The Subaru BRZ in manual guise has been subtly tweaked to improve performance and make it an even more impressive affordable sports car. Here, we test the entry-level manual.
That the 2017 Subaru BRZ will be a precise, well-balanced, enthusiast-focused, affordable sportscar, is a given.
We’ve been impressed by the Toyota 86/Subaru BRZ twins since we first sampled them. It’s hard to believe that was already five years ago though (2012), and with the release of the updated 2017 model, both have now had their first facelift of note.
The question then, is whether the subtle changes have any impact whatsoever on what was already such an impressive sports car. There’s always the danger that a potential future icon can easily be muddled by any unnecessary tweaks and it’s fair to state the BRZ is a vehicle that never presented as needing anything ‘fixed’. More power would be ideal, but when is too much power ever enough?
Fortunately, the changes made are minor, more akin to ‘tweaks’ than outright redesigning for the sake of it. The purity of the BRZ driving experience should therefore, remain undiluted. We’ve tested the entry-level manual model grade here.
By way of a quick recap, the main changes for 2017 are incremental bumps in power and torque for the manual, up to 152kW at 7000rpm and 212Nm between 6400 and 6800rpm. Those figures are up from 147kW and 205Nm respectively.
Pricing, which starts from $32,990 (plus on-road costs) for the manual as tested, is $1230 less than the old model, while the automatic, which starts from $34,490 before on road costs is $1735 cheaper than the previous model.
It’s fair to assume performance purists will only ever opt for a manual transmission, and that's true. The reality for those of you, who love the styling of the BRZ and won’t ever be getting too enthusiastic behind the wheel, is there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the automatic for that purpose.
Outside, and under the skin, changes include full-LED headlights and tail-lights, a new 'Track' mode within the Vehicle Dynamics Control, hill-start assist, 17-inch alloy wheels, auto climate control, a smaller steering wheel, modified bumpers front and rear, upgraded infotainment, updated driver’s instruments and the option of BRZ-embossed seats with contrasting stitching.
As we saw when we experienced the updated Toyota 86 at Fuji Speedway a few months ago, the enhancements aren’t massive then, but they make a subtle difference to the feel from behind the wheel.
Once you hunker down into the driver’s seat of the BRZ, you get that sense of sitting go-kart like, on the ground as you did in sports cars of old. It’s not the only thing that harks back to the classic sense of sports car driving either. There’s a sharp, direct lightness to every input, which imbues the BRZ with a sense of connected clarity. While it’s an excellent road car, it feels immediately like you’d have a ball on-track, and we know that to be true.
The updated infotainment system is easy to use, and while not right at the forefront of technical advancement, buyers in this segment, at this price point, won’t care less. A car like the BRZ is all about the driving, not the technical details.
The 6.2-inch touchscreen is a major step forward from the ‘afterthought’ feel of the old system, which appeared to be an aftermarket fitment rather than an integrated factory design. It’s also something that now sets the BRZ apart from its Toyota sibling.
The seating position itself is excellent, with the driver able to get into the position they prefer, and maintain a driver-focused balance between reach to the pedals, reach to the wheel, and reach to the shifter. You can tuck in a little closer for track work obviously, but for road driving where you might like a more relaxed seating position, you can achieve that, too. If you don’t like climbing down into, and up and out of a vehicle though, the BRZ isn’t for you.
Second row seating is best described as ‘occasional’ for behind the passenger, and ‘not at all’ for the position behind the driver, to the point where you wonder why the BRZ isn’t simply a two-seater. Our test model was fitted with a full-size spare tyre too, which ate into the already compromised boot space. As with most sports cars though, if you don’t do the shopping for a family of five, and you don’t carry passengers around often, then who cares?
Around town, the BRZ is a doddle to drive. The snappy throttle pedal, short throw of the gear lever, and exceptional clutch pedal all combine to deliver smooth progress when you just want to get from A to B. There’s nothing jerky, imprecise or harsh about the BRZ at low speed. It even manages to iron out poor roads with ease, too.
In fact, there’s a forgiving nature to the suspension tune, which perches beautifully between comfort around town, and balanced precision at speed. You could stiffen up a BRZ for prolonged motorkhana or track work obviously, but unless you plan to do that more often than most, the standard suspension tune is excellent.
Under the skin, there’s a thicker strut tower bar mounting bracket and transmission cross-member reinforcing plate. There’s also more reinforcement in the rear wheel housing, while the springs have been retuned stiffer front and softer rear. They combine with a larger rear anti roll bar. The front differential mount stoppers have also been tweaked to lower vibration and aid noise suppression. And we thought the BRZ was a precise enough machine before…
When we drove the tweaked version of the 86, we found any noticeable changes came to the fore on the track where you can stretch the chassis to its limit. In short, the 86 felt more dialled in, sharper and a little more precise – a sensation we’d expect to sense behind the wheel of the BRZ, if we had track time.
While it’s hard to pinpoint any one area where the BRZ has been sharpened up on road, it certainly feels like an even more pinned down sports car to punt at speed. Subaru reckons it wasn’t especially easy either to squeeze even more power and torque out of a platform that was already cleverly tuned and efficient in the way it delivered its thrust.
While the numbers and graphs tell us the lower spectrum of the torque curve has been fattened up, we find there is still the characteristic drop off around the 3500rpm mark, which means you need to keep the engine singing away – in typical small capacity, naturally-aspirated fashion – above 4500rpm and up toward redline to extract rapid progress.
Subaru has made this easier than before though, with the change to the final drive ratio meaning it’s not at all difficult to keep the engine working in its sweet spot. On the subject of the powerplant, the synthesized engine sound that cannons into the cabin sounds purposeful enough without being too drone-like or loud.
The steering remains beautifully precise as it always was, and it’s perhaps the most confidence inspiring aspect of the whole drivetrain. The ability to point the BRZ exactly where you want it to go, and the fact it does that, makes you so much more inclined to have some fun. The brakes are likewise exceptional and to use a favourite term of our current PM, the ‘agile’ nature of the BRZ is as present as ever.
The BRZ is way sharper at speed than any other vehicle within a bull’s roar of this price point aside from the MX-5. Head to a twisty road you know well and you can link corners together seamlessly, flowing into and out of them with precision and balance. The BRZ is so light on its feet, so nimble, it makes you feel like an expert behind the wheel no matter your skill level. As we say often, there’s much to like about a comparatively underpowered car that is so easy to drive fast in comparison to a monster power figure in a chassis that is much harder to wrestle.
The changes to the ESC system and the way in which it cuts in to end your sliding fun, make a big difference to the overall experience too. Much less prone to cut in invasively and too early, it means drivers who want to leave ESC active, can do so with less intrusive annoyance.
Use Track mode and you’ll be able to get the BRZ into a neat drift and keep it there, if that’s your poison. You’ll only ever want to explore this on track, but the BRZ presents as an excellent starting point for any buyer wanting to learn the basics on track.
Having previously owned two Toyota Sprinters, the BRZ/86 twins seem to me, to capture that lightweight, high revving, free spirit of late 1980s, early '90s sports cars. For some time now, the MX-5 has held a mortgage on that title, but the release of the BRZ in 2012 changed all that. You can accuse us of being mist-eyed in the face of modern FWD and AWD platforms that can be just as capable, but there remains innate appeal in a RWD, front engine platform that is so well executed.
Rare is the car that is both affordable and fun. Even rarer, is one that has both those traits but also retains an old world purity of driving experience.
We’ve revered the BRZ since it was first released, and there’s no doubt this subtle upgrade reinforces that affection. It remains an exceptional sports car that is accessible to the masses. You have to spend a lot more money to have more fun than you can have behind the wheel of a BRZ.