The Subaru BRZ, an all-new sports car, has been very carefully designed to be a winner by Toyota and Subaru engineers and designers, working largely together. There was a clear purpose in mind: make an affordable sports car without luxury add-ons or mega horsepower, but that is still state of the art when it comes to efficiency in the powertrain and chassis. It took a clean sheet of paper to do that.
The Subaru BRZ is rear-wheel drive, and its rear-wheel-drive layout is a key aspect to what makes it great. The BRZ a 2+2 coupe, with jump seats in the rear for children or stuff like gym bags.
The engine is a new 2.0-liter with the latest direct port injection, making 200 horsepower normally aspirated. The standard 6-speed manual gearbox is way fun, carefully designed like the rest of the car to be that way. There's an optional paddle-shifting 6-speed automatic, if you don't want to deal with a clutch pedal. It's the only option for the car, beyond two models, Premium and Limited.
The suspension is tight; it negates the bumps and hugs the road, and doesn't transmit anything harsh or jarring. The handling is more flick-able than any sports car out there, including the Mazda MX-5 (although not counting the nearly identical Scion FR-S because anything we say about the BRZ is also true for the FR-S). Between the suspension, turn-in from a quick steering ratio, and manual gearbox, the BRZ offers almost as much pure sports car fun as the MX-5, as long as you don't need the wind in your hair and no back seats to feel like you're driving a sports car.
Subaru boasts about the low center of gravity making the BRZ special, and rightly so. The center of gravity is 1.9 inches lower than that of the Porsche Cayman. The whole car, including the new engine, was designed with that in mind. A low center of gravity, along with balanced front-rear weight distribution, is what makes that excellent handling.
We got good seat time on some of our favorite twisty roads, and had a ball. Later we drove the BRZ on Oregon back roads at an event called Run to the Sun, hosted by the Northwest Automotive Press Association. We drove as aggressively as we dared, with no worries about losing control, also thanks to the standard non-intrusive stability control that has five levels, including one for track driving. The BRZ will be a blast at track days or autocross events. In fact, the interior was designed with room to carry four tires, with the seatbacks of the rear jump seats folded flat. The standard summer performance tires are fine on the track, but some track-day drivers and most autocross drivers go for stickier rubber so they'll be able to drive to the event on the street tires and change over to the race tires for the event.
Rear-wheel drive is a modern first for Subaru, a company that's been totally all-wheel drive almost forever. With no drivetrain to the front wheels, the engine could be placed farther rearward to achieve better balance; the engine is 9.5 inches farther back than the 2.0-liter engine in the Subaru Impreza. And the engines are slightly different at the intake manifold and oil pan, so the BRZ engine could also be mounted 2.4 inches lower than the Impreza's. The BRZ's light weight of 2762 pounds, using high-tensile steel in the frame with an aluminum hood, adds to the car's agility.
The styling doesn't turn heads, unless maybe the BRZ is a flashy color, for example copper like the Scion FR-S comes in. If the BRZ's lines resemble any other car, it might be the same-sized Nissan 370Z, or the Mazda RX-8, a car that might be the best comparable. The BRZ is super low, with a roof height of only 50.6 inches, or .8 inches lower than that of the Porsche Cayman. From the side, its distinction is in the humps on the fenders harboring 17-inch wheels and tires. The roof has a wide groove, and that adds distinction, and the sideview mirrors are sharpened, which is also neat; but there are some cheap plastic bits on the sides and nose of the car.
The interior is tight, simple and comfortable. That's tight as in design, not lack of space. There's no apologizing for the fabric seats, which are rugged and stylish with excellent bolstering. Little kids will love the two seats in the back. Navigation is standard and blessedly simple. Alloy pedals and red-stitched leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob are cool. We especially liked the tachometer mounted in center that includes a digital readout for speed that's very easy to read. In fact, the speedometer redundant.
Fuel mileage is good, with the 6-speed manual delivering an EPA-estimated 22 City/30 Highway/25 Combined, and the 6-speed automatic bringing better numbers, 25/34/28 mpg. But that's on Premium fuel, because of the high compression ratio of the direct port injection engine, so fuel cost isn't as good as mpg appears.
The Subaru BRZ doesn't turn heads, at least not in plain silver like our test model. Scion has a couple colors for the FR-S that Subaru doesn't have, and colors on this car make a big difference. The BRZ looks like everything else and nothing else at the same time, and please don't ask us to explain. If it looks like anything else at all, it might be a cross between the Nissan 370Z and Mazda RX-8.
It's super low, with a roof height of only 50.6 inches, or .8 inches lower than that Porsche Cayman. The coefficient of drag is a sleek 0.29. But where it seems lowest is at the hood, with its 17-inch wheels jammed up inside wheelwells that rise above the hood. You see this especially from the inside, making the nose of the car look square, when viewed through the windshield. Sideview, the car's only distinction is those humps over the fenders. The wheels have many sharp spokes, some black and some alloy.
The nose looks like its designer knocked it out in an afternoon. Not that it's ugly, because it isn't; it's just simple, almost cookie-cutter. Big hexagon mouth, corners trimmed. HID headlamps are sharp triangles pointing toward the grille, like pizza slices smoothed out so they don't look like pizza slices.
The roof has a wide groove, and that adds distinction; it spreads out, so by the time it reaches the top of the rear window, most of the roof is groove. The sideview mirrors are sharpened, which is also neat, but it would be neater if they weren't black on the bottom half. There are some awful gray or black plastic things just forward of the sideview mirrors. Pseudo whats? Granted, they look good from a distance, but when you touch them, the rubbery plastic nearly falls off in your hand. There are plastic pretend air intakes at the corners of the front fascia, surrounding the foglamps on the BRZ Limited, but standing alone and making a statement (this car is cheap) on the (oxymoronic) standard Premium.
There's a Subaru six-star ornament on the nose, so you know what it is. At the tail, the lamps are round red LED lights that look good when they're lit up, with white wings that don't look so good, hiding amber turn signals. Twin tailpipes come out of the black diffuser that has vertical ridges that appear to have been copied from the Batmobile. Between the pipes there's a red triangle reflector that somebody forgot to remove from the European version (where it's a foglight), and a white backup light.
Maybe spartan isn't the best word to describe the BRZ interior, because spartan implies it's lacking, but spartan is how this car should be, so spartan is just right as far as we're concerned. It's slim. It has all you need, including navigation as standard equipment. It's simple navigation. It works. At least, it works when you use your fingers.
But you can forget the voice command part. Even a Subaru rep couldn't get the nav to get within about 2000 miles of where we wanted to go. You say “Washington” and it hears “Florida.” What else is new. In our experience, almost all of them are like that. You say you want pizza and it sends you out for barbecue. Although recently a Chrysler 300 we drove got it right.
We like the rugged fabric seats; they have an appropriate look and feel, not a cut-rate cloth feel. The bolstering is good and tight; maybe too tight, as very broad backs won't fit. The three-spoke steering wheel is leather-wrapped with red stitching, and looks cool. So do the alloy pedals, including the dead pedal that's very functional and great to have in a car like this.
Gauge-wise, there's a big tachometer in the center, with a small shift light on the left side of the dash; not the best place but better than nothing. The speedo to the left isn't very easy to read, but no matter; there's a digital display with your numbers in the middle of the tach, good to go by. Better, in fact. The easy-to-read orange digital display actually makes the speedometer unnecessary.
The standard screen is small, 6.5 inches, but big enough for the space, and its information and images are arranged in a tidy manner. Small buttons, touch screen, easy to reach.
Climate controls are three simple knobs. Two cupholders behind the leather-wrapped shift lever, no center console, decent glovebox, easy door handles and window buttons, good left armrest for cruising on the freeway, although it's low so you end up gripping the steering wheel down at about 7 o'clock. There's good visibility out the rear window, although the center brake light is mounted on little legs that cause it to obstruct a bit in the rearview mirror. Much worse is the big blind spot from the sloping C pillar, when the driver looks over his or her shoulder.
As for the rear seats, we're glad they're there, they're better than none at all. They work for kids. Small kids. The specs say there's 29.9 inches of rear legroom; really? That's more than two feet, sounds like a lot. But with the front seats in a reasonable driving position, we looked back and saw zero inches of rear legroom. If you want a sports car with real room in the back for passengers, get a Mazda RX-8.
The BRZ is tossable. Tossable tossable tossable. The rewards of great balance, supported by Michelin 215/45R17 summer performance tires and triggered by a quick steering ratio of 13.12:1. Pitch this baby around, it's so much fun. Stability control will save you without stopping you; but even if it didn't, you can still recover. We tried it both ways. All five ways, in fact. Actually, we couldn't tell much difference, a sign of good stability control.
With the stability control turned off we could get the BRZ to understeer, or push its front wheels, but that only happened after it oversteered, with the tail out. But we were trying to get the tail out, because like we said it's so easy and so much fun. A Torsen limited slip differential helps give the inside rear wheel traction in corners, especially accelerating hard out of second-gear curves.
At first we thought the gearbox might be notchy, putting it into gear from a standstill, but that's the last time we noticed, or cared. It's a very great short-throw gearbox, shifting neat and hard without fail. Rare triple-cone synchronizers in first, second and third gears let you slam it from fourth to third to second and even hard down into first. What helps is the clutch action and pedal position; easiest car to heel-and-toe downshift we've come across in a long, long time. The Nissan 370Z manual gearbox might blip for you, but who needs it. It's better to do it yourself when the car gets it right every time. When you climb out of the BRZ after a good session, be sure to look down and check out the cool alloy pedals, they'll make you smile and feel like Dan Gurney.
Alas, we didn't get a chance to drive a BRZ with the paddle-shifting 6-speed with sport mode and downshift blipping. We'd buy the manual, though.
One thing is, you'll need to know how to use the clutch when pulling out from a stop on hills. Even though Subaru invented the assist where the brakes stay on for a couple seconds, so you can get your foot from the brake pedal to the gas pedal without rolling backward, the BRZ doesn't have that feature because of its clutch.
The brakes do the job quite nicely. We used them good and hard, and liked the firm pedal feel. Ventilated 11.6-inch discs front and rear, twin-piston calipers in front and single-piston in back.
The engine revs to 7400 rpm, where the rev limiter drops your nose onto the red-stitched steering wheel, so don't go there. It won't get you there terribly fast, which you might notice at full throttle on a straight freeway on-ramp, but if you're between curves on a two-lane, acceleration is just right. The two-liter flat-four engine loves being in third gear at 6000 rpm, about 70 mph, if you can find a series of curves where that's about the top speed between them. The higher the revs, the happier it is, up to 7400.
Torque is only 151 foot-pounds, peaking at a high 6400 rpm, but we never would have guessed. The torque feels more available than those numbers suggest.
We liked the suspension, both the around-town ride and out there on the bumpy curves. It's not easy to find a suspension that works in all situations, especially when you're trying to make a car that handles great in the curves, and especially again when it's not a fancy suspension with different settings. But the Toyota and Subaru engineers have done it. The ride is firm, and you can definitely feel your butt moving up and down, sometimes even dancing up and down, but it never hurts. It just hugs the bumps and feels tight. And when you want it to be stable, in switchback curves, it is.
If 200 horsepower isn't enough for you, wait another year or so, when Subaru is bound to bring out a turbocharged version. They haven't said so, but surely they will. Or go ahead and buy this one and sell it a year from now; we suspect the price will stay up there, because at its introduction, dealers were asking and getting more than MSRP because demand was so great.
The Subaru BRZ hits the mark with every shot: engine, transmission, handling brakes, interior, exterior, and price.
Sam Moses filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report after his test drive of the BRZ in the Pacific Northwest.