Toyota once again has a fun, affordable sports car.
The Scion FR-S sport coupe is now the Toyota 86 for 2017, and it’s a no-frills blast.
It’s the kind of low-riding, stiff-handling kart that wants to be thrown around, wants its throttle to be hammered, brakes worked. It’s a throwback to a time when cars were about feel, when we drove instead of commuted.
The decision to 86 the Scion lineup in early 2016 and rebadge its best product will help shake the boring stigma that has been dogging the world’s largest automaker.
Of course, the 86 nee FR-S is as much a Subaru as a Toyota, since Subaru manufactures it. In 2012, the Japanese David and Goliath teamed up to make identical entry-level sports cars intended for the same small audience. No stranger to small sports cars, Subaru calls their variant the BRZ. Toyota had all but abandoned the affordable sports car space.
The 86 is better than the BRZ, at least the one in my memory from two years ago.
Maybe it was the newness of it, or maybe it was the deprivation brought on by early onset winter.
We got the 86 in early December, and it coincided with single-digit temps and the season’s first snow. Not the best conditions for the rear-wheel drive, lightweight sports coupe we’d been anticipating since early fall, when we were able to give it a few laps on the track in a limiting lead-follow format.
It waited in our garage alongside a new crossover. It’s a kind of torture to be forced to pick the crossover, then complain about it.
The 86 wasn’t leaving the garage even without the wintry weather. Though there are technically rear seats in the sense that there are seat belts, my grade-schoolers weren’t fitting back there — a piece of paper bent at the knees couldn’t sit back there.
And our collective gear wasn’t fitting in the trunk. The half-seats fold flat for plenty of storage space for a long golf weekend for two, or a beach-hopping rip down the coast.
We were far away from such fantasies but the 86 puts fun in the driver’s mind.
It’s the squirrelly antidote to those numb beasts of burden known as the crossover.
Once the weather cleared and our domestic duties dispatched, we got to work on the four-cylinder boxer engine that is never fast but always responsive.
Subaru loves its flat engines, whose horizontally opposed cylinders would appear to box each other. The flat layout minimizes engine vibration and has a lower center of gravity, which boosts balance and handling.
There is no room for a turbocharger, however, so the 86’s 151 pound-feet of torque don’t really begin to dig in until the RPM needle tilts to the right.
What the 86 lacks in speed it makes up for in responsiveness: Mash the pedal and the engine noise fills the cabin with the kind of satisfaction you don’t get from turbocharged engines. Its power puts a smile on your face and, possibly, a devil on your shoulder, whispering faster faster more more go go go. It weighs just under 2,800 pounds, so this little guy packs a surprising punch. Kick the rear out without losing control, whip around corners while staying low and sensitive to the road’s condition, test the car’s extremes without putting yourself in any extreme danger. That’s why we buy small, affordable sports cars. We can throw them around, get an adrenaline rush from speeding into bends without danger. It’s a modest thrill, and sometimes those have greater longevity.
The 86 is about the feels, from the meaty-but-small steering wheel to the little paddle shift … wait, no.
The paddle shifters are fine, the little binary gear notches of the pseudo-manual automatic six-speed transmission are fine, but an automatic numbs the whole sensation of the 86. It feels wrong, like stepping up to an all-you-can-eat buffet and ordering a smoothie. You came here to eat pavement, amiright? Get the manual.
The touch continues at the controls. The three knobs for climate control are grooved for easier grip. There is a very basic four-way button for audio controls on the steering wheel, and a key — an actual key — to turn in an actual ignition switch. It’s all about the feels, and distractions are kept to a minimum.
The buttons for snow, track, and sport mode are set apart on the center console, away from any other clutter. The small touch screen, devoid of satellite radio or navigation, is an obligation to serve as a backup camera, which is mandated for all 2018 model year cars.
Most of the changes from the one-trim FR-S to the 86 are cosmetic, with “86” stamps everywhere, a broader intake and new lighting.
The 86 outlasted Scion and we expect it to outlast the BRZ. It’s a good thing for Toyota, and a better thing for people shopping affordable sports cars.
2017 Toyota 86 at a glance
Vehicle type: Sports coupe
Base price: $26,975
As tested: $26,975 (excluding $865 delivery)
Mpg: 24 city, 32 highway
Engine: 2-liter flat four
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Parting shot: Get the manual