I thought I heard angels singing. There were nearly forgotten sounds of traction lost and high-pitched, high-revving boxing pistons. Soft, sensuous Alcantara Velcro’d me to the seat. Was I hallucinating? Had I ascended to heaven – despite all previous admonitions to the contrary? No, I was driving the 2013 Subaru BRZ, an affordable, rear-drive sports coupé sent to these shores from a previously unknown car nirvana in Japan.
The unusual combination of Subaru, the sensible shoes all-wheel-drive-for-everyone company with front-drive, milquetoast Toyota to produce a rear-drive sports coupé with a price tag of $25,00 was a first for both companies – and a near miracle. It was dubbed the Toyobaru, some sort of Frankensteinian melding of design and engineering talent from two very different Japanese car companies.
In fact, it’s a revelation, a gift from automotive heaven to enthusiasts. This bastard son easily exceeds the sum of the DNA of its two parents.
Naming this little sports car seems to have been difficult for Subaru. BRZ is short for Boxer (engine) Rear-drive, Zenith (of the brand?). You can’t make this crap up.
Both the Toyota and Subaru versions of the car are assembled by Subaru at its Ōta, Japan factory. In the U.S., it’s sold by Toyota as the Scion FR-S. In the rest of the world, it’s known as either the Toyota GT 86 or Toyota 86. Styling differences are subtle, but I prefer the slightly more aggressive front of the BRZ as well as the sporty, albeit mostly cosmetic, rear deck-mounted spoiler.
Breaking from the tradition of charging extra for everything, standard on both BRZ trim levels is an 8-speaker audio system with touch screen navigation, SiriusXM satellite radio, HD radio, XM NavTraffic, Bluetooth 2.0 for your phone as well as audio streaming and a USB port. It’s the same one that is optional in the new Impreza. The BRZ Limited ($28,265) tosses in keyless access, dual-zone automatic climate control and Alcantara-trimmed leather seats. The only option I’d add is the $281 auto-dimming rear view mirror with compass and HomeLink.
Up until now, the only affordable rear-drive sports car was the Mazda MX-5 Miata. We used to be blessed with the high-revving Honda S2000; however after a decade of production and corporate neglect, Honda killed it in 2009. So much for halos.
Rear-drive stalwarts BMW, Mercedes and Porsche have nothing even near a $25,000 price point. The Detroit 3 offer offer larger, rear-drive pony or muscle cars (Mustang, Camaro and Challenger); however, those cars aren’t in the same bantam weight class as the MX-5 or the BRZ. The BRZ Premium (6-speed manual) weighs in at 2,762 pounds and the MX-5 Touring (6-speed manual) at 2,480 pounds while the base Mustang V6 coupe, the smallest of the pony cars, weighs a whopping 3,510 pounds.
Driving the BRZ for the first time reminded me of my first drive in a Mazda Miata some twenty years ago:
- Low to the ground, low center of gravity: Check.
- Short-throw, snick-snick shifter and easy, linear clutch: Check.
- Fast steering ratio: Check.
- Glued to the road, slot car handling: Check.
- Rear drive, perfect balance: Check
- Tossable: Oh yes!
- Fun factor: Through the roof.
- Affordable: Check.
- I fit and found a comfortable driving position – and I’m 6 feet 1 inches tall.
- Room for two and not much else: Check.
Subaru engineered the chassis and drivetrain for the new car. The new 2.0L 4-cylinder boxer engine, first seen on the 2012 Impreza, was reworked to be more compact and lighter and sits lower and further aft in the BRZ’s heavily reworked Impreza chassis. Toyota donated its D4-S direct and port fuel injection system that seems to bring all 200 ponies to life in the same way Apple’s Retinal Display brings color to a new level of brilliance.
Torque is rated at only151 pound-feet and you have to rev the engine up to 6,400 rpm to find it. But this little engine loves to rev. While the BRZ isn’t particularly fast, it feels fast and light – like a humming bird, not Thor’s hammer. The sound is pure aural delight. Cue the angels.
The 4-wheel independent sports-tuned chassis has struts up front with double wishbones handling the rear. The ride was firm but comfortable and I didn’t feel punished like I did in my MINI Cooper Clubman S. The Vehicle Stability Control uses a Torsen limited slip differential and with the VCS in sports mode, it’s fairly easy to lose some traction and burn rubber. Ah, that was the cherubs singing!
Aisin, another Toyota affiliate, provides both the 6-speed manual and automatic transmissions. I loved the ease of shifting the manual. The automatic has a sport/manual mode with paddle shifters to provide better control and entertainment when not stuck in the daily slog in L.A. traffic. I wish I’d had a chance to test one.
All the nip-tucks and Botox can’t make the Mazda MX-5 look fresh compared to the BRZ. Seven years is a long time for any model to be sold and it’s past time for a new MX-5. The small trunk on the BRZ is marginally bigger than the Hello Kitty backpack volume of the MX-5; however, the “back seat” in the BRZ (poetic license if I’ve ever seen it) is barely big enough for a Birkin Bag or my 15 pound dachshund. Families aren’t welcome there.
I prefer coupes to roadsters, but it’s almost certain that by the time a new MX-5 graces our shores, there will be a BRZ roadster. This brash yet modest sports coupé is instantly my new favorite Subaru. It’s near Porsche Cayman fun for less than half the price.
The BRZ will be the foundation for endless boy-racer tuning and after-market tinkering. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it staring in home-made YouTube videos, sliding, drifting and burning rubber on streets all over the world. It really is a new zenith for Subaru, no matter how hokey that sounds.
[Special thanks to Subaru Pacific, part of the LACarGuy.com group of companies, for alerting me that a BRZ was sitting on their lot, unsold, and letting me burn some rubber before it disappeared. Thanks to James and Bronson at Subaru Pacific. It was nice to meet LACarGuy’s VP of Marketing, Brad, outside of cyberspace. And it was a treat to meet Sullivan Automotive Group’s owner, Michael Sullivan, who looks just like he does in his commercials. His silver Fisker Karma wasn’t bad either!]