First it was called the Scion FR-S, and it all began with a 2009 concept.
Over the past decade, few cars have created more buzz before reaching production than the Toyota 86. Though it originally went on sale in the US as the Scion FR-S back in 2012, it became the Toyota 86 when Scion was shut down. And, of course, we all know its twin sibling is the Subaru BRZ. However, it was Toyota who unveiled the original concept coupe back in 2007 at the Detroit Auto Show. Called the FT-HS Concept, Toyota gave its earliest indication it was interested in doing a new sports car with an affordable price tag.
However, the FT-HS featured a hybrid powertrain and an automatic gearbox, so it wasn't quite the back-to-basics approach of the eventual production car. But it doesn't take a design specialist to see the concept's styling was evolved to become the FR-S/BRZ/86. Toyota was aiming for sleek, taut surfaces with a sculpted front and rear end. The roof also sported a scooped-out section designed to improve aerodynamic drag and for additional headroom (for racing helmets, perhaps?). However, the roof also retracted, with the roof panels and back window sliding rearward in to the rear seat space. Any retractable roof adds weight, so it's easy to see why it didn't make production.
Generally, the FT-HS, which stands for Future Toyota Hybrid Sport, was more premium than what we have today, with heavy doses of carbon fiber inside and out. Despite being well-received, Toyota ultimately realized it was not quite the sports coupe the public wanted. Instead, the automaker's customer data must have indicated people wanted to spend less, not more, on a little coupe that cost at least half of the Porsche Cayman. Jump ahead two years, and at the same show the FT-86 Concept arrived to instant acclaim. Though it kept the "FT" in its name, the "HS" was dropped in favor of "86," a direct reference to the mid- to late-1980s AE86 coupes known for their drifting capabilities and overall fun factor.
In place of the V6 engine and hybrid duo was a horizontally opposed 2.0-liter boxer engine, courtesy of Subaru who also contributed the Impreza-derived chassis and gearbox. Exterior styling was further refined, bringing it much closer to production ready. Compare the two concepts side by side and the FT-86 is clearly smaller. With its more compact dimensions, naturally aspirated engine and six-speed manual transmission, Toyota delivered the concept people clearly wanted, and the automaker deserves a lot of credit for investing so much time and money in the project. Remember, sports cars generally don't bring in a lot of profit for automakers. Convertibles even less so.
Realizing it was now heading in the right direction, Toyota continued to further develop the design and engineering, with Subaru handling the engine and various other essential mechanical components. In 2011, Toyota came to Geneva with an updated FT-86 concept, appropriately called FT-86 II, and it turned out to be, more or less, the design of the production car. The front and rear fascias were further developed, as were overall dimensions. In fact, this updated concept was slightly larger than the previous one, though smaller than the FT-HS. It was clear the production car was heading into the advanced stages of development, and the final design was likely locked down at this point.
Toyota declared this newest concept paid homage to its sports car history and called its styling "functional beauty." Some preferred the design of the FT-86 over the FT-86 II mainly because it was a bit more aggressive and its lines were slightly less conservative overall. But no one seriously complained given Toyota's devotion to the project. For its part, Scion even brought the FR-Sports Coupe Concept to the 2011 New York Auto Show. It was co-developed by aftermarket firm Five Axis to highlight the many tuning possibilities customers would have. Remember, Scion was Toyota's youth-focused brand, and it was struggling at the time (it's dead today). It needed the FR-S. Badly.
The production spec Toyota GT86 ("GT" was in reference to the 1967 2000GT) debuted at the 2011 Tokyo Motor Show as a 2012 model. All three nearly identical cars were built by Subaru in Japan. In the 86's first month of production, Toyota received 7,000 orders while the BRZ had 3,500. For 2017, the FR-S became the Toyota 86 in the US, and both it and the BRZ received some minor styling and packaging updates, though nothing drastic. It's now been more than 10 years since Toyota showed that first concept, and the production cars are in their seventh model year. Sales have slowed recently as well.
Whether the Toyota 86 and Subaru BRZ soon receive the ax or not is one thing, but the fact that Toyota (and Subaru) took a chance with the sole aim being to satisfy driving enthusiasts is commendable. Not many mainstream brands would be willing to do that. Will there be successors? We don't know yet, but we're still thrilled with what's on sale today.