• 2022 GR86

OPINION: Is Toyota Finally Fun Again?

In a word? Yes. And you can thank Millennials.

Chris D'Alessandro By: Chris D'Alessandro August 24, 2021
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Back in 2017, when Akio Toyoda decreed his infamous “no more boring cars” mission statement, it stirred a great deal of promise for enthusiasts, looking to have fun again in simple, driver-experience oriented cars.

When I got my driver’s license back in 2007 (a fact which makes me feel both old and young), Toyota was indeed making very, very boring cars.

Toyota made exactly no two-door coupes and Lexus offered only the flabby, very drab SC 430 coupe. My generation grew up seeing Toyota car lots full of mostly grey and beige, shapeless people carrying boxes. Cars for people who didn’t quite understand the meaning of pleasure and who had, presumably, given up.

In 1997, Toyota boasted three two-door cars in its lineup: the Celica sport compact, the rear-engine MR2, and the world-beating, twin-turbo-powered Supra. These, it would seem, were the perfect offering for the MTV generation who had just found themselves awash in cash and were looking to differentiate

None of which sold very well for very long, and were all soon discontinued in North America. The Supra, for example, sold less than 1,400 units in its final year in the US.

This is because Gen X either didn’t want or know how to have fun. It’s because Gen X wanted to be angry and cynical for no reason. It’s because Gen X set fire to their Woodstock.

It’s why Toyota stopped trying to sell them fun-to-drive, rear-wheel drive, manual transmission sports cars, and become the world’s largest auto manufacturer selling them grey and beige tubs of nothing on wheels.

Millennials, however, are not Gen X.

Despite having many things to be very cynical and depressed about; an economic collapse which ensured crippled financial status for years to come, a changing job market which rendered our overpriced education worthless and saddled many of us with unpayable student debt, we decided to have fun.

We canceled Limp Bizkit and discovered LCD Soundsystem. We didn’t burn down Coachella. We scratched and clawed our highly-educated selves into the jobs we always knew we would be better at you than doing with a smile as you spat on our avocado toast. And now we finally have disposable income.

We have money. And we’re here for a good time.

And Toyota, it seems, is all too happy to appease a generation of vibrant, effervescent, fun-seekers who prioritize experiences over all else. Which is to say nothing of a generation who grew up watching not American Graffiti and Smokey and The Bandit… but Initial D and The Fast and The Furious.

Toyota now makes four two-door coupes to choose from across their line up. From Toyota, the GR 86 and the Supra, and from Lexus, the LC and RC.

Ford currently makes a single two-door coupe. Chevrolet? Two. Dodge? One. Porsche? Two.

Moreover, I can say, having driven all four of Toyota’s current sport coupes, if there’s one thing which unites them, it’s a focus on driving fun.

The A90 Supra, despite controversy around its BMW connections, remains a raucous and vicious little number that’s able to delight even the most jaded of enthusiasts. Last year, I actually put my tester in the hands of the owner of a 600-horsepower, A80 Toyota Supra. And sure enough, not only were there many expletives exclaimed in the positive by the owner of the A80 whilst driving the A90, a smile almost never left their face.

It’s easy to lob cynical comments at the A90, but the fact is in its first full year of sales, the A90 sold more than double what the A80 did in its best year. In 2021, each month’s sales figures surpassed the last. The car is catching on, because Millennial enthusiasts are discovering the joys of a short wheel base, 400-horsepower, turbo-inline six sports car.

On the Lexus side, I’ve already gone on about how spectacular the LC 500 is. I called it the best car I had ever driven and I haven’t changed my mind about that.

I did spend just the previous week with the Lexus RC F Track Edition, and I must admit it is the weak link in Toyota’s sports car offerings. Driving normally, it feels no more special than a regular IS or RC and when pushing it hard, it doesn’t feel nearly as capable or confidence inspiring, and is factually not as fast as a Nissan GT-R — which, inescapably you have to compare the RC F Track Edition to at its price point.

However, despite the fact that I would personally rather spend $122,000 on a GT-R or a GT500 or a 911 or even the LC 500 — which is essentially identical in price to the RC F Track Edition and utilizes the same drivetrain — I can’t deny that the RC F Track Edition isn’t, at times, a real laugh.

Somehow, despite all the weight, all the serious aero and carbon fibre, and luxe red leather interior, the RC F Track Edition, when you kill the traction control, does a lot of the same goofy, smile-inducing tricks as the Supra and GR 86 — kicking its tail out on turns, roasting its tires off the lights and producing crackle and bangs on upshifts.

Everyone knows it’s not technically as good as an M4. But when the car spins its tires up to 100 km/h at a hard launch, you would have to have a heart of stone not to feel joy. At 480 horsepower, it sort of just does that.

Speaking of joy, Toyota’s cream of the crop, the GR 86, promises to be a worthy successor not just to the 86 GT, which kicked off Toyota’s return to fun back in the early ‘teens (just as Millennials were finally starting to be able to purchase cars — no coincidence), but to the original hachi-roku, the AE86.

The AE86 series of the Toyota Corolla Levin and Toyota Sprinter Trueno offered customers a simple, front-engine, rear-wheel drive platform in either coupe or liftback from 1983 to 1987. For the North American market, Toyota marketed the AE86 as the Corolla GT-S.

The AE86 became synonymous with canyon driving, drifting and accessible sports car performance combined with compact utility. They were simple, cheap and with power ranging from a meager 87-horsepower to… let’s say, “spirited” 112 horsepower, the AE86 offered drivers the opportunity to experience their cars at the limit.

Toyota

It also became a pop-culture icon as the star of the anime series, Initial D.

So the AE86 is essentially the Pickachu of sports cars.

Of course, the Corolla would not last as a rear-wheel drive layout, as the ‘80s rolled into ‘90s, and Gen X began buying cars — demanding they be safe and practical and boring, and front-wheel drive.

The 86 GT (aka the Subaru BRZ, formally the Scion FRS) was an attempt to capture the spirit and the fun of the original AE86. While it may have been assembled using parts which Subaru manufactured, engineering and design was primarily down to Toyota.

The results are still fresh in most of our collective memories. The 86 GT smashed onto the scene, wowing journalists and enthusiasts alike with its focus on driving engagement and fun over lap times, luxury or… anything else really.

It wasn’t without its flaws. It’s 205-horsepower, 2.0-litre boxer engine had an odd torque curve which presented many challenges for both serious performance and daily driving. The ride was harsh. The shifter was crude and clunky. And the interior was dated before the car even debuted.

But the idea was right. A rear-wheel drive sports coupe with a proper six-speed manual transmission with a window sticker around $30,000 is something the world desperately needs. Because the world needs more fun and joy in it — and you shouldn’t have to pay $122,000 to get it.

It was a strange week driving the GR 86 and RC-F Track Edition back-to-back

I had a good time in the RC-F Track Edition, make no mistake. But even with double the horsepower of the GR 86, the RC-F didn’t put half as many smiles on my face.

The GR 86 does “fun” perhaps better than any other car I’ve driven — it’s not as capable as a Honda Civic Type R, but it is as engaging. It’s not as fast as a Mustang GT, but it is as tail-happy. It’s not as impressive as a Lexus RC-F Track Edition, but it is one quarter of the price.

The GR 86 offers all the same thrills as the 86 GT, and then some, while removing nearly all of the friction points. And that’s where fun really happens — when you can be carefree in your play time.

Fun isn’t burning down the stage at Woodstock in a fit of sunstroked rage. It’s singing into the cool night sky with friends at Coachella.

I don’t know if we can say that all of Toyota’s cars are no longer boring. But there are three two-door sports cars from the brand which are nothing of the sort. And one, which is nothing short of pure driving joy — a sports car for the entire Millennial generation.

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