Two sports cars. Both are rear-wheel drive. Both have two doors. Both have the same badge—Toyota. Curiously, neither of them has a Toyota engine. One costs literally twice as much as the other. They’re as different as they are similar. So when you drive the new 2020 Toyota Supra and the aging but still delightful Toyota 86 back to back, what do you learn?
(Full Disclosure: Toyota flew me out to Virginia, paid for my hotel, booze and food, and supplied me with track time with both cars.)
Car enthusiasts are a deeply miserable lot, almost endemically unhappy about everything even when their preferred rides are safer, faster, better and more efficient than they’ve ever been. The Mazda Miata doesn’t have enough power. The Subaru WRX isn’t a hatchback anymore. The Nissan 370Z is old and the GT-R is too expensive. The Honda Civic Type R looks less like a car and more like something the Principality of Zeon invented to take down Amuro once and for all. The Dodge Challenger is full of ancient Mercedes-Benz parts. Nobody can see out of the Chevrolet Camaro. The Ford Mustang does murders sometimes.
I bring this up to say that like those cars, both the new Supra and aged 86 have taken their fair share of criticism. The Supra’s been dinged for its two-seater setup, BMW guts and lack of a proper manual gearbox (though I’ll concede that last point.) The 86, a joint venture with Subaru, is perennially knocked for not having “enough” horsepower.
As someone who is a pessimist to the point of being a couple bad days away from going full doomsday prepper, I say this—look on the bright side! Both of these cars are fun and good. Neither of them existed a decade ago, back when the sportiest Toyota you could buy was a Scion tC. Be glad they’re here, and here together.
I’m glad Toyota brought both to West Virginia’s Summit Point Motorsports Park’s Shenandoah Course. Even if the 86s probably only came to placate the hordes of people wanting to drive a very small batch of Supras. Driving the two together drove home the very stark differences between these two cars.
At the same time, I’m not going to pretend that I came away with deep, surprising insights here. This Supra-versus-86 test went exactly the way you’d think it would. One is slower, cheaper and easier for a novice to manage at a place like Summit Point. The other is much more premium, much more comfortable, much faster and more of an advanced-level car the next time you spring for a track day.
I took the 86 out first and was immediately reminded of two things: how much I like driving it, and how much it’s not screwing around. I have long been a fan of this car and its Subaru twin, but man, is it an acquired taste. Everything is thrashy and rough, from the blaring boxer engine note to the ride quality and, to be sure, the interior.
The 86 has a hardcore character. Non-drivers need not apply. They wouldn’t like driving it, and they probably wouldn’t like riding in it. The ride’s pretty harsh on back roads. The cupholders were these flimsy removable units between the seats in place of a full arm rest. The rest of the cabin is stark, and the analog gauges are showing their age.
The steel gray, $25,000ish tester I drove early on didn’t even have navigation, which I think is kind of a crime for any new car in 2019. And that back seat? It’s more for stashing a backpack or a bag than putting actual humans in. It’s all just a bit much.
But those who do like driving are in for a treat. The 2.0-liter, 205 horsepower, naturally aspirated Subaru four-cylinder engine isn’t super potent, but it’s willing to work for its supper.
Paired with the car’s small size and 2,776-pound curb weight, it can get up to the fun speeds more quickly than people give it credit for, and the lack of turbo means a nice, linear delivery of power. All the while the boxer practically howls into the cockpit—I had forgotten how damn loud this thing is right out of the box.
A major bright spot is the six-speed manual. Throws are tight and heavy and short, almost more like an aftermarket unit than your average modern manual car; say, for example, the light and easy stick in the new Toyota Corolla. Rowing through gears on a good back road, at speed, is some of the best fun you can have at any price, and it offered one sensation I’d come to miss later in the day on the auto-only Supra.
I will say the 86 suffers from a vague clutch uptake, such that both me and my co-driver stalled it once early on. Can’t even remember the last time I did that.
So the near-total lack of refinement on the 86 means it’s not for everyone, but I don’t see that as a bad thing. I’m glad it exists for that dedicated audience. It has a very old-school sports car spirit—it’s loud, it’s not real fast but it handles well, it emphasizes the stick shift, and above all else it’s just fun to drive. (And, worth noting, fun to drive even on roads in states where extra-legal speeds will send you directly to the slammer and not just traffic ticket court.)
And so is the Supra, of course. But stepping into that is night-and-day, and not just because these two “Toyotas” have markedly different manufacturing origins. The Supra is vastly more comfortable, with better seat bolstering. It has far better materials inside and boasts a much quieter cabin, though the exhaust note will take good care of you later.
BMW’s iDrive is a pretty superb infotainment system, a huge step up from the crappy radio in the 86. It feels like a $50,000 sports car, while the 86 feels like something you paid $25,000 for. It’s twice as expensive because you get twice as much here. And it should be no surprise but, the Supra’s ZF8 automatic gearbox is vastly better than the six-speed auto you can get in the 86.
The Supra is, and this nearly goes without saying, a lot faster. Car and Driver just benchmarked its zero to 60 mph time at a scant 3.8 seconds, nearly half what it takes the 86 to do the same. On the Shenandoah Circuit’s back straight I had the Supra well over 100 mph, while the 86 topped out somewhere between 80 and 90.
But I have to say that in some ways I enjoyed the 86 a bit more purely in terms of on-track driving. It’s the better novice car for that setting, and one that has a lot to teach its driver. It’s easier to build skills on until you know what you’re doing enough for serious upgrades.
Also, the 86’s hood is considerably shorter than the Supra’s long inline-six-packing nose, so I found it easier to point exactly where I wanted it to go. I felt more in control of the 86 for a variety of reasons.
Benchmarked against the Porsche Cayman GTS and faster than anyone expected it to be, the Supra’s a more sophisticated machine, with abundant power to send it sideways on command. You can get into way more trouble in the Supra than you can in the 86.
Toyota’s people have said, repeatedly, that they envision a three-sports car lineup in the years to come and we know a new Subaru BRZ is on the way too, at the very least. Those are bold moves to make at a time when the sports car market is drying up and the future is increasingly electric and possibly autonomous. But I’m glad these cars are here. They’re both superbly fun to drive, and great values at their respective price levels.
My advice: stop caring about what’s under the engine bay, and enjoy these go-fast Toyotas for what they are. Toyota has a solid and fun entry level sports car that’s attainable, and something nicer and much faster to step up to. Be glad they both exist.