CAVE CREEK, Arizona — The new Toyota 86 has been renamed GR86. That’s pronounced GREAT-6.
I took it to the flowing turns, blind hills and uphill straightaways of Cave Creek, 50 miles northeast of Phoenix. It’s a sports car’s natural habitat and the ideal place to explore the significant upgrades Gazoo Racing (thus the GR prefix) has made to fix the flaws of this wonderful, affordable toy:
1) A bigger, 2.4-liter Boxer-4 cylinder engine for more torque out of the twisties.
2) Stickier, wider tires for more cornering confidence.
3) Racier, upscale design to make the $100K sports car crowd jealous.
Just be sure to get it with a manual.
My tester came with a six-speed automatic and I ached for the stick every day I had the car on a weekend visit to the Grand Canyon state. Automatics have understandably taken over the market, given their ease of use. But in a Stradivarius like the GR86, you want to be able to tune it yourself — not sit back and watch the sheet music play. Especially now that Toyota (and its sister Subaru BRZ) have the formula right.
I get to test lots of exotic sports cars — Porsche 911s, mid-engine Corvettes, Audi R8s — but there is nothing more satisfying than an entry-level sports car. It makes the joy of driving more accessible.
My young son coveted the original Toyota 86 (then called the Scion FR-S — remember Scion?) and its twin Subaru BRZ, when they were unveiled in 2014. He was so juiced that when a tester arrived in my Oakland County driveway in 2014, he jumped on a Southwest flight from Chicago to come see.
Low-slung, 200-horsepower, practical 2+2 seating, stick shift, rear-wheel drive. Alas, his balloon deflated when he stomped the gas pedal. The engine groaned, peak torque didn’t come until sundown, and — worse — it paled next to the high-revving, 197-horse 2006 VTEC Civic Si that we still had in the driveway. Sigh.