'Good' is a relative term.
Florida has its problems. Alligators, snakes, and face-eating zombies probably rank in the top three. But as car reviewers in the Sunshine State, the biggest first-world problem we face is finding a decent driving road. There's no Angeles Crest equivalent, no Blue Ridge Parkway lookalike – it's just straight, flat highways as far as the eye can see. That is until you really start looking.
Hidden deep in the Everglades is a 17-mile stretch of pavement that “snakes” its way up the center of the state. It's a sharp juxtaposition to the bland roadways that surround it. Granted, this is still no driving nirvana by comparison; totally flat, with no switchbacks, tight right-handers, or fast sweepers, it's a driving Nirvana cover band at best. But this road is just twisty enough to stir our enthusiasm, especially in a light, low-power, low-grip car like the Toyota 86.
The Toyota 86 has an innate ability to make almost any road fun. So this barely twisty two-lane highway – while maybe not excellent in something like a Corolla – comes more alive with a car like the 86. Plus the trim-exclusive, gorgeous green and bronze color combo of the new-for-2020 Hakone Edition we’re driving looks perfect against the backdrop of browns and greens of the Everglades on either side. But getting there is half the battle.
From Ft. Lauderdale proper, it takes about an hour to get to our not-so-secret driving spot. And a big chunk of that drive cuts through Alligator Alley, the 80 miles of highway that connect Florida's Atlantic coast to the Gulf of Mexico. It's an excellent road for bombing something like, say, an Aston Martin DBS Superleggera – not so much a Toyota 86.
The 205-horsepower flat-four engine feels especially wimpy here, facing strong early morning winds off the Everglades. Gusts push the lightweight, 2,776-pound coupe around like a paper airplane in the wind. And that stress on “lightweight” means less of an emphasis on sound deadening; a ton of wind noise penetrates the cabin. A road trip vehicle the 86 is not.
But at least our $30,825 Hakone Edition gets some niceties the standard 86 doesn't. The heated front seats with their new tan leather accents and Alcantara inserts are a big upgrade over material-wise over the base cloth buckets. The black leather steering wheel gets matching tan stitching and audio and infotainment controls on the spokes (which aren't available on the base 86). There's even a black-and-tan center armrest.
The 7.0-inch touchscreen and baked-in infotainment system are much nicer than they once were, too. The new graphics are crisp, the revised layout is more clear, and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto come standard. Though, oddly and annoyingly, Toyota ditched the volume knob in place of two volume buttons instead. Why? But before we find other minor things to bemoan over, we see our exit: Snake Road.
Why Did It Have To Be Snakes?
An aerial view of Snake Road reveals how the two-lane highway gets its serpentine. You know, like a snake. But we can’t find any rhyme or reason as to why they designed this road this way. Construction started in the 1940s as a means to connect the main highway to the Seminole Big Cypress Reservation. And still today, the two-lane road is one of the only paved stretches between Alligator Alley and the reservation. Prior to that, there were two ways to get there: dirt road or canoe.
But we left our paddles and life vests at home and instead eagerly looked forward to 17 miles of paved perfection. Or so we though. “Paved” is pretty loose term in this part of the state, we find out – at least in the first few turns, which are pockmarked to hell, littered with rocks, and dotted by roadside animal remains. Add to that the Toyota's rock-hard suspension, and it's a less-than-stellar introduction to our so-called “hidden gem” of a driving road.
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At any rate, the first left-hander greets us quickly. It's not even a mile from the main road. So we slip the shifter into third gear and gun it. Dodging rocks and potholes, the Toyota moves with remarkable poise through the first few turns, seamlessly weaving its way into these narrow, twisty bows. At the limit, this car is perfection – the steering is flawlessly weighted, feedback is phenomenal, the suspension tells you exactly what it's doing at all times, and even speeding headlong into tighter corners, the 86 stays completely flat. Again, this road no Angeles Crest, but the 86 adds more life to Snake Road’s medium twists.
We keep pushing, revving the hell out of the Toyota's four-cylinder engine. The limiter bounces off the redline in third gear – since that's the only way to get the motor to do anything – and snake our way quickly up the winding road. It's impossible not to flog this car, the 86 being even more fun at speed (slow car fast). But just as we get comfortable launching the coupe spiritedly through the twisty bits, the road unfolds and it's a straight shot to the next town. Our fun on Snake Road is brief, but we leave the twists behind with some introspection.
Snake Road probably won't make our list of “North America's best driving roads.” At its best, the short stretch provides a meager reprieve from the dull highways that surround it, pockmarked, battered, and carcass-soaked as the pavement may be. But this virtually untouched piece of asphalt deep in the middle of nowhere is a pleasant surprise, especially in the right car.
And the Toyota 86 is the right car for most roads. It’s still a supremely special vehicle – slow and aging as it may be. Agile, responsive, personable, and fun, the two-door falls into a class that includes the Mazda Miata and maybe one or two other vehicles. This car is the most compelling proof that you don't need tons of power to have tons of fun.
Photos: Clint Simone / Motor1.com
Gallery: 2020 Toyota 86 Hakone: Feature
2020 Toyota 86 Hakone Edition