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I drove the Toyota GR86 for the first time when I had it on loan last year. During my week with the car, many people gave me the thumbs-up and commented on how cool it looked. I also couldn’t get over how well the car drove. Its manual transmission shifted smoothly, and its engine provided enough power to get around quickly, making the car fun to drive. I even flirted with the idea of trading in my Honda S2000 for one someday because the GR86 is newer, has better tech features, and is more practical.

I’m driving the Toyota GR86 again this week, and my mind has changed a little. Not because I think it’s a bad car now, but mainly because of the automatic transmission it’s equipped with. Unfortunately, in two-pedal guise, the GR86 feels like a different car.

The six-speed automatic transmission kills the 2023 Toyota GR86’s fun

A rear view of the 2023 Toyota GR86 near a hill
2023 Toyota GR86 | Joe Santos, MotorBiscuit

Whether you’re a driving enthusiast or not, you probably have heard that any car with a manual transmission is more fun to drive than the automatic version. There’s nothing like stepping on the third pedal and shifting into the next gear as the car screams up to the redline. I recently realized that this moment of excitement separates the 2023 Toyota GR86 with a manual transmission from the one with the automatic.

With the six-speed manual transmission, I could zing the GR86 up to redline and feel all of its 228 hp on tap. Shifting the mechanical-feeling shifter gave me the feeling that I was in control, and I felt a connection to the car to the point that it felt like an extension of myself. That’s what made me feel great whenever I would get a thumbs-up from an onlooker. I felt like I was driving something special.  

But with the automatic transmission, that connected feeling gets muted.

In my current GR86 tester, whenever I shift the car into “drive,” it feels like every other car I have tested. It doesn’t feel as special; in some ways, it reminds me of driving an older Scion tC. That’s not to take away from Scion or Toyota – it was a great car – but the GR86 with an automatic feels like a cruising car as opposed to a sports car. It feels more like a Corolla coupe than a Gazoo Racing-derived performance machine.

The paddle shifters help, but not that much

The interior view of the 2023 Toyota GR86 with an automatic transmission.
2023 Toyota GR86 | Joe Santos, MotorBiscuit

In order to give the driver some control over the car, Toyota installed paddle shifters behind the steering wheel and put a manual mode on the shifter. By pulling the shifter to the left when in drive, it can be shifted up or down to go through the six gears. This shift-it-yourself mode is available in plenty of vehicles in the market, and it’s no different in the Toyota GR86.

However, it doesn’t do much to bring back the luster of driving a tried-and-true manual transmission. Yes, putting the car in manual mode and shifting it at will with the shifters gives you some control. But it feels artificial.

The gears change quickly and smoothly in this mode, as it’s not one of the four-speed slushboxes that used to come with older Toyotas. However, without the feeling of a clutch pedal and the smooth action of shifting a lever, the manually-controlled automatic transmission is not a good substitute.

Is the automatic transmission worth the extra cash?

The front view of the 2023 Toyota GR86
2023 Toyota GR86 | Joe Santos, MotorBiscuit

Selecting an automatic transmission on a 2023 Toyota GR86 costs an extra $1,075. In my opinion, this option is only worth it if you can’t and don’t plan on learning how to drive a stick. Otherwise, it’s better to save money and purchase one with a manual transmission. Considering how it drives and the connectedness you feel to the car, the stick shift is definitely the better choice. That way, if you get a thumbs-up from anyone in public, you’ll feel like you earned it.


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