HOOD RIVER, OR – It’s finally here. After months of waiting and speculation, the Subaru BRZ has surfaced in production form.
After a full day of road and track time, I can report that this new Subaru lives up to the hype. Move over Miata, you've got a legitimate competitor.
For those who haven't been burning up the Internet searching for news on this newest Subie, it is an all-new, affordable, rear-drive, two-door sports coupe co-developed with Toyota.
Subaru’s version will be called the BRZ globally. The Toyota sibling will be sold through Scion franchises in North America as the FR-S, and under the Toyota brand as the GT 86 in other parts of the world.
Ted Lalka, vice-president marketing, Subaru Canada described the BRZ as, "a sports car in the classic sense, lightweight, agile and stylish. But it is also comfortable and very versatile."
Lalka said the BRZ has created a lot of buzz. "Our challenge is getting new people into our showrooms; this car will help us do that," he said.
The fact it comes in rear-wheel-drive only will be a marketing challenge for a company that has built its reputation on "symmetrical-all-wheel-drive."
But you can expect to see heavy emphasis on the fact the BRZ and its Scion sibling are meant to be a return to the roots of the sports car – it's lightweight, and inexpensive, with the driving dynamics associated with rear-wheel-drive, thanks to a very low centre of gravity.
And low it is. The front end, especially the hood is much lower than would be possible with any other engine configuration beneath. The already low-profile boxer engine has been squished down even further through the use of a new intake system.
There are bulges where the front wheel wells protrude above the low hood line to permit Subaru’s traditional long-travel suspension.
There are also scalloped shapes above the driver and front seat passenger to provide more headroom and the truncated rear finishes off the impression a lot of design effort went into fitting everything into the smallest possible height and length.
The driver faces a set of gauges with the tachometer enjoying prominence. Within it is a digital readout for speed while the analog speedometer, with a 260-km top end lies to the left. It's a silly waste of space, as you will seldom use more than one-third of the instrument’s display and what you do need to see lies at the bottom, far from sight.
To the right of the tach is a pair of analog readouts for fuel and temperature. The centre stack controls large knobs for HVAC and a standard navigation system screen.
The interior is a comfy spot to spend time. I spent six hours in the BRZ and emerged unscathed – and I am not exactly small, young or limber! The rear seats are best left to little tots but will accommodate child seats.
The trunk is a useful size but the opening fairly small. Subaru claims it can hold a set of four racing tires and a helmet! Makes more sense than golf bags in a car like this.
Two trim levels
The BRZ comes in two trim levels, base and Sport Tech with a $2,000 price difference.
The $27,295 base model gets all the good stuff: air conditioning, power windows, locks and mirrors, 17-inch alloy wheels wrapped with summer tires, cruise control, height-adjustable driver’s seat, remote keyless entry, tilt & telescope steering wheel, HID headlights and a Pioneer touch-screen audio and navigation system.
The latter two items alone explain why the Scion will be $1,200 less expensive – it won’t have them.
Unfortunately you have to step up to the $29,295 Sport Tech model to get heated seats. You will also get: Alcantra/leather interior, dual zone climate control, keyless ignition and a trunk spoiler. If it weren’t for the heated seats I’d stick with the base model.
While the two companies may differ on who did what and when, they agree that Toyota was responsible for the styling and product planning and Subaru for the engineering, development and production. The cars for both companies are being built at a Subaru plant in Japan.
As if to stake its claim on where it all started, Subaru showed photos here of an early test mule – a two-door sports coupe, based on a Legacy platform – undergoing testing in 2007, long before Toyota acquired 16% of Fuji Heavy Industries, Subaru’s parent company.
Lalka also showed shots of a later tester based on the smaller Impreza platform that he had driven in Japan.
A jewel to drive
Whoever came up with the notion for an affordable, rear-drive sports coupe deserves some sort of medal or recognition. The result is a jewel.
A well-equipped base BRZ at $27,295 has the same suspension, steering, brakes and drivetrain as the fully optioned version at $30,495. I drove both extensively on public roads and on the track at Oregon Raceway Park, a 4-km jewel of a private racetrack rented for the occasion.
The BRZ feels like a 1250-kg go-kart with instant reaction to every steering input. The suspension consists of MacPherson struts up front and double wishbone at the rear.
Turn-in is crisp and if you disable the electronic nannies you can hang the tail out on exit. The low center of gravity pays dividends on the track with very little body roll, reduced weight transfer, and more consistent contact patches.
As we drove way from the track late in the day it dawned on me that we had driven the BRZs aggressively through mountain passes and alongside the Columbia River Gorge on the way to the track, hot-lapped them in anger for several hours and then driven them back to our hotel with nothing more than a change in tire pressure.
Everyone emerged with a smile, especially after the track session. This is an extremely well balanced and responsive sport car with a terrific six-speed manual gearbox. Short, crisp throws, well-defined gates and a smooth and progressive clutch action reminded me of the Mazda MX-5, the greatest praise I can think of.
The new six-speed automatic was equally impressive. Like the manual, it is sourced from Aisin and programmed specifically for this application. There are normal and sport modes, and in the latter it shifts 30% quicker and downshifted by itself going into corners on the road or track setting up for the exit with a rev-matching blip of the throttle.
A pair of paddles on the backside of the steering wheel allows you to play Sebastian Vettel if you like. This is one automatic that needs no excuses. Maybe it could find its way into other Subaru products instead of the CVT currently in use?
The BRZ gets an upgraded version of the horizontally-opposed four cylinder FB-20 engine introduced in the current Impreza last year. Displacing 2.0 litres, it produces 200 horsepower on premium fuel thanks in part to
a new Toyota-sourced direct injection system. The redline is a lofty 7,500 rpm.
Subaru says a BRZ with the manual transmission will be rated at 9.6-litres/100 in the city and 6.6 on the highway.
Could the BRZ use more power? Certainly, but so could everything this side of an AA Fuel dragster. The BRZ is all about balance and affordability. And that does leave room for turbocharged STi version down the road!
As it is, this is no slouch. The BRZ will hit 100 km/h from rest in a little over six seconds and the sounds it makes in the process are most un-Subaru-like. Some of this aural output can be enjoyed inside thanks to a "sound management" system that pipes it into the cabin.
Subaru says BRZ stands for Boxer Rear-wheel-drive Zenith. Sounds like a load of malarkey to me. I think BRZ stands for a truly impressive and desirable sports coupe