We drove a WRX STI to gauge if the BRZ shares any Subaru DNA...
...before testing a Toyota GT86 to see how similar it feels to its twin
We squeezed four adults into the Subaru BRZ and headed to Leeds
Credit: MSV Photography
Skids are fun, don’t you think? Over-rotate the rear and let the car slide along and – poof – a shot of adrenaline and an accompanying rush of endorphins are pumped into your brain and you feel exhilarated. Brilliant, isn’t it?
Well, yes, it is, unless you pile the back end of your drift-mobile into something hard, like a kerb. Then it’s not brilliant. I can tell you that from first-hand experience. A wiser driver might be inclined to leave some form of electronic assistance on when they fancy ‘getting the rear out’, to prevent such a scenario.
The Subaru BRZ can cater to this because, since the 2017 facelift, it comes with its ESP set at a raised threshold, made possible thanks to the fitment of firmer dampers and a variety of parts that increase chassis rigidity. This makes the car more predictable and therefore reduces the need for nanny ESP to step in and save the day – which is very good news because, ultimately, many enthusiasts buy sports cars to have fun in. Knowing you can do more of the driving with less intervention is a good thing.
I attempted to gauge the effectiveness of the ESP system earlier this year at Brands Hatch (see earlier report below). I toggled between its three new settings – On, Track (in place of Sport) and ESP Off – but the weather was too good to really notice the difference in the latter pair. That’s one of the reasons why I decided to take the BRZ to Thruxton Circuit’s skid pan. There, with the ESP fully on, the Subaru is remarkably easy to drive, even on a surface as ice-like as Thruxton’s facility. You can try to power, turn and brake aggressively, but the system overrides your commands, limits torque and applies the brakes to any wheel that slips to ensure that both axles are travelling in the same direction. It’s pretty much foolproof.
Want to get slippy-slidey? Then switch to Track. In this mode, the wheels spin up, the front pushes and the rear rotates. Powering through the slalom section of Thruxton’s skid pan is a nerve-wracking experience and the car snatches and drifts. The ESP intervenes at about 20deg of slip, which is enough to look cool but ensures you continue pointing in the right direction
ESP Off illustrates just how effective Track mode is, because it becomes nigh-on impossible to maintain control through the slalom. The BRZ is a well-balanced car, but its Michelin Primacy HPs are no match for the skid pan and I just make myself dizzy with spin after spin. Even in this driving mode, the ESP is still on just a teeny bit. It turns out you can’t fully turn it off, although the only evidence of its presence during my countless spins is a flashing orange light.
Am I disappointed there’s no mode to completely disable the ESP in the Subaru? Not in this case, because, unlike other ESP systems, the BRZ’s ESP Off is clearly not there to intervene, but rather to reduce the speed of impact if you’re about to stuff it. It’s not a crash-preventing ESP – it has too little effect to be that. It’s an injury-reducing ESP, and I’m okay with that.
LOVE IT: The keyless entry is very good. The door unlocks the second you wrap your fingers around the handle
LOATHE IT: The brakes growl loudly when the ESP kicks in. Thanks for saving my life, but can you do it more quietly?
SUBARU 2.0I SE LUX MANUAL
Price £26,050 Price as tested £27,550 Economy 33.0mpg Faults None Expenses None Mileage 9031
While leaving the field car park of a severely rained-on music festival, I discovered a remarkable thing about our Subaru BRZ: its 54/46 weight distribution and rear drive make for excellent mud-wading ability. I simply trundled through the sodden clay but others, in their front-driven hatches, struggled as their cars’ noses sunk deeper into the earth.
An astrophysicist once said that interstellar wormholes were our best bet for time travel, but he’d obviously never stepped inside a Subaru BRZ. If he had, he would have noticed that the buttons, the switches and the clock look like they’ve been transported through the fabric of time from 1993 to 2017, therefore proving that the BRZ is indeed from a different era.
That’s the only explanation I can think of to account for the reason so many of the details in the cabin are so square and lacking in design appeal. The numbers in the digital displays, the fonts on the centre console and the heated-seat controls all look like they came from that microwave you threw in the dump 15 years ago.
I’ll admit there are some aspects of the cabin I like. The steering wheel is refreshingly simple and feels right for the BRZ both in overall diameter and rim thickness. The instrument screen next to the dials is inoffensive and features some useful menus, including an oil temperature display and a live power and torque readout. Plus, the car’s seats are actually very comfortable. But, overall, the cabin isn’t anywhere near as pretty as the car’s exterior and so remains its weakest link.
Perhaps it’s because Subaru’s development team was so busy ensuring the car was excellently balanced and fun to drive that the interior styling department ran out of time to complete the final details. By the time they realised that the cabin was sub-par, it was too late to do the job properly and they had to resort to a dusty old parts bin.
If the BRZ’s cabin design was improved, I’d argue that the car’s desirability would be substantially boosted. As proof, take the Mazda MX-5. The little Japanese two-seater has a cabin as eye-pleasing as its exterior, with a tidy layout and nicely matched details. Even the cabin’s air vents are a work of art. Enjoying the BRZ’s fine handling while toggling vents like those would make the experience feel as premium as it is fun – and I say this with confidence, having just spent a few days in a 2.0-litre MX-5.
But – and this is where I keep ending up – even when I was driving the MX-5, I still found myself missing the BRZ. I loved the Mazda’s more intuitive infotainment system, but that couldn’t counter my longing for the alertness of the BRZ’s chassis. The MX-5 is far from sluggish in its responses, but the BRZ somehow feels no heavier, despite actually being 156kg podgier, and is more eager to react to every degree of steering input. It really gives the impression of being on another level in terms of performance, even if the cars’ respective power and torque figures suggest that isn’t the case.
The BRZ just feels more special to steer. It’s helped by a lower seating position that makes the car seem more hunkered down, giving you more confidence to drive it properly. Your attention is focused on soaking up the experience of driving.
You could say that although they are quite different in form and character, the BRZ and MX-5 are actually closely aligned rivals. After all, the prices of this BRZ and the MX-5 I drove are near identical.
As such, I’d argue that we’re lucky to live in a time when these cars are available concurrently. Having said that, nothing can convince me to chop in the BRZ, microwave buttons and all.
SUBARU BRZ 2.0I SE LUX MANUAL
LOVE IT: The BRZ’s brakes are not over-assisted, unlike those of most modern cars, and the pedal offers a decent amount of feel.
LOATHE IT: The lightness of the BRZ’s body comes at a price: little sound insulation. Quite a lot of noise is generated on motorways.
Price £26,050 Price as tested £27,550 Economy 33.5mpg Faults None Expenses None Mileage 6104
Our BRZ has the top-spec infotainment system: a 7.0in touchscreen that’s made by Alpine but offered through Subaru dealers. Compared with the standard 6.2in set-up, our system adds sat-nav and DAB radio. It seems expensive at £1250 (excluding fitting), so if, like me, you use your smartphone for navigation and music, you could save that money for petrol instead.
These are questions I’ve been asked many times, often after someone accuses our car of being a “rebadged Toyota GT86”. So, to find out more about the true Subaru character, I jumped into a WRX STI – the yobbo of the Subaru range and a ‘proper Scooby’ – to see if I could identify any strands of DNA shared with the BRZ.
Like our BRZ, this WRX (pictured below) was finished in WR Blue Mica and featured a rear wing, but that’s where the similarities ended. The BRZ, with its slick coupé exterior, welcomes you into a low-slung seating position and feels like it’s tip-toeing down the road. By contrast, the WRX, with its muscular styling and upright chairs, feels harder and more antisocial as it chunters along.
In fact, it feels quite awkward to drive and its controls are significantly less fluid to operate. The WRX is much faster – a given, due to its highly boosted 2.5-litre four-cylinder boxer engine offering 296bhp – but it is more difficult to predict and, as such, offers an less communicative experience than the BRZ.
Really, these cars feel like products from entirely different brands, which might suggest that the answer to our earlier question is ‘no’ – meaning that the BRZ is basically just a GT86 spin-off, right? Well, erm, no. My proof comes from a week-long stint in a GT86 (pic below), which proved to me that the BRZ’s brother from another mother is indeed noticeably different.
There are minor differences in various areas, but the most obvious contrast comes in the way the cars ride. The BRZ is firmer, particularly at the rear, which makes the GT86 more comfortable in town but in turn gives the BRZ slightly sharper handling on a B-road. The differences are small but they’re significant, as they send both cars off in different directions of focus.
You can feel that Toyota has engineered its GT86 to be more forgiving in several areas, therefore making it a slightly better all-rounder, while Subaru has made its BRZ the more aggressive of the pair. That’s a very Subaru thing to do, surely, so that means the answer to the questions posed at the start are ‘very’ and ‘yes’. I think. Can I go now?
SUBARU BRZ 2.0I SE LUX
Price £26,050 Price as tested £27,550 Economy 29.1mpg Faults None Expenses None Mileage 5682
Brimming a 2+2 coupé with four adults and their luggage isn’t recommended, but I did it, and it was a squeeze. As such, the lug up the M1 from London to Leeds (pictured above) was marred by moans of numb legs and cramp. But the BRZ was extremely frugal (we averaged 42mpg) and, for the driver at least, a comfortable place to spend three-and-a-bit hours.
SUBARU BRZ 2.0I SE LUX
Price £26,050 Price as tested £27,550 Economy 42mpg Faults None Expenses None Mileage 5470
The BRZ is fitted with eco-focused Michelin Primacy HP tyres which make it all the more entertaining on the road, because you can explore the car’s limits at relatively modest speeds. But on track, faced with grippier asphalt and far higher speeds, are these 215/45 R17 boots really up to the job?
A good place to test this is on the grand prix circuit at Brands Hatch. Undulations, changing surfaces, heavy braking zones and long corners mean there’s the potential for aggressive driving to melt the BRZ’s tyres off their rims. That’s a thought that’s unnerving when you’re fully committed into Paddock Hill Bend.
But even at track pace, the BRZ is so confidence-inspiring. I’ve taken Brands’ daunting first bend in other cars and spent the time it takes to ride the steeply angled rollercoaster terrified of an impending moment of snap oversteer. In the BRZ, though, you feel so connected to the car that you’re always one step ahead of what its sweetly balanced chassis is doing.
During cornering, the BRZ moves about beneath you, making the whole process very involving. You can work the wheel with minute inputs through every corner, balancing this with throttle adjustments and using everything from visual cues to the feeling through your backside to gauge what’s happening.
It sounds difficult, but such is the level of communication offered by the chassis that it comes very naturally after a couple of laps.
Few cars can feel so alive yet so predictable, and few can take so much abuse for so long. Even after 15 minutes of very hard driving, the brakes and tyres felt well within their limits. In fact, the tyres showed no physical signs of overheating after four 20-minute stints.
Of course, this car isn’t perfect on track – most modern hot hatches will power past it down the straights and other tyres would offer more grip – but for pure and consistent enjoyment on a circuit, it’s one of the best factory-spec road cars I’ve driven.
SUBARU BRZ 2.0I SE LUX MANUAL
Price £26,050 Price as tested £27,550 Economy 32.4mpg Faults None Expenses None Mileage 4997
A month into running our BRZ, I’ve learned two very significant things. One, the BRZ is not a supercar slayer, because it’s not particularly potent and those Michelin Primacy tyres don’t offer masses of grip. And two, I don’t give a hoot, because on the right road, in the right conditions, it is just sublime.
The reasons why are easy to explain. For starters, the car’s low centre of gravity gives it balance that cars of twice the value will envy, and its nicely weighted steering responds with an eagerness that makes it feel as though the whole car is wrapped around you and moving with your every input.
Power hard out of a corner with the engine turning over close to peak torque at around 6000rpm and the outside rear of the car will squat just enough to maximise traction but not so much that the opposing front tyre feels like it’s struggling to stay in touch with the ground.
It’s a remarkably satisfying feeling to work the car this hard, and despite sending just 197bhp to the back, the Torsen limited-slip differential locks just enough to enable delicate slides on corner exits.
Traction control and ESP, while not majorly intrusive when switched on, can thankfully be turned off completely, leaving it up to you to ensure the car stays on the black stuff. However, unlike with a car that has more power, you feel like you’re a long way from getting into trouble. The BRZ is a very forgiving machine, flattering both aggressive and smooth driving styles.
On an open and well-sighted B-road you can drive with a level of commitment that would send many other cars hurtling into a hedge. The BRZ dances and pivots around its centre and is small enough to thread along a British B-road without fear of stepping over the white lines.
This all translates into a car that is approachable but still feels like a proper sports car. My colleague Jimi Beckwith put it nicely after jumping straight out of a Mazda MX-5 and into the BRZ when he said the Subaru “feels more serious” and “like a specialist car”.
I agree. And for that reason, I won’t be giving up the keys to it any time soon again.
SUBARU BRZ 2.0I SE LUX
Price £26,050 Price as tested £27,550 Economy 25.6mpg Faults None Expenses None Mileage 2748
You can’t buy a much purer car in 2017 than a Subaru BRZ.
With a naturally aspirated engine up front, a six-speed manual gearbox in the middle and drive that’s sent to the back, it really is a mouth-watering recipe for motoring nirvana. It is, of course, one that’s shared closely with the Toyota GT86, so that leaves us with one burning question: why would you buy the Subaru?
For me at least, there’s one very obvious answer: the colour. Admittedly, World Rally Blue isn’t the only colour the BRZ comes in, but it’s the only one you should go for. The paintjob hints at a motorsport pedigree that even Toyota – a firm with a history of performance models and a fine competition heritage – can’t quite match. That’s what Subaru’s 28-year stint in the World Rally Championship gets you, I suppose.
Of course, it isn’t the only reason why you might buy a BRZ over a GT86; there are technical reasons, too. Subaru gives its car a slightly more aggressive chassis set-up, making it the sharper of the pair, and the brand is also more closely aligned with the car’s distinctive 2.0-litre horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine, so it arguably warrants the right to a Subaru badge on its nose even more than it does Toyota’s.
Then there are the visual details. The Subaru gets its own design of bumpers and light graphics, creating a more aggressive look front and rear. For me, the Subaru, in 2017 facelift guise especially, edges the GT86 for looks, although I admit that opinions will vary. Then again, only one comes in World Rally Blue.
Inside, the Subaru gets a slightly different trim finish to an interior that’s otherwise identical to that of the Toyota. Our car comes with the £1500 option of a touchscreen satellite navigation and infotainment system, and it’s an option box well worth ticking.
Overall, the cabin feels pretty solid. It bridges the line between functionality and sportiness quite well, although some buttons do feel like they’ve been transplanted directly from the early 1990s. In particular, the digital clock on the centre console looks like it belongs in a museum.
I like the driving position, which allows you to get nice and low in the car and have your arms stuck out straight ahead. That said, I’m quite long-legged, so in order to achieve the perfect arm reach, my legs are just slightly more cramped than they’d be in, say, a Porsche 718 Cayman.
But it’s unfair to compare the BRZ, which starts at £26,050 in its entry form, to a car whose entry price starts at around £13,000 more. Better to compare it with the Mazda MX-5 RF, which, with a 2.0-litre engine, costs from £23,395. While the BRZ lacks a folding roof, it feels significantly more focused on the road than the MX-5, while its boxer engine just edges the Mazda’s more conventional in-line four for character.
The BRZ also faces competition from the Nissan 370Z, which costs from £29,185. Not even the BRZ’s flatfour is a match for the 370Z’s brawny 3.7-litre V6, which is both more urgent to use and more aurally pleasing to listen to. The 370Z’s muscular appearance gives it a more grown-up appearance, too, whereas the BRZ, especially with its sporty rear wing, looks a little more youthful.
But the BRZ wins in the way it tackles any given road. You have to stroke a 370Z along a twisting country lane, managing the car’s hefty 1496kg kerb weight, while the sprightlier BRZ – it weighs 1242kg – can be hustled like a hooligan. The engine needs to be thrashed in order to work properly, because maximum torque of 151lb ftis only available between 6400rpm and 6600rpm, while its 178bhp power peak follows later still at 7000rpm. But this hunger for revs suits the car’s character perfectly.
The Subaru is certainly no rocketship, taking 7.6sec to reach 62mph from rest and maxing out at 140mph. But it’s a proper sports car with old-school charm and bags of character, so even after just 1500 miles of ownership, my first impressions of it are very good (if you hadn’t already worked that out).
We’ve got the next six months to find out what it’s like to live with SU13 ARU (see what they did there?). It’ll need to be as frugal as it is fun, as flexible as it is agile and as comfortable as it is attractive. In exchange, I promise to keep that World Rally Blue paint gleaming.
SUBARU BRZ 2.0i SE LUX MANUAL
Price £26,050 Price as tested £27,550 Options Sat-nav £1500 Economy 27.9mpg Faults None Expenses None