So: the motoring press has given the BRZ/FR-S/GT-86 quite the moment in the sun. Many (if not most) auto journalists have heralded this car as the second coming of the lightweight, budget sports car. The question on everyone’s lips is, “Does it live up to the hype?” Few cars of any stripe could live up to the outpouring of praise which this car has garnered. I must say, I came away with a much more mixed impression of the vehicle than many others have. Massive disclaimer: this review is based entirely upon a test drive of about ten miles, which I undertook at my local Subaru dealer, so I can’t speak to livability or practicality in any meaningful way. But those were ten extremely revealing miles, as I hope this review will demonstrate.
This is a fairly polarizing exterior, and you could be forgiven for looking at it and coming away unimpressed, or even disappointed. I especially dislike those fake vents between the front wheels and the A-pillar; they cheapen the entire exterior of the car, and they really diminish the curb appeal. But I do like the shape of the body; it’s very classically proportioned, with the stubby rear and the long hood. I particularly like the feeling of looking out over that long, sloping hood from the driver’s seat. It’s a silly thing to be excited by, I know, but it felt really special to me. And I am a fan of the front and rear lights, as well as those wheels, which I think are classy. There are some lovely details, like the rear windows, which come to a delicate point, and the LEDs in the front lights (Subaru version only), which I think are aggressive and striking. I am firmly in the “like-it” camp where this car’s exterior is concerned, then, but that is naturally a matter of opinion.
This, I’m afraid, is where things start to go badly wrong for the BRZ. All five points I give this car are for the seats and the steering wheel, both of which are top-notch. The steering wheel is very similar to the GTI’s, except for the fact that it has a round profile (rather than a flat bottom). It’s chunky, sculpted, and grippy, and it’s made of some kind of deliciously supple perforated leather (or leather-like substance). Top marks there. The seats, too, are marvelous, much nicer than anything I’ve ever seen in a Toyota or a Subaru. They’re supportive, yet nicely cushioned. By the end of my test drive, I started to wonder if the side-bolsters were a bit too tight (especially given that I’m a pretty skinny guy), but in absence of prolonged exposure to them, I only have positive things to say.
Other, minor things I liked: the center tachometer was very informative–though I wasn’t a huge fan of the digital speedometer, and the analog speedometer, being scrunched off to the side, was pretty hard to read at a glance. I also liked the pedals, which were positioned well for heel-toe, and about half of the surfaces (shift and e-brake boots in particular) are quite nice to touch. The controls were also very easy to operate. I’m a huge fan of simple, easy-to-use HVAC controls, and those are done well in this car.
I was not, however, a fan of the cheap-feeling stereo in this car. It felt like an aftermarket head unit, and it seemed perilous to try and operate the thing at highway speeds.
The gear knob is a letdown, to be sure. It looks and feels cheap, and at idle, it vibrates around quite noticeably. The vibration (originating, presumably, with Subaru’s characteristically choppy Boxer engine) is so intense that you can’t steady it with your hand–if you rest your hand on it, your hand just vibrates along with it. An enormous, critical omission is that of a center armrest. Every time I settled into a gear and wanted to rest my elbow on something, I ended up thunking it down onto a very uncomfortable cupholder/cubby abyss. I’m sure you can buy an armrest as a dealer-installed accessory [Ed.: No, actually, you can’t.] but…really? Should you have to? This is something that would annoy me every day. But I would almost hate to lose the storage space represented by the cupholders in the center console–mostly because there’s so little storage space in the cabin. There’s the cupholders in the center console, and a little cubby underneath the radio, and that’s pretty much it.
The rear seats are “seats” in name only. There’s no one I hate enough to make them attempt to fold their legs into that space. Folded down, they allow a huge amount of storage space, though; so here’s my proposal: make this car a two-seater with a lot of storage space. That would be an entirely more satisfactory solution. Because, right now, I can’t look at those rear seats without frowning at the wasted space they represent. Also, it’s impossible to see anything out of those rear windows; that is the price one must pay, apparently, for those lovely little Toyota 2000GT-style kinks.
I was hoping the interior would feel snug, like a glove, but really it just felt claustrophobic to me. I am hoping that future versions of the car incorporate a marked re-thinking of the materials and the space of this interior. Still, it wasn’t all bad, particularly from the driver’s seat; as previously mentioned, the steering wheel and seats, as well as some strategic cushioning with convincing leather padding, combine to make the driver’s seat eminently sporty. My girlfriend, who was riding shotgun, found the interior to be deeply unpleasant, and called it “suffocating,” though, so I gather that the passenger seat is not quite so charming. So the BRZ gets 5/10 in this category, for doing several important things right, but also for doing several important things wrong. All in all, I couldn’t help but wonder: what would this car be like with the GTI’s interior? I’ll go ahead and answer my own question: it would be almost flawless.
This car rides nearly as poorly as my ’11 Mazdaspeed3, which I firmly believe has one of the bumpiest, jiggliest rides available on a production car in America. Also, based on prior experience with this kind of thing, I am 90% sure that in the first 10,000 miles of the life of a BRZ, all of the air vents and the other pieces of plastic trim are going to shake themselves loose and start rattling and/or buzzing in a really annoying way whenever you rev the engine or go over a bump.
“But Scott,” you’ll protest, “the BRZ is a sports car. Stop being Captain Slow and put yourself in the shoes of someone who would actually buy a car because it’s, you know, fun.”
Look, I am the sort of person who would buy a car because it’s fun. I wanted to like this car, and I wanted to tell you that it has a ride which is firm but supple. Mais, non, I’m afraid. Over pavement even the least bit choppy pavement dotting the roads in Boulder, CO (some of the nicest, smoothest American roads I’ve ever driven on, actually), every little bump jiggled me around, and overall, the ride actually instilled less confidence in my right foot. The chassis was just very busy on anything but perfectly level tarmac. If this is your only car, and if you live somewhere where you’ll need to drive on even slightly imperfect roads, then the ride in the BRZ borders on unacceptable.
I’ve driven sporty cars on public roads before, and I am familiar with cars which are both connected to the road, and compliant on less-than-perfect pavement. A C5 Corvette has an excellent, sporty, connected-yet-comfortable ride quality; the BRZ (much like my old Mazdaspeed3) does not.
This score should surprise no one. The BRZ’s cheerleaders are all absolutely right about this chassis. The handling-feel, transferred through the truly excellent steering wheel, is awe-inspiring. It’s just about telepathic. And the thing is, though the ride is choppy, you don’t feel any of that punishment through the steering wheel like you do in a Mazdaspeed3. It conveys just the right amount of information about what the wheels are doing. It’s sublime, and in this price bracket, you’d have to get a used Porsche Cayman to even be on the same planet as the BRZ’s handling. I’ve driven a Porsche Cayman, and if you bought one of those, you’d be a lot more comfortable when you hit a pothole, so that’s worth thinking about. But if you bought a used Cayman, your repair bills would be astronomical, so that’s something to think about as well.
These were confidence-inspiring and progressive, and I could tell just by giving them a couple of hard stops that they’re more than adequate for scrubbing high speeds off of the wheels. These are some of the nicest brakes I’ve ever used, actually. I actually like them better than E90 3-series’ brakes (one of my benchmark cars for braking), because the Bimmer’s brakes are likewise very grippy but also comparatively hard to modulate; these lights are less like an on/off switch and more like a rheostat.
This gearbox is a real sweetheart. Throws are short, positive, and notchy (which is my preference, though others understandably sing the praises of the GTI’s silky-smooth, low-effort throws). It’s a shame that the gear knob is such a cheap-feeling part, but I quickly got over that once I started running it through the gears. It’s not as short or positive as the S2000’s transmission (which is my benchmark for gearboxes–it is absolute perfection; fun fact, also: the Aisin unit in the BRZ is actually derived from the same unit that Honda modified for use in the S2k), but it feels sporty–it feels special, somehow. It’s certainly a far cry from the WRX’s rubbery ‘box, which feels like it was lifted straight out of a 20-year-old 18-wheeler. If you like rowing a car through the gears–if that experience gives you any pleasure at all–then this shifter is a real delight.
The clutch is not as good, I’m afraid. It’s on the lighter side (which is good for everyday driving), but I honestly couldn’t feel the friction point at all. I just kind of had to guess where it was, and hope that it was there–which led to a couple of accidental clutch-dumps. The best analogy I can muster is the current-generation Mustang’s clutch, which is also light and a bit numb. But even the Mustang’s clutch is more informative than the poor Subie’s, which was a mark against its otherwise excellent transmission. I assume this is something that you would get used to (rather like the Mazdaspeed3’s on/off clutch), but it could have been a lot better than it is. Still, the clutch isn’t enough to ruin that magnificent shifter. As a manual enthusiast, I came away impressed, and I think you will, too.
If there’s one criticism I’ve heard consistently leveled against this car, it’s that its flat-4 is underpowered by about 40 horsepower. I couldn’t disagree more. I think this engine has plenty of grunt, almost anywhere in the rev band. 5th gear, 30mph? Put your foot in the throttle, and the torque squeezes out, progressively and predictably. I have absolutely zero gripes with the way this car builds velocity, and unless you’re looking to demolish a straightaway at a track or beat a Mustang between the lights, you probably won’t have any gripes either. It’s just a blast to wring out this engine. At city speeds, you can accidentally get yourself in quite a bit of trouble. It gives the illusion of having a lot more power and torque than I know it has; it’s just so eager to rev. It’s a gem of an engine.
Anyway, if someone tells you this car doesn’t have enough power, then either a) they haven’t driven it (haters will inevitably hate); or b) they are just wrong. There is one thing wrong with this engine, though…
Maybe you’re someone who likes the sound this car makes. I can’t imagine what sort of person that is, but maybe they’re out there. Anyway, I hate it. First of all, it’s loud, and I mean loud. I’m all for shedding sound-deadening material to save weight, but this engine makes a terrible racket, and a bit of sound insulation wouldn’t hurt this car. It’s throaty, which is nice, but it’s not sonorous. It’s not tuned, so to speak. This is a fine thing in one respect: it doesn’t feel fake in any way. With the GTI or the Focus ST or even the M5, your sound has been symposed through a snorkus for your auditory pleasure, and there’s something slightly disingenuous about that. The BRZ’s exhaust note (if you can call it a note) is, at least, honest. But I don’t think I could bear to live with it on a daily basis. It’s drony and clattery, and it sounds like it’s fueled by rusty scrap metal. This is especially painful because it’s such a hoot to rev the engine. Truthfully, though, I found myself backing off the throttle just because I didn’t want to hear it anymore.
In short, I think this is the sort of car you buy despite its engine note, rather than because of its engine note.
The BRZ doesn’t have very many toys, but it doesn’t purport to. It advertises itself as a pure enthusiast machine, and while I’m not sure it delivers on that promise in all areas, it does deliver on its promise of a lightweight, no-frills experience. Ordinarily, when I see a car that does exactly what it sets out to do in terms of a feature like toys, I’ll give that car 3/5 for performing honestly. 5/5 would be the score for a car that manages to exceed expectations. This car gets 2/5 because the one area in which it does purport to deliver toys (i.e., its audio head unit) is unforgivably bad. It’s confusing and low-rent, and you would do much better to replace it with an aftermarket unit. The thing is, you shouldn’t have to. I don’t care that it doesn’t have radar-guided cruise control or night vision, but the stereo is a basic thing, and doing it right doesn’t add much extra cost or weight, so Subaru doesn’t have much of an excuse on this one. Still, it’s passably equipped if you’re willing to put up with the head unit’s nonsense. Dual-zone climate control is available, as is bluetooth for your phone–so the BRZ gets 2 points here.
This was a particularly difficult section to score. On the one hand, if you can put up with the din of an engine note and the rough-and-ready interior and the exceptionally bad ride, then you’ll find a car that drives like an absolute dream, and at a totally compelling price. The BRZ Premium I drove has an MSRP of $27,264, and the salesman I talked to said he would let go of it for $25,801. That is an exceptionally low price for a car that steers and stops and hauls ass like the BRZ does. But it’s entirely too much for a car with the BRZ’s interior and build quality.
For the right person, this car is a 10/10 value, but for the wrong person (count me in that category), it just doesn’t make any kind of sense to buy a BRZ. So I’m going to split the difference, giving it a score of 5/10 for value. If you get in this car and decide that you can deal with the depressing interior and the god-awful racket its engine produces and the way it crashes around over bumps, then I wholeheartedly recommend that you buy it. But I cannot recommend it without that caveat.
No car should have to be judged against the hype which has been generated around the Toyobaru, and though I tried to rate this machine objectively, it was hard not to feel a pang of disappointment at the reality of the car that lurks beneath all that praise. Nevertheless, I can’t wait to see what version 2.0 of this car is like. And, unlike every other auto journalist in the world, I’m hoping that what gets added to BRZ 2.0 is not more power, but rather more refinement. That would make all the difference in the world for this car.
Aggregate Score: 48/75 (= 64/100)