Easily better than sliced bread but possibly harder to justify, the updated Subaru BRZ is still a class act...
There are two things I wouldn’t normally do for a review. One is write from the perspective of the first person, the other is rack up more than 1000km driving the test vehicle in question. It’s not my fault though. Blame the 2015 Subaru BRZ…
Writing about the Subaru BRZ – or its Toyota 86 twin – is always a dangerous affair. It’s a car that often stirs people on either side. There are those who think it’s the sports car from the heavens that enthusiasts have been waiting years for, while others think it’s the most overhyped example of 'plastic fantastic' to come out of Japan since Tamagotchi.
Well, cards on the table time. I never liked Tamagotchi but I love the Subaru BRZ. Let’s start at the beginning though.
The Subaru BRZ stormed onto the local sports car scene back in July 2012 priced at $37,150 driveway – one month after its Toyota counterpart.
It surprised many with its online-only purchasing debut – which saw all 91 cars initially available sell out in three hours and two minutes – but pleased scores with its three years (or 60,000km) included free servicing.
A point of difference between it and the GT and GTS specification Toyotas, the single-spec BRZ’s free servicing also saved buyers $680 compared to the 86’s capped-price regime.
Cut to 2014 and the Subaru BRZ – again following in the footsteps of its Gunma-built twin – has been freshly updated. Although minor, changes include revised front and rear dampers, more rigid fixation of front suspension and rear shock absorbers and tweaks to the steering system.
A ‘shark fin’-style roof-mounted radio antenna, neat frameless rear-view mirror and matte silver carbonfibre-esque dash inserts have all been added along with a new weightier and much more premium looking (and feeling) smart key.
Rounding out the limited revisions are three new exterior paint colours including the Subaru exclusive WR Blue Pearl of our six-speed manual test car – the six-speed automatic with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters adding $2580 to the driveaway price.
Three more factors have changed the BRZ/86 landscape since the models’ respective launches. Toyota traded the 86’s full-size spare tyre for a puncture repair kit in a bid to gain six litres of additional boot space and Subaru swapped the BRZ’s free servicing sweetener for a lifetime deal of capped-price servicing (totalling $796 for the first three years), while at the same time expanding sales beyond the internet and into actual showrooms.
Sitting low to the ground, the compact (4240mm) BRZ looks taut and athletic. Its unique headlights squinting at you like the eyes of an angry anime character.
Approach the space between the muscular front and rear guards, crack the light door and slide into the super comfortable, highly supportive and well-bucketed leather and Alcantara heated front sports seats (a $1500 option).
Manually adjust your red-stitched seat and entirely round (no flat-bottom fanciness here) red-stitched leather steering wheel and set your power mirrors and new frameless rear-view mirror to your ideal position. Now look around and notice the rubberised grab handles, padded leather ‘drift pads’ and open centre storage unit with adjustable/removable cup holders.
This car is all about purity. The Subaru BRZ is the anti-supercar. No paddles (in manual guise anyway). No buttons on the steering wheel. No push-button handbrake. No touchscreen. No satellite navigation. No elaborate driving, suspension or steering modes. No trick electronic differentials. And, no turbochargers.
There’s no Bluetooth audio streaming either, which is a glaring omission, but there is an aftermarket-style Bluetooth phone unit that, despite being antiquated enough to rely heavily on your mobile handset, works adequately apart from the occasional connection glitch.
With the BRZ, though, what you see is what you get. And what you get, is brilliant.
Sure, the Pleiades-fronted BRZ is sans the reversing camera, boot spoiler, heated leather seats, and 6.1-inch colour touchscreen with satellite navigation, Bluetooth audio streaming and voice recognition that all come standard on the $36,490 (before on-road costs) top-spec 86 GTS.
Above the entry-level GT 86, though – itself starting at $29,990 (before on-road costs) – the Subaru gains automatic bi-xenon headlights, automatic dual zone climate control, rear ventilated disc brakes and one-inch larger 17-inch alloy wheels with 10mm wider and thinner Michelin tyres.
Cruise control is also thrown into the mix along with illuminated driver and front passenger sunvisor vanity mirrors, though convenience items such as parking sensors or blind-spot and lane-keep assist don’t even make it onto the options list.
However, when you’re in the Subaru BRZ, shuffling your feet between its three sports pedals while tackling phenomenal mountain roads, this simply doesn’t matter. Nor does its claimed 7.6-second (8.2sec auto) 0-100km/h time or 226km/h (210km/h auto) top speed. And here’s why…
Almost every control and touch point that connects car and driver are damn near perfect. In isolation this is great, fine. But more importantly, combined, they gift a driver such high levels of confidence that exploiting the rest of the package becomes elementary.
Helped by new damper oil, oil seals and uprated bushes, the BRZ nails the balance between ride comfort and dynamic ability.
Compliant enough to handle everyday road joints, tram tracks and speed humps in more than reasonable comfort, the Subaru is firmer than say, a Mazda MX-5, but shrugs off mid-corner ruts with more composure and remains fun and agile at all times.
Some roll can be felt (particularly from the rear end) when sharply changing direction or loading up through high-speed or long-radius sweepers, though much of this is due to the mediocre grip levels and sidewall rigidity offered by the standard Michelin tyres – pipped for performance by the base 86’s Yokohama rubber.
Steering is beautifully balanced, consistent and communicative and, thanks to the electrically assisted system’s 13:1 ratio rack, also fast and super responsive to even minor inputs (counter or otherwise).
While I think it could benefit from a little more weighting, the steering lets you accurately point the 1256kg Subaru (1kg less than the 86 GT and 19kg down on the 86 GTS) exactly where you deem fit, working in synergy with a razor sharp front end and an entertaining mechanical limited-slip rear differential.
Pedal position is spot on – mirrored by the equally terrific ergonomics of the steering wheel, gear shifter and handbrake – although feedback through the far left pedal is a touch light.
Suffering no such issues are the beautifully progressive brakes. Making finite and hard braking modulation alike a joy to master, the two-piston caliper fronts and single-piston rears hold up well to the sort of treatment that sees average fuel consumption climb to 9.1L/100km – the BRZ officially claims 7.8L/100km (7.1L/100km auto).
Slick and notchy, the short-throw gearbox is also a gem, matching up well with clutch pedal travel. Two catches do exist, however. One, for a six-speed unit, ratios are geared relatively tall (meaning it takes an eternity to rev out). And two, unless you ‘granny shift’ with the greatest of care, an audible ‘thump’ will accompany any stationary selection of first gear – a long-standing Subaru trait.
And now to the biggest point of contention of the dual-developed sports car. Spitting out 147kW (at 7000rpm) and 205Nm (at 6600rpm), the 2.0-litre horizontally-opposed direct injection ‘Boxer’ four-cylinder is no horsepower monster. But for all the negative wrap this engine gets for its lack of torque and/or turbocharging, personally, I’m ok with it.
Sure, its lack of low-end punch means you do have to stir the pot to get the best out of it, but response from the drive-by-wire throttle is always sharp and always there. And I don’t just mean when getting on the power either, with acknowledgement being just as immediate when lifting off – meaning dipping the nose into a roundabout is as easy as raising a toe.
So while, yes, its absolute sweet spot is between 6000rpm and its 7450rpm redline – where solid power meets keen in-gear acceleration – it’s more than happy getting around town at a smidge either side of 2000rpm or coasting along at 100km/h at 2500rpm in sixth.
The Subaru BRZ still has its fair share of shortcomings though.
There’s road noise at freeway speeds, no one-touch indicators, the centre stack toggle switches are cheap and plasticky, the power mirror switch doesn’t light up at night, the tacked-on centre rear stop light looks terrible and the thing demands 98 octane fuel. Rear seat legroom is also snug to say the least and there’s no glovebox light either (the same as on the 1999 Subaru Impreza WRX STI we drove back in September).
Boot capacity is another mixed bag with its 218 litres – expandable via one-piece folding rear seats – helped or hindered (depending on your view) by the storage ‘tub’ created by the inverted full-size spare wheel.
My biggest conundrum with the BRZ, though, comes down to value. Not only can you get your mitts on the Subaru’s core magic in a base Toyota 86 for less money, but, provided you’re happy getting your fun from the front two wheels, the likes of the Ford Fiesta ST, Kia Pro_cee’d GT and Peugeot 208 GTi all enter the fray.
Having said all of that, the Subaru BRZ is one of the most communicative, engaging and fun cars I have ever had the privilege to drive, and I most definitely still rate it. Whether you’re a skilled driver or someone learning about car control and vehicle dynamics, the BRZ demands the best of you but also extracts the best out of you. So while I will never come around to Tamagotchi, I would gladly own a Subaru BRZ...
Click on the Photos tab for more images by David Zalstein.