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Red Phoenix Rising: 2019 Toyota 86 GT Test Drive

There is no shortage of performance vehicles in the U.S. They take many different forms. Mercedes-AMG makes a variety of SUVs that will rocket you and your entire family to your destination with face-flattening amounts of turbocharged V8 horsepower. You can use the Ford Raptor to take the kids to school and fly across the desert at 100 mph. If you’re more into sedans, Dodge offers its Charger with three different V8s that range in output from 370 all the way up to 707 horsepower. In the Mazda MX-5 Miata, you can drop the top and your right foot, then zoom-zoom off into the sunset. And don’t forget about the Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Camaro, and Dodge Challenger.

But what if you want something small and light and simple? I suggest taking a look at the 2019 Toyota 86. It has a naturally aspirated, low-displacement engine, an available six-speed manual transmission, and rear-wheel drive. You may be aware of its mechanically similar corporate cousin, the Subaru BRZ. Or perhaps you remember the 86’s predecessor, the Scion FR-S. Toyota decided to shut down its youthful Scion brand in 2016, but a few of Scion’s models were refreshed to live on as Toyotas. The FR-S got a facelift, slight bump in power, and new name: 86 – an homage to the legendary Toyota AE86 series of rear-wheel-drive cars from the 1980s.

I spent a week in a 2019 Toyota 86 GT, the mid-range model that slots in between the base car and the souped-up TRD Special Edition. Toyota had its reasons for keeping the 86 alive after the demise of Scion. I have some of my own for being glad they did.

2019 Toyota 86

2019 Toyota 86 GT Exterior

I don’t envy car designers who have to craft the looks of a small car. They have limited space in which to express an idea and compact dimensions have the potential to make a vehicle look insignificant or bland. The crew behind the FR-S didn’t fall into those traps and neither did the crew behind its successor. The 86 may be small, but it makes a statement, especially when it’s dressed in the Ablaze red paint my test car wore. Its large front air intake and pointy headlights make it look fierce and ready to take on other cars. The fenders bulge over the front and rear 17-inch wheels and their 215/45 tires, giving the 86 a muscular, athletic stance. A low-profile wing with red end caps and a flat black middle section, and prominent dual exhaust outlets add a tasteful amount of bravado.

2019 Toyota 86

2019 Toyota 86 GT Interior

My 86 media loaner’s cockpit echoed the message its curvy body work and sporty rear wing broadcasted to everyone else out on the road. Suede-like panels in the seats and on the dashboard brought the interiors of more expensive and powerful European performance cars to mind. Red stitching and seat accents added pops of color to the largely black cabin.

Even without any options, my 86 press special was relatively comfortable. I had power windows, push-button start, dual-zone climate control, a seven-inch infotainment touchscreen, and seat heater controls at my fingertips. But the 86 isn’t about getting in and letting sophisticated driver assist systems take you to your destination while your brain is on its own form of autopilot. Look at its three sport pedals, prominent high-contrast tachometer, and six-speed manual shifter. It’s clear what you’re supposed to do in the 86. You’re supposed to drive it, not the other way around.

2019 Toyota 86

2019 Toyota 86 GT Performance

Don’t be shy about keeping your right foot down. The 86 loves revs. Its direct- and port-injected 2.0-liter Boxer four-cylinder engine delivers 156 lb-ft of torque between 6,400 and 6,600 rpm, and 205 horsepower at 7,000 rpm – just short of its redline at 7,400 rpm. At the same time, it manages to be economical. According to the EPA, the 86 with the manual gearbox is capable of getting 21 city, 28 highway, and 24 combined mpg.** I averaged 30.

The 86 also demands precision. My tester’s clutch was particular about the inputs it received and quickly let me know when it wasn’t pleased with my footwork.

Toyota equips the 86 with electric power-assisted steering. There’s an independent MacPherson strut suspension up front, an independent multi-link setup in the back, and stabilizer bars at both ends. That combination of hardware gives the 86 driving dynamics I’ve never experienced in another vehicle (aside from the Scion FR-S). Whether I turned the steering wheel one degree or 90, it always seemed to immediately find the perfect groove and allow me to go down the road as if I were on rails. Even when I took a mild curve, I could feel the 86’s weight shifting. In those moments, I was connected to the car in a way that I’ll never forget.

Automakers use a variety of chimes, warning lights, and text warnings to communicate to drivers. Toyota didn’t need any of those with the 86. It found a way to make the 86 communicate that’s clearer and more immediate than words or sounds: pure sensation.

2019 Toyota 86

2019 Toyota 86 GT Safety

On paper, the 86 has an extensive but mostly standard list of safety features. That includes front, side, and head curtain airbags; a tire pressure monitoring system; a rearview camera; and Toyota’s Star Safety System (traction and stability control, anti-lock brakes, Electronic Brake Force Distribution, Brake Assist, and Smart Stop Technology). In reality, one of those features is in an unusual place. Instead of showing the rearview camera’s feed on the center screen, the 86 displays it on the left side of the rearview mirror so you can see what’s behind you from two perspectives at once.

2019 Toyota 86

2019 Toyota 86 GT Overall

There’s a vehicle for every kind of go-fast fanatic out there. The 2019 Toyota 86 is for those drivers who prefer a small, high-revving sports coupe that prioritizes feel and handling above outright power. Prices for the GT model start at $28,635*; my media loaner had an as-tested price of $29,505.

If the 86 sounds like your kind of performance vehicle, go to an AutoNation Toyota dealership and test-drive it. And don’t be afraid to keep your right foot down and the RPMs high.

*MSRP excludes tax, license, registration, destination charge and options. Dealer prices may vary.

**Based on EPA mileage ratings. Your mileage will vary depending specific vehicle trim, how you drive and maintain your vehicle, driving conditions, and other factors.

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