Forget about symmetrical all-wheel drive. And forget about turbocharged, gravel-spitting rally cars blasting down logging roads at impossible speeds. In fact, forget just about everything you’ve ever associated with Subaru, because the BRZ is about as un-Subaru as anything that’s ever left the doors of the automobile manufacturing division of Fuji Heavy Industries.
|1. A 2.0L direct-injection Boxer 4-cylinder makes 200-hp at 7000 rpm and 151 lb-ft of torque at 6400 rpm.
2. Fuel economy is 22-mpg city and 30-mpg highway for the six-speed manual and 25/34 for the automatic.
3. With a curb weight of 2,762 lbs, it’s one of the lightest sports cars on the market.
4. Priced at $25,495 to start, $2,000 extra gets you the Limited model with leather and Alcantara-trimmed upholstery, a rear spoiler, Keyless entry and start plus fog lights.
And the strange thing is, that’s neither a condemnation of what Subaru has typically brought to the table nor what the BRZ has to offer. It’s just that Subaru has built its brand and its customer-base around two key technologies – all-wheel drive, which has been on every model since 1996, and the unique layout and sound of the Boxer horizontally opposed engine. Combined with a turbocharger, the Boxer engine (most notably in the Impreza WRX STI) has achieved legendary status among rally fans and go-fast geeks around the world, and yet the BRZ has been built to deliver a truly invigorating driving experience without the aid of a turbocharger under the hood or an all-wheel drive system beneath its chassis.
WHAT DOES ‘BRZ’ STAND FOR?
So if the BRZ doesn’t use Subaru’s usual approach to releasing adrenaline, what exactly has their approach been with this clean slate design? As it turns out, it’s actually useful taking a closer look at the BRZ’s name, where the B stands for Boxer engine, the R stands for Rear-wheel drive, and the Z stands for Zenith. The first two letters make perfect sense, but Zenith is a bit less clear. Perhaps it has something to do with Subaru’s name being Japanese for the Pleiades star cluster (which explains the stars in the company’s logo), and by extension is meant to convey that the BRZ is designed to represent the pinnacle of the company’s engineering prowess?
From a power standpoint, the truth is the BRZ falls well short of the zenith achieved by the Impreza WRX STI, but it does make extremely good use of its available 200-hp and 151 lb-ft of torque. The direct-injection FA20 2.0-liter flat-four delivers its power with urgency and immediacy, pulling strongly all the way to its 7400 rpm redline. It feels more like a Honda engine, which is the highest compliment you can pay a naturally-aspirated four-banger, and although it has some of that unique Boxer growl, the hissing and popping of a turbocharger blow-off valve and wastegate are notably absent.
THE LOWDOWN ON LOW MASS
Turbo or not, Subaru has long touted the Boxer engine design – where the pistons move in a horizontal plane instead of the more traditional vertical or V planes – as inherently superior because it lowers the engine’s mass. Lower mass does, in theory at least, translate into a better handling car, since a lower center of gravity enhances stability and combats unwanted body roll.
And in the case of the BRZ, Subaru has certainly outdone itself, and just about every other automaker on the planet, since this handsome little coupe has a lower center of gravity than many of the world’s best handling sports cars, including the totally uncompromising and exotically constructed Ferrari 458 Italia. For Subaru (and Toyota) to have out-engineered Ferrari with respect to center of gravity on a car costing a mere $25,495 should give you an idea of just how committed the Toybaru (or perhaps Subyota?) design team was to delivering world-class handling dynamics with the BRZ (and FR-S/GT-86), but more on that later.
The engineers also paid close attention to weight distribution and mass centralization when designing the BRZ, and it should be emphasized that this vehicle is a true blank sheet project, rather than a case of taking an existing chassis and trying to make it fill a new role. As a result they’ve achieved an impressive 53/47 front/rear weight split, significantly closer to a perfect 50/50 weight distribution than many of its rivals including the Hyundai Genesis 2.0T’s 55/45 split.
The BRZ brain trust didn’t just focus on the location of mass though; they also managed to keep its presence to a minimum as well. Tipping the scales at just 2,762 lbs, the BRZ is quite possibly the lightest sports coupe on the market today, making the high-tech and high-dollar Evora seem downright portly (at 3,000 lbs) despite Lotus’ public obsession with reducing mass as their core strategy to delivering high performance.
Achieving a curb weight this low does require a few sacrifices though. The BRZ is a small car, so don’t expect to be able to fit adults in the back seats or a BBQ in the trunk. The interior is also a rather Spartan place in order to keep weight to a minimum, trim quality being rather low grade in places and there isn’t even a cover for the center tunnel cup holder/storage bin. But there’s plenty of legroom up front and the front seats are wonderfully supportive and firm, just like you’d want in a driver-focused machine like the BRZ.
THE ZENITH OF HANDLING
Far too often great chassis design is ruined by overly conservative suspension tuning dictated by actuarialists and legal departments, with anti-sway bars and spring rates that generate early onset understeer and stability control systems that kill the fun before it even starts. And although the BRZ does have slightly more conservative spring rates than its sister, the Scion FR-S, it’s still absolutely stunning just how willing this little sports coupe is to dance on the edge of adhesion.
Even with the stability control system on, the BRZ will hang the tail end out enough to induce some involuntary puckering, and with this system turned off the amount of gradual and totally controllable oversteer it can achieve is only limited by your belief that you have yet to cross the point of no return. And in the BRZ the point of no return is so much farther out than just about any other sports car on the planet that it does take some time to get to know the car and its unbelievable levels of pose and control, even when you push those skinny little 215/45R17 all-season tires beyond their rather modest limit.
Having driven the BRZ in anger around a race track in a recent head-to-head battle against the Honda Civic Si HFP, its steering feel and precision were just as stunning as its at-the-limit balance. I could position the little Subaru inch-perfectly without exerting any effort to fend off the usual speed- and fun-robbing understeer because there’s simply none to combat. Instead, the BRZ lets you focus on balancing the car with the throttle and then adjusting its line with the tiniest of steering inputs. This further accentuates the feeling of lightness you get in the BRZ, almost like you’re floating across the tarmac, rather than bludgeoning it like so many of the other sports coupe on the market try to do.
You might think this feeling of being light on its feet means the BRZ isn’t generating much grip, but you’d be wrong. We saw lateral g-force and cornering speeds in the BRZ that were on-par with the Civic Si HFP and Genesis 2.0T R-Spec coupe, both of which come equipped with wider and much stickier tires than the Subaru. And it’s not like the BRZ is achieving these cornering stats by virtue of a superior suspension design – its MacPherson front struts are hardly cutting edge technology, though its rear double wishbone design has excellent geometry that contributes to its composure over bumps and during rapid changes in direction.
LESS IS MORE
At the end of my time behind the wheel in Subaru’s mold-busting BRZ, I was left in awe of its capabilities and the amount of unadulterated fun it delivers for less than thirty grand. At no time did I find myself wishing for a turbocharged boost in power or the added grip of all-wheel drive. All I wanted was the sun to stop setting so I could spend a few more hours letting my inner drifter go sideways around corners I had once considered too fast or too bumpy or too tight to drift. In the BRZ the impossible becomes possible, or at least it inspires that kind of confidence.
Sure, it still takes skill to drive the BRZ the way it begs to be, but it communicates so clearly and responds so precisely, it really does make you a better driver. Or perhaps it just allows you to drive in a more natural way, since you’re not forced to work around any handling imbalances or invasive e-nannies. But best of all, the BRZ has personality. It’s like a flute of fine champagne – light and effervescent but with just enough kick to let you know you’re experiencing something special.
Everything about the BRZ is refreshing. In an age where even so-called sports cars have become fat, soulless transportation devices that distract the driver from unrelenting understeer with Bluetooth connectivity and air-conditioned, butt-massaging seats, the BRZ instead provides connectivity to the road in a way that can’t help but awaken driving passions most other cars try to crush. The BRZ feels alive beneath you, a willing partner in the pursuit of speed in its simplest and purest form. There’s no electronic differentials or traction control systems to drive this sublime little Subaru for you – instead there’s just a brilliantly balanced chassis, wonderfully tuned suspension, and just enough power to let you steer with your feet as well as your hands.
The Subaru BRZ makes me want to leave my iPhone at home — it’s driving therapy in the Internet age, and I for one thank Subaru, Fuji Heavy Industries, Toyota and everyone else at the ToMoCo conglomerate for having the courage to build a machine this sharp, this willing, and this pure. It’s not the fastest car I’ve driven this year, not by a long shot, but it is the most engaging car I’ve driven in a very long time, so if you’re an enthusiast looking for a car that involves you in every aspect of the driving experience, you owe it to yourself to go give a BRZ (of FR-S) a try. Believe the hype. It really is that good.