Is the 86 without a stick still finger-flicking fun?

What do you think of a light, rear-wheel drive sports car with an automatic transmission? Madness, some will cry. Truth is, the clutch-less gear-shifter has been increasing with popularity since General Motors introduced the Hydra-Glide in 1940. Some of its victims have been classics, such as the Chevrolet Corvette, Sunbeam Alpine and Fiat Spider.

Over half a century later and in most parts of the world, automatic transmissions are outselling manuals. Here on test we have Toyota’s 86, and it’s the fully loaded GTS model. By fully loaded, we mean automatic.

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This nimble, skinny-footed fun machine has a reputation built on a well-designed chassis with tactile road feel and honest steering feedback. Does an automatic hamper the experience?

The concept doesn’t immediately grab you – it’s a car that rewards the driver for finding the right gear into a corner and playing all three pedals like a concert pianist while engaging with a squiggly rear.

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Initial impressions on the road are that it’s a well engineered but ordinary transmission. Driving without sport mode engaged, the automatic responds in a mild manner, it’s easy going in city traffic and within a minute my left foot has tuned out. The computer’s algorithm doesn’t allow for high gear revs and when a lower gear is flicked through the steering wheel-mounted paddles, the manual mode is very quickly shot back to the lull of automatic. It’s uninspiring and dull, however it’s perfect for commuting and sitting in Melbourne traffic.

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This is no commuter car though, and I’m quick to find a lick of winding bitumen with a healthy mix of tight low speed corners and quicker stretches in-between. With sport mode on, the automatic becomes much more aggressive, it holds gears longer, and as the brake is applied firmly the current gear is shifted down a cog.

The automatic programming is a little out of sync with my anticipation for the next turn; however going to full-manual mode fixes this. Shifting through the paddles, the gear changes feel responsive and quick. If the 147kW at 7000rpm and 205Nm at 6600rpm 2.0-litre naturally-aspirated ‘boxer’ engine had more power, there’d be a sportier feel to each gear click, however the lack of grunt and automatic combine to present a disconnect between driver and car.

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Pushing on the accelerator pedal while coming out of each corner, the car feels a little off fully-lit. Traction control is the culprit, and it’s soon switched off. With 86’s VSC mode on (fun mode), the car peps up, and the rear wiggles. Although the manual is missed, and preferred for this style of driving, the auto comes to life a little more. It’s convenient having a lower gear at the fingertips, and combined with 86’s agility, there’s plenty enough fun for those who can’t drive stick or need to share with a ‘non-sticker’.

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Everything else in the car feels as good as it’s manual sibling, or its twin the Subaru BRZ. The narrow 215 /45/17 tyres the 86 rides on aren’t great, and is a definite upgrade area for owners, but when combined with such a well engineered chassis, the lack of traction is controlled with an almost ‘arcade mode’ easiness.

The brakes also keep up with equally impressive performance. The pads bite the rotors with a feel that’s almost linear to pedal travel, and after a good work out there’s no sign of fade. Stomp the brakes and the reasonably light GTS is able to pull up without fuss, a combination of its 1298kg kerb weight and 294mm rotors (17mm larger than the base GT).

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The terrific turn-in and lack of bump steer when steering is confidence inspiring. A fast 13:1 steering ratio means the wheel is quick to turn full lock, and although a little too light in weighting, it would also certainly benefit from some better rubber.

The beauty of a trip out to the hills in this car is coming back home through the city. The auto helps the 86 feel as calm as a Camry amongst the stop and go traffic. Something missed when having to jump on and off the clutch at peak hour.

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The automatic version of the 86 isn’t first pick with the manual available, and with the manual GT priced at $29,990 (excluding on-roads), it makes a compelling case that the 86 is a very accessible and enjoyable sports car. The automatic adds $2,500 to bring it to $32,490 or the as-tested GTS with automatic tops the line at $38,490 (excluding on-roads).

Although the auto loses a little of the manuals luster, the 86 has brought a true sports car feeling drive to the masses – and the automatic only extends this invitation.

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Specs  2015 Toyota 86 GTS
Price  $38,490 (excluding on-roads)
Engine  1998cc flat four-cylinder
Gearbox  Six-speed automatic
Power  147kW at 7000rpm
Torque  205Nm at 6600rpm
Weight  1298kg
Power to weight  8.3kg/kW
Wheels  17-inch alloy
Tyres  215/45/17
Drive  Rear
Fuel 7.1L/100km
2015 Toyota 86 Automatic Review
Toyota has successfully implemented a good automatic transmission in to a sports car, and although it may be more practical for city driving, it's simply not as good as the manual for what the 86 is made for - sports car driving.
Performance70%
Handling82%
Comfort73%
Features70%
Highlights
  • Predictable body movement
  • Accurate Steering
  • Simply a fun car to drive
Needs Improving
  • Audio system looks an afterthought
  • Engine a little gutless
  • Standard tyres not great
74%Light footed fun
Reader Rating: (1 Vote)
87%

About The Author

Editor

Sometimes known to whisper to gravel, Alex crafted his early childhood driving skills in an old 260z on the back roads of country Australia. Having spent over a decade as an automotive photographer and freelance journalist he combines his wisdom to produce the unique content that is Trailing Throttle. t: @alexsrae