The coronavirus, the constant barrage of glum news, and the fall of the economy were too much. It was all just too much at once. I work from home and I still had the urge to get away when the pandemic hit. A person can only take so much.
Despite everything going on, though, press fleets were still handing out vehicles to journalists in the hopes that we would be able to write some things to help everyone else forget about, well, everything that’s going on. At least that’s my understanding of what I was supposed to do when a 2020 Toyota 86 Hakone was dropped off at my apartment. The timing couldn’t have been better.
Letter from a senior editor claiming that I was indeed working and not just lollygagging around in hand, I fired up the 86 just as the sun started bouncing off of the windows on our four-story apartment building. The destination? Sandy Hook, MD.
Growing up in Virginia, there were some common beliefs about the surrounding states. Maryland was the home of crazy drivers, while West Virginia was uncharted territory, only for the brave. Now living in Maryland, Virginia is for the yuppies and West Virginia is filled with gorgeous, wide-open expanses where time slows down.
Despite living next to West Virginia for 20 odd years, I’ve never actually taken any time to explore the state. I’ve driven through it plenty of times, but it’s never been the primary destination. Sandy Hook is located just on the border of West Virginia, Maryland, and Virginia, being separated by the mighty Potomac River. It would be the perfect location to get my West Virginia fix without ruffling any features by physically crossing state lines. Nothing like 66 miles of open road in one direction to clear the mind.
A quick drive out of the city to catch I-70 W and we’re well on our way. Trekking on the highway quickly becomes a chore. The 86 is a raw, back-to-basics sports car. There’s very little sound deadening and all of the cheap materials buzz at highway speeds. It’s taxing on both the driver and the car. The handsome brown and black cabin looks fantastic in the Hakone, though, with the splashes of Alcantra looking especially striking. While tedious, the drive on the highway brings a lot of time to see how little the 86 has evolved. Looking and feeling nearly identical to the original Subaru BRZ and Scion FR-S that appeared in 2013, the 86 has lived in a vacuum of its own.
Away from Baltimore, I-70 W climbs to 70 mph and the few drivers on the road fly by. Even if we wanted to, there’s no way to keep up with them. The 86’s 2.0-liter flat-four hasn’t been touched since 2013, producing a modest 205 horsepower with the manual gearbox. Downshift all you want, the byproduct is more noise, not power. On the highway, the 86 feels like a lost dog that’s unsure of how to get home. Luckily, it’s willing to listen to commands.
Once signs for Sandy Hook begin to pass by, we venture onto Sandy Hook Road, a small, winding road that follows the curvature of the Potomac River. It’s a much-needed break from all of those mundane highway miles. With the window down, the roar of the Potomac cuts through the harsh racket the boxer engine produces. Further down, railroad tracks running parallel to the Potomac are mere feet away from tired row homes covered with overgrown ivy. These homes, like the 86, look like they haven’t changed in years.
The roads get narrower and narrower, making the 86 feel massive. Yet hulking cliffs with car-sized boulders and a “Fallen Rocks” sign somehow makes the sports car feel microscopic at the same time. With a lush forest on one side and the Potomac on the other, the road winds and cuts its way through Mother Nature. Out here, the 86 comes alive. The notchy gearbox, traction control system that provides a little bit of slip, and direct steering that provides more feedback than thrusting a fork into a wall outlet makes the initial slog of the journey well worth it.
After the long trek down the highway, we’re in need of a break. Thankfully, a boat ramp that sits right on the Potomac River provides the perfect backdrop for an interlude.
With a quick snack and a photoshoot, we head onto Harpers Ferry Road. Such lovely corners are meant to be enjoyed to the fullest, which is why “Track” now illuminates in the instrument cluster. The only noticeable difference that Track mode brings is more slip from the rear wheels. Some sports cars on today’s market let you control too many things. Between throttle response, engine performance, and steering weight, having too many things to adjust is like going to a restaurant with three full pages of options. There’s just too much. That’s one area where the 86’s simplicity is blissful. Do you want a little bit of slip, some slip, or a whole bunch of slip? That’s it. Choose one of the three.
Flinging the 86 around these sharp corners results in scrumptious oversteer. It’s just so communicative, so engaging, so easy, that you almost become one with the sports car around corners. The chassis is near perfection, making the 205-horsepower boxer engine the blatant imperfection. The buttoned-down sports car with super firm suspension and nearly zero body roll is just begging for more power.
An intersection on Harpers Ferry Road sees us turn left onto Limeklin Road. This is truly a single-lane road with absolutely no run-off area. It runs near parallel to the Potomac River. Surrounded by dense foliage and cliffs that lead directly into the river, there’s no room for mistakes here. A little too quickly and you won’t end up in a hedge, you’ll wind up in the river. After a 50-foot tumble.
Here, the lack of power isn’t an issue. There are only a few cars that would actually be more enjoyable on such narrow stretches of tarmac, and those are small, zippy
Without the safety net of a restart button, we catch up with Harper’s Ferry Road. Seeing two cars being able to fit on one road makes us want to stretch the 86’s legs. As a momentum car, the best way to get the most fun out of the 86 is to get the car up to speed and then try your best to maintain that speed around corners. The game, which was practically invented for
A sheriff in a Chevrolet Tahoe in the oncoming lane brings the game to an immediate halt. My heart skips a few beats and my palms instantly get sweaty. Mortified, I look down at the gauges to see just how fast I was going. Lo and behold, not that much over the speed limit. Deep breath. Therein lies the perfect reason to buy the 86 itself. You’ll be having a hell of a time while going at a reasonable pace. No tickets were handed out this day, but that put a quick end to the hooliganism.
Harpers Ferry Road leads directly into the small town of Sharpsburg. It’s a sleepy little town that maintains a strong foothold to the past. The bright green and gold 86 Hakone stands out amongst the colonial buildings and rickety houses. Forget about finding a Dairy Queen or a Baskin-Robbins, this place has Nutter’s Ice Cream. It may be closed, but it still seems like the perfect place to pull over for a quick break before getting back to the bustle and hustle of real life.
Heading out of the town and onto a major road toward Baltimore reveals traffic amongst the trees of the Blue Ridge Mountains. If only for a few hours, the 86 helped us forget about the current situation affecting nearly every American. Not only is this the easiest rear-wheel-drive sports car to drive on the market, but it’s also one of the most enjoyable ones. The lack of performance and power means this isn’t a car to grow into, but a vehicle that can help you grow. Like that precious stuffed animal you had when you were a child, you outgrew it, but the memories remained.
Old, outdated, severely underpowered, the 86 is in desperate need of an update. As pretty as this limited-edition Hakone is, this sports car is not for the faint of heart. A gorgeous shade of green, gold wheels, and a tan interior don’t alter the 86’s true character — it’s a sports car for hardcore enthusiasts. Your butt will hurt, your ears will be sore, and you’ll be drenched in your own sweat, but you’ll be wearing a massive smile. Amongst the new-age, mega-horsepower, ultra-luxurious sports cars, the 86 is as refreshing as a strong mojito on a 95-degree day.