Making The Case For And Against An Automatic Toyota GR86

2023-01-06 15:13:39 By : Ms. Helen Yang

Buying an automatic GR86 seems silly but allows for greater focus on driving skills other than shifting.

When Toyota dropped off this GR86, I took about three glances at the shifter before realizing that the car arrived with an automatic transmission. As a holdout from an era of engaging drivers' cars, at least in my mind, the GR86 (as well as its Scion FR-S and Subaru BRZ siblings) only came equipped with manual transmissions. Who knew!

Well, in the current automotive age, perhaps I should have assumed that Toyota and Subaru needed to build the GR86 with an automatic to expand the potential buyer pool to those enthusiasts who planned to daily drive the little sports car or, potentially, take advantage of the low center of gravity and nimble handling for track days. So as disappointing as the notion of an automatic seemed at first, I buckled down to find out whether the 2022 Toyota GR86 deserves an auto option at all.

In fact, before this exact car, I only ever rode in one of the first-gen Toyobaru twins once—a manual, of course, back in the days when the FR-S still existed under the Scion nameplate. But many friends and acquaintances over the years, not to mention the general rumor mill among automotive journalists, expressed so much delight about this group project's simple, achievable goals that I actually started to get pretty excited. With an automatic, maybe the precise steering and low-slung character might shine through all the more, without requiring me to focus on timing my shifts and clutch pedal action. But in all reality, even the design of the GR86's automatic shifter felt like a bit of a fakeout.

FOLLOW HERE: HotCars Official On Twitter

Just look at that canted shift knob—leaned over hard, in an automatic! Shifting from Park to Drive requires a bit of a rightward yank, then the shifter clunks into that six-speed automatic into gear just fine. Paddle shifters on the steering wheel pair with a manual shift mode to the left of D on the center console shift pattern, as at least a minor concession to sporty driving or track usage.

Even pulling out into city traffic on the way to my first spin out in the canyons, the automatic's torque converter sat at the forefront of my mind. Smooth and purposeful, the shifts never felt lurchy or forced—no dual-clutch popping up and down, and the ECU tuning seemed to allow the little 2.4-liter Boxer flat-four to rev up relatively high during regular driving.

RELATED: 10 Reasons Why Every Driving Enthusiast Should Consider Buying The Toyota GR86

Probably the main reason the gearbox allows the engine to rev so freely comes down to torque. Subaru and Toyota long denied any plans to drop in a turbocharged engine from the WRX or STI, so the 2.0-liter flat-four of the original BRZ and FR-S needed enough RPMs to get into its power band. The later update to a 2.4-liter mill adds a bit more grunt, but ratings of 228 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque will never blow anyone away off the line, to be certain. For 2022, the goal of improving low-end performance to help shove off the line, so peak torque arrives at a respectable-for-a-naturally-aspirated-engine 3,700 RPM and allows the automatic to log a 0-60 time of 6.1 seconds.

RELATED: Find Out How The Toyota GR86 Holds Up After A Year Of Use And Abuse

By the time I arrived in the canyons of Topanga and Malibu, I felt comfortable enough to start pushing the little GR86 a bit harder, winding the engine up higher to suss out the power delivery at the top of the 7,400-RPM rev range. But all concerns about power faded away immediately in that first curve on Las Flores Canyon—power (or lack thereof) is not the point of this car, get over it. Suddenly, I found myself in the groove, dialed into tight cornering, razor-sharp handling, and a complete lack of bodyroll. And yet, all of a sudden, the Toyota Supra started entering my mind.

The Supra's BMW-sourced B58 engine puts down so much power that fans and reviewers alike often overlook that Toyota and BMW group project's abilities in the tight twisties. But the automatic Supra 3.0 can weigh up to as much as 500 pounds more than the GR86, which even when equipped with the automatic still tips the scales under 2,900 pounds. And power-to-weight ratios make a difference not just during hard acceleration, but also while holding speed during braking and cornering, so all of a sudden the two cars felt surprisingly comparable when the road started closing in. (The GR86's Supra-fied styling certainly helps start such comparisons, too). But even starting to push hard, the GR86's raspy flat-four never sounds as gnarly or engaging as the actual performance felt, which feels like a miss by Toyota and Subaru to say the least.

RELATED: The 2022 Toyota GR86: The Most Fun You Can Have For Under $30,000

I expected the GR86 to track on rails, I expected the engine to provide just a bit of pep but nothing too impressive, and I expected the automatic to make me miss the manual all that much more. But probably the biggest surprise about the GR86 arrived when I first climbed inside—this thing is pretty spacious and comfortable! Despite the low-slung cockpit, that flat-four and simple drivetrain allow for plenty of legroom and headroom, while a minimalistic dash and center console design contribute to an overall aesthetic that focuses, pure and simple, on driving. Two tiny rear seats, which might allow smaller passengers to cram in, also fold down and turn the trunk into a legitimate storage solution—unlike the Supra, a dedicated two seats with a hatchback (though the Supra's interior space also surprised me).

RELATED: This Is Why The Toyota GR86 Is A Car Enthusiast’s Dream

On the exterior, Toyota and Subaru both hewed more closely to the Lexus-ish design language of the Supra for the new GR86 and BRZ, while simultaneously differentiating the two from an aesthetic standpoint. Other than the rear spoiler, to my eye the GR86 looks the better of the two and, unlike the Supra, those inlets and air vents actually provide airflow!

RELATED: The Verdict Is In: Manual Toyota GR Supra Or Toyota GR86

The respectable trunk and rear seats that fold down also point to the daily driveability of an automatic GR86. Where my unfounded early impressions of this little coupe assumed that most owners just lived with a tiny car because they prized the driving dynamics over potential utility, the GR86 might actually make for a convenient and comfortable city commuter. The suspension, so at home during spirited driving, provides just enough compliance to smooth out rougher roads—though excessive tire noise definitely filters into the cabin despite the relatively narrow 215-millimeter square setup.

RELATED: Watch This JDM Showdown With The New Nissan Z And Toyota GR Supra​​​​​​​

​​​​​​​Those tires mounted on 18-inch wheels start pointing to my last impression of the GR86, though, as a car that just begs for some light modification. Lighter rims and wider rubber would go a long way towards further enhancing all the existing capabilities. Adding on an aftermarket intake and exhaust setup, with a mild ECU tune might even pep up the flat-four enough to give it more of a snarl at higher RPMs. And for buyers who purchased the capable, if not impressive, automatic hoping to take their GR86 out on the track and shave lap times, a bigger brake package will probably become a must.

But truly, track time in an automatic GR86 would make a whole lot more sense if Toyota and Subaru sold a dual-clutch or sequential option. As is, the automatic's taller gear ratios make the manual quicker off the line, in addition to more fun. And the whole point of the GR86 surviving until this late date seems to be providing an alternative to the Miata as a lightweight, affordable sports car capable of combining a few modern creature comforts (like Apple CarPlay) in a dynamic, enthralling package. So even for commuters who simply love the GR86's style above those driving dynamics, I will still die on a hill defending the manual as the right choice for a GR86 purchase. Just think of stop-and-go traffic as a chance to work out that left leg and truly hone the clutch and shifter action that will come in handy when the road clears up and curves tighten down, as the GR86 returns to its happy home carving through canyons once more.

Sources:,,, and

Michael Van Runkle grew up surrounded by Los Angeles car culture, going to small enthusiast meets and enormous industry shows. He learned to drive stick shift in a 1948 Chevy pickup with no first gear and currently dailies his 1998 Mitsubishi Montero while daydreaming about one day finishing up that Porsche 914 project. He's written in various media since graduating from UC Berkeley in 2010 and started at HotCars in February 2018.