Sing it, schoolgirls: "Toyota and Subaru, sitting in a tree. K-I-S-S-I-N-G
This most unlikely of tie-ups between mainstream Japanese giant Toyota and still rather offbeat Subaru has borne its first fruit: A low cost, lightweight rear-wheel-drive sports coupe that, theoretically, takes advantage of the best that both delivered to the table.
On paper, it's a dream come true for enthusiasts who have long lamented the demise of what was once a fantastic market segment. But with few rivals on the horizon, did Toyota and Subaru actually have the cojones
to do their best?
What is it?
Toyota's relationship with Subaru dates back nearly a decade, to when cash-bleeding General Motors offloaded its share in the Outback builder. Toyota snapped it up, in part to build more of its hot-selling Camrys at Subaru's Indiana assembly plant.
Fast forward a few years and you'll find that Toyota heir Akio Toyoda at the helm of an automaker too big for its own good. Recognizing the need to regroup and refocus, Akio decides Toyota needs to rekindle its passion for performance, and as an unapologetic enthusiast, he knows that a truly sporty coupe (and not a Scion tC
) needs to be made.
Subaru's mainstay flat four engines are screamers, but their major advantage - a low center of gravity - is ruined when they need to clear a front differential in an all-wheel-drive WRX. Naturally, Subaru's engineers relished the chance to develop a rear-drive sports coupe powered by the only kind of engine they know how to build.
Identical aside from badging and some minor front fascia changes to the Scion FR-S
, the coupe is also sold globally as either the Toyota 86 or GT-86. All that nomenclature should keep badge suppliers busy printing chrome numbers and letters. Underneath, there are some spring rate changes between the FR-S and the BRZ, but the differences are miniscule.
At their core, the BRZ and siblings revive rather than reinvent a long-neglected segment of the market. Today's buyers might not see Toyota as a purveyor of performance, but the sculpted T-brand has a colorful history of cars like the shapely 2000GT and the zippy AE86, both of which inspired this coupe.
In North America, the Scion FR-S is expected to be the high volume model, but hedonists should look to the more lavishly-optioned Subaru BRZ
, especially our loaded up Limited test model, which included leather/synthetic suede heated seats an extra-cost six-speed automatic.
What's it up against?
Sadly, inexpensive, rear-drive sports coupes are in short supply these days.
BRZ's most natural rival - aside from the FR-S - is the Mazda MX-5 Miata
, but the bulkier Ford Mustang
can also make a case for itself thanks to a new, comprehensive Performance Package on V6 models. There's also the Hyundai Genesis
Coupe, and while we like the direction it takes the brand in, it has always felt more like a GT car than a genuine sports car thanks to its heft and general softness.
How does it look?
Almost identical to the FR-S, the BRZ receives only its own badging, faux side vents and an unpainted black chunk on its front bumper.
Either way you slice your Toyobaru sports coupe, however, you'll find one of the best looking vehicles to bear either brand's badge in decades - and that's not damning these two-doors with faint praise.
BRZ's long snout, short tail design is clearly derivative of the shapely, ultra-rare 2000GT, especially in its secondary side window treatment. Broadly-flared fenders and squinting head lamps impart a sense of reptilian aggression up front, but we feel that the rear falls a little flat with its fussy spoiler (standard on BRZ Limiteds) and cheesy clear tail lamps. Fortunately, a rear diffuser set off by chrome tailpipes finishes the look rather well.
Still, we wish there was even more styling differentiation between the BRZ and FR-S; we've seen the two cars parked side-by-side, and it takes the most eagle-eyed onlooker to discern between them. At the very least, a unique wheel design for the Subaru was an opportunity missed here.
And on the inside?
A four-seater in name only, the BRZ boasts a pair of nicely-sculpted, firm bucket seats up front and what we can best describe as a cargo shelf with seatbelts in the back.
Those fortunate enough to settle into the manually-adjustable driver's seat will find one of the best driving positions this side of a dedicated track car. The pilot sits comfortably low in the tailor-made cabin, and he or she will find a no-nonsense theree-spoke steering wheel mounted in just the right spot. Our tester was equipped with the optional six-speed automatic, so it brought with it a pair of metal shift paddles.
Clear gauges prioritize the big, high-revving tachometer, but are otherwise light on embellishment. So too the center stack, which features nifty toggle-style controls for the dual-zone automatic climate control, as well as a big starter button and a miniscule storage bin. Materials and assembly quality are first rate, especially given the car's modest price point. Hard plastics are found in secondary positions, but classy stitching and nice graining sets off the interior nicely.
The bad news is that all BRZs come standard with what is unquestionably the worst navigation interface in the industry. A handful of tiny "real" buttons play second fiddle to a blurry touch screen that's impossible to read in even a hint of bright light. With no redundant radio controls on the steering wheel, we found ourselves simply turning the audio system off rather than messing with it.
But does it go?
Subaru fans know that the brand is really good at two things: Turbochargers and all-wheel-drive. The BRZ has neither of those, but it still managed to entertain us more than almost any new car we've ever driven.
BRZ starts with a new 2.0-liter engine that is distantly related to the similarly-sized unit used in the 2012 Subaru Impreza
. From there, it gained a Toyota-developed direct injection system, which brought output to 200 horsepower at 7,000 rpm and 151 lb-ft. of torque at 6,400 to 6,600 rpm. Clearly, this flat four was designed to rev, while its ultra-low positioning gives the car a center of gravity just a foot and a half off the ground.
Naturally, handling is of the go-kart variety on a race track, but what's perhaps most impressive is the utter usability of this coupe on a day-to-day basis.
We flung our silver BRZ tester on a variety of tracks including the fast but short infield course at Texas Motor Speedway and the grand prix heritage-laced hills of Road America in Wisconsin. On both tracks, the balanced chassis, which splits 54 percent of its mass up front and 46 percent out back, rotated predictably through tight corners and broad sweepers alike. Pushed hard, the BRZ propels itself into grin-inducing but ultimately controllable oversteer, even with the traction and stability controls left engaged in a lenient sport mode. At full-tilt, at-the-limit, tire-squealing type of driving, we encountered some manageable understeer in the BRZ, although our tester was one of the first dozen serialized models built and we've heard that a few changes might have been made for customer production models.
Fast electric steering transmitted excellent road feel to the driver, but the fully hydraulic Miata's system speaks to its operator ever so slightly more eloquently. Still, even the stiff Miata can't match the BRZ's remarkable rigidity, which imparted an additional sense of confidence on either course.
Although nobody will mistake the BRZ for a speed demon, the 2.0 is easy enough to keep in its sky-high power band thanks to the fast, almost abrupt-shifting six-speed automatic and the Hoover-like vroom
of a piped-in resonator tube, which brings some sort of indiscernable roar to the party. Once the cabin became unbearably loud, we tapped the upshift paddle. Downshifts, meanwhile, treated us to a racy blip of the throttle.
We pitted our BRZ up against a V6-powered Mustang in Texas, and while Ford has done a fantastic job of making a 3,600 lbs. coupe with a live rear axle handle like a sports car, the 2,800 lbs. BRZ was a delicate dancer ready to spin circles around the proverbial thoroughbred in a tutu. In short: No contest. The Mustang, boasting way more power and torque, is the straight-line champion, but the BRZ is the more fun to drive of the two.
Akio told designers early on that he wanted the coupes to be capable of carrying a full load of track day tires without requiring a trailer, so it's obvious that he wanted a usable daily driver. We didn't test the tire-hauling capability (the scent of raceday rubber is enough for us to advocate a small utility trailer), but we can verify the BRZ's relative comfort. Wavy pavement induces some of the fore and aft pitching endemic to stiff, short cars like the BRZ, but otherwise we found it to be a pleasingly comfortable runabout. Thanks to its progressive oversteer, the BRZ relishes freeway on-ramps and twisty two-laners. Power off the line isn't striking, but the BRZ motors capably through its urban paces with its six-speed firing off fast, borderline harsh shifts. At highway speeds, the BRZ isn't quiet, but it is sufficiently relaxing for long treks. We'd like to see a little more sound deadening - perhaps as part of a "luxury" package.
The icing on the cake? We easily met the EPA's 25/34 mpg ratings and we averaged a solid 28 mpg despite ample skinny pedal use.
Why you would buy it:
You've been waiting years - no, make that decades
- for the return of the affordable sports coupe.
Why you wouldn't:
The Scion is slightly cheaper and it does without Subaru's awful navigation system.
Leftlane's bottom line
If there's a more fun car that can be bought new for less than $30,000, we'd like to see it. Only Mazda's evergreen Miata can give it a run for the money, but the more powerful, more efficient and roomier BRZ appeals to our innate need for practicality. It's a track day star that negates the need for a second vehicle unless passenger hauling is a priority.
While we'd like to see a little more grunt under the BRZ's hood and perhaps the option of additional sound deadening, the package is so brilliantly balanced that any criticism is mere nitpickery.
2013 Subaru BRZ Limited
base price, $27,495. As tested, $29,365.
Automatic, $1,100; Destination, $770.
Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.