A couple of years ago we passed the point at which there were no more truly bad cars. If someone asked us, "Which car should we definitely avoid," it was hard to give a categorical answer. Sure, there were cars we didn't (and still don't) like, but no matter how personally averse we might be to even some current cars, we can't name one that's objectively awful.
Naturally, then, if everything is decent then the only place to go is... better. That's how you get to a brand like Subaru deciding to make a sports car and using, as a guide, the Porsche Cayman. And we do mean literal guide. During testing, Subaru engineers took a white Cayman on their international travels. We don't blame them. When the brief is to build "a pure handling sports car," where better to start than with the company that practically wrote and constantly revises the bible of handling, Porsche?
As a brief for a company like Subaru to have – a company not known for sports cars and that hasn't sold a two-wheel-drive car in the U.S. since the last millennium, which were front-wheel-drive wagons – that's impressive enough. What's more impressive is that they actually did it.
Subaru head of Corporate Communications Michael McHale started off his presentation with these sound bites: "The type of engine and where it is, those are the two things about the car. Everything else comes from there... The engine is as low down and far back as it can possibly be," and "We didn't start by saying it had to be rear-wheel drive, we started by saying it had to have the engine in a certain place. Handling first, RWD second."
The result, as we know by now, is the BRZ – B is for Boxer, R is for Rear-wheel drive, Z is for Zenith, as in the best. The quest was to "get a new level of driving confidence," and that resulted in traditional sports car themes: low, with short overhangs, a compact engine and a low center of gravity. The CoG is lower than a Ferrari 458 Italia, and at 18.1 inches it's also lower than the Cayman, the Mazda Miata and RX-8, and the BMW M3.
B is for Boxer, R is for Rear-wheel drive, Z is for Zenith, as in the best.
Low weight was also a priority. Subaru said the target was 2,700 pounds, and according to the numbers we were given, they beat it by about half a sack of potatoes, coming in at 2,689. Although that's 100 pounds less than a Civic SI and 600 less than a Mustang, it's better to judge the BRZ against a more natural competitor: the BRZ is 10 hp and 73 lb-ft down on the Hyundai Genesis Coupe, but is about 600 pounds lighter.
The engine is an all-new design called the FA, with a perfectly square stroke of 86x86 and a variable-valve control system that Subaru calls AVCS, for active valve control system. The FA was developed for and only used in this car, "at least for the time being." On the required premium gas, Subaru's numbers are 200 horsepower and 150 pound-feet, with reps at a loss to explain why Toyota rates the same engine – that Subaru builds – at 197 horsepower. The FA is smaller than the Impreza's FB engine, achieved with items such as a shorter and lower intake manifold, a shallower bottom on the transmission, and revised, more compact lubrication system. Subaru then placed components in different places to get the engine further back in its bay, like making the intake manifold front-facing and placing the crankshaft 60 mm lower. The induction system was shorted to reduce overhangs, and the radiator was tilted 17 degrees to improve the center of gravity. Compared to the Impreza, the BRZ's engine is placed 120 mm lower and 240 mm further back.
And that's why there's no turbo, and no plans to include one – the engine occupies the space where Subaru would normally bolt one on. They moved so many things around, we don't know why they couldn't have been just as creative with some forced induction, but the company's traditional placement of the intercooler atop the engine simply wouldn't have worked. Subaru plans a longer life-cycle for the car, six to seven years instead of four to five, and it was strongly hinted that we would see a power bump during a mid-cycle refresh – but not a turbocharged bump. We were told as well, though, that this engine will be the base of Subaru's next-generation turbocharged engine.
There's no turbo, and no plans to include one.
The engine placement necessitated changes to the front suspension: the MacPherson struts needed to be revised in order to maintain the low profile of the aluminum hood and keep the desired stroke, and the A-arms are reversed, pointing forward. The mounting point has been strengthened by adding an aluminum box section. That aluminum hood saves 15 pounds over the Impreza hood, and of the 400 materials used for the body, there is more high-strength steel on this car than on an Impreza in order to keep weight where it's wanted.
The final numbers: overall height is 50.6 inches with a ground clearance of 4.9 inches, length is 167 inches and wheelbase 101.2 inches, the width is 69.9 inches with a track of 59.8 inches in front and 60.6 inches in the rear. Balance is estimated to be around 53 percent in front, 47 percent in the rear. The company doesn't have official numbers on gas mileage but predicts 30 on the highway.
It's a good looking car, its most poignant ornamentation being the two bulges over the front and rear wheels, its stretched (and non-functional) hood vent a nice touch. The lightweight aluminum wheels are about the only visual cue that strikes us as a little off, or rather, the 215/45R17 tires: They're so skinny. Other markets will be offered 16-inch wheels, but we'll only get the 17s. We were told that the BRZ can handle 18-inch, 45-aspect-ratio tires, and we won't be surprised to see them quickly bolted on. On the matter of bolt-ons, though, Subaru won't be offering much alteration to the car off the dealer floor, but we were informed that the STI division is already at work on a host of parts.
The company doesn't have official numbers on gas mileage but predicts 30 on the highway.
The rear wing is optional, part of a performance package that also expands the underfloor treatment. Yet another reversal on this car, the spoiler is only for aerodynamics, not to reduce lift. With the wing in place, the coefficient of drag is actually reduced by less than a point, to 0.27.
Subaru has plenty of experience making the most of black plastic, and the BRZ cabin doesn't let down, with various textures and minor bits of trim like metal-look finishing on the center console and (Legacy) door handles, and contrasting stitching on the shift boot and (Legacy) handbrake handle being enough to break things up. On top of that, the seats are excellent. Large bolsters hug the driver properly, and the canted, adjustable headrest doesn't jut into the back of your head. Specifically designed for this car, they save 2-3 kilos compared to the seats in the Impreza. Base spec will be cloth, which really means cloth bolsters with a "sporty fabric" on the facings, and leather and Alcantra, with leather being on the bolsters. Both of them are nice to behold. The BRZ is classified as a 2+2, and even the back seats are serviceable for passengers of decent height, due to the smaller, saddle-shaped fuel tank they sit atop – if you must, you can fit a front-facing child seat in the rear.
You can also lower the rear seatback, making more room for the 6.9-cubic-foot trunk. With the seats down the cargo bay will hold two standard golf bags, and with the front passenger seat down as well the BRZ can hold a set of racing tires, a helmet and basic tools. Another concession to racers: the instrument panel was designed so that a roll cage could be installed without having to cut through any metal.
The instrument panel was designed so that a roll cage could be installed without having to cut through any metal.
We got short stints behind the wheel of both the six-speed manual and the automatic at Subaru's Test and Development Center in Tochigi prefecture, two loops on the high-speed oval (limited to the middle lane) and a couple of blasts around the handling course. The handling course, as one might expect, is tight, and so not really made to show off the BRZ, which we were told was designed for high-speed corners. There was also a short section with two different surfaces imitating American roads, one a typical highway and one a California highway.
We bemoan the lack of manuals in high-end sports cars, but this price segment is wonderfully thick with them and many are delightfully good. The BRZ is no exception. The transmission is from Aisin (the automatic, too), but 80 percent of its components were swapped to enhance feel and quicken shifts, and it was given triple-cone syncros on gears 1 and 3. It has shorter spacing and quicker throws, and runs through its six speeds smartly. Another nod to manual operation is that the pedal rake is different for either transmission, and the pedal throw is shorter on the manual to make heeling-and-toeing easier.
We pulled out onto the oval and worked up to speed. Two hundred horsepower is enough for the sub-2,700-pound coupe, with the urgent-enough grunt, plentiful road feedback and engine noises making it feel like things were happening, but we wouldn't complain about more, a fact which shouldn't surprise you (the BRZ GT's 300 hp, anyone?). We aren't alone: One of the engineers, when asked what how he might alter the coupe, said "For the handling there's nothing to do, but yes, maybe a little more power."
Two hundred horsepower is enough for the sub-2,700-pound coupe.
The MT BRZ also sounds like a sports car – it's what the English would call "rorty," with an engine note that fills the cabin whenever you call for action, getting a little help from the sound amplifier. When you get into the meat of the power band beyond 3,000 rpm, the boxer four is asking for attention, at 4,500 rpm it's intense, at 5,500 rpm it's telling you "We gotta make something happen here," and at 7,000 it's a 12-banshee wail. With one hand on the shift knob and the accompanying acoustics, you'll never wonder what gear you're in. Even so, it is mild when you're not pushing it, whether that's puttering around a parking lot or cruising at 90.
In spite of what McHale said were the two handles for getting a grip on the car – "What kind of engine and where it is" – we think the BRZ only needs this one, another McHale statement: "It's about handling." No, make that three: handling, handling, handling. Engine compactness and placement might be how they got to it, but what the BRZ meant to us was the way it dealt with the road.
The stiffness of the BRZ's body and low center of gravity allow the suspension to focus on dealing effectively with the tarmac while also not killing the ride quality. Side benefits of that stiff body, and the help it gives to the suspension, are in details like the tires, which don't need ultra-stiff sidewalls to fight cornering forces. That helps general comfort, too.
There is but a tiny amount of body roll when making quick lane changes at 70 mph, and when in the middle lane of the banked corner at 100 we felt the entire coupe settle – thanks to centrifugal force – but there was no sensation of the passenger's side taking a dive. More telling was lapping the oval in the bottom, flat lane, where we could do 100 miles an hour just as easily as on the bank. The electronic power steering is sorted, with a dash of give so you're not constantly tweaking the wheel but also not sloppy in the least; without the assistance of the banking the steering never called attention to itself. Once we had the wheel set for the radius, there was no concern about getting around at triple-digit speeds – just a hint of the suspension compressing with such little fuss that we were certain we could have gone faster.
The Toyota/Scion version has softer suspension settings up front, harder settings in the rear.
Brake dive has also been minimized – in fact, there's practically none. The double-wishbone rear suspension uses the same components as the Impreza WRX STI, but with different geometry and detailing: pillow-ball joints replace rubber bushings on the wishbone arms (the WRX STI has pillow-ball joints on the front, not the rear, while the BRZ doesn't have them up front), hard rubber bushings are used on the trailing arm to keep the rear down, and a special valving was developed for the dampers to provide a suitable compromise between highway hop (over frequent expansion joints as on California highways), roll, maneuverability and stability. Of note, we were told that the Toyota/Scion version has softer suspension settings up front, harder settings in the rear.
The handling course had a top speed of 30 mph through the corners and 45 mph on the straights, which we're not sure if we should admit we broke, but... we did. The BRZ acquitted itself well, the zero-dive braking and turning letting one focus on timing and getting the wheels placed where we wished and keeping them there, which made it easier to get out of the corner – because with "just" 200 hp to play with, every bit of momentum you can maintain is precious gold. The eminently grippable steering wheel is the smallest Subaru makes, at 14.4 inches it's ¾-inch smaller than the next size up, and its 13:1 ratio doesn't demand much sawing to get through hairpins. Pushed as much as we could (noting the Subaru engineers posted at every corner), even with VDC off we were getting to the point of admitting "Now we're just getting crazy" before the front or back end stepped out of line. And yes, you can turn VDC completely off.
In keeping with being told that the car is meant for high-speed cornering, however, the brakes might also see some upgrades before long. They're two-piston up front, single-piston in the rear, and they get a workout even with the car's light weight. Go for broke on a turny, tight course and it won't take long to fill the air with the tangy perfume of hot discs and pads.
The eminently grippable steering wheel is the smallest Subaru makes.
The only odd note here was the speedometer. It is placed to the left of the center-position tachometer, with zero at the bottom, and the needle swings clockwise. It has so many hashmarks and numbers that it took too much effort to read, so, à la any Aston Martin, we only looked at the digital speedo inside the tachometer.
Because the BRZ is about handling and does that job so well, we knew we'd be happy in the automatic-equipped version as long as it shifted properly. And ye gods, it did. The Aisin unit is a conventional autobox, reworked by 20 percent to improve its clutches, shift times, gear-holding response and even alterations to its mapping if you're driving uphill or downhill. In both normal and sport modes, it will be happy to stay in the fat of the power band, it will hold gears during cornering and rev-match on the way down. It doesn't always allow downshift multiple gears at once, but there are times when you can hop down two gears instantly depending on engine and car speed.
It has paddle shifters and a manual mode, and if you don't shift at all it will automatically upshift when you're in the overrev. Otherwise, in Sport it will upshift at about 5,500, and you get quicker shifting. The in-cabin sound amplification is set up differently on the automatic, so the cabin is quieter than in the manual. You don't notice it down low or when cruising, but push it some and it's noticeably less raucous inside. It is quick to work the gears when we wanted more juice on the oval, and it did a good job when we left it to shift on the handling course. We probably could get another 15 percent out of it during the artificially limited running, but we suffered no "Hey tranny, what are you doing?" moments. It never let the coupe down, and the package worked well enough that, taking into account its quieter cabin, we can fully admit that the auto will make perfect sense even for people who want a part-time sports car.
The BRZ goes on sale next March and options will be few.
To you in Southern California, though, if Subaru's concrete samples were accurate, then you will find that those nasty, grooved highways like the 10 and 405 are not kind when it comes to cabin noise.
When the BRZ goes on sale next March it will come standard with navigation, the 6.1-inch display, 196-watt AM/FM/single CD stereo, iPod and USB connections and Bluetooth, and heated mirrors. Options will be few, namely convenience items like the leather and Alcantara buckets, heated seats, dual-zone climate control and keyless access.
Subaru doesn't expect high volumes for the car, just 5,000 to 7,000 per year. The Cayman comparisons aren't out of place, nor is the suggestion – again made by McHale – that Subaru built a car that feels like a sports car from 20 or 30 years ago. True, it isn't a Cayman, but it will cost easily 20 grand less than a Cayman* and yet provides easily more than seven-tenths of the Cayman's pure cornering ability, and that's probably closer to eight-tenths, but we won't know until we get more time with the car. And it does bring back happy days of yore passed on Midwestern back roads in '80s Celica Supras and Preludes and first-gen Miatas. Those were good times, and so is the BRZ.
The asterisk is because we still don't know pricing, which we were told should come sometime around next February's Chicago Auto Show, and we think price will play an exceptionally heavy role in this car's fate. We heard every number from $22,000 to "somewhere around the WRX," which is $25,595, to $28,000. Of the broad competitive set Subaru listed, a 210-hp Genesis 2.0T Coupe starts at $22,250, a 300-hp V6 Mustang is $23,105, the Mazda Miata is $23,190 and the RX-8 is $26,795.
We heard every number from $22,000 to "somewhere around the WRX" to $28,000.
There is no doubt about whether the car does what it was built to do – it handles terrifically, it sounds great especially if you're a fan of high-revving fours, it's a solid shifter with either transmission and a pleasant cabin. Yet Subaru hasn't played in this space before and they're expecting this to be a conquest vehicle. We think in order to give it the attention it deserves it needs to have a price that makes it impossible to ignore, at least for a test drive and serious think. Having not driven its biggest competitor and close twin yet, the Scion FR-S, we'll say for now that if Subaru can put a good sticker on the BRZ's window, then – as the engineer suggested to us – it needs nothing else.
Except maybe a little more power, because we're greedy like that.