Subaru Gives Us Their Sports Car On Real Roads. Does It Deliver?

2013 Subaru BRZ

Last December, our wandering man of intrigue Jonathan Ramsey drove a Subaru BRZ prototype at Japan's Tochigi circuit under somewhat controlled conditions and was nonetheless very impressed. Then, in that same month, SoCal lad Michael Harley – he who knows a thing or two about hot-footing it on closed circuits – took the practically identical Scion FR-S for many unfettered laps on the island's short and sweet Sodegaura Forest Raceway. He, too, was left extremely enthused by the experience.

My turn now. We needed a real road test of the Subaru BRZ just to see if this car really does merit the "zenith" part of its name represented by its final letter. Can the stellar handling and light weight we've already raved about translate into something you could happily drive every day?

The roads on which Subaru sent me with their new star pupil could not be more appropriate: the ominous Route Napoleon in southern France. This is perfect, because the number of new car drives following the Geneva Motor Show has been mind numbing, and I frankly needed a spectacular car-and-road pairing to recharge my enthusiasm. I can think of no better combo for this than a promising sports car and this insanely technical French two-lane. I am here to find out if, in the real sporting car world, 200 horsepower and 151 pound-feet of torque are enough to keep the fire burning in me.

2013 Subaru BRZ side view2013 Subaru BRZ front view2013 Subaru BRZ rear view

If I'm being flat-out honest, only the Subaru WRX STI and 2.5 RS before it have ever inspired me much when it comes to Fuji Heavy Industries' body of work. Everything else they have done until now has always been appreciated, even the Brat and the Baja in their own particular weird ways. But for me, they have all, to a greater or lesser degree, felt like cars built by robot people for robot people. I enjoy it when the vehicle wrapped around me shows signs of body heat, of cardiac and pelvic passions, of risks to be taken. I love what the Japanese do for our industry, but the Europeans and Americans have generally cornered the market on flagrant driving machismo.

The Europeans and Americans have generally cornered the market on flagrant driving machismo.

Approaching the first long drive of the Subaru BRZ, all of this is going through my head, together with the preceding opinions from Messrs. Ramsey and Harley, plus a chorus of other career opinioneers. Will the power/torque numbers be enough? Will the 215-width Michelin summer tires feel like too small a footprint for consistent hookup through and out of the hundreds of incredible curves that await me? Is the handling of the BRZ indeed spectacular but the lower revs exhaust voice too plain? Do I even care about trying the six-speed Aisin automatic transmission with paddles and Sport mode?

For the entire day, as it turned out, my drive partner and I greedily protected our silver Subaru BRZ Limited with six-speed manual, also by Aisin. We did this because after just ten or so miles of driving, we both realized that this BRZ with its short-throw shifter was destined to be even more of a great car moment in our lives than we had anticipated.

2013 Subaru BRZ interior2013 Subaru BRZ front seats2013 Subaru BRZ gauges2013 Subaru BRZ shifter

Talk to any driving enthusiast who's been lucky enough to have spent a day on the Route Napoleon and they'll go on breathlessly about the road. But they will also frequently state that they "just wish" they'd had this or that other car rather than the one they actually had. Well, we hauled Gunma butt for roughly 200 miles with rarely a straight or flat section for pausing and collecting our thoughts. It's telling that at no point did I wish I was in any other car, because the BRZ, while certainly not the all-time quickest over this route, would prove to be the absolute epitome of this type of sports car. Get my drift here?

I felt as though I'd just driven a Porsche Cayman at less than half the price.

Long story short – and to all doubters who have only numbers on paper or computer to go by – the Subaru BRZ is one hell of a real sports car and, on roads like these, will beat the tar out of all legitimate comers selling for anywhere near the Subie's estimated $25,500, and many selling on up to $45,000. I was actually spotted shaking my head in disbelief while talking one-on-one with the BRZ's senior project manager, Toshio Masuda, following the drive. I felt as though I'd just driven a Porsche Cayman at less than half the price. Acceleration to 60 mph is estimated at below 7.0 seconds – some outlets have timed their examples at more like 7.3 – but straight-line gusto isn't really what this car is about.

Masuda-san was commendably forthcoming on the post-drive questions I had lined up. First off, the standard 17-inch wheel/tire combo can get as large as 18 inches, and tire width, even at 18 inches, can safely grow to as much as 235 – but only in the rear. The front tires need to stay at 215. The default damper and spring setup on the BRZ is so good under all road conditions that I had to ask who the supplier is. It's Japan's Showa for both, the conventional front MacPherson strut setup being of bespoke calibration, the rear damper/spring and whole double wishbone structure taken and modified from the WRX STI.

2013 Subaru BRZ headlight2013 Subaru BRZ side vent2013 Subaru BRZ wheel2013 Subaru BRZ taillight

The BRZ has the lowest center of gravity and best polar moment of inertia of any car you choose to compare.

With everyone in sports cars switching to electro-mechanical steering due to packaging and fuel efficiency gains, there has been a mess of opportunities over the past six months to see who's nailing it and who not so much. At one end, there is the distinctly sensory-deprived setup on the new Mercedes SL, then to the slightly less fuzzy steering on newer Audi models. Moving up the spectrum, there's the Porsche Boxster and on up to the new 911, which is pretty good (it's got the same ZF steering as the Boxster, so the fact that it's better than on the Boxster has to be down to sheer physics), and finally you hit the latest BMW 3 Series, which is spot-on for its segment. But the quick 13:1 ratio steering on the BRZ with electric actuation by Japan's Jtekt goes one better versus even the 3 Series. I had completely forgotten to even pay attention to it as such until the guy I was driving with blurt out, "The steering is really just so dang good. Doesn't feel one bit electronic."

These utterly responsive dynamics via the steering wheel, chassis and my inner ear are due to a sheaf of well-engineered decisions. Some of these details you might already know, but they bear repeating: First, the BRZ has the lowest center of gravity (18.1 inches from the tarmac) and best polar moment of inertia of any car you choose to compare – even a fully optioned Porsche Cayman S or Ferrari 458 Italia. This was Job One within the Suba-yota plan, if you will. Everything branched out from that fundamental requirement.

2013 Subaru BRZ interior

After that comes the light weight of the BRZ 2+2, which, in base trim with manual gearbox, starts at 2,762 pounds. That's more than 300 pounds lighter than a Mazda RX-8, close to 600 pounds less than a comparably equipped Hyundai Genesis Coupe and roughly 1,000 pounds less than the base Chevrolet Camaro V6. What we have here is the lightest, lowest, front-engined, rear-wheel-drive 2+2 in existence – a very good starting point for dynamic goodness.

A crucial part of this chemistry was getting that boat anchor we call the engine in the car to sit as low down and as far back as possible. The new FA20 naturally aspirated 2.0-liter boxer looks incredible compact sitting next to the Impreza's 2.0-liter. As it sits in the engine bay, it is mounted 4.7 inches lower down than the Impreza engine and pushed back toward the passengers some 9.5 inches. The battery has been mounted up and to the driver's right in the bay, again maximizing the 53:47 percent weight distribution fore:aft. This obsession with engine placement also led to the front suspension's lower A-arms being mounted ahead of the axle rather than typically rearward, a change that created a lower seating position for the FA20.

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Mix all this physics and engineering together, and the BRZ comports itself effortlessly well on real roads. The Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) in Normal mode will catch things when the tail strays a bit hard from the slip-angle safety zone, but it's not a violent clamping down on the proceedings. I was still wagging the tail nicely on the route's myriad hairpins, and the brake activation was meted out so as to blend pretty well with my driving style. Switching to VSC Sport and its higher thresholds allowed even smoother, slight drifts through entire hairpins.

The aftermarket will have a bit of a heyday playing with the BRZ's brakes, exhaust, and wheel-tire sets.

With the day's excellent conditions, though, I knocked off traction control (TRC) as well and the controlled high-rev dance began. With the confidence instilled by the BRZ's excellent chassis balance, the low amount of roll in turns, standard Torsen limited-slip differential in back, and the exceptional road feel from the tight 14.4-inch diameter steering wheel, we didn't lose our cool once out there, no matter how hairy the road became. Then with the front wheel camber at zero degrees and the rear set at negative 1.2 degrees, the BRZ gave me more and more permission to safely test my skills.

The braking action from the BRZ's seemingly very ordinary discs and calipers – 11.6-inch diameter front with two-piston caliper and 11.4-inch rear with single piston – was never an issue on this day. That's partially because when quickly backing off the throttle, the momentum can be peeled away pretty effectively from the powertrain. It's clear, though, that the aftermarket will have a bit of a heyday playing with the BRZ's brakes, exhaust, and wheel-tire sets. They may even do their own forced induction experiments and they'll certainly play with the coupe's aesthetics for better or worse.

2013 Subaru BRZ traction settings

The naturally aspirated boxer uses port injection at lower revs, but at the tachometer's higher end it uses Toyota-sourced direct injection as well. Despite all of that, it still has a little of that Japanese raspy tenor going on. But the 4-2-1 performance exhaust coupled with the intake valvetrain has finally given a standard Subaru a pleasingly huskier sound (short of an STI or one of the UK or Japan special spec models, I don't recall having this much aural entertainment). Naturally, the revs need to be up there for the rear pipes to make as much or more sound as the engine compartment, but I was staying in the higher revs all day anyway to get the most from this powertrain, so the soundtrack was definitely adequate.

The manual gearbox and its heel-and-toe friendly pedal set is so engaging that anything else comes a distant second.

Of course, there's the unavoidable debate for the BRZ/Scion FR-S/Toyota GT 86 clan: Could this car do with more power and torque? As driven here, blipping the free-revving four up to its 7,450-rpm redline over real-life roads, there is a certain style of driving needed, and it's a style I really like. Thankfully, though power of 200 horses is quoted as maxing at 7,000 revs, the FA20 up through its 1:1 fifth gear just keeps on pulling without signs of plateauing – even at max revs. The engine's 151 lb-ft of torque number is so unimpressive, though, and I found myself downshifting frequently to second where it would have been nice to settle in third. Though the EPA rates the manual BRZ at a 25-mile-per-gallon average city/highway (the automatic sits at 28 mpg), my copilot and I managed to register a somewhat naughtier 16-mpg average during our day of heady driving.

I did get to ply through the automatic gearbox briefly, and it is not as gratifying as the manual. The fact that the automatic's 1:1 ratio is fourth gear would pretty much eliminate it from contention for me. In Sport mode, it works quite nicely, but the manual gearbox and its heel-and-toe friendly pedal set is so engaging that anything else comes a distant second.

2013 Subaru BRZ engine

I asked Masuda-san point-blank if indeed there will be an STI-style turbocharged BRZ by the time this generation reaches the middle of its life in two-and-a-half or three years. A number came out of his mouth that raised my eyebrows. "In future, there is the thought to have as much as 280 horsepower." Well, uh, gosh, that's even a bit more than I was gambling for. "And we are," he went on, "thinking very much about the possibility of a turbocharger." So, could we be digging on somewhere around 250 pound-feet of torque? The master would not confirm or deny, but he did say that such a model would probably not use the acronym STI.

"In future, there is the thought to have as much as 280 horsepower."

One sad note: The very nice protruding two exhaust tips on my test car are only available on BRZs sold outside of North America. Our exhausts will be somewhat tucked away under the rear crash bumper as per safety regulations. Other differences versus the Euro-spec car tested here include the addition of a spare tire, standard sat-nav system and no optional aero underbody panel for us as in the rest of the world. In addition, the outer reflector on the taillights will be red and the inner reflector in the headlamps will be amber. Finally, an inconvenient truth: Split rear seatbacks are not available.

As for the overall look, I personally tune into it pretty strongly since I'm a closet late-90s Toyota Celica SR/GT and original Opel GT fan. The 52-inch wide body color rear spoiler looks fine by me as well and comes standard on the Limited top trim, while it's a cost accessory on the base Premium spec. After staring at silver and blue BRZs all day, the only thing that bothered me a bit was the taillight shape seemingly taken from a Chevrolet.

2013 Subaru BRZ rear 3/4 view

As it stands now, comments regarding tires and torque and brakes are naturally going to come out while doing laps at a hot track. This launch model is not a racer, it's a classic sports car for not too much scratch (the sort of enthusiast's car that Porsche flirted with offering until the mid 1970s). The Premium trim ought to start, as stated, somewhere north of $25,000, the top trim Limited at just over $27,000. Options and accessories are almost non-existent for the moment. If you must go automatic – only 30 percent of initial orders are thus – then the BRZ could start reaching toward $30k. But with just 500 cars per month allotted to the U.S. and 600 Subaru dealers therein, I can already smell the greed in the air. There'll be a few disappointing dealer tales, to be sure, as there were for small volume sportsters like the BMW 1M Coupe.

The excitement around this trio of light and tight 2+2s from Japan is warranted. Every single ingredient of the BRZ's feature set, price point, lack of availability and performance will work together to cause an abundance of well-deserved hype, and perhaps more than a bit of dealer price gouging if Subaru isn't careful.

From my perspective, of the Toyobaru trio, buyers should probably go for this Subie. It's the original of the three, it's built in a Subaru factory and it runs on the company's FA20 flat four. That just feels right. Either way, at these modest sticker prices, the BRZ is one of those unbelievable deals for which the U.S. car market is both envied and reviled by all others. Get in line, sports fans.