Small cars generally aren’t seen as ideal for long road trips, but I stand firmly in the camp of supporting small, light sports cars as the right tool for effectively any task they can reasonably handle. And so, I found myself road-tripping a 2023 Toyota GR86 Premium from Connecticut to Virginia Beach and back through 105-degree heat, and never regretting it for a second.
The Trueno Blue Toyobaru twin arrived on my doorstep a day ahead of my departure so I could get acclimated to it and load it full of my vacation necessities. The shape of the car isn’t vastly changed from the first-gen, but it’s a traditionally good looking vehicle in the sports car sense. Some of the details are especially appreciated, like the ducktail spoiler (versus the small deck spoiler on the Subaru version). Oh, and Trueno Blue might be one of the best colors on sale today. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Small, fun cars should always be bright colors. The 86 is just right in this spec.
Climbing inside reveals an improved but still relatively simple cabin. While this might turn off prospective buyers looking for luxury, it’s actually quite beneficial in my mind; large dials and an unfussy, reasonably-sized screen means making adjustments while on the go is easy. Few things frustrate me more than having to pull my eyes off the road for extended periods to adjust things like the climate control or radio (Looking at you, current VW products). Thankfully, the 86’s controls are refreshingly simple. It’s everything you need and nothing you don’t: The sports car way.
Out on the road, the 86 is delightful. The dedicated sports car platform (as opposed to repurposing an existing chassis to be sporty, like is the case with many hot hatches and fast sedans) lends itself beautifully to ride quality and road manners. It’s composed, compliant, and, at least to my average-ish sized frame, quite comfortable. The seats are fantastic, with just enough bolstering to keep you in place when taking on/off-ramps at speed while simultaneously being soft enough to not cause sleeping-ass syndrome on long stints. They breathe well, too, which was nice considering how hot it was (daytime temperatures averaging around 100*F) during my time with the car.
Cruising at highway speed on the New Jersey Turnpike amid a mass of enormous SUVs and 18-wheelers was no issue whatsoever for the little 86. The seating position is perfect and visibility is excellent, making it easy to keep your eyes peeled for dangerous drivers (which the east coast has plenty of), traffic, and sections of broken or construction-laden road. I spent almost 10 hours behind the wheel of the Toyota on my first day of this trip and never felt fatigued or wishing for another car to be in. Almost hilariously, the car’s air conditioning also proved and away the best I have experienced in recent memory. Podcast on, A/C cranking, and just let the 86 do its thing. It’s not made for long road trips, but it eats them up with ease.
Best of all, the GR86 is constantly, continuously, always fun. Whether chucking it down a back road en route to the highway, taking long parkway turns at speed, using the excellent manual gearbox, or just enjoying the inherent qualities of a light, tossable, small sports car, it’s simply a pleasure to interact and engage with. The ND Miata is great, but the GR86 has better steering feel, a better shifter, and corners better. Maybe the newest Mazda iteration has a slightly more lively engine, and of course its roof goes down, but the Toyota is better objectively. Toyota will never do this, but the car is a removable roof away from absolute motoring perfection. Even the GR Performance exhaust that was installed on this press car sounded great, with light pops and burbles on blipped downshifts that don’t overdo it, and the car never flinched in 105-degree heat. Many would think a car like this would fall apart on a road trip like this, yet my experience was the exact opposite; the 86 was a total joy. I wouldn’t hesitate to run cross-country in one, or from Tuktoyaktuk to Tierra del Fuego. It’s that good.
Still, it isn’t perfect. The Apple CarPlay integration failed numerous times, disconnecting at properly inopportune moments like debating which exit to take to avoid Turnpike traffic. There’s also a bit more road noise than would be ideal, however this was limited specifically (and isolated solely to) the left front, making me wonder if maybe the car was in need of an alignment or wasn’t running just the right pressure in the tire perched on that corner for the given outside (and subsequent tarmac) temperature. Also, and major nitpicking here, but the factory floor mats are utterly unusable if you drive without shoes. I don’t have big feet but do love to drive barefoot in the summer when flip-flops are the choice footwear for walking around, and the section of floor mat just below the gas pedal was so offensive that I took the floor mat out after a couple hours on the road. Easy enough to avoid, but the car is so good that I have to dig really deep to find “negatives.”
I drove the second-generation GR86 briefly last year in the form of the Subaru BRZ, but spending more time with the 2023 Toyota GR86 Premium revealed that it’s head-and-shoulders above its predecessor. It’s truly a world-class sports car, one with the steering, shifter, and personality that puts it up there with vehicles costing a significant amount more than the price would make you think (Our test car had a base MSRP of $30,500 and an as-tested price of $34,123 including $1,095 for Delivery, with the only other big-ticket item being the $1,700 upgraded exhaust). Hell, the thing won AutoExpress’ Best Driver’s Car for 2023 against cars that are from manufacturers that you “need to be on a list” to order a new car from. It really is that good, and it’s an excellent road trip companion which isn’t exactly the norm for fun-forward vehicles. The GR86 truly is among the best there is today at any price, and that it’s so affordable and approachable makes it even sweeter. Well done, Toyota. This is a winner.