileage (despite the 50 extra horsepower).
It's an unconventional choice, and it's not a 'sports car,' but it does sports car things better than some sports cars. It's ugly, but hey, there's a visually-refreshed one coming soon. Am I alone in thinking this? Nope, as the Elantra N even won a Motor Trend shootout when compared to the GR86. I like the GR86 and what it's about, but deficiencies that make it annoying to live with coupled to a notably sub-par interior really bring negativity. With a manual, perhaps there would be enough to forgive and forget the negatives. However, as a performance car goes and the thrills it can bring, a Hyundai Elantra N has it matched and maybe beat. Not the conclusion you were expecting...
2023 Toyota GR86 Premium Automatic
As-tested price: $33,748
Pros: Superlative chassis; Great looks
Cons: Automatic makes the car pointless; Grainy engine; Cheap interior