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Toyota 86 offers a fantastic sports car experience at a budget price

Mack Hogan
CNBC gets behind the wheel of the Toyota 86, a competitor to the Mazda Miata.

If you want a lot of fun for the least amount of money possible, the Mazda Miata used to be the only car worth considering.

That is until Toyota and Subaru came crashing into the playground in 2012. With their jointly developed "86-platform cars" — the Scion FR-S and Subaru BR-Z — they kicked some sand into the lovable Mazda's grill and asserted that there were, in fact, more options.

For 2017, with the death of Scion, the FR-S became the Toyota 86. Since 2012, Mazda has created an all-new Miata that's better than ever.

Armed with a new name and a fixed roof, the Toyota 86 is out to prove that a roadster isn't the only way.

Exterior: The design is in the details

The "Hot Lava" paint isn't the most flattering color on the 86. None of the colors cost extra, so you can snag a much more attractive car without inflating the $26,840 sticker price.

That out of the way, the rest of the 86 is nicely shaped and attractively proportioned. Design is in the details though, and I'm afraid the fact that the 86 must have been designed to carry Scion, Toyota and Subaru badges ultimately led to restrained styling that lacks the visual character and brand identity of other coupes.


It doesn't look bad and could look positively stellar if they smoothed out the overly bulbous fenders and gave the rear end a nip and tuck so it wasn't locked in a perma-frown. The car looks good enough that you'll be happy with it, but I doubt anyone will be buying it solely for looks.


Interior: Where did the money go?

In my recent review of the Mazda Miata , I found the interior to be styled fantastically. It was adorned with lovely materials but ultimately felt compromised due to lack of space. The 86 has the opposite issue, with far more space than you'd expect in a tiny sports coupe but an overall interior design that feels outdated.


The 86, unlike the Miata, packs a pair of rear seats. They're too small for adults but are much welcome for extra cargo and backpacks. Determined parents could fit a young child back there, though I didn't have a car seat on hand to test whether it would fit. Head, leg and knee room are all superior to the Mazda and the car has cupholders that actually work.


Material quality is lacking. The infotainment system appears to be pasted into the dash and is slow to operate. Climate controls are chunky black plastic, below a clock that's been in Toyota products since the dawn of multicellular life. The justification, though, is this stuff all works well and doesn't distract the driver. While I'd prefer softer materials and nicer style, some simplicity is very welcome in today's information overload-inducing cars. Plus, at just over $26,000, this car's interior is bound to be less premium with the nearly $10,000 more expensive Miata RF Grand Touring.


Driving experience: The money went here

Fire up the 204-horsepower, Subaru-supplied boxer four-cylinder and you'll realize what you've done is purchase a $30,000 driving experience at a discount. Interior features, comfort, reliability; these are all bonuses that Toyota throws in for free when you buy an 86. To heck with the gadgets, turn the old-fashioned key ignition, buckle up and grab the gear selector.

Blast. For some reason the lovely PR folks at Toyota opted to equip this 86 with an automatic transmission. You'd save $700 by getting a manual transmission, and more importantly you'd have a performance car as God intended: engine in the front sending power to the rear via a row-your-own gearbox.


The automatic in the 86 is shockingly good, though. While eight-speeds and dual-clutches are more effective, the automatic gearbox in this Toyota is easily the best six-speed slushbox on the market.


Steering feel is telepathic, and the car has more resistance in the steering rack than other light sports cars, making it feel meaty. To drive this car is to drive with no forgiveness, the near-perfect chassis displaying your flaws and magnifying your heroics. To wrangle the heavily weighted steering around a corner is a feat of mind and body.

The only dynamic issue is the well-reported "torque dip." Essentially, around 4,000 RPM the car's pulling power momentarily relents, feeling like you're not in the right gear. It can drain away a bit of the fun, but the car is so overflowing with dynamic competence that it's hard to care.


Value:

The only real competition here is the Miata. Asking me to decide which one is a better value is like making me decide between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Ohio State Buckeyes. I love them both, but there are certain circumstances under which I watch the Cavs and certain days that are reserved for the Bucks. Allow me to make the case for who is better served by the 86.


First, anyone who can't fit in a Miata. The 86 is vastly more practical, with seats that fold to open up to the trunk and useful (if small) second-row seating. It's also a hardtop coupe, meaning it's quiet on the highway. For many people, convertibles are just absolutely unappealing.

Finally, the 86 is one size fits all. Pick a color, pick a transmission and pick up the car. There's no long-flowing option list, and the car comes with most of what you need and no frivolous options.


Final thoughts

$26,840 is all it takes to get one of the best sports car chassis on sale today equipped with most of the options you actually need. Why aren't you at the dealer yet?

Ratings

Exterior: 3.5

Interior: 3

Driving Experience: 5

Value: 5

Overall: 4

Price as configured: $26,840