What is it?
Yet another drive story about the ‘Toyobaru’ sports car. But it’s an important one, so no dozing off at the back.
Last week, Editor-at-large Steve Sutcliffe brought you a report from behind the wheel of a practically finished Toyota GT-86 after a session on track in Spain. This week, it’s Subaru’s turn: we’ve had a day in a final production version of the BRZ – this time, on the road.
European roads, mind you, and in a left-hand drive car. All the same, we’re now in a position to tell you exactly how livable, practical, comfortable and generally usable this tempting new rear-drive sports coupe is, as well as how exciting it is away from the painted kerbing.
There seems little point repeating some already widely know vitals about this car. For now, we’ll settle for reminding you of three things. Firstly: that, although the ‘Toyobaru’ project was majority funded by Toyota, and the car was designed and styled mainly by the relative automotive giant of the partnership, the BRZ (just like its sister car) is built by, and has been engineered by, Subaru. Secondly: that at its heart is one of Subaru’s utterly distinctive boxer engines, which contributes decisively to its character and performance, as we’ll go on to explain. And thirdly: that, although it’s only got 197 normally aspirated horses, the BRZ weighs just 1239kg – even in this range-topping trim. That’s less than a Porsche Cayman R; and damn near 300kg less than the lightest Nissan 370Z.
Both the Lotus Elise and VW Golf GTi have poorer power-to-weight ratios than this. Which is something performance car devotees would do well to remember before dismissing this car for the want of a headline-grabbing power output.
What’s it like?
It may be early for these kind of pronouncements, but in this tester’s opinion, this is just about the best driver’s car to come out of Japan since the heady days of Supra and NSX. That statement includes the Nissan GT-R – a performance heavyweight that could crush the BRZ on half-throttle, but that also doesn’t have half the multi-faceted subtlety or vivacity.
All of those preliminary track impressions of the car are to be believed; this really is a sports car with a rare capacity to excite, that handles with the sort of poise and involvement that you could lose weeks exploring.
The even better news is that, on the road, its less spectacular charms are just as distinguishing. On the road, the BRZ’s superbly informative and responsive steering drags you into its driving experience by your fingertips. The car’s finely-honed brake pedal feel and perfectly balanced chassis let you attack corners with ultimate confidence. Back on the power, its blissfully slack-free driveline serves up instant traction and an absorbingly manageable cornering attitude from apex to exit.
And away from the bend, that unencumbered flat four engine spins up beyond 7000rpm with just enough urgency to make the BRZ feel thrilling.
But – and this bit’s quite key – not so much sheer poke to feel at all over-specified or antisocial for the road. The BRZ isn’t as fast as some cars at its price: it’s a more modern, mature performance car than that, appreciation of which requires a more refined palette than your typical forum brag artiste or traffic light grand prix champ might possess. It could use more low- and mid-range torque, particularly. But, like a middle-order hot hatchback, you can get a sense of bang-for-your-buck reward from the car simply because you can deploy 100 per cent of its power through 2nd and 3rd gears with regularity – and, in the right circumstances, without too much fear for your licence. And when you do, you’ll just adore how quickly and precisely the engine responds to the accelerator, and the gruff boxer bark it makes at full load.
Key to the BRZ’s superb handling is its low centre of gravity. At 460mm above the concrete, the BRZ’s centre of gravity is lower than that of a Mazda MX5, even.
And because it doesn’t roll hard, the car doesn’t need massive wheels and tyres, or particularly stiff suspension, to deliver its dynamic composure. Which is why it also rides pleasingly quietly and comfortably – for a sports coupe, at least. The BRZ, which has the firmer chassis setup of the ‘Toyobaru’ twins, jostles its occupants a little over choppy surfaces, but otherwise has quite generous compliance and entirely unobtrusive long-distance manners.
The BRZ’s practicality and material quality is to be praised, too. You’ll find more usable space in the back seats here that you will in an Audi TT or Peugeot RCZ. That may not amount to a lot, but it’s fair enough in a car with a longways engine, rear-wheel drive and the same wheelbase as a Mini Clubman. You’ll also find a proper soft-touch dashboard, some hardy, tactile and modern-looking switchgear and, in our range-topping car, a red-stitched part-leather interior. Elsewhere the ‘Toyobaru’ has shinier and cheaper materials, sure: it wears them like something of a ‘less-is-more’ badge of honour. But overall, the interior looks and feels up to scratch, and its ethos is entirely as it should be.
Should I buy one?
Which one, you mean? On this evidence, that should be entirely down to availability and personal taste. The BRZ’s chassis may be the more focused of these two new Japanese sports car twins, but it’s still absorbent and fully appropriate for everyday use.
Meanwhile, reviewers of the GT-86 haven’t exactly lamented its wallowing suspension tune during earlier track tests. Which may lead you to conclude that these two cars are sufficiently similar to be considered identical in most meaningful ways.
Both cars should make fantastically involving weekend drivers, whether you spend them on track days, at hillclimbs or just blasting across the countryside; both cars will, on this evidence, be comfortable and practical enough to double up as weekday transport.
And both will be available for less than £25k before the end of the year. If the arrival of Subaru’s stripped-out BRZ late in 2012 doesn’t deliver that, the improving value of Sterling against the Yen certainly should.
Other £25k coupes may be faster accelerating, better to own or easier to live with. But simply put, even in cars as enthralling to drive as the Mazda MX5 and as focussed as a RenaultSport Clio Cup, it’ll be hard to have more fun for less.
Subaru BRZ Premium
Price: £26,500 (tbc); 0-62mph: 7.6sec; Top speed: 140mph; Economy: 36.2mpg; CO2: 181g/km; Kerbweight: 1239kg; Engine type, cc: 4cyls horizontally opposed, 1998cc, atmospheric; Power: 197bhp at 7000rpm; Torque: 151lb ft at 6400-6600rpm; Gearbox: 6-spd manual