Toyota GR86 track test: Is the automatic the secret hack?

By J.G. Pasterjak
Jun 22, 2024 | Toyota, gr86, Track Test, Florida International Rally & Motorsport Park | Posted in Features | Never miss an article

Photography Credit: David S. Wallens

It’s kind of a treat that the Toyota GR86 even exists. In these modern times of 20 and 24, the market for small, affordable, rear-drive sporty cars is pretty much the GR86 and the twin Subaru BRZ

Sure, the MX-5 is out there, but its lack of back seats–even if the GR86’s are mere tokens–and tighter confines put the Mazda more in the “fun toy” category than the “fun car you could actually use as a car” category.

The newest version of the GR86, with the 228-horsepower, 2.4-liter engine, expands on its predecessor’s success by revising the powerplant to provide more power and particularly more midrange punch. 

Photograph Courtesy Toyota

Where the previous-generation car had that world-famous “torque dip” in the meat of the rev range, the current engine sings practically from idle to redline. It’s not the sweetest song, but it’s a consistent one, and one that lets you balance the chassis with the throttle at nearly any rpm.

That powerplant comes hooked to a six-speed manual transmission–or a six-speed automatic box. (Don’t forget that little fact because it’s going to make for some interesting discussion later in the story.) 

Photograph Courtesy Toyota

The car stickers out between about $30K for base configurations to around $35K for a loaded 10th Anniversary Special Edition. There are few options, most of which are of the comfort and convenience variety, and no real performance options. This means the same base model you can drive off the lot for just over $30K has the same engine, brakes, drivetrain and Torsen diff as the Premium trim level. 

The only difference aside from comfort features is the wheel-and-tire package. Base models get a set of 17x7-inch alloys, while the Premiums get 18x8s fitted with 215/40R18 Michelin PS4 rubber. (But come on, you probably already purchased upgraded wheels and tires for your 86 before you even went to the dealership to buy a car.)

Inside, the GR86 is still mostly an ergonomic delight in most situations. The seat/wheel/pedal relationship is solid, and the strokes of the three pedals are well proportioned to each other. Brake and throttle are well placed for heel-toe–until the brakes begin to fade a bit and that middle pedal gets a bit long, which happens quickly with stock pads. 

Photograph Courtesy Toyota

As with most cars today, the wheel is a little low and the seat bottom is a little high, stealing a bit of helmet room–we had to lean the seat back a notch past our preferred angle with a helmet–but the relationship is solid and completely reasonable for a variety of drivers to get aggressive from.

The interior itself is improved from previous generations. It’s still basic and somewhat plasticky, but less basic and using better plastic. The car makes no claims of a premium experience, though, so there’s zero disappointment. The interior is comfortable and useful enough for daily commuting or a cross-country trip to Solo Nationals, so it’s a solid win on that front.

Get to the Track Part

Okay, okay, let’s talk track.

First, you may recall that our previous test of the current generation of the twins was with a Subaru BRZ with a six-speed automatic transmission. The complete track test is documented on our YouTube channel if you want to check it out, but basically there were staff members–your author included–who thought we shouldn’t even bother testing the automatic version of a car with such sporting intentions. Thankfully, editorial wisdom prevailed, the track test was completed, and we were blown away by the drivability and thrust that the auto-equipped BRZ delivered.

So when we finally took delivery of a manual-equipped GR86, we were excited to get it to the track to see how much of a whoopin’ it would put on the already impressive automatic car. 

The results–he said, clickbaitedly–will shock you.

First, the caveats. Obviously these tests took place on the same track, but at very different times and with about 10-15 degrees of temperature difference. That will certainly affect lap times, so–as with all our overall lap times–take that number with a healthy dose of salt.

The data, however, told a story we were not expecting. Let’s first talk lap time and some generalities. The automatic-equipped BRZ turned a faster lap than the manual-equipped GR86. And not just by a little, but by over eight-tenths of a second: 1:23.6 for the automatic and 1:24.02 for the stick. 

1. The big mph gap between the red trace of the automatic BRZ and the blue trace of the manual GR86 is likely a matter of available grip and prevailing track conditions. But check out that acceleration once we get back on the gas: The auto-equipped car just leaps away above 70 mph. 2. Again we see healthy midrange acceleration from the automatic-equipped car, with the acceleration ramping up more aggressively from about 55 mph. But look how the manual car starts to close the gap as the speeds approach 80. 3. More strong pull from the auto. It really outpaces the manual once the stick car hits fourth gear. But as speeds approach and clear 100, the midrange monster is slain as the manual car closes the gap. On a faster track, the manual car should easily erase the midrange advantage of the auto-equipped car. There’s no denying the punch of the 50-to-80 acceleration of the juicebox, though.

And while there were some anomalies that we could probably attribute to track conditions, the clear indication from the data was that the automatic gave up nothing to the manual in acceleration, corner exit or even in the balance within a corner.

Still, the GR86, regardless of drivetrain configuration, is a fantastic track companion. Lap times are hampered somewhat by what feels like an intentionally blunted chassis. The Michelin PS4 tires and visible front positive camber leave a lot of grip on the table in OEM configuration, but the tradeoff is a car that’s easy for even a novice to operate at 110% capacity, which feels very much like what Toyota was going for. We’ve seen the factory’s cars proliferate as autocross and track weapons, and a proper alignment and some sticky, 200tw rubber can put them into Boxster/Cayman handling territory.

Looking at the data charts now is even more befuddling than when we first tested the automatic-equipped BRZ. The auto car is out-thrusting the manual car in almost every situation on our test track. The automatic has both a taller final drive than the manual–3.909:1 versus 4.100:1–and a taller third gear–1.404:1 versus 1.541:1–where much of the off-corner acceleration at the FIRM occurs. 

Yet it still manages to out-pull the manual off slow corners and medium-speed corners with great regularity. The manual had one slight advantage coming off a fast third-gear, steady-state corner in third, but that advantage was erased and surpassed as soon as both cars made the 3-4 upshift.

If there’s a weak spot for either car on track, it’s the stock brakes. The 11.6-inch front and 11.4-inch rear rotors seem a bit undersized to deal with the speed potential of the car, and we experienced noticeable fade after just a couple laps of our test track. Better pads and fluid will help, but those sub-foot-diameter rotors only have so much thermal capacity, so braking should always be on the driver’s mind when turning a hot lap. 

Still, when cool enough to bite and stick, the brakes work well and release well, making them a good companion to the excellent chassis when it comes to getting the car to take a set in a corner quickly. Just don’t plan on them feeling as good on the next lap.

Now What?

So what’s all this rambling mean? Do we like automatics now?

Look, we’re as surprised as you are. This was not a result we expected, yet it is the result we’re presented with. 

Photograph Courtesy Toyota

Let’s start with some excuses: To begin with, we mentioned that these tests were conducted on different days, which means different track conditions. This is evident in a couple corners where the two cars on identical tires show slightly different grip levels or levels of confidence on turn-in. 

With the acceleration, we can also see the thrust curve of the manual car start to catch up to the automatic car as speeds increase to and through about 75 mph. The working theory there is that the wind resistance–which increases with the square of the speed, remember–is starting to overwhelm the taller gearing of the automatic car and erase whatever advantage it had during acceleration previously.

There’s also the track itself. With most of the acceleration zones being in the middle of third gear, the situation might have been very well suited to the automatic’s strengths. It could just be a case of having the right horse for the right course.

But the real story here is that the automatic version of this modern sports coupe appears to be a perfectly legitimate choice for track work. 

Is it the ideal choice under all circumstances? Probably not. The manual version is going to launch harder from a standstill, and it looks like it will have better legs down the long straights. But opting for the automatic clearly doesn’t put you at an immediate, crushing disadvantage. In some cases, like track days at our official test track, it may even be a benefit.

Track Test Log

The Florida International Rally & Motorsport Park in Keystone Heights serves as GRM’s official test track. This 1.6-mile course located half an hour east of Gainesville, Florida, is consistent, accessible and staffed by nice people. Learn more at For details on our FIRM track tests, held on the 1.55-mile configuration below, head to

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Msterbee Reader
12/27/23 10:38 a.m.

Bah humbug.

Colin Wood
Colin Wood Associate Editor
12/27/23 11:56 a.m.
Msterbee said:

Bah humbug.

Believe me, we were all less-than-pleasantly surprised at the results, too.

CyberEric SuperDork
12/27/23 12:26 p.m.

It seems like the auto trans has surpassed the manual in almost every car if you're chasing time at this point. My how times have changed. 

SuperGman None
12/27/23 1:38 p.m.

Could the off corner and accelaration differences between the two be because the auto only has a flex plate to spin up versus the sitck's flywheel and clutch

Jesse Ransom
Jesse Ransom GRM+ Memberand UltimaDork
12/27/23 2:13 p.m.

The stopwatch is important for competition, but how does it feel? There was reference in the article to not giving up time to midcorner balance, but that doesn't definitively answer whether it feels like a bag of oatmeal...

I'm prepared to be shocked and learn that we're entering the golden age of automatics that don't suck to drive. The auto-in-a-racecar feeler about the ZF 8HP was compelling, and I was blown away by how directly connected those feel in the F30 3-series (just toodling around town in a rental), but at this point I'm still under the impression that that trans is an anomaly. Is it?

PaulAnton GRM+ Memberand None
12/27/23 2:18 p.m.

This is good to know, as my knees are growing older far faster than the rest of me. So,(dramatic pause), for the first time in my 50 odd years of enthusiastic motoring, I opted for the automatic. I have primarily been autoXing the car and except for loosing about a second and a half at the launch it's been pretty competitive. When I finish getting it set up I I'll be taking it out for track days. I'm looking forward to it. All I have left to do is some trans work and a big brake kit. 

PaulAnton GRM+ Memberand New Reader
12/27/23 2:25 p.m.

In reply to Jesse Ransom :

It's not nearly as bad as others I've driven, the 1-2 and 2-3 shifts are very good, beyond that it's just good. Down shifts are somewhere in-between across the board, but they might be a little delayed if you downshift too soon, the computer won't let you downshift if it takes it over the redline. It's just something you need to train yourself for.

I'll have to see how it responds once I get the shift kit installed.

RadBarchetta New Reader
12/27/23 4:59 p.m.

But which one is more fun?

No Time
No Time UltraDork
12/27/23 5:45 p.m.
SuperGman said:

Could the off corner and accelaration differences between the two be because the auto only has a flex plate to spin up versus the sitck's flywheel and clutch

I think the mass of the torque converter effectively offsets the difference between the rotating mass of the clutch/flywheel vs flex plate/torque converter. 

The torque multiplication benefit when there is a difference in torque converter input and output speed and the "slip" felt due to the fluid coupling may let the the engine gain rpm quicker and have a higher effective torque with the auto on corner exits.  

cyow5 Reader
12/27/23 7:40 p.m.
RadBarchetta said:

But which one is more fun?

Right? No one is buying an 86 to be the fastest at the track day. 

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