Having owned my 2013 Subaru BRZ for just over a year, I felt it only right to mark the occasion with a review.
A bit of context first.
After driving my family’s vehicles for some time, I had saved enough to buy a first car of my own. Looking for something which met a cross purpose of being sporty, manual, reliable and preferably rear-wheel drive, I did what any 20-something with no responsibilities (and hence no need for back seats) would do and bought a coupe. I drove a variety of vehicles including the S2000, ND MX-5, Z4 and Focus ST before settling on this.
Funnily enough, I test drove four versions of this car before buying my Subaru BRZ. The first was at a Toyota dealer where a five minute impression around city streets wasn’t enough to really understand the car. The second, I was given free rein to drive an 86 GTS for 30 minutes. I came away disappointed by the underwhelming engine sound and clumsy sat-nav. I couldn’t understand why a car so perfect for me on paper wasn’t cutting it in the real world.
The third time was make or break. I finally got the chance to drive the car through some twisties and it all made sense. The gearbox, the suspension setup and the low centre of gravity combined for a truly fantastic experience through the corners. Frankly, straight line speed was irrelevant in a world of speed cameras throughout our intersections and cops at every other one.
The final issue was of sound; I couldn’t come to love the thrashy sound of the stock exhaust. After doing some research, I found the solution was unequal-length headers, which brought in the famous “Subaru rumble” and solved the separate torque dip issue (more on this later). I came across a Subaru-exclusive World Rally Blue BRZ with unequal length headers already installed by a reputable mechanic, and after a quick spin I was sold.
Onto the car itself. One year of ownership has proven trouble-free, with nothing more than a minor service done in that time. The Panasonic battery died and needed to be replaced, but considering it lasted six years in the car from new rather than the four it was warrantied for, I would say it was another reminder of how robust Japanese design is. I have used this car to commute, for shopping trips, driving from Sydney to Melbourne and on a track day and it hasn’t so much as coughed. It is surprisingly good on fuel, averaging 6.5 litres per 100 kilometres on the freeway and around 10L/100km around town, even with my more than enthusiastic use of the throttle. This can likely be put down to the direct-injection technology and lack of turbo. Overall, I have been impressed by the ease of ownership.
Driving the car is a great experience and the cabin is a surprisingly comfortable place to be. The seating position is excellent; you sit low with your legs stretched out in front of you. The optional heated leather/suede seats have a good compromise of side-bolstering and comfort. Seat and steering wheel adjustment is manual but really this just means there’s less to go wrong. The headrest does sit a little too far forward and is likely designed with safety/airbag function in mind. This isn’t an issue on shorter trips but became annoying after 2-3 hours on the freeway.
The gauge cluster has an excellent layout with an electronic speedo dead-centre, surrounded by the analogue rev-counter. This very purposeful design is one of the small details which shows the engineers knew what their target audience wanted. A redundant analogue speedo sits to the left but there’s never a need to look at it. The trip computer is basic but can be programmed to have a light and buzzer come on to tell you when to upshift, and you can set the limit yourself (I have it at 7000rpm). You can also switch on a gear indicator just below the tacho, which means at a glance you can know your speed, revs and gear.
This car is, as mentioned, finished in Subaru’s signature World Rally Blue metallic, made famous by their rally cars of the 90’s/2000’s. It is easily my favourite colour on this platform and looks stunning in the sun. The paint is applied fairly thin though, and the front bumper is notorious for picking up chips.
The BRZ comes stock with an old-fashioned 90’s style stereo in an otherwise neatly arranged dashboard, which prioritises function over form with a slightly industrial style to the switches. A row of toggle style switches towards the bottom of the dash evoke a fighter jet feel. The stereo is basic but is easy enough to come to terms with and can play music from a phone/ipod via USB cable (which will also slowly charge your device). Bluetooth streaming works only for calls and the car is usually seamless in transitioning to and from Bluetooth, but audio quality on the glass mounted Bluetooth device is average at best.
The car also lacks controls on the steering wheel, a purposeful style choice by the designers who were making it clear this car is made for driving first and foremost. The clean wheel design is something you come to appreciate during hard driving. Stereo controls are in close reach as it is, so this isn’t a major issue. However, the facelifted models include steering wheel controls which perhaps shows that even the engineers at Toyota/Subaru thought that initial move to axe them was a little over the top.
The car is otherwise fairly well equipped, considering adornments were a low priority when designing this model. Included is dual-zone automatic climate control, keyless central locking and unlocking, automatic xenon headlights with daytime LED running lights and boomerang-shaped LED parking lights, TPMS, 17-inch alloys wrapped in 215/45 tyres with a full size spare included (unlike the 86, but which annoyingly protrudes from the boot floor, although this is expected given the car’s small proportions). This car also came with the optional heated leather/alcantara seat upgrade. These seats are very comfortable, even on longer trips, and is suitably bolstered without being too tight. They grip really well when going through sharp bends - an option worth seeking out if buying used.
The cruise control is well designed, though has the minor inconvenience of having to turn the system on every time you start the car before activating it. It comes with a speed memory function as well as the ability to increase/decrease speed by increments of 1km/h. The system is prone to allowing the car to speed up while going down hills and won’t hold speed on the downhill like more sophisticated systems fitted in many European cars, however. The only notable exclusion for me was the lack of reverse parking sensors/camera as standard. Visibility out the back isn’t great considering how low you sit in the car, so adding sensors in was one of the first things I did after purchasing.
The car is by no means large, but I have never found myself struggling for cabin space. The rear seats are only good for smaller adults or children at best. They work much better folded down, creating a surprisingly voluminous cargo space. Trips to and from Sydney with everything I needed for uni have been very manageable and I have managed to fit four wheels with tyres in the back. Getting things into and out of the back is not the easiest, as the boot opening is relatively small and the opening through the front doors is tight, but once you work around that, the space is there.
Now to the main aspect of why people buy these cars: the driving experience. As stated before, the seating position and gauge cluster layout is fantastic without being needlessly complicated. Upon start-up, most BRZ’s/86’s feel relatively tame thanks to a largely restrictive exhaust setup. My car has been fitted with unequal length headers (or UEL’s), much like sporty Subaru’s of yesteryear, as well as a cat-back exhaust system. This really brings the car to life and instils the iconic Subaru rumble associated with WRX and STI’s alike. For whatever reason, Subaru has shifted away from the unequal length header setup in recent years, opting for more regular sounding equal length headers across the range. There are now a range of aftermarket exhaust options out there and I cannot recommend a good UEL enough.
UEL’s bring a secondary benefit more noticeable once on the move. The stock headers in these cars do a fantastic job of sucking out noise and power from the FT86 platform with a noticeable torque-dip around the 3500-4500 rpm mark where much of the grunt needed for everyday driving is needed. This was likely done with emissions/economy in mind but it is to the detriment of the driver. By freeing up the engine in this part of the rev range, the BRZ becomes a much more amicable daily driver with enough shove to keep the “isn’t that car kind of under-powered” naysayers quiet. A tertiary benefit is in weight saving by replacing the heavy stock headers with lighter ones.
The car drives the way you would expect a sporty coupe of this stature to. The suspension is firm without ever being harsh and soaks up bumps well enough. Compared to our family hatchback, it is noticeably stiffer down the same roads but gives the driver a better sense of the tarmac under them. The trade-off is very flat and planted cornering, which is something you can really come to appreciate through winding back-roads. Compared to the 86, this car is slightly more tail happy if you want it to be. The 86 is more geared towards neutral cornering given the difference in spring rates from factory, so it’s worth factoring this into consideration if considering both cars.
7-inch wide wheels on 215 wide tyres are on the skinny side, and come wrapped in Michelin Primacy eco-tyres from factory. Eco tyres tend to be less grippy which helps fuel economy but also means less grip around corners. The engineers claimed that this was meant to make the car more fun and no doubt makes it easier to break traction. However, the tyres become the rate-limiting step on hard cornering, which was a shame when the rest of the chassis was so well setup. An upgrade to Pirelli DragonSport tyres helped somewhat, but if you are pursuing ultimate traction, a quality set of 8-inch or wider wheels are in order.
Steering feel is one of the best you will find on an electric setup as featured in these cars. The steering feel is weighty and provides plenty of feedback from the road and excellent responsiveness off centre without ever being too excessive. It’s one of the many balances the car manages very well. Attacking corners is confidence inspiring and the superb steering setup, combined with pedals close enough for heel-toe downshifts and excellent car balance, will make you want more and more.
The cabin isn’t the quietest place in the world, with road and tyre noise making their way through depending on the quality of the road surface. The car also pipes in induction noise through a tube penetrating the firewall and exiting at the driver’s feet. Some drivers have complained about the artificial nature of this noise, while others like the added engine sounds. The hole can be blocked up with the 12V socket cover from the glovebox if you so wish. The cabin sounds again are there to add to the driver’s experience but can be drowned out easily enough by turning up the radio.
All in all, the best way to describe driving the BRZ is engaging. The car is very much set up to give the driver as much feedback as possible and enthusiasts will be all the more appreciative for it. A couple of simple mods in wider tyres and a quality exhaust goes a long way to optimising this experience.
Given the nature of this now 8 year old platform, and their owners, I wanted to touch on the aftermarket support now out there. The FT86’s simple design, not burdened with complicated electronics, makes it an excellent platform to turn the car into whatever you want it to be. Given how increasingly mechanically convoluted cars are becoming these days with tricky hybrid-turbos and endless gizmos and features, the FT86 stands as perhaps the last ultimate tuning platform.
I have already mentioned what a difference headers and an exhaust can make. Combined with a tune, it’s certainly a modification worth doing. With plenty of ECU tuning options out there such as tablet tunes, flash tunes or custom dyno tunes, there is a setup to suit your budget. Tunes for pops and crackles are becoming increasingly popular as well.
Tuning the car to run on e85 is an easy way to extract more power without going for a turbo. Note though that e85 is only available at a select few petrol stations and will drive up your fuel economy significantly.
This leads me on to the next step up: forced induction. There are plethora turbo or supercharging options out there which will take you past 200kW at the wheels, at least 50% more than stock. It is an expensive option for sure, with most setups around the $10,000 mark. Factor in the need for stickier tyres, bigger brakes and other upgrades needed to keep the engine cool and performance in check, and this is by no means cheap. But many owners feel this is the way to optimise performance from the FA20 engine to the max and is the right amount of power for the chassis. It's a worthwhile upgrade if you plan on tracking the car regularly or crave more power.
Focusing on some more driver-friendly mods, I would recommend reverse sensors/camera if the car does not include them already. A nice 200mm stereo would both improve sound quality and give greater scope to incorporate your phone with the car. I have replaced the dull stock cabin lights and halogen fog-lights with LED’s for greater visibility inside and out. I also wasn’t a fan of the cheap looking stock tail lights and have Valenti tail lights with sequential indicators in red, which offsets the car’s blue nicely. There are several options, so if this is an option you are considering, it’s easy to find a colour scheme which works for you.
Wider tyres from a reputable company are recommended if you are looking for grip, and with that comes new wheels. A nice set of rims is an easy way to stand out from the crowd and if you take care of them or buy used, you can get most of the value back when it comes to sell them. The stock suspension rides a little high and this will be exacerbated with new wider diameter tyres. If upgrading, especially to 18 inch wheels, I recommend lowering the car as well. I personally went for TRD springs which are designed to work with the stock strut and shock absorber and give a one-inch drop. If you want to go lower and have a bigger budget, coil-overs (i.e. a coil-over shock absorber setup) take place of the entire stock suspension setup and give a range of damping, ride height and other adjustment.
Overall, I have really enjoyed BRZ ownership. The combination of reliability and well-thought out engineering in a driver-focused setup has made it the right car for me. The platform gives you the freedom to play around with each and every part, and with the right modifications it can become the perfect car for you.