The purchasing decision
After three years of daily driving an endearingly characterful ’14 Fiat 500 S, which both looked and drove like a scurrying field mouse, it was time for a bit of an upgrade. The brief for the replacement was fairly straightforward. Like the 500, it had to be fun to drive in the urban environment, where it would spend about 95 per cent of its life. But by the same token, it needed to have enough dynamic ability to not feel out of its depth during spirited drives through the countryside – an environment where the poor 74kW Fiat felt a bit limp-wristed.
It also needed to be reliable and fairly low maintenance – as your mid-thirties are all about finely balancing your financial situation – so I was not willing to tolerate a high-maintenance daily driver. And finally, the budget was to be $40K max.
The initial shortlist consisted of four cars: the Toyota 86/Subaru BRZ, the Mazda MX-5, the Ford Fiesta ST and the Abarth 595 Competizione.
The Abarth – with its engine that sounded like a jar of trapped wasps – was crossed off the list first, without a test drive even taking place. While I absolutely loved the cheek of the thing, after three years of Fiat 500 ownership, I felt that I had 'done' the 500 thing and wanted something different. Plus, the lack of cruise control in this day and age of draconian speed-limit enforcement is sheer lunacy.
The Fiesta ST, on the other hand, I definitely did test drive, and my word, what a magnificent little machine it was. Rorty, involving and bursting with character, it was incredible value for money for around $26K drive-away. I was very tempted by it. But I found the Recaro seats to be too narrow for my frame, the ride a little too firm, and after having owned a couple of hot hatches in the last decade, I was in the mood for returning to the classic engine-at-the-front, drive-from-the-back formula.
The MX-5 was everything I desired in terms of driving experience – fun in the urban environment and on the open road – with the added novelty of featuring a convertible top. Unfortunately, the practicality issues were difficult to overcome. I’m 190cm, so head room was an issue, with my subcontinental Ron Burgundy hair constantly brushing against the roof.
The seat also didn’t go back far enough, and I couldn’t believe that the steering wheel adjusted only for height and not reach. The boot was so miniscule that going to the airport with a medium-sized suitcase would have been out of the question. I could have forgiven all these things if it were to be a pure weekend car, but as a daily it was never going to work.
So, the Toyobaru it was. But why the BRZ and not the 86, you ask? Well, there were three reasons. Firstly, the base 86 GT was too spartan and the higher-spec GTS had features that I just didn’t want or need, like a built-in satellite navigation system and a god-awful rear spoiler. Price-wise, the BRZ split those too, giving me a couple of features that I wanted (that the GT didn’t have) and none of what I didn’t want from the model above.
Secondly, with the 2017 refresh, Toyota made the front end of the 86 look like some sort of weird fish-creature. To my eyes, the BRZ was the cleaner design. Thirdly – and this was a distant third – I considered the Subaru badge a little bit more desirable than the Toyota one. However, with the current direction of Subaru (seriously, that is the new Forester?!), this notion is changing fast, but that’s a discussion for another time.
The ownership experience
Let’s address the most contentious issue around the 86/BRZ first. Is it just a show pony? Modern-day iteration of the hairdresser’s Celica? Does it need more power? In my humble opinion, the amount of power that it makes is fine. In fact, I like that it doesn’t make more power because it allows me to drive it enthusiastically within the confines of the law.
Could it handle more power? Sure, the chassis would be up for it. Have there been some instances when I wished that it had a bit more poke? Of course, I am a car enthusiast after all. Do I like to ask myself questions and then answer them? Yes, but not as much as Kevin Rudd, but my point is that it does not need any more power than the 152kW it comes with.
There is, however, a notable issue with the manner in which that power is delivered to the wheels. The much discussed torque flat spot around 4000rpm is no figment of motoring journalists’ collective imaginations. Mind you, it’s not much of an issue when the revs are up and you’re pressing on through a twisty stretch of bitumen, but take a situation like a 90-degree turn in second gear, as you would encounter often in the urban environment, and the engine can get bogged down a bit.
If you’ve ever wanted to experience the feeling of turbo lag in a naturally aspirated car, the BRZ ‘delivers’. Given that one of the main advantages of driving a car without forced induction is immediate throttle response through the entire rev range, this flaw is a disappointing one.
It’s not helped by the fact that the 2.0-litre boxer-four powerplant feels a tad agricultural. It’s not particularly smooth, it revs a little slower than you might expect in a sports car, and the engine note could never be described as sonorous. But having lived with it for a while now, I’ve developed a soft spot for its slightly gruff nature.
It’s like there’s a little hibernating bear in the engine bay that gets prodded with a stick every time I apply the throttle. The fact that it’s a bit loud (thanks to sound being pumped into the cabin via a pipe) is a positive in my book, because it lets me know exactly what the engine is up to. Drivers’ cars that are too quiet are a definite bugbear of mine. Yes, yes – pun intended.
The rest of the driving experience is mostly very good. The steering has the right amount of weight and speed to it. Although no match for the best hydraulic systems, it’s about as good as it gets when it comes to modern fly-by-wire systems. The steering wheel, with its chunky rim and small diameter, is also a delight to use.
Through corners, the BRZ sits very flat (unlike, say, the MX-5 that rolls a bit) and feels beautifully composed through long, sweeping bends. Given the classic rear-wheel-drive sports car proportions, you sit right in front of the rear wheels, and that magical feeling of driving by the seat of your pants is always on tap.
It should go without saying that Bruce the BRZ is equipped with a six-speed manual transmission. With a car like this, it’s really manual or nothing. Seriously, if you’re tempted to buy an auto 86/BRZ, don’t do it. This is not the car for you. Go buy a Mitsubishi ASX instead. I wouldn’t say it’s the best-shifting manual in the world – especially compared to, say, the ND MX-5’s sublime unit, because the throw is a tad too long and tad bit ‘plasticky’ feeling – but it’s not bad.
The clutch, however, is a thing of great beauty. It has just the right amount of heaviness to feel tactile, but not so much weight that it becomes tiring in traffic. Not a day goes by where I don’t thank the clutch gods for its creation.
Whether or not the cabin of the BRZ is a nice place to be depends on your personal priorities. If you like soft-touch plastics, consistent fonts and matching backlighting, the BRZ interior will disappoint you. But, on the other hand, if you like a perfect (and I really do mean perfect) driving position and a pair of seats that offer the ideal balance between firm bolstering and long-distance comfort, step right in. In terms of pure ergonomics, the BRZ cockpit is up there with the very best.
Now… I know that in this day and age, it’s expected that I talk about the infotainment system in a car review. But honestly, I can’t be bothered. It was (and still is) so low down on my list of priorities that all I can muster the energy to say is: yes, the Subaru BRZ has one, and it’s not very good at all. Okay, let’s move on to more important matters like…
The fact that I can’t quite decide whether or not the BRZ is a good-looking car. Certainly, the proportions are very good. The side profile is clean and avoids Lexusesque crazy lines. I like the chunky rear and the low bonnet. From the rear three-quarter angle, it looks both muscular and feline. The new tail-light design (which does away with the tacky clear lenses) is a marked improvement. But the front is underwhelming. It’s a tad harsh, but it almost reminds me of the Toyota Paseo (you had all forgotten about that little horror, hadn’t you?) from the nineties. So I’m still making my mind up about its looks, but I will say that I do often look back at Bruce the BRZ after parking it – and I guess that’s a good sign.
As expected, in the first year, the BRZ has been totally reliable. However, the side bolsters on the driver’s seat are wearing a little too fast for my liking, and I will go talk to the dealership about this soon. Fuel economy tends to hover just under 8.0L/100km, which I consider to be pretty good. I have been told that Subaru servicing tends to be a bit on the expensive side, but given that I run Bruce on a fully maintained novated lease, I didn’t really pay attention to how much its first service cost.
Before I finish off, I feel like I should talk about my favourite memory with the BRZ so far. On a cold but clear May morning, I was driving through the Grampians in Victoria – the picture that I’ve included with this review is from that day. The sun was shining and there were kangaroo carcasses all over the place. I came out of a sweeping corner to witness a truly magnificent sight – a massive eagle feasting on one of these poor roadkill roos.
I had to swerve quite hard to miss that little circus, and the car responded beautifully to my emergency inputs. Then before I knew it, I was fast approaching a hairpin turn. I steadied the car, heel-and-toe downshifted from fourth to third, then performed another heel-and-toe from third down to second. The revs matched perfectly and by the time I exited that corner, I was grinning from ear to ear. Try deriving that level of tactility and involvement from your DSG.
So those are my thoughts on the BRZ after about 12 months of ownership. Overall, I am very satisfied with my decision to buy one. When I refer back to the original brief, Bruce definitely delivers. There are some over-excited 86/BRZ fanboys (particularly on the online forums) that compare their cars to the Porsche Cayman. I haven’t quite drunk the Kool-aid to that extent.
I am familiar with Caymans and Boxsters, and there is no way that the Toyobaru is in that league. But I am happy to say that it delivers at least 50 per cent of what a Cayman does, for about 25 per cent of the price. And that is an equation that most definitely works for me.