Who needs all-wheel drive? Subaru\'s new rear-drive sports car gives the Japanese brand a fresh angle on performance.
Subaru became famous globally for going sideways with its all-wheel-drive World Rallying Championship cars, but the Subaru BRZ aims to excite driving enthusiasts by drifting with just one pair of wheels.
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The two rear-wheel-drive sports cars are a collaborative effort between the two Japanese brands – a natural alliance considering Toyota owns 17 per cent of Subaru’s parent company Fuji Heavy Industries.
It’s fair to say that one probably could not have lived without the other.
Toyota’s production plants are already full to capacity building its vast number of volume-selling models as the company bids to reclaim its position as the world’s largest car maker, and there isn’t room for a niche sports car.
Subaru would have struggled to finance the project for its own low-volume model.
Its existence in Australia was still not guaranteed, however, as Subaru Australia had to make an exception to a 15-year-old strategy of selling all-wheel-drive vehicles only.
Subaru Australia has retained its ‘All 4 the driver’ tagline even for the BRZ, however – not so much because ‘All 2 the driver’ doesn’t quite have the same ring to it but more that it still applies in a more literal sense.
And, just like its Toyota blood brother, the Subaru BRZ is a great driver’s car.
Head for a twisting section of bitumen and the BRZ displays a terrific rear-drive balance – sitting beautifully composed on its outer-rear wheel as you turn into corners.
The ground-hugging stance and a low centre of gravity – the latter aided by the lowest placement yet of a ‘Boxer’ engine in a Subaru – helps the cause.
There can be a hint of understeer initially in damper conditions, but the BRZ’s chassis adjusts to even the most subtle of lifts off the throttle.
Moist road surfaces are also best for sensing some slip angle from the rear end as the 17-inch tyres – despite being the same as those fitted to a Toyota Prius i-Tech – provide decent grip.
Even with stability control reduced or switched off entirely (via separate console buttons), the engine’s fairly modest torque of 205Nm, which also doesn’t kick in until 6600rpm, means power oversteer is not exactly on demand.
We can imagine aftermarket specialists being kept busy, but the BRZ’s four-cylinder is still enjoyable.
It can sound a bit flat at lower revs, but push beyond 3000rpm and that trademark throb of the Boxer engine becomes increasingly evident – and another good excuse to work it hard.
The linear nature of the naturally aspirated engine and the corresponding throttle response is also highly likeable.
Our test car was equipped with a six-speed automatic that, based on our experience of the Toyota 86 manual, is slower to rev towards the 7500rpm redline that brings greater performance rewards.
Not coincidentally, the auto BRZ is also slower from standstill to 100km/h compared with the six-speed manual – 8.2sec v 7.6.
Even with the latter transmission, though, the BRZ is not a staggeringly fast car. But it is satisfyingly quick.
And much like the entry-level Porsche Cayman against which the Subaru BRZ was benchmarked, the greater satisfaction comes from that brilliant handling.
The progressive brakes are great but the steering is my highlight. You never get bored seeing how quickly the (super-stiff) front end reacts with immediacy to the slightest movement of the steering wheel.
It also imparts reams of information from the road surface to the hands on the steering wheel without being corrupted by bumps.
It’s the kind of steering that is so pure that it’s appreciated at all times and at all speeds.
And yet while there’s a firmness to the suspension – a slightly stiffer set-up to the 86 – that complements the body’s high rigidity, the ride is remarkable compliant – and superior to that provided by another compact coupe, the Audi TT.
The driving position is also classic sports car – low. Vision all round is still excellent, though.
The front seats – the optional, $1500 leather/Alcantara in our test car - are comfortably snug.
The rear seats, in contrast, are uncomfortably snug. Adults can just about squeeze in if the driver and front passenger are either short or extremely generous.
At least they offer the option, though, and the single-piece seatback folds completely flat to expand the cargo area.
That’s useful because the boot is small and very narrow - and further squeezed by the full-size spare wheel (which was exposed in our test car but covered in an 86 we had).
The interior of the Subaru BRZ is best described as purposeful. (And just like the Cayman, the rev counter takes priority in the centre of the instrument panel – though a handy digital speedo is integrated.)
While not bereft of touchy-feely materials and there’s little wrong with the buttons and dials, hard plastics are in the majority and the overriding sense is that the interior wasn’t one of the highest priorities for the project budget.
It’s important to put this all into the context of the price, though.
The Subaru BRZ can be driven away from a dealership – though not until you’ve purchased it online only (see our separate story) – for $37,150, or $39,780 if you opt for the auto gearbox.
That is a higher starting point than the 86 but the BRZ’s single specification effectively sits between the two (GT and GTS) offered with the Toyota.
So while it doesn’t come with the GTS’s colour touchscreen sat-nav system or premium heated sports seats, it does get auto on/off bi-xenon headlights, alloy pedals, dual-zone air-conditioning, cruise control, CD audio and Bluetooth, leather-wrapped and stitched steering wheel, handbrake and gearshift lever, sports seats, 17-inch alloy wheels, foglights and daytime running lights, trip computer, electric windows, engine start/stop button, limited-slip rear differential.
Safety is aided by seven airbags, electronic stability control and a maximum (five star) ANCAP crash rating.
Services for the Subaru BRZ are also free for three years or up to 60,000km.
The BRZ’s price also makes it more affordable than that other certain sporty Subaru that has three capital letters in its name. Availability will be particularly limited in 2012, however, with only about 200 BRZs coming to Australia, and about a quarter of those are going to dealers as demonstrator models (with Subaru selling the BRZ exclusively online).
There’s certainly no reason why the Subaru BRZ - standing for Boxer Rear-wheel-drive Zenith - can’t become as much of a cult car as the WRX.