Money and fun often go together. Especially with cars. More money; more fun - but not when it comes to the affordable fun of the Subaru BRZ, thankfully
2017 SUBARU BRZ FUNDAMENTALS
Subaru BRZ is a pure rear wheel drive sports handling delight - real drivers only need apply. It's a bit harsh for others to tolerate on a daily basis, perhaps, but if you understand the interplay between throttle and steering and you like the 'finesse' driving experience (as opposed to the 'meathead/musclecar' drive) it's a very satisfying car to drive on a favourite piece of winding road.
The BRZ is very affordable, too - more affordable than the Mazda MX-5, for example, and in practice, just as much fun. It's a safe option, too, with the full five-star ANCAP safety rating.
People say it's under-powered. It's not. (In fact the 2.0-litre petrol engine develops the same power per litre as a 456kW 6.0-litre V8.) That's just a classic 'great handling' observation - because it handles so well, you think you want more power. (You don't.)
Pure handling RWD sports drive experience. Loves a rev. Exceptional sub-$40k affordability (fun per $ spent is off the chart). If you're quick in a BRZ, you're quick.
The instrument cluster is, frankly, an ergonomic travesty, and the car needs 98-octane premium unleaded fuel. It's not very practical as a daily driver (but it would be a great second - fun - car). Luggage space is very limited and the rear seats are a joke. Frnkly I'm not a real fan of the synthesised engine noise, either...
SUBARU BRZ MY17 UPGRADES
New LED head lights and tail lights
Engine refinements (manuals only)
Vehicle Dynamics Control TRACK mode
Hill Start Assist
New bumper design
New 17-inch alloy wheels
Full auto air-conditioning
New steering wheel
2.0-litre atmo boxer 4cyl with electronic throttle control
152 kW @ 7000 rpm (man)
147 kW @ 7000 rpm (auto)
212 Nm @ 6400-6800 rpm (man)
205 Nm @ 6400-6600 rpm (auto)
Rear wheels, via Torsen limited-slip differential
4240mm x 1775mm x 1320mm
(L x W x H)
1282 kg (man)
1304 kg (auto)
Fuel cons. (combined):
8.4 L/100km (man)
7.1 L/100km (auto)
50-litre fuel tank
Min. octane requirement:
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On fundamentals, it’s extremely difficult to figure out what you’d do differently if you were going to design a brand new BRZ because they got so much of this car right. The weight distribution: 53 (front):47 (rear). I think we’ll give them a pass for three per cent each way.
This is not a hairdresser’s car, in fact, a hairdresser would hate this. Someone, who really knows how to use the steering, the throttle and the brakes, is going to love a car like this. In fact, if you can be quick from A to B, in the BRZ, then you’re quick. By comparison, if you can be quick from A to B in a WRX STI, then you can be a pretty blunt instrument as a driver driving a pretty fast car that’s also very forgiving.
This car’s not like that. If you’re ‘on it’ on the way in; if you’re not clipping that apex; if you’re not at exactly the right revs, it’s going to cost you a tenth of a second here, and a tenth of a second there and before you know it, that’s going to be a second a lap (or a second and a half a lap). In a ten lap race that’s going to be fifteen seconds. That’s the difference between standing on the podium and being a back-marker with your head hung low.
SUBARU BRZ -Vs- TOYOTA 86
BRZ and Toyota 86: they’re essentially interchangeable. The only difference is the badge, and only their mothers can tell them apart. For the rest of us, the only salient difference is the 86 is available in two spec levels whereas, the BRZ is, any spec you like, as long as it’s one spec. The only choice to make is six speed manual or automatic. So it’s a pretty streamlined model range.
For 2017, they’ve given the BRZ what I’d call, a marketing department model upgrade. Nothing really substantive to report. Modest updates in engine output but not that you’d ever feel them. Download the official 2017 BRZ press announcement >> for all the details.
There’s a lot of discussion about whether or not a car like BRZ needs more power.
So my take on that is, if a car has fantastic handling, you want more power. That’s why you drive a BRZ: you want more power. If a car’s got way too mumbo and not enough grip, the typical sort of driving experience is, you overdrive everywhere; the chassis can’t keep up and it’s not all that satisfying. I you drive something that’s really well sorted out dynamically you always want more mumbo.
So, I guess the challenge there is, if you actually gave the BRZ a hairdryer and all of a sudden it’s got thirty per cent more power, would the drive experience be better or worse. Part of me thinks that it might be worse because at the moment, it’s a real challenge to finesse this car and get the best response you can from it in a variety of different dynamically unfolding situations.
It’s really hard to be on the pace or, at least, it’s a challenge that gets you in. If you gave it thirty per cent more power everywhere you could overwhelm the available grip at many different points in a corner, you’ll probably end up over driving on the way in and getting on the gas too hard, too early then it would be total anarchy in the chassis department, at least.
At the risk of getting on one of my many soap boxes right now, you hear people talk about engine upgrades and ‘it needs more power’ and it really annoys me because most of them who cry out for more power in a car like a BRZ are absolutely incapable of driving the car the way it is to the limit of its performance under brakes or around bends.
The easiest thing to do in a performance car is to accelerate. Everything else takes a lot more skill. It’s really hard to get the brakes right because brakes are substantially more powerful devices than engines.
CORNERING: BRZ'S SPECIALTY
Cornering is exceptionally difficult to get right. This is because you’ve got to brake at the last minute, carry as much speed as possible into the corner without over cooking it. The other thing that’s very difficult about cornering, of course, is getting the speed right in the corner.
Small differences in speed make a great deal of difference to lateral G and therefore the demands on the tyres. If you’re already walking up to the limit of their adhesion a very small increase in speed is all that’s necessary to tip you over beyond the available grip.
So that’s all very difficult to get right and it annoys me that many people crowing for more and more power in cars like this are incapable of just driving them at the limit of their performance the way they are.
If you were going to upgrade a BRZ, one of the classic things to do would be change the tyres. Go on the hunt for some road legal grooved slicks and see what they do to the cornering and braking equation. Ultimately, you’d get so much more increased performance envelope from a tyre upgrade than you ever would from bolting on this or that to your engine and you wouldn’t be placing your driveline under any more stress either so there’s a million reasons why you should learn just to be a better driver and then upgrade the overall grip.
IN THE WET
I’ve been driving the BRZ for only one week now and it’s been the wettest March in recorded history in Sydney, so I know a lot about what it’s like to drive this car in the rain and this has been my one opportunity to film it and drive it in the dry before Subaru knocks on the door wanting the car back.
One of the things that driving the BRZ so often in the wet over the past week has taught me, is that you really do need to respect that interplay between the throttle and the steering. If you’ve been driving something that’s a bit more forgiving for the past few weeks to years, it might seem a little unsettling at first but it is absolutely essential, in this car, if you’re ‘on it’ around a bend and you want to get on the gas after you clip the apex, you need to be unwinding that steering.
If you don’t, it can be very easy to catalyse a loss of traction at the rear; you start over steering around a bend (which is fine if you’re setting the car up to do that). It’s a bit unsettling if it catches you out, and it might if you’re not use to driving a rear-wheel drive performance car that’s pretty stiff in the wet.
When I drive BRZ, I keep having these flash backs to the late 1990s when the Japanese were building some really excellent, scary, fast, rear-wheel drive cars like the Nissan 200SX. That was a great car to scare yourself stupid in. I have those flashbacks when I drive BRZ, it’s exciting in a similar way.
BRZ -Vs- MX-5
BRZ delivers the kind of engaging rear drive experience, a pure drive experience, almost go-cart like drive in a sense, kind of the way MX-5 is famous for the same thing but BRZ manages to do that several thousand dollars cheaper than an MX-5. If you’re really looking at the budget hard and you want a lot of fun, those extra few thousand dollars would really make the difference for me.
Overwhelmingly, this car is set up with that pure drive experience in mind. All of the control architecture and the feedback: it’s really good if you know what you’re doing. The steering’s fantastic; you know exactly where you’re pointing the wheels and you know when you are about to start losing grip… that’s awesome.
The pedals are perfectly placed for creative heel and toeing on the way into a bend. It’s extremely easy to get in this car and adapt it up to do exactly what you tell it to.
So they’ve done a fantastic job; even the gear shifter here is nice, chunky, short throws. It’s notchy enough to make you think you’re in a performance car, because you are, but you never get it wrong. You don’t select third, when you want fifth… there’s none of that stuff. This car just works.
The one thing I am really disappointed in, however, is the instrument cluster. They could have done so much better with that, in keeping with that pure drive ethos that commands the rest of the car. The instrument cluster is just wrong. The speedo is rotated ninety degrees counterclockwise and it’s just a fail. Zero kilometres an hour is at the five o’clock position when it should be at about seven thirty or eight o’clock. The whole thing is calibrated up to two hundred and sixty and all of the legal speeds in Australia, from zero to one hundred and ten, at least on the eastern seaboard, take place in about this much movement of the needle.
To give you just one example of why this is so wrong, fifty kilometres an hour is the default urban limit in Australia. When you’re at fifty in a BRZ, the speedo needle is vertically straight down. Come on guys… There is a digital display… it’s on the other side of the big, fat tacho in the centre.
Were they trying to make them unrelated?
While I’m having my epic instrument cluster whinge, the tacho is like this: Zero RPM, vertically straight down. Seven thousand, four hundred RPM is where the red line is but it’s not vertically straight up. It’s vertically straight up… plus a little bit.
If you’re going to take this car to a track and have a bit of fun, and deal with all the cognitive overload that goes with performance driving on a track, wouldn’t the designers say ‘hey, let’s make this easy’. The red line is taco needle vertically up. So you don’t need to do very much cognitive processing for that. You look down, you see the needle vertically up and you go, ‘ah, next gear, thanks’.
How hard would that really be?
Although this car itself is quite affordable, you’ll need to stick ninety-eight octane super premium unleaded in ti. So that’s kind of, out of phase with the affordability equation up front, I guess. At least it delivers, if you give it a rev.
POWER & ATMO PERFORMANCE
It’s a hundred and fifty-two kilowatts at 7000rpm. Peak torque doesn’t kick in though until the mid six thousands, so you’ll be revving its tits off if you want to be going quickly from A to B.
Essentially, you’ll be changing up at about 7000-7200… something like that. You’ll be dropping back to 4500-5000rpm and if you keep the tacho in that sweet spot, then progress is going to be quite rapid.
You are going to cop a bit of a penalty on the way out of a bend if you let the revs bog down. There’s no turbo to give you that awesome rush at low to medium revs that you would get, for example, in a Veloster turbo. So it’s less forgiving in that respect and is another one of those examples about why you need to be ‘on it’ as a driver if you want to impress the judges with your time around some track.
This would be an absolutely awesome car to take to a track day. You’d learn a lot about your own driving ability and have a bunch of fun as well. You could bolt up a set of grooved slicks and really go to town and have a great day.
The seat is very, very supportive so there’s not much slewing around from side to side. There’s a great place to brace your left knee here against the turret and that gives you some great stability when you’re going around a tight right-hander.
There’s not the same opportunity to brace your right leg, though, and that’s a shame because it is nice to get your legs engaged into the driving process and keep your head and your torso as upright as possible… the better not to spoil the great three axis accelerometer you’ve got in your inner ear telling you where straight ahead is and what’s rolling and what’s pitching.
So it’d be great if they could just change the architecture on the right-hand side a little bit to match the great bracing potential on the left here.
In a car like this, complaining about practicality, is somewhat churlish but there are practical considerations. The ninety-eight octane fuel is one of those. If you’ve got luggage it goes in the back through a virtual mail slot. It’s pretty tight, so big suitcases… forget about it.
The other thing is, the boot. We’ve got a full-sized alloy wheel and spare, so that’s fantastic, but I get the feeling like this was a very hasty integration for Australia only. When you check out the boot, the full-sized spare is actually just protruding up through there like some sort of half done prototype that they never really finessed into production. Take a look at that and tell me if you think that screams production ready.
One of the things I most admire about the engineering of this vehicle, is that obviously, one of the primary considerations was keeping the mass nice and low. This runs contrary to a lot of automotive design currently. Many, many car makers just add this and add that, and add some more and then, when you just think they can’t add any more, they just stick in another couple of hundred kilos of this and that. What you end up with, is a supremely, big, heavy thing that needs incredible brakes and tyres to deliver some sort of engaging driving experience.
This thing only weighs thirteen hundred kilos. It’s almost anorexic… and that means you don’t need outrageous tyres and the world’s biggest Brembo brakes to make this thing go around a corner and stop. The tyres and the brakes are actually quite mundane in performance car terms and yet the delivery of the performance is absolutely spot on.
If you like a little bit of refinement and sophistication and you only go for a fang occasionally, you’re probably missing the mark a little bit and the novelty might wear off and I’m really not sure that the synthesised induction/ engine noise that comes free now with every BRZ was a real tangible upgrade either. I didn’t think it sounded bad before.
This one of the most un-Subaru-like Subarus I can ever remember driving. I know I say that like it’s a bad thing but if you lust after that pure rear-wheel drive sports coupe experience, you want a car that’s going to reward you every time you finesse it around a bend and you observe that interplay between the throttle and the steering.
This is one of the most rewarding drive experiences less than $40k can buy.