The Toyota GR86 is what all sportscars should be | Thank Frankel it’s Friday

04th November 2022
andrew_frankel_headshot.jpg Andrew Frankel

It is a sign of the times that when greeted by the idea of a sports car that puts a naturally aspirated engine in its nose, directing its drive through a manual gearbox to the rear tyres, automotive cognoscenti start gasping. It’s almost like it’s never been done before, despite it being the configuration of almost every sportscar from the dawn of genre to at least the 1980s, when all-wheel drive, turbocharging and mid-engined configurations started to become slightly more commonplace.


There are so few left, and if you exclude esoterica like Caterhams, hardly any. I count the Mazda MX-5, Ford Mustang and, now for a very short time only, the Toyota GR86. Yet when you drive any one of them, you are left goggling at the fact this classic configuration has fallen into effective disuse.

The fact the GR86 very nearly didn’t even get built speaks to the issue at hand. The motoring media and those who love driving all adored its predecessor, the ever-sideways GT86, but the truth is the business case for replacing it was so marginal, that had Toyota top brass not been peopled by petrolheads at present, it would have never made the grade. Even more extraordinary is the fact that regulatory changes mean it will only be on sale for two years and even that’s in theory. In reality the UK’s meagre allocation of 430 cars sold out in an hour and a half, and the best efforts of Toyota in the UK to secure more have yet to increase that number.


So what’s so very wrong with the GR86’s layout? Plenty as it happens. Let’s start at the front and work back. Naturally aspirated engines are space inefficient: the GR86 produces far less power on 2.4-litres and four cylinders than does the GR Yaris on two thirds the capacity and three quarters of the cylinder count, but with the aid of a turbocharger. Second, a large naturally aspirated engine will use more fuel than a smaller turbo unit producing the same power. The differences are not so great as they appear on paper because it is easier to tune a turbo motor to perform well in official emissions and consumption tests, but they are there. And highly tuned ‘atmo’ engines develop their power high in the rev range, and don’t provide the easily accessible low-down torque provided by turbochargers.

What about the gearbox then? Sadly, most people would simply rather not have to bother with changing gear. To them it is not a vital contact point between man and machine, but a tedious chore they could well do without. Besides, paddles are what Formula 1 cars have, so they have to be better. Don’t they? Manufacturers of sportscars don’t like manuals either because all that time spent changing gear adds crucial fractions of a second to the 0-62mph time – a factor of no importance whatsoever in the real world, but a vital consideration in the marketing department.


And finally, what on earth is wrong with rear-wheel drive, or correct-wheel drive as some of us have been known to call it? Largely it is down to packaging and expense. Rear-wheel drive means you have to have a transmission tunnel eating up valuable cabin space and a rear differential doing the same for your boot. All the componentry required to transfer the drive from one end of the car to the other is heavy and expensive. Why not just put the power through the wheels closest to where it is being generated?

Sadly the only justification is that it’s fun. Seemingly, that’s not enough. And yet, last week I spent two days on road and track in a GR86 and found myself enjoying it more than a carbon-tubbed, mid-engined supercar taking part in the same exercise, boasting almost three times the power. You just can’t beat the feel of a properly set up car with a traditional configuration. The throttle response, and sound, of a naturally aspirated engine; the challenge and joy of executing fast, smooth upshifts; the skill of the well-executed heel-and-toe, rev-matched downshift, the inherent balance of rear-wheel drive and, yes, the opportunity to slide the back around too, safe in the knowledge it will do so slowly and in an easily recoverable way.


As a driver, it is this that makes my world go around, and it is as true for GR86 as it is for the 101-year old 3.0-litre Bentley I get to race from time to time. Of course you could say that configuration wasn’t so much selected as chanced in the pioneering days: the engine went in front because that’s where the horse went, it breathed at atmospheric pressure because there was no alternative, the gears were manual because automatics didn’t exist and drive went to the back because no one could figure out how to transmit power through wheels also responsible for steering. So maybe they just got lucky and stumbled across the optimal layout. But it was true then and it’s true today, and you have only to drive a GR86 or, perhaps more likely, an MX-5 to know it.

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