We will admit that we never thought of Subaru as a sports-car maker. Yes, Subaru has made sporty, high-performance cars — the WRX and STI, of course. But they were not sports car. Neither was the SVX, although it was cool in its own way, and the XT coupe before it, which was sort-of cool in a very weird way, was no sports car, either.
The Subaru BRZ, however, is very much a sports car, and it’s the kind we don’t see much anymore: light, lithe, fun, and affordable. That’s an unusual formula in this age of overpriced, overpowered image machines, but it’s not as strange as the circumstances that created it to begin with.
The Odd Couple
As you no doubt know, the BRZ was a joint effort between Toyota and Subaru, with both companies sharing the resulting sports car. The Toyota version will be sold as the Scion FR-S in the U.S. market, and as a Toyota elsewhere.
What set the stage for this joint product development was Toyota’s purchase of a small stake in Fuji Heavy Industries, Subaru’s parent company, back in 2005 (later increased in 2008). With Toyota guiding the product planning, it was decided that the two companies would collaborate to build a rear-wheel-drive sports car, the hope evidently being that having both brands selling it would increase sales for the inherently low-volume product. Toyota was responsible for the design, which is why the car looks more like a Toyota than a Subaru. The idea from the get-go was that the two firms would build a single sports car — not two cars — so visually differentiating them was not a priority. The very minor differences we do see, chiefly in the front end, were done late in the car’s development. In the interest of keeping the car’s cost down, precious few development dollars (well, yen) were spent to create different looks for Toyota (Scion in the USA) and Subaru. Subaru did the engineering on the car, although the company had to meet Toyota engineering targets as well as their own. Subaru also will assemble the coupes.
Let’s Get Low
At a time when we so often hear about raised rooflines, higher beltlines, and the “command seating position,” it is unusual for an automaker to talk about the virtues of getting low. And yet that was an overriding factor driving the development of the BRZ. Going with a Subaru horizontally opposed four-cylinder, rather than one of Toyota’s many conventional in-line fours, got things off to a low start, as the flat four meant a much more squat engine, which was the first step to achieving a low center of gravity. This is an all-new boxer engine, and features such as a slimmer oil pan and uniquely designed intake and exhaust help make it more than 3 inches shorter than Subaru’s existing boxer four. That allowed a lower hood, a feature that is itself unusual, what with Europe’s pedestrian protection regulations necessitating additional space between the hood and the top of the engine. (Subaru’s workaround is a hood that is designed to absorb energy.) A low hood necessitated a forward-canted radiator and created the need for shorter front strut towers, which were redesigned accordingly. Even so, the vaguely Corvette-like fender swells are there to clear them and allow the rest of the front bodywork to sit lower. Speaking of sitting lower, in order for the driver to sit low in the car — and afford decent headroom under the low (50.6-inch) roofline — Subaru had to design special frame rails for the front seats.
Have a Seat
You do indeed sit low in this car — the H-point is nearly 5 inches lower than an Impreza’s — in seats that are firm, with prominent side bolsters. The dash, and the whole interior, is blessedly free of gimmicks — save perhaps the keyless pushbutton ignition in the higher-trim model. Switchgear couldn’t be simpler. The blunt instrument panel is faced with aluminum trim, and that’s the biggest concession to style, although cheap materials have largely been avoided. A touch-screen navigation system will be standard in U.S. cars but it was not in the Euro-spec version we drove. The driving position is excellent, with fairly upright glass and modest pillars that afford a good view. The longish hood is framed by those two fender swells. The gauge cluster borrows from Porsche — a round, central tachometer with a digital speedometer dominates, flanked on the left by the analog speedometer and on the right by gauges for fuel level and coolant temperature. The small, well-shaped steering wheel features red stitching. Headroom is surprisingly plentiful — the roof incorporates a “double bubble” design — so wearing a helmet on track day should be no problem. There is no sunroof, however. The car is a 2+2, but the rear seats are strictly theoretical. Headroom in back is extremely limited, and a taller-than-average driver is going to have his seat so far back that rear-seat riders will be hard-pressed to wedge a foot between the front seatback and their seat cushion. The rear seatback does fold down, however, exposing a wide pass-through to the 6.9-cubic-foot trunk.
On the road
We had previously driven the BRZ on a track, but we traveled to Cannes, in the south of France, for our first on-road drive, at an event for the European and the American press. The French Riviera might not seem like a natural environment for a Subaru — and, indeed, there weren’t many Imprezas and Outbacks on the streets — but it would soon become apparent why the roads here were perfect for this car.
First, though, we had to head out of town. The good visibility was welcome as we threaded our way through the traffic-choked streets. The BRZ is a shade smaller than a Nissan 370Z (half an inch shorter and some 2.5 inches narrower), but in European cities that makes it a medium-sized car.
The manual gearbox and clutch were easy to work; the transmission has short, positive throws, and the clutch travel and take-up are very natural. The ride over the surprisingly bumpy pavement was pretty stiff but we did not wish for a softer suspension setting.
Out of Town
Leaving the city behind, we climbed up into the Maritime Alps, the road scratched into the sheer rock hillsides. Here, the BRZ was totally in its element as the low center of gravity, the light weight (2762 to 2822 pounds depending on trim), and the effort to keep as much mass as possible in the center of the car all paid off. Turn-in is immediate, and with the road folded like an accordion, we turned in again and again. Instead of front-end push, there’s a great sense of balance almost like that of a mid-engine car. The stability control system offers an intermediate, sport mode, and also can be switched off altogether; still, you have to be trying to break this car loose. The Michelin Primacy rubber isn’t ultra-wide (the size is 215/45R17), but it gripped tenaciously, which was a good thing, given the steep drop-offs and rock walls that lined either side of the road. Lending a high degree of confidence is the BRZ’s steering, with effort levels that are spot-on for a sports car like this. It’s electrically assisted so feel is a little lacking but we loved the fast ratio (13:1) and predictable response.
Into the Great Wide Open
Eventually the climbing and the curves relented and we found ourselves in a high plateau. With barely another car in sight, we were really able to open up the 2.0-liter four. This engine shares nothing with the version in the Impreza and is the better for it, making considerably more power: 200 hp compared to 148 hp. The BRZ’s 151 pound-feet of torque doesn’t sound like a lot but nearly all of it is available across a broad rev band, from about 2500 rpm to 6500. Although you don’t have to rev the snot out of it, if you do, you find that this engine is much more free revving than the Impreza’s boxer four. Subaru estimates the 0-to-60-mph time at just under 7 seconds with the manual transmission. With a so-called Sound Creator channeling intake noise, keeping the engine on a boil in the 5000 to 6000 rpm range fills the cabin with the gritty engine note, which is definitely different than the Beetle-like sound of other Subaru engines.
In all, the BRZ offers a world of usable, accessible performance with a straightforward purity that’s rare today. And the car itself should be accessible to a broad swath of enthusiast drivers; Subaru hasn’t yet announced pricing, but we expect the base version to come in around $25,000. For about $2000 more, the Limited model adds leather-and-Alcantara upholstery, keyless ignition, heated seats, and a few lesser items. For either version, the only option is a six-speed automatic transmission with shift paddles.
More to come?
As intriguing as it is, the BRZ coupe has the potential for more. Although they cotton to no plans, Subaru engineers acknowledge that the new 2.0-liter four could work in other vehicles, and that there’s room in the BRZ to add a turbocharger. Additionally, they confirm that the BRZ was engineered for the possible eventuality of a convertible body style, so this sports coupe could potentially be a roadster as well. We wouldn’t expect anything to materialize until mid-cycle time — say three years. Still, it’s good to know that this delectable coupe has the potential to be more than a one-shot wonder — and a wonder it is.
2013 Subaru BRZ
On sale: April 2012
Base price: $25,000 (estimated)
22/30 mpg (manual)
25/34 mpg (automatic)
2.0L DOHC H-4
Horsepower: 200 hp @ 7000 rpm
Torque: 151 lb-ft @ 6400 rpm
6-speed manual, 6-speed automatic
Curb weight: 2762-2822 lb
17 x 7-inch wheels
215/45 R17 tires