Archive for June, 2012


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 2013 Subaru BRZ Limited in Satin White Pearl

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.

Top: Scion FR-S, Bottom: Subaru BRZ. The differences are subtle.

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.

The little wing-shaped spoiler is a terrific addition to the rear of the BRZ. It doesn’t make much of a difference, even going fast, but it sure looks cool!

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.

Subaru’s 2.0L horizontally-opposed 4-cylinder engine topped by Toyota’s D4-S direct and port injection system. It completely changes the character of the little Boxer.

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.

2013 Subaru BRZ Limited. Note that the side mirrors are mounted on the door panel – a definite plus. You’ll find that placement on a Corvette, Porsche and Ferrari.

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.

Check out those sports bucket seats with Alcantara (an expensive, suede-like material). The red contrast stitching looks great on the seats as well as the door panels, steering wheel and manual emergency brake.

Dual zone automatic climate control is adjusted with well-weighted knobs and toggle switches. Note the large button on the bottom, left. That is the engine start-stop control. Odd location. It will take a few days of driving to remember where it is.

The door details and materials are of high quality for a $28,000 car. The soft-touch plastics are a cut above normal Subaru quality.

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.

**********************

Subaru Pacific – Hermosa Beach, CA

[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!]


An interesting news tidbit came through the BMW PR department recently. The Z1, the ground-breaking plastic-paneled roadster with vertical power sliding doors, is celebrating its 25th anniversary. In 1985, BMW’s Board of Management formed a 60-member team of engineers and designers specifically tasked with creating what became known as the Z1. That group, BMW Technik GmbH, came up with the Z1’s radical design incorporating BMW’s goals: superior performance, the ability to drive with the roof down, a sense of sheer originality and a dash of extravagance.  To say they succeeded would be a grave understatement.

The BMW Z1

The BMW Z1 in Top Red

The Z1 had a very low weight (2,760 pounds, about as much as a MINI Cooper Convertible) and low center of gravity, front mid-engine placement and compact dimensions. The “wow factor” came from the unique vertical sliding doors and the supporting sheet-metal structure with a plastic outer skin.  BMW announced on August 10, 1987 that it would present the Z1 Roadster at the Frankfurt Auto Show on September 11, 1987.  It would have a 170 hp straight 6-cylinder engine and it would go into production in June of 1988.

BMW Z1 Interior

While the Z1 may look radical, beneath that sexy skin beats the heart of a garden variety BMW 325i of that era [internal code E30]. The HVAC system and most controls and gauges were lifted straight from the E30.  The Z1 had a 2.5-liter straight-six with 170 hp (as advertised) and all Z1s had a 5-speed manual transmission.  The front single-joint spring axle was taken from the 3-Series, but the rear multi-link axle was unique to the Z1.  The car had excellent directional stability and it exhibited strong anti-squat and anti-dive control. The weight distribution was 49:51.

The Z1 would be considered slow by today’s standards. It’s zero to 62 time was just under eight seconds.  But it rode like a go-cart and it hugged the ground like it was a roller coaster on rails.  With the doors tucked safely under the carriage and the top down, people said it was like driving a 4-wheel motorcycle.

The BMW Z1 in Dream Black metallic

Only 8,000 BMW Z1 models were built between June of 1988 and June of 1991 – three short years.  Under U.S. law, in order to import a classic or antique car for personal use, the vehicle must be 25 years old or older so it doesn’t have to comply with the Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS).  Vehicles 21 years old and older don’t have to comply with any EPA requirements.

The BMW Z1 in Nature Green Metallic

To determine the age of the vehicle, the calendar year of manufacture is subtracted from the calendar year of importation. That means starting in 2013, the first Z1 models are eligible to be imported to the US without burden of Federal emissions or safety regulations (2013 less 1988 = 25).

Naturally, it’s not that simple for California.  Model year 1976 and newer vehicles are still required to pass a smog check. The good news, however, is that the engine and exhaust system for the Z1 are nearly identical to the BMWs sold in California at that time.  A good BMW mechanic should be able to make sure that an imported Z1 would pass California smog checks.

The metal frame of the BMW Z1

It lots of time and paperwork to import a classic to the U.S. and there are lots of companies that will assist with the process. It also may take some time to find a nice living example of a Z1 to purchase.  They are still expensive – at least $30,000 – and that’s before it gets on a boat and all the federal and California paperwork is done. But it’s just so damn cool. Who wouldn’t want one?

See the BMW Z1 press release.

In the spring of 1991, artist A.R. Penck decorated a Top Red Z1 with black graffiti. This Z1 was added to the other legendary members of BMW’s Art Cars.

A stripped-down Z1 without its unique plastic body panels and its futuristic, never copied, drop-down vertical doors.

Testing a Z1

The Z1’s engine, transmission and suspension.

A BMW Z1 in the styling studio.

An early Z1 design study.

Designer sketches for the Z1

The interior of the Z1 sported the driver-focused cockpit from the 3-Series. The seats were unique to the Z1.

The Z1’s styling is still fresh today. It was an instant classic and demand never waned during its short, hand-built run. They are highly sought-after as collector classics today.