First Drive: 2013 Subaru BRZ

A half century or so ago, the car market was blossoming with sports cars. These were generally simple machines that were often unreliable and impractical -- and very often not particularly fast. They came with funny little names like MG and Triumph and Sunbeam and Alfa Romeo and Datsun, and their owners weren't much concerned with zero to sixty. Or top speed. Or peak lateral acceleration. No, the cars had a simple task: to put a smile on your face.

Somewhere along the way, we've become lost. We've become obsessed with Nürburgring lap times and launch control, and modern sports cars are dying off. The Mazda RX-8 just breathed its last rotary breath. The Lotus Elise has retreated to its British shores. The Mazda Miata soldiers on, but generating nowhere near the sales numbers it once did.

And out of nowhere comes this (let's be honest) totally doofus idea: Toyota and Subaru team up to build a rear-wheel drive, normally aspirated sports car. Oh right, Toyota, the purveyors of the Prius, plus Subaru, the company that makes turbocharged, all-wheel drive hotrods and a weird looking crossover thing that Melissa Etheridge fans adore? This was a recipe for disaster.

Out of the most disastrous recipes occasionally comes the most endearing dish, and this is one of those times. The BRZ is a delightfully fun car; a complete package that combines light weight and great handling with just enough power to have fun -- but not too much that you can only enjoy it for three seconds at a time.

For all the Internet armchair warriors complaining about the meager power output, let us be the first to say: the BRZ doesn't need a turbo. It doesn't WANT a turbo. And anyone who says the car should have a turbo is missing the point. Like the Mazda RX-8 and Miata, the Porsche 944 and original Boxster -- and all of those cars from decades ago -- the BRZ is fun because of handling, not because of a sledgehammer that hits when you mash the gas pedal.

The 2.0-liter flat-four engine produces 100 hp per liter, but it does so in a way unlike any other normally aspirated four-cylinder. It doesn't rev to 8000 or even 7500 -- it's not high-strung at all. Redlined at 7400 rpm, the flat-four soundtrack is mellow, and since the intake resonance tube pipes intake noise from only two cylinders into the cabin, it's deep, staccato, and almost bi-plane in its exhaust note. There's no screaming or wailing -- and once the tach needle moves past 2500 rpm, where there's a big valve timing change, the torque curve remains effectively flat until just before 7000 rpm. It's the flattest, broadest torque curve this side of an electric motor. This engine, code FA20, shares effectively no parts with the FB20, the 2.0-liter in other Subaru applications. It's physically smaller than the other engines, and will be used only in the BRZ -- for now.

The six-speed manual transmission has a high-effort, short-throw shifter and a light clutch, and it's a bit easy to stall the BRZ off the line because its flywheel weighs only 20 lb, some 9 less than an STI's. The reduced reciprocating mass, along with the FA20's shorter intake runners, means the engine responds more quickly to throttle blips, though, and the tradeoff is worth it. A six-speed Aisin automatic is optional; it can perform shifts with the torque converter locked, and blips the throttle on downshifts. It's smooth, too. It's great. But it's the wrong transmission for this kind of driver's car.

The BRZ, like so many other modern cars, uses electrically assisted steering. Subaru engineers say they went EPS for fuel economy and because it's easier to tune than a hydraulic setup. They've done a fine job of tuning the effort -- it feels natural, building linearly with cornering loads. Like all EPS systems though, the additional rotational inertia of the assist motor dampens out most of the steering feel, and that's a shame. Still, the rack-and-pinion system is highly accurate, and it's quick, with an overall ratio of 13:1. The small (14.4-inch) steering wheel turns 2.5 turns from lock to lock.

The BRZ's entire engineering mission was a low center of gravity and low polar moment of inertia (meaning that as much as possible of the vehicle's mass is located inside the wheelbase and as low as possible.) Subaru says the BRZ has a lower center of gravity than everything but the Porsche Cayman R and 911 GT3, and that its polar moment of inertia is less than the (mid-engine) Porsche Cayman or Mazda RX-8.

While we certainly can't verify those claims, after driving the BRZ on a handling course, we have no reason to doubt them, either. The BRZ turns in eeee-mediately with minimal, very well-controlled body roll. The front and rear of the car react in unison -- you never get the feeling that the two ends of the car are doing different things. The BRZ settles into steady-state understeer, but don't let that fool you: the standard limited-slip differential allows you to nix that handily. Indeed under heavy throttle, the BRZ goes -- and stays -- neutral, and is incredibly easy to control at the limit. Breakaway at the rear is slow, deliberate, and progressive; the exact opposite of so many modern cars whose engineers seemed to only care about achieving maximum grip, not what happens when you exceed it.

Subaru made it very clear that the BRZ's handling benchmark was the Porsche Cayman. We're not sure exactly which benchmarks the engineers targeted, but from the wheel, we're not feeling it. In lateral grip and turn-in response, sure -- but in chassis balance, the Porsche is in a different league. The Cayman exhibits slightly less understeer in terms of static balance, but the big difference is that the Porsche allows you to quickly and dramatically adjust the car's line with the gas pedal. The BRZ won't trailing-throttle oversteer; once it's settled into a corner, the only way to adjust the line is to add power.

On the other hand, the BRZ is far, far easier to control because of it. To complain about the lack of corner-adjustability is unfair -- the Porsche is, after all, a mid-engine car that costs twice as much as the Subaru. That we're even discussing them in the same sentence is a testament to how good the BRZ is.

It's great in other ways, too -- it's 9 inches shorter than the Cayman, but seats two additional people. The BRZ's front seats are highly supportive and very comfortable, though the rears are for very short trips or very short passengers. Still, they're there, and the rear seatback folds (as one piece) allowing enough room for a set of track tires, according to Subaru. That's cool.

The steering wheel is adjustable for rake and reach, though even extended as far as it'll go, it's a long reach for long-legged drivers. And the pedals are spaced a bit too far for easy heel-and-toeing. Trunk space is meager, at 6.9 cubic feet, and Subaru made no mention of an available sunroof.

Not that we would have opened it on the course -- especially the high-speed oval. We saw an indicated 132 mph in the manual-transmission BRZ, and the 2.0-liter was still pulling. It seemed a long shot that it would make it to 143 mph, which is the estimated top speed an engineer gave us. On the other hand, a BRZ automatic couldn't pull past 128 mph, and that same engineer estimates it will make it to 137 mph - so perhaps the track was headed up a slight grade. The manual transmission car should be able to hit 60 mph in just under 7 seconds; the automatic just over -- but there's enough low-end torque to easily spin the 215/45-WR17 Michelin Primacy HP tires off the line.

Wait, wait, wait! The BRZ isn't about the numbers! A sports car doesn't need to look good in the stats box, it just needs to be a great drive. And the BRZ is a great drive. If you're looking for smoking 0-60 numbers and crazy top speeds that you'll never get to, there are certainly other cars that better fit your tastes. The BRZ needs a convertible top more than it needs a turbo -- because that, not horsepower, is the only thing holding this car back from being the modern-day equivalent of those wonderful 1960s sports cars.

On Sale: Late spring 2012
Estimated price range: $25,000 (base, includes navigation) to $28,000 (Limited)
Major options: leather/Alcantara seats, seat heaters, rear spoiler
Engine: 2.0L DOHC H-4. 200 hp @ 7000 rpm, 150 lb-ft @ 6400-6600 rpm
Transmissions: 6-speed manual, 6-speed paddleshifted automatic
EPA: n/a (but Subaru promises 30 mpg highway)

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