Beads of sweat trickle down my neck as I barrel down the straight at Fuji Speedway, spraying a fine mist in my wake. I cannot see a damn thing. I’m on the wrong side of the car, shifting with my left hand. The empty grandstands on either side of my peripheral vision blur into streaks, bookending the gray oblivion ahead of me. All I can do is tune in to the feedback I’m getting from the 2017 Subaru BRZ. As usual, amidst the sound of my heart pounding, the car is talking my ear off.
The BRZ has always communicated well. Right out of the gate in 2012, the BRZ nailed a trait every sports car strives for — that elusive feeling of connection. Cars with double its power weren’t close to as lively because the BRZ was light, simple, and most of all, balanced. Subaru engineers still believe that at the time, the car was perfect. But competitors have upped their game, and Subaru took a long hard look at the things it could work on. Of course, the hard part about getting it right the first time is that it’s hard to know where to really yank up weeds and where to simply let things be.
Walking around the 2017 BRZ under the cloudy skies at Fuji, it’s easy to see that Subaru’s exterior designers opted for the latter strategy. It barely even looks like a refresh at first glance, but a keener eye will notice a few subtle tweaks. The car’s stance is a touch lower and wider, and the front bumper pieces now extend into the foglight housings. LED headlights and taillights are now standard, the more aggressive-looking 17-inch wheels are new, and the functional rear spoiler (once optional for Limited models) is now standard. Nobody will have any trouble identifying the latest BRZ, but like a smart new haircut and a shave, the car looks cleaner and fresher without resorting to a ridiculous mohawk or man-bun.
It’s much the same story on the inside, though it’s really the BRZ Limited that gets most of the upgrades. All models now come with a multifunction steering wheel that’s 0.1 inches (3mm) smaller in diameter (which is something Porsche charges $320 for in the 911, by the way) and wrapped in softer and higher-quality leather. The interior for the Premium model is essentially carry-over, but the Limited arrives with a new 4.2-inch LCD data screen next to the tachometer, as well as improved dashboard materials and embroidered seatbacks. It’s still a far cry from the Ritz-Carlton, but at least Subaru made an effort to spruce things up for its not-so-Motel-6 trim.
On hand are the current 2016 BRZ, the base 2017 model, and the new Performance Pack variant. Immediately, the original BRZ charms us all over again. After all, we’re talking about a wet track in a tail-happy, lightweight, rear-wheel-drive coupe. But the key difference between the old car and the new car manifests almost immediately after I nearly clip the wall exiting an off-camber left-hander. Traction control comes in much later even with all of the nannies on, and when the electronics do swoop in, it’s more like a friendly kindergarten teacher rather than ruler-toting nun, guiding you safely through the turn rather than quashing the fun outright with a noisy groan of the brakes. The BRZ’s new Track mode, updated from the old Sport mode, dials back intervention even further, goading you to test the limits of the car’s newly revised suspension.
On Fuji’s full circuit, bathed in harrowing swaths of foggy blur, the BRZ’s immediacy is on showcase. Fast, sweeping turns seem to spawn suddenly as the course reveals itself, demanding precise inputs, quick chassis response, and hyper-vigilance. I can’t help but feel like I’m in the 1976 Japanese Grand Prix as the wet track and complete lack of visibility conspire to make keeping pace incredibly difficult. I don’t need to bullishly pound every apex like James Hunt, but I’m not about to bow out like Niki Lauda, either. The best I can hope for is to keep up with the other cars ahead of me, chasing their fuzzy brake lights lap after lap for fear of losing my guide through the misty Japanese labyrinth.
With the BRZ’s retuned springs and dampers, as well as its larger rear stabilizer bar and chassis reinforcements, Subaru engineers managed to heighten the car’s already rewarding handling virtues. Turn-in is more fluid and crisp, but what stands out most is improved body control and grip. Thanks to a slightly firmer front suspension and softer rear, I carve a path along the relentlessly demanding course feeling much more planted to the pavement, while the rear end is even more eager to drift around corners. The BRZ pitches and rolls noticeably less than its predecessor, and the car is not as easily upset over rough curbing. New electronic power steering tuning, paired with the new suspension setup, yields a snappier turn-in that builds weight more smoothly off-center. If anything, the refreshed car gives you a subtle confidence boost, and not at the expense of feedback. Ultimately, it’s the dialed-back electronics that make the biggest difference, putting even more control in the driver’s hands.
Especially with the new Performance Pack, which adds Sachs ZF shocks, 0.5-inch wider wheels, and bigger brake rotors with Brembo four-piston front calipers, the BRZ is still king when it comes to cheap and joyous kicks around a road course. Although the package might not be worth the extra cash on the road, those who plan on visiting the track would do well to tick this box. The larger brake rotors, now 12.8 inches wide up front and 12.4 inches wide at the rear, are the same size as used in the WRX STI. Let that sink in for a second.
What has me puzzled, though, is all the fuss Subaru has made about its updated engine. Exclusive to manual-transmission models, the 2017 Subaru BRZ’s 2.0-liter naturally aspirated boxer four-cylinder now cranks out an additional 5 hp and 5 lb-ft of torque for a total of 205 hp and 156 lb-ft. That improvement comes only at 7,000 rpm, so the boxer-four remains an engine you need to wind out to make the most of it. The glaring dead spot in the middle of the rev range remains, but the saving grace of this update is seven percent more torque between 3,000 and 4,000 rpm. There’s a bit more oomph off of the line, and if you’re really working hard, Subaru says that in concert with the new final drive ratio (from 4.1 in the old car to 4.3 in the new), acceleration from 0-60 mph is somewhat swifter. When asked about the nasty and persistent dip in mid-range torque, a Subaru engineer could only offer up that it’s a limitation of such a small naturally-aspirated engine. A part of me questions whether a more significant limitation is the Tier 2 emissions rating that Subaru must have been eager to retain.
All told, the BRZ still isn’t fast, and that’s OK. Subaru insists the engine is stronger and more durable thanks to friction-reducing polishes for the camshaft and valves and a revised direct-injection system. The biggest tweak is a new aluminum intake manifold to replace the old plastic unit, allowing for greater efficiency as well as a wider exhaust manifold. These updates will at least endear the revised engine to thoroughbred engineering nerds, and at most fuel the rumor mill that Subaru is beefing up the engine in preparation for a turbocharged STI variant down the line. Either way, you won’t notice a compelling difference compared to the outgoing engine, which carries over for automatic-transmission models.
The BRZ’s engine output was never as important as its position and low center of gravity, and that hasn’t changed. In an odd way, it’s sort of a blessing in moments like this, whereas I’d be scared stiff driving blind on a slippery, unfamiliar track in a right-hand-drive car with tons of power. The beauty of the BRZ is that you don’t need to be driving at blazing speed to enjoy or understand what it’s all about. I should be more terrified than I am, but the refreshed 2017 Subaru BRZ reassures and excites even more directly than its predecessor. And, wisely, with a pure sports-car voice that will continue to capture our attention for years to come.
2017 Subaru BRZ Specifications
|On Sale:||September 2016|
2.0L DOHC 16-valve H-4/205 hp @ 7,000 rpm, 156 lb-ft @ 6,400-6,600 rpm (manual);
2.0L DOHC 16-valve H-4/200 hp @ 7,000 rpm, 151 lb-ft @ 6,400 rpm (automatic)
|Transmission:||6-speed manual; 6-speed automatic|
|Layout:||2-door, 4-passenger, front-engine, RWD coupe|
|L x W x H:||166.7 in x 69.9 in in x 50.6 in|
|0-60 MPH:||6.2 sec (est)|
|Top Speed:||140 mph (est)|