Battle of the four-cylinder Toyota sports cars: Supra vs GR86

We finally get to the bottom of the question everyone’s been asking: Who makes a better Toyota, BMW or Subaru?

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When it comes to affordable and reliable performance cars, everybody seems to get credit except Toyota. Pundits point to the three decades of joyous top-down delight that is the Mazda Miata; others note the Datsun 510 as the car that proved Japan could build cars that were truly fun as well as inexpensive. But Toyota’s efforts in accessible performance deserve a little more of the spotlight.

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After all, few car companies can boast of currently offering not one, but two four-cylinder rear-wheel-drive sports cars. One comes with a turbo, one comes with (tiny) rear seats. Both are, in their way, carrying on the tradition of cars like the Celica, Corolla GT-S, and the MR2, machines that brought driving delight to the masses. So, which is best at the job?

First off, the car that really should be the closest spiritual successor to the Celica, the newly-released four-cylinder version of the Supra. After all, the Supra nameplate was born when Toyota installed a six-cylinder engine in an elongated version of the 1978 Celica liftback – these early cars were literally called “Celica Supras” – so lopping two cylinders off should get things back to basics.

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In practice, however, the four-cylinder Supra is less a scrappy little compact, and more of a Supra Lite. Looking at the numbers, that’s no bad thing. The 2.0L four-cylinder turbo makes 127 hp less than the straight-six version, but it’s still plenty healthy at 255 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque.

Strong figures for a car that represents a more-than-$14,000 discount over the more powerful Supra 3.0. Yet this is still a pricey machine: MSRP starts at $56,390. “Affordability” box left emphatically unchecked.

The open secret about the Supra is, of course, that it’s a BMW Z4 underneath. The good news about the collaboration is Toyota getting a powertrain from a company with “Motoren” as its middle name. Straight-line performance for the Supra is excellent, and as the car looks almost identical to the six-cylinder version, people buying a car for a sporty image will be pleased.

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2022 Toyota Supra
2022 Toyota Supra Photo by Brendan McAleer

Those looking for an involving drive, however, are likely going to be let down. Both models of Supra offer steering that is precise, but distant and numb. Supras of the past were less sports cars than they were grand tourers, so it’s not like this new generation is a step backwards in this regard. However, the Supra’s 2470-mm wheelbase is shorter than even a Nissan Z, and its suspension is very stiff. It feels tuned for a racetrack, but real-world bumps unsettle the rear and snap you sideways.

Enthusiasts complain about the lack of a manual transmission option (a soon-to-be-rectified omission) but there’s no real issue with the 8-speed automatic here. The problem is more that the Supra hits its goal of being a prestige flagship for Toyota as a brand, but somehow not being particularly satisfying to drive.

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Luckily, Toyota doesn’t have to rely on BMW to build a decent sports car. It’s got a huge R&D budget, and could easily develop its own machine from the ground up. Just kidding — that money’s all earmarked for crossovers. Somebody get Subaru on the phone for some co-development work.

Let’s have the bad news up front. A sports car is not the best use of Subaru and Toyota’s pooled resources. With battery-electric mandates looming, the manual transmission an endangered species, and fuel prices through the roof, the smart money goes to a future of battery electric or hybridized crossovers.

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Thus, the GR86 is not so much an entirely new car as it is a refinement of the old one, with a new engine and some fine-tuning. It’s a car of many names, first as the Scion FR-S, then the GT86, then just the 86, and now the GR86. As in “GR8.” Which it is.

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Differences between the GR86 and the Subaru BRZ with which it shares its bones are minor. Still, the GR designation indicates that Gazoo Racing, Toyota’s performance division, has tuned the car slightly. The difference seems to be quicker throttle tip-in, as well as a greater tendency to oversteer than in the Subaru version.

The GR86 also looks more aggressive than the BRZ, with a kicked up rear ducktail spoiler and the face of a baby Jaguar F-Type. There’s plenty to like about the similarities between both cars, with a new 2.4L engine now producing peak torque more accessibly, right around 3,700 rpm. Peak horsepower is 228 hp, a ways off what the 2.0L Supra’s turbocharged engine puts out.

Ah, turbocharging. Any mention of the BRZ and GR86 twins is sure to have folks writing these second-generation cars off for not having forced induction. Those who do should take a good hard look at the engine in the new WRX, which runs out of steam at 5,600 rpm. Adding power to the GR86 would add complexity, weight, and sacrifice top-end thrills for low-end torque. It’d also drive up the price and reduce fuel economy.

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2022 Toyota GR86
2022 Toyota GR86 Photo by Brendan McAleer

Instead, the GR86 starts at $31,490, less than half the price of a six-cylinder Supra. Its engine fizzes all the way to a 7,500-rpm red line, slower by a little over half-a-second to 100 km/h than the Supra will do — but that’s with rowing your own gears. Being so low and small, the GR86 also manages the trick of feeling faster than it actually is, which is the whole point of an accessible performance car.

Last time I checked, speed limits haven’t increased at the same rate as average horsepower levels. Outside of a race track setting, what an enthusiast driver really wants is a car that’s engaging and fun to drive, not the quickest ticket to a flat-deck tow truck and the impound lot. The GR86 absolutely nails this target, from accurate steering feedback to the grin you get when you see the cheeky little ducktail spoiler in the rearview mirror.

By a long shot, this is the car that carries on Toyota’s legacy of building interesting sporting cars for owners of average means. The Supra’s a more exclusive, and thus exclusionary machine. The GR86 is the one that’ll keep rear-wheel-drive performance within the grasp of younger buyers. So there you have it: who builds the best Toyota sports car? Not BMW, but Subaru.


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