Is the simple Subaru BRZ as effective on the road as early reports suggest it is on track? Matt Saunders finds the answer on the Route Napoleon, with an MX-5 and 370Z in tow.
We’ve come to the Cote d’Azur to find out one thing. Has the Subaru BRZ earned its place at the top table alongside the likes of the Mazda RX-7, Nissan 200SX and Toyota Supra.
All the early signs have been good. Handling-related superlatives flowed after a track test in a prototype last year; just as they did after a circuit session in the Toyota GT 86. But you couldn’t say for sure without spending time on really testing roads, could you? Preferably with a couple of other modern Japanese sporting greats along for the ride.
And with the promise of a BRZ on the mountain roads of the Cote d’Azur, a pair of modern Japanese sporting greats is exactly what we’ve lined up.
The inclusion of the Mazda MX-5 is justified not only by the uncomplicated amusement value it offers, but also by the fact that it is the world’s biggest-selling sports car. If the Subaru can match the Mazda’s for smiles-per-pounds-spent, it’ll be doing very well indeed.
Mirroring that ‘less is more’ appeal is the Nissan 370Z, which remains one of very few sub-£30k, six-pot, rear-drive performance cars on offer. Could it confirm nagging doubts that the Toyobaru’s 197bhp, four cylinders and 7.5sec 0-60mph aren’t sufficient?
How it came to be?Although both Subaru and Toyota would take credit for the originality and authenticity of their sports car, the fact is neither company could have produced it on its own.
Four years ago, Toyota had the will, the vision and the investment. But nowhere to build it and no capacity to develop it beforehand. Subaru had the production and engineering facilities, many of the mechanical building blocks you’d need for a great sporting rear-driver and the desire for the brand development that such a car could achieve. But without greater potential sales volume, it could never have made the sums work.
Then in 2007, Katsuaki Watanabe, ex-president of Toyota secretly met with Ikuo Mori, president of Subaru parent Fuji Heavy Industries. In 2008, as Toyota announced an increase in its minority stake in FHI, the Toyobaru plan went public. Toyota would design the car, and put up the lion’s share of the finances; Subaru would engineer and develop it, and produce it at its plant in Gunma. They would develop their own marketing strategies, but Toyota’s bigger cash pot would deliver them the majority of production.
That’s how Subaru ended up with a sports car that looks unlike anything else in its line-up – exactly like a modern Toyota sports coupé, in fact. It does have one of Subaru’s inimitable throbbing boxer engines under bonnet; an engine with a massive influence over the motive character of the BRZ. Its size, shape, location and output all make contributions to a dynamic repertoire that makes this car as distinctive as it is effective on the road.
But before probe at the periphery of its range of abilities, there are some static considerations understand. As much as lightness and compactness are key in the modern car-making business, they are also BRZ cornerstones. It measures 4240mm from nose to tail, so it’s within a foot of the length of the Mazda MX-5. More remarkable still, it weighs just 1202kg, or 1239kg if you go for a Premium version like our test car. Our diminutive 2.0-litre MX-5 Coupé Cabriolet – a car held as the most convincing argument for lightness and simplicity in a mass-market sports car – is heavier than our test BRZ by around 10kg.
Our 370Z carries a penalty of almost 300kg compared with the BRZ – something its brawny V6 and wide, 18-inch tyres may struggle to cover.
Equally confusing is the BRZ is the only four-seater here. They’re usable, too; big enough for a medium-sized adult on a short hop, which seems a bit of a masterstroke in a car with a longways engine, driven rear wheels and the same wheelbase as a Mini Clubman.
The front seats are comfortable for touring yet supportive for hard driving, and its seating position is spot on. You don’t feel constrained in it, as bigger drivers will in the Mazda. Unlike in the Nissan, the pedal and wheel positioning is absolutely perfect.
The BRZ’s fascia is functional but does the car credit. It escapes a bargain-basement feel with a tactile sculptural platform of a dashboard, and some uncomplicated, modern design on the climate control console and in the instrument cluster. The Nissan’s feels like a more stylish and special, whereas the Mazda’s is showing its age. But rich and stylish cabin ambience has never been what the MX-5 is all about, and the BRZ just feels like a slightly larger and newer car from the same mould.
In search of funThis Subaru is a slow-burner, and in more than one sense. Crawling and bumbling around city streets en route to the epic Route Napoleon, it does little to pique your fun receptors. It’s an easy car to drive, and fairly comfortable. The chassis is firm but quiet and the damping is a bit hard-nosed over uneven town asphalt, but it’s compliant enough most of the time. Despite its offbeat growl, that atmospheric boxer engine doesn’t serve the kind of torque to make the car hint at the amusement you might be having elsewhere. Which is something the Nissan is very adept at.
There are signs – telltale suggestions of the restrained athlete you’ve yet to reveal. The BRZ’s power steering is one of them. It’s medium heavy, but even around urban bends and roundabouts, it provides immaculate feedback from the front tyres direct to your palms. You know exactly how much you’re asking those contact patches to do, and how much they could offer. The brake pedal feel is excellent; progressive, easy to modulate, strong but not over-assisted. Proper sports car brakes, these.
When you leave the urban grind and the road empties and starts to climb, however, you’re worried about only one thing: is it quick enough?
The Zed certainly is. You don’t need much more than 3000rpm before the Nissan’s 3.7-litre V6 hurls this long-nosed throwback forward with inscrutable urgency. It’d bolt away from the other two cars down any straight, and on less perfidious old mountain roads than these, it would quite soon be in a completely different département altogether.
But Nissan’s Z-car has always monstered its opposition on bang for your buck. It’s grip, delicacy and composure that it lacks. Should a 370Z appear in the rear-view mirror of your Subaru BRZ, you’ve got every chance of keeping it there providing you’re on the right road. And you’ll have a whale of a time in the process.The Subaru needs to be wound to at least 5000rpm before the car will lunge onward like a fully-fledged performance car. Below that, you could even be overtaken by a mid-range Peugeot 205.
Above that, with peak torque chiming in between 6400rpm and 6600rpm, Subaru’s flat four takes is fizzy and flamboyant. Enough to excite the BRZ’s driver and enliven its chassis. Enough to make our little Mazda feel distinctly lower-rung, even though it’s still rewarding. But not so much to make you feel irresponsible about giving the BRZ its head on the road.
Exercising the same commitment corner after corner, you discover all that fuss was 100 per cent deserved. A low centre of gravity means roll control is first rate. That enhances the sense of accuracy you get from the BRZ’s steering, and contributes to balance and agility of genuinely breathtaking order. Turn-in is instinctive. The BRZ takes no time to settle into a steady cornering state, even under high lateral loads. The engine’s linear power curve gets together with the torque-sensing limited-slip differential to allow you to play with the car’s cornering attitude in a spellbindingly delicate and precise fashion.
This is a sports car first and a fast car second – which is refreshing to report. While the BRZ’s limits are impressive, it’s more the breadth and habitability of the margins of its handling that end up holding your imagination hostage. You don’t need to goad it. Just drive it with the same smooth composure and exactness that characterises the car vividly. Once you’re on terms with it, it becomes playful, subtle and totally beguiling. You can’t help falling for it.
Neither the 370Z nor the MX-5 can thrill at that level. Compared to Subaru, they look like blunt, dull communicators here, outclassed by a new affordable driver’s car of amazing delicacy and extraordinary talent. One that could be the best sports car to come out of Japan since the Honda NSX, and that must be worth £25k from anyone who knows what sunny weekends and great roads were really made for.
Enjoy the week's top pictures in our free Car Pics iPad app - great high-res photography (1024x768 pixels) exclusive to the iPad