What could be better than one lightweight, rear-drive, manual sports car in 2022? A heaven-sent brace of them
By Matt Bird / Saturday, 22 October 2022 / Loading comments
Classic PH. In one corner, we’ve got a car that (in)famously sold out in a lunch break, in the other, a roadster that you have to create yourself (or get BBR to do it for you). Talk about buying advice, eh? But, given the chance, who could resist bringing the new Toyota GR86 and a supercharged Mazda MX-5 together on the same stretch of road? Sure, they’re different – but if there isn’t a shared ethos here, then shave my head and call me Loretta.
Moreover, given the past few months, it wouldn’t be a surprise if a few 86s were moved on immediately by their first owners – sports cars being harder to justify in a cost-of-living crisis. And, on the basis of pent-up demand, there is assuredly a quick profit brewing for anyone so inclined. So you’ll want to know what you’re getting for your £30k – and what better way to benchmark that experience than against the best-selling convertible sports car ever? One supercharged for your pleasure.
Short of Jason Plato driving a mapped 335d to hammer frozen sausages into a neighbour’s lawn, it’s hard to think of a more PH feature. Also, it’s chilling to think that there is now a finite number of opportunities to celebrate new, fast, affordable, manual rear-drive sports cars. Seizing upon them while they remain a viable prospect is essential – and consider this: bring the GR86 and BBR MX-5 together and you have a pair of cars that, combined, cost less than a BMW M2 and weigh less than a Porsche Taycan Sport Turismo. Which is another way of saying they’re brilliant before moving a modestly tyred wheel. We just wanted to establish exactly how brilliant.
Naturally, we’re starting with the GR86. There hasn’t been so much excitement around a new Toyota since, well… okay, the GR Yaris, but that merely underlines the strength of the renaissance. And the 86 is another extraordinary marker for the rest of the industry to marvel at. The good news for some is the bad news for the rest of us: this GR is absolutely superb. We can be even more fulsome with the praise than we were in Spain for the launch, in fact, as it’s much harder to make a car that entertains on the way to buy nappies than it is a circuit crusher. But that’s what we have. The torque of the new FA24 engine, plus more advanced driver assists and better tyres, makes for a Toyota 86 that no longer requires the life to be thrashed out of it to feel alive. Those joyous moments in its predecessor that maybe took a bit too much commitment before – the car never feeling better than just on the limit of grip – are much more readily available now. And that must be good news, if only because more people will get a chance to appreciate it.
That being said, there’s plenty that remains familiar about the GR experience from the GT one, and that should be heartening for anyone tempted to modify their old car. Toyota really wasn’t that far from sports car nirvana the first time around, and the new model is more about evolution than wholesale change. The control weights are still near enough perfect, from brake pedal to six-speed manual. You’re still sat low and snug (if wanting the wheel out a bit more), those humps in the wings remain ideal for placing the front end and handbrake is close by as well, begging to be yanked. It’s an intimate driving environment without being a claustrophobic one, a facet the tiny Mazda still specialises in. Perhaps BMW drivers will turn their nose up at this cabin just as they did the old one, but you’ll want for nothing. And be annoyed by precisely nothing, too, which feels more important these days. Gimmicks and tricks are notable for their absence.
It would be just about fair to say that the flat-four engine dominated the GT86 driving experience; it still does this time, but the 2.4-litre unit is front and centre for all the right reasons now whereas the 2.0 FA20 wasn’t. Granted, the sound is still not exactly inspirational, but it’s now such a perfect fit – giving its best at high revs but with torque as well – that it almost seems a waste that so few cars will get it. There are the obvious benefits – beating A4 TDIs from traffic lights, for one thing, and making skids a bit easier – but also subtler ones that were in desperately short supply previously. Overtaking requires less planning, and A-road driving fewer gearchanges. Forget the apparent on-paper modesty of 151lb ft to 184 – in the real world it has transformed the experience, delivering a sports car that is both more relaxing when required – pulling higher gears with greater conviction – and more exciting as well, giving the chassis something to think about. If only this could have happened sooner.
Still, it can’t hold a candle to what is a hot rod of an MX-5. Though BBR’s forced induction work is familiar, its NA tuning has been hogging headlines recently. There could be nothing better than this ND conversion (here at 250hp and 220lb ft) to remind us all of how cohesive its upgrades are. The behaviour of the Rotrex C30-94 ‘charger is as subtle as its integration under the bonnet; the MX-5 simply feels like it’s powered by a larger capacity Skyactiv-G engine, rather than relying on the dark art of forced induction. There’s no whine, no delay, no hesitation even up beyond 7,000rpm – in every aspect of the engine’s behaviour, this feels like a 2.0-litre MX-5, just in fast forward. With the sound pinched from a Best Motoring video.
Even after the Toyota’s home run, this is a superb powertrain. The manual gearbox is sweeter and slicker, the acceleration even more vivid, and the mid-range muscle addictive as the MX-5 is flung along in its intermediate ratios like never before. It’ll get better from here, too, once BBR has cracked the ECU of the facelifted ND MX-5s, the later cars that really brought the 2.0-litre to life with more revs and another 24hp. Even for the moment, though, that combination of chunky torque and a 7,500rpm redline bap-bap-bap that’s worth chasing is pretty compelling. Both cars have had their respective experiences improved with additional torque; they still reward revs, yet don’t necessitate them for meaningful progress, a real cake and eat it situation – and that’s great.
Elsewhere, little exists to reaffirm a love of fast cars on a sunny day than a blast in a BBR MX-5. It’s so light and so nimble that being a bit cramped ceases to matter. The supercharger’s assistance means it can be steered on the throttle more easily than ever, though it’s no mere mini muscle car, either. You can dictate the attitude however you wish, with precious little inertia or delay between every input and response. Seemingly minor upgrades like the Wilwood brakes and BBR springs (always a feature of the tuner’s demonstrators) make stopping and steering feel that much more secure than standard, so the driver has the confidence to explore as much of that additional performance as they wish, in whatever fashion. As a modern interpretation of the classic roadster, one with a little more power than necessary yet in possession of a perfect front-engined, rear-drive balance, you’ll not do better. The smile will prove it.
It should really say something, then, that the Toyota is the more rewarding car to drive on the day. Inevitably, torsional rigidity plays a part; 50 per cent more than a GT86 is going to be a heck of a lot more than an MX-5. Often when the BBR is at its best, a surfacing imperfection will send a shudder through the car and just take the edge of your fun. It’s as much a part of the MX-5 experiences as rust and hairdresser jokes, of course, but the 86 shows what small, light, revvy and rear-driven car can be without such compromises. And it’s truly fantastic.
Perhaps the highest praise is that it’s genuinely tough to think of anything you’d want to change. Where the MX-5 still has steering that’s maybe a tad too light and an imperfect driving position, the GR feels honed and rigorously developed like nothing else. We know it’s great on track, and without anything as tiresome as a tyre change or mode switch it’s just as gratifying on the road – precious few cars carry that off. Because it doesn’t weigh much, and because a buyer can’t choose a wheel that’s four inches larger, every development minute has presumably been spent making this configuration as good as it possibly can be – and, boy, does it show. The steering doesn’t need any more resistance, nothing requires stiffening up and the brake pedal feel is beyond improvement – so much so that you don’t think about any of it, you just get on with enjoying yourself. Objectively speaking, there isn’t another car out there that nails the fundamentals of driving quite so harmoniously.
Significantly, it keeps a sophisticated compromise at the core of the experience. The Mazda fizzes gleefully everywhere like a Berocca in a petri dish, and that’s tremendous fun, but you get the feeling it might be a bit much for commuting over long distances. The Toyota proves that everyday sports car isn’t an oxymoron, because all that’s great about the steering, the balance, the damping, and the powertrain can be appreciated all of the time. At some point on any journey – and we really do mean anywhere – it’s going to make you smile, guaranteed. Light yet planted, agile yet secure, engaging but not hyperactive, it’s an object lesson in sage concessions. A bit more edge and it might have felt less agreeable, any more forgiving and the excitement might have ebbed away. And all from one suspension tune, throttle map and steering setup. It is honest-to-goodness writ large.
Both cars are, really. No twin test in 2022 eclipses this one for guiltless entertainment. We expected as much, of course, but it’s impossible to spend a day in either car’s company and not reflect seriously on the tens of thousands more spent by people for what is more often than not a less rewarding experience on both road and track. That isn’t to underestimate the appeal of raw speed, but not once did any of us evince a desire to be in anything else. On a quiet B road, under autumnal sunshine, you could hardly ask for more than an effervescent four-pot, fantastic manual gearbox and biddable chassis – the recipe still encapsulates everything that ought to be great about driving.
Certainly, anyone fortunate enough to be on the end of a confirmed GR86 order is in for a twice-in-a-generation treat. Let’s hope many if not most are GT86 customers, who deserve to see the concept finally perfected. Perhaps ‘86 restomod’ sounds daft, but in its sympathetic updating of a flawed cult hero, from the additional performance to suave new look, that’s the way the GR drives. It is that good, that moreish. To a man, we all want one.
But what a fine Plan B a supercharged MX-5 is. In the right situation, this is the faster, more exciting sports car, rasping along like a Super Taikyu racer and handling with all the ebullience you’d expect of a 1,000kg, rear-drive roadster. Any MX-5 can claim to be a tonic; this one adds the ice and a triple shot of gin. Nevertheless, the temptation is to hold out for BBR’s upgrade of the later model, knowing the improvement it wrought on the standard ND. A minor reservation, perhaps – but a valid one if you’re after the ultimate MX-5. The GR86 requires no such qualifications. It has annoying indicator stalks, that’s it. Otherwise, there has probably never been a better affordable sports car.
SPECIFICATION | 2022 TOYOTA GR86
Engine: 2,387cc, flat-four
Transmission: 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): [email protected],000rpm
Torque (lb ft): [email protected],700rpm
Top speed: 140mph
Price: £29,995 (sold out, you might have heard)
SPECIFICATION | MAZDA MX-5 (ND) BBR SUPERCHARGED
Engine: 1,998cc, 4-cyl
Transmission: 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): [email protected],000rpm ([email protected],000rpm standard)
Torque (lb ft): [email protected],750-5,750rpm ([email protected],600rpm standard)
0-62mph: 5.1sec (standard 7.3sec)
Top speed: c. 150mph (standard)133mph
Weight: 1,075kg (with 75kg driver, standard car)
MPG: 40.9mpg (NEDC combined, standard car)
CO2: 161g/km (standard)
Price: £6,495 (plus VAT, excluding donor car and chassis upgrades)
- 2022 Toyota GR86 | PH Review
- Mazda MX-5 (NC) BBR Supercharged | PH Review
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