"Mad Sunday" is a day reserved for those whose fear of death has been muted. A staggering 237 professional racers have perished on the Snaefell Mountain Course (between the Isle of Man TT and Manx Grand Prix). There's no way of knowing what exactly posses these amateur drivers to tackle this dangerous and deadly road, but many of them never make it back.
This wasn't exactly the information that I was looking for after a full day of flying from Los Angeles, but it served an important purpose. Myself and 5 other journalists were going to become a few out of a handful of people in the world to tackle the Mountain Course on four wheels instead of two the following day, and we needed to be mentally prepared for just how grueling and mentally taxing it was going to be. The constant reminders of the death and mutilation this normally quiet and beautifully pristine place produces sharpened our focus.
This is a place meant for the experts – and the insane.
Yet, I found myself behind the wheel at the starting line in a 2013 Subaru BRZ, surrounded by thousands of onlookers, hands on the steering wheel in a death grip hoping to stop them from trembling. I was in a car I had never driven, in a place I had never been and on a course I had never experienced. It was terrifying.
Acutely aware of every breath I drew while waiting for the go-ahead, I adjusted my seat one last time and jiggled the shifter. Then came a crackling voice on the radio: "Let's go!"
Professional driver Mark Higgins launched from the starting line and one by one, the six of us dumped our clutches and mashed the our gas pedals to the floor. The BRZ's 2-liter engine roared to life, creating such a big noise for such a small engine that it drowned out my fears. Somewhere around second gear, I forgot how scared I was and gave into the road and the BRZ.
One with the machine
Simply put, the 2013 Subaru BRZ is a fantastic vehicle. You'll be hard pressed to find a dissenting opinion in the industry right now. The 2.0-liter H4 boxer engine isn't big and the power numbers aren't going to blow anyone away (200 HP, 151 lb-ft of torque), but this vehicle more than makes up for that with incredible steering dynamics, great suspension, super low center of gravity and lightweight body.
Keeping RPMs at around 5,000, I could shoot the rear-wheel drive BRZ effortlessly out of tight corners and hit speeds of up to 120 MPH on straightaways. While the motorcyclists see 200+ mph on this track, just breaching triple-digits was more than enough for a white-knuckle experience.
There was no point during my lap that I felt I pushed the BRZ too hard and, believe me, I gave it my all. Keeping up with Higgins – who was taking it easy – required me to drive to the edge of my skills. I quickly learned that engineers at Subaru meticulously created the dynamics of this vehicle so that the driver can trust it at performance speeds. Even when I came into a corner too hot, the excellent grip of the stock tires and a little help from traction control made it so I lost minimal speed and never felt as though I was going off the track and into the crowd (which apparently happens from time to time – oh, the humanity!).
Even at one point, as we came over the famous Ballaugh Bridge, the road dropped out, and the BRZ went airborne for an exhilarating half-second of weightlessness. When I crashed down to earth, the BRZ picked right back where it left off, always remaining under my control.
Through forests, towns and over the mountain we went, pausing twice to rescue stranded motorcyclists who had crashed during a previous race. With each passing minute and each turn that the BRZ effortlessly conquered, my fear and apprehension melted away, turning to pure jubilance and awe. Uphill, downhill, over smooth straight-aways and bumpy patches, the BRZ ate the road up and seemed to growl for more. For 20 minutes of pure heart-pounding bliss, Subaru exceeded every expectation and rendered every doubt about its specs on paper utterly moot.
Though it was a 37-mile lap, it seemed like so much less. It was truly mentally exhausting, but, upon reflection, I realized how easy the BRZ made it for me. The bottom line is that the BRZ just works. Knowing that even the slightest lapse in concentration could have led to my untimely demise off of a cliff, into the trees or into a building, no part of the car served as an unnecessary distraction – from the seats which were quite comfortable to the easy climate control to the shifter which is responsive with a very agreeable throw – I was thoroughly impressed and don't think I ever stopped smiling, even after it was all over.
After my lap, while I sat sipping on a cold beer and thinking about the car, I became convinced that Subaru has honestly achieved what so many sports cars strive for: A vehicle that feels like an extension of the driver's mind and body. For an incredible 20 minutes, I was one with a machine. It read my thoughts, perfectly executed my actions and gave me a ride I certainly won't soon forget.
Off the track
But believe it or not, I think the most compelling evidence that the BRZ is a brilliant car became clear to me while I drove it off the track. Plain and simple: This car is a lot of fun, even at a mere 30 or 45 mph. Since the reality is that most people don't have the opportunity to push a car to its limits without fear of police intervention, having an enjoyable experience at everyday speeds is what really makes a sports car like this worth buying.
The day after track day, we were taken on a tour of the beautiful island (taking great care to drive on the left, which was a first for me) on public roads that were actually subject to speed limits. This was where the true value of the BRZ to the consumer became obvious. For a starting price of just $25,495, BRZ buyers get – in addition to the fantastic little engine and driving dynamics – 22 mpg City and 30 mpg highway, Bluetooth, voice-activated navigation, a solid sound system and lots of safety features, among other things. That's a freaking bargain.
Speed limits are modest on the Isle of Man, especially through the towns, and the police were out in force. But even cruising along at 40 mph was a great time. The BRZ still corners just as well, accelerates quickly and sounds beautiful at these speeds. It truly excels at daily driving.
Where the BRZ doesn't excel, though, is in versatility, which is to be somewhat expected. If you have a family or are frequently lugging lots of stuff, you'll have to look for something else, as the backseat is somewhat cramped and there is only 6.9 cubic feet of cargo space (by comparison, small sedans like the Hyundai Elantra have more than twice that). The car isn't going to be ideal for a long road trip, as well, as engine noise is going to get on your nerves after a while and the seats aren't meant for relaxing.
Unfortunately, I didn't get to play with the infotainment as much as I would have liked. Honestly, I just loved the sound of that engine (and you will, too) and I didn't want to ruin the experience. Plus, the Isle of Man has about three radio stations and, since the cars were U.S.-spec, the GPS didn't work abroad. The little bit of time I did play around, though, made it seem pretty intuitive. Nothing mind blowing, but certainly functional.
One final note that deserves some attention: The BRZ looks awesome. The designers have done a great job of creating a car that looks appealing to almost all tastes. It has a mean stance and curves that make it look fast even when standing still, but isn't so ostentatious that it's going to turn people off. You're going to get noticed in this car, but not in a bad way, especially in the bright blue paint like that of my tester.
The car performed admirably at fast and slow speeds, through town and country, on wet and dry pavement. All in all, the BRZ is one of the most enjoyable cars I have driven in a while. In fact, I'd say the BRZ is on par with and, in some ways, better than the Mazda Miata, which has been one of the best affordable sports cars on the market for years and years.
Subaru has created a gem with the BRZ that appeals to both the seasoned driving enthusiast and average Joe. Affordable, fun and fast, this vehicle is sure to be an enjoyable drive almost every time you get behind the wheel -- even without the specter of death breathing down your neck.
Editor's Note: It has been brought to our attention that the death statistics cited from an unofficial source (the guide on the trip) are in conflict with the race's official statistics not available at the time of publication. Where necessary, the numbers have been amended.