If there is one thing sports car enthusiasts agree on, it’s that putting an automatic transmission into a sports car borders on heresy. While you may end up succumbing to the demands of practicality (especially if you have a significant other who doesn’t share your enthusiasm for three pedals), an automatic transmission simply can’t bring the enjoyment of a manual…right?
Pretty much everyone has been singing the praises of the fully redesigned 2022 Toyota GR86, so when I finally got the chance to drive one, I was expecting it to be a good car. There was just one problem––the car I got behind the wheel of was an automatic. If you know anything about the first-gen 86/FR-S/BRZ/whatever they’re calling it at the moment, it’s that the six-speed automatic was universally considered to be a pretty terrible transmission that wasn’t geared well for the car. Since the new car uses a retuned version of the same A960E gearbox, I wasn’t expecting much but wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to see what the new car could do.
A Real Sports Car
The old 86 (not the really old 86––the first-gen version of the current car. Why couldn’t they have done a better job with the names?) definitely looked the part of a sports car from the outside, but once you climbed into the cockpit, it felt like a budget Toyota. In fact, I’m pretty sure they lifted most of the buttons and switches straight from a 2006 RAV4. A base model 2006 RAV4. Open the door to the new GR86, and it actually feels like something sporty inside. Now, car interiors, in general, are far better than what they used to be, but the new car surprised me with how good it looked. Now, it still isn’t a luxury car by any means, but for a performance car that starts at just $27,700, it was pretty impressive (good luck finding one at MSRP, though, especially if you want one with a manual transmission).
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the cabin, though, is how well it integrates technology. It seems that manufacturers are competing to see how many screens they can stuff into their cars these days, and the GR86 is no exception. While the last gen was all-analog (until the final years, when they grafted a small screen into the instrument cluster and added what looked suspiciously like an aftermarket head unit), the new car is all-digital. A fully digital instrument cluster greets you with a slick boxer engine-inspired startup sequence, and there is the requisite touchscreen in the dash. But unlike far too many cars these days, Toyota actually managed to make the screens feel unobtrusive and well-integrated into the dash. Both screens smoothly blend with an interior inspired by the original 86 (yes, this time I do mean the 1980s car), managing to feel modern and classic at the same time.
Eager to Drive
But enough about the interior. If you wanted to bask in luxury, you’d be out shopping for a Lexus, not a performance coupe. The first impression that I had when pulling the car out of the parking lot was the steering feel. Far too many cars these days have overboosted steering that leaves you wondering if the steering rack is even physically connected to the front wheels, but the GR86 was a pleasant surprise, with real steering weight that just felt natural from the moment I started driving. It’s the sort of feedback that gives you confidence the car will go where you point it without question.
But if the steering was a nice surprise, it was the transmission that stole the show. Put the gear shifter into manual mode, and you will not only have complete control over shifts (yes, you can bounce the car off the rev limiter without automatically upshifting), you will feel every one. Toyota gave the 2022 GR86 automatic something called “Dynamic Rev Management,” and it’s not just marketing––when you hit the paddles to shift, the car aggressively jumps to the next gear. Yes, the automatic might technically be slower to 60 than the manual, but it isn’t actually the transmission that’s holding it back.
The real problem with launching the automatic is the brakes. Try to brake-boost the car, and you will end up spinning the rear wheels before the revs get high enough for a perfect launch. Once you’re moving, however, it’s a different story. The new 2.4L engine gives the car plenty of power, urging you to go far faster than you should on a public road. The almost invisible speedometer when the instrument cluster is in track mode doesn’t help either––floor the accelerator, and you’ll be exceeding any speed limit in the US before you notice. Even if you have the instrument cluster in street mode, with its large speedometer front and center, you’ll still probably find yourself tempted to push deeper into the rev range than is advisable simply to hear the engine whine. Yes, the noise is artificially amplified, but the way it kicks in above 4000 RPM makes you want to redline the car every time you accelerate.
Enjoy the Experience
Would I personally buy a new GR86 with an automatic transmission? No. I’m still singing manual praises to anyone who will listen. But would I be disappointed to drive a GR86 with an automatic transmission? Not in the slightest. In a world where it often seems that manufacturers are determined to suck every last bit of enjoyment out of driving, turning cars into noise-isolated entertainment interfaces, the GR86 is an option that will excite any enthusiast–even if it has an automatic.