Want to be a better driver? One of the best ways, according to time-tested racing wisdom, is to learn how to drive a slow car fast. It's one of the reasons the Mazda MX-5 Miata remains a staple in amateur racing circles. If you can maximize that car's tepid acceleration through skilled shifting, braking and body control, you're that much better when you finally get some hair in the engine.
Much like the Miata, the knock on the Toyota 86 is that it's too slow. The 86 is, like the Miata, a sporty, rear-wheel-drive compact car with a deficit of low-end grunt or high-speed zip. Its strength lies in its near-perfect balance and handling ability rather than a gift for sprinting. But sitting alongside professional driver Jhonnattan Castro in the 2019 Toyota 86 TRD Special Edition as he slingshots from one corner of a racetrack to another, at speeds the 86 once seemed incapable of, you realize that the only thing slow about the Toyota 86 is its driver.
OK, so maybe that's a stretch. Facts are facts, and the Toyota 86, even the new 86 TRD Special Edition we've come to drive today, still makes the same 205 horsepower as it did on its debut six years ago. It still generates the same wimpy torque as well at just 156 pound-feet, too. Thus we had high hopes for the 86 TRD Special Edition, believing that the motorheads at Toyota's performance division would finally reveal a turbocharged or supercharged engine, something to boost the 86's weak low-end power, fill in the middle part of the powerband, and come backed with a factory warranty.
That was naive. The 86 TRD does indeed offer a performance upgrade from the standard-issue model, notably in handling and braking, but improving acceleration still requires a trip to the aftermarket parts catalogs.
A New Thrill for New Drivers
When the Toyota 86 debuted in 2013 as the Scion FR-S, sold through Toyota's late youth-focused sub-brand, we praised it as the return of the affordable sports car. Priced in the mid-$20,000s, the FR-S was a rear-wheel-drive fun machine aimed at young drivers who'd learned on front-drive compacts as teenagers. The wheelbase was perfect, the tail could slide out with careful coaxing and clutch work, and it looked great with its long hoodline and short rear end. In style and spirit, it recalled the Datsun 240Z from the 1970s.
What the 86 lacked, however, was speed — specifically, acceleration. We owned and drove an 86 (née FR-S) for a year. In its first test, the car needed 6.5 seconds to reach 60 mph and 14.8 seconds to cover a quarter-mile flat out. Not exactly screaming performance, but we liked it just the same for the way it handled curves and corners. Some time later, we added an aftermarket supercharger from Innovate Motorsports. It didn't transform the car, but we did pick up half of a second in the quarter-mile sprint. It also gave the 86 more low-end power, which made daily driving more fun, and burnouts and powerslides more common.
So while the 2019 Toyota 86 TRD Special Edition doesn't offer any extra engine sauce, it does enhance the car's natural strengths: handling and balance.
Still Needs Speed but Plays to Strengths
The 86 TRD adds Sachs dampers (or shocks) to its well-sorted suspension design, which uses a classic sports-car setup of front struts and a multilink rear. The Sachs dampers promise less body movement when entering a turn at high speed. Combined with the TRD's Michelin Pilot Sport 4 performance tires, we found the upgraded suspension delivers on its promise. Compared to the standard-issue 86, the TRD is sharper when initiating and accelerating out of a turn. It's not a night-and-day difference, but you'll feel it when you drive both cars back-to-back.
Another way the 86 TRD makes driving this slow car fast is with stopping power. Counterintuitive perhaps, but up front are 12.8-inch rotors, in the rear are 12.4-inch discs, and all are clamped upon by four-piston calipers in Brembo's classic red housing. The special edition's brakes offer the confidence to carry more speed into a turn, brake later, and ideally record a quicker lap time. Granted, you may only see those gains if you take the 86 TRD to the track, but even on an open back road, the stronger Brembo bite will make each curve and corner a little more rewarding.
Even from the factory, the 86's brake system is capable. In a recent test of a standard Toyota 86, our man at the wheel liked the pedal's firm feel and the ease with which the car could be stopped smoothly in typical driving. Driven harder, the brakes lost some of that smooth feel but none of their effectiveness; in a simulated-panic stop from 60-0 mph, we recorded a respectably short distance of just 109 feet.
We didn't do any instrumented testing of the 86 TRD's braking performance during our test drive, but anecdotally, we noticed that after several hard laps, laced with several bursts of violent braking force, the Brembo package seemed not to notice. The odor from the brake pads let you know they were cooking (and on a violently hot day in inland Southern California, no less), but their stopping power didn't falter.
An Ounce of Speed, a Dash of Style
Upgrades under the hood and sheet metal are the best upgrades, but the 86 TRD also stands out as distinct from its trim mates with styling details. In addition to the Michelin performance tires, the TRD edition gets 18-inch wheels (the 86 and 86 GT trims get 17s). The wheels seem a tad overcooked, a bright star pattern over top of more understated black spokes, and will likely be one of the first items swapped out by owners, but the tires come with solid credentials.
Up front and in back is a unique body kit that includes a front bumper with a hint of Batmobile vibe, a rear bumper with a lower diffuser, a rear spoiler, and a dual exhaust with brushed stainless-steel tips. The 86 TRD is available in just one color, Raven black, and the overall effect is fetching and vaguely sinister. Shame about the TRD decal accents along the side panels, though. Those will likely be the second item jettisoned by serious owners.
With the 86 so reliant on light weight and balance for its performance, you might rightly worry about how much these new shocks, brakes and bumper finery will add to the 86's mass. Worry not. The additional hardware pads on just 61 pounds. You won't even notice. You might, however, notice the heftier price tag. With an MSRP of $33,340 including destination, the 86 TRD breaks the $30,000 threshold by a wide margin and comes in about $4,700 more than the trim level below, the 86 GT.
Inside, the classic TRD red-orange-yellow tri-color is deployed to more subtle effect stitched into a corner of the dash panel and accenting the interior's black-and-red scheme (also the only color choice available). Like the 86 GT trim, the TRD edition offers a real-time performance data screen in the gauge cluster, which monitors information such as cornering forces, power output, and oil and coolant temperatures.
Slow Car? Drive It Fast
Aside from its handling and balance, one of the best things the 86 has going for it is its six-speed manual transmission. While it can't generate any more horsepower, the stick shift allows you to wring out the engine for maximum power. That's precisely what Castro and fellow Formula Drift driver Ken Gushi, also on hand, do when showing the assembled car journos the best line for hustling around the track.
Gushi takes us for a couple of hot laps in a standard-issue 86 before swapping seats. The contrast between the regular car and the TRD edition isn't stark, but it's there. The standard 86 (and slightly more creature-comfortable 86 GT trim) with its all-season tires and factory-spec suspension is a little looser and sloppier around the track — just the way Gushi likes it, as it turns out, as he pitches the car sideways through the last handful of turns on our demo laps.
"I'm a drifter," he says, smiling, reveling in the regular 86's ability to break traction more easily than the new car's ability to maintain it.
It makes the choice simple. If you want to let it slide, get the 86 or 86 GT. If you want to beat the clock, get the 2019 Toyota 86 TRD Special Edition. And if you want the latter, act quickly: Toyota's only making 1,418 of them.