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£10k gets you one of the finest-handling and most approachable sports cars in a generation

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The fastest cars aren’t always the most fun. And for proof of that, look no further than the Subaru BRZ.

This is a sports car you can get the best out of at everyday speeds, just like its better-known twin, the Toyota GT86.

In 2008, Toyota chairman Katsuaki Watanabe decided he wanted an affordable 2+2 coupé, but his company was already at full production capacity and its development engineers were flat-out working on other projects. As a result, the Toyota GT86 and Subaru BRZ were, in fact, mostly a Subaru production. 

Hirakawa promoted Subaru’s version of the car as more focused at the enthusiast than the Toyota. However, he admitted that the differences between the cars were limited to wheel design, badges and interior trim.

Their differences also come down to how approachable they are. There isn’t an abundance of grip in the BRZ, for one thing, because it sits on the same narrow rubber as the Toyota Prius.

This essentially feeds its fondness for shimmying beneath you, which makes sliding it – whether a little or a lot – a piece of cake. Everything here is so engaging, communicative, predictable and balanced that you always feel in full control, just like you do with every other true driver’s car.

You have direct, well-weighted steering and some fine chassis dynamics on your side – and of course there’s always the reassurance of electronic stability control, should you need ever it.

You will also find that, due to slightly different suspension set-ups, the BRZ is a tad firmer and thus sharper in the bends than the GT86.

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While the GT86 sold in greater numbers in the UK, mostly due to Toyota’s larger dealer network and longer warranty, the BRZ’s rarity could solidify it as the more appealing choice for you.

Just keep in mind that this is reflected in marginally higher prices. But back to the driver’s seat, because we must mention the BRZ’s six-speed manual gearbox. Not only does it add another layer of engagement, but it’s also simply a joy to use.

An automatic is available, but choosing that would be like joining a rock band with the triangle as your instrument. Another reason to avoid the auto is because it actually makes the BRZ slower: it has a claimed 0-62mph time of 8.2sec, while the manual can complete the sprint in 7.6sec.

The BRZ was benchmarked against the Porsche Cayman R, and it sits 100kg lighter than its rival at 1239kg and has a centre of gravity 2.5cm lower. The power deficit – more than 100bhp – is not dwelled on, however.

On the subject of performance figures, it’s worth discussing power. The BRZ’s 197bhp is a decent amount, on a par with what you would get from a hot hatch such as the Ford Fiesta ST. Torque is a different story, though.

The 2.0-litre boxer four is naturally aspirated, and without the help of a turbocharger or supercharger, it produces only 151lb ft.

This peak arrives way up at 6400rpm too, so there’s an incentive (if one were needed) to rev the BRZ out. Let’s reiterate: this car was never meant to be a speed demon.

Of course, you can add power via modifications, although obviously that won’t be cheap, and for many owners, a key reason for choosing the BRZ is its affordability.

When it arrived back in 2012, the BRZ was priced from £26,000, undercutting rivals from premium brands. Sure, it came in at a higher price than the 2.0-litre Mazda MX-5, but then the Subaru was the more practical and powerful sports car.

A mid-life facelift in 2017 saw Subaru not tinker too much with the BRZ. Tweaks were made to the engine block, including strengthening the cylinder block, reducing friction of the camshaft and valve stems, while reducing the weight of the rocker arms all in the name of making the boxer engine more responsive and fuel efficient.

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Changes were also made to the dampers, the bodykit and driving modes, while a new airbag system and more equipment have also been added to the coupés package.

Subaru described the interior as pure, but some customers may regard it as spartan. However, the emphasis on basic functionality has its merits; from the driver’s seat you are confronted by a big rev counter, the speedometer sitting off to the left and the temperature and fuel gauges to the right.

The design is clean but basic, and if readability at speed was the only goal, then they are a success.

Today you will find used BRZs advertised for as little as £10,000, so they aren’t intimidating buys.

In terms of trims, there was only one to choose from, SE Lux, but it was well-equipped with automatic LED headlights, 17in alloy wheels, a limited slip differential, dual-exhaust system and electrically heated and folding wing mirrors fitted as standard on the exterior.

Inside, you get heated front sports seats, a leather and Alcantara upholstery, keyless entry and ignition, dual-zone climate control, and Subaru's Starlink infotainment system complete with a 6.0in touchscreen display, and USB and Bluetooth connectivity.

RELIABILITY

Engine: If the engine idles roughly or shudders, it could be experiencing an ECU software fault. A remap of the ECU should fix this issue. 

Steering: A knocking sound when you’re turning at lower speeds could mean the steering damper needs replacing. It’s an inexpensive part and one that’s easy to install, though. 

Clutch: A common issue with early models is transmission throw bearings wearing out, and this can quickly lead to clutch fork failure. Unusual sounds and feelings when you’re applying the clutch are signs. It can be resolved by replacing the worn bearing. 

Transmission: Check that second gear engages smoothly. The triple-cone synchros can be slow to work when cold, causing an odd-feeling change. Some owners recommend pausing in neutral after first gear, then engaging second with a firm shove. Technicians recommend fresh fluid.

Body: Condensation usually arises in the rear lights after heavy rain. You can apply a seal to prevent this, but if the light has corroded or broken due to the moisture, you will have to replace it. 

Interior: Complete a test drive and make sure there aren’t any rattles coming from the interior (or indeed the rest of the car). The biggest culprits are the rear seats and trim, parcel shelf and lower dashboard. On early cars, a rattle from the gear lever above 4000rpm was a common issue.

VERDICT

This car lets you have your cake and eat it. Its handling poise and balance both make it effortlessly communicative and predictable when you're throwing it around, but very easy to live with when you're not.

The controls are well-weighted and the throttle response keen - attributes that make it very manoeuvrable both in tight spaces and on the open road. It will also provide a fulfilling experience if you decide to take it to a track thanks to a firmer suspension set-up compared to its GT86 relative.

It is, however, more expensive to buy on the second-hand market than the Toyota, purely because of its rarity. And, for the same sort of money, you could buy a Porsche Cayman - if you were willing to front the inevitable maintenance costs. We'd also avoid any BRZs specified with the automatic gearbox, as it feels slightly out of place.

The growing conclusion about the BRZ is that the hardest decision will not be whether to part with your money at all, but choosing between whether to have it or the Toyota.

Either way, it deserves all the appreciation it can get as one of the very best affordable drivers cars ever made.

Oliver Young

Title: Used Car Reporter

Oliver Young began writing for Autocar in 2021, producing content for print and online as used cars reporter. He’s written Cult Hero, Nearly New Buying Guide and Clash of the Classifieds articles, the latter in conjunction with used cars editor Mark Pearson.  

He took his first step into automotive journalism in 2018. As an editorial apprentice with agency Blackball Media, he gained experience working on multiple brands – Car Dealer Magazine and PA Media to name two. He performed a variety of tasks, from digging through the treasure trove that is Ford UK’s Heritage Collection to interviewing Jeremy Clarkson. 

During this time, he studied at Highbury College and, after two years, he finished his NCTJ Level 3 Diploma in Journalism with a distinction grade. 

Subaru BRZ 2012-2020 First drives