Inside dealerships the 2017 Subaru BRZ might look like it doesn’t belong.
Not only has this now-lightly facelifted affordable sports coupe been around since 2012, over which time most Subaru models have been renewed, but it also utilises rear-wheel-drive within a lineup that heavily spruiks an all-wheel-drive advantage.
Arguably the BRZ – twin to the Toyota 86 – might also stand-out in dealers because it looks so much sportier than anything else, WRX and WRX STI excepted.
This low-volume-selling Subaru is, however, also one of its most charming models, and the slight visual nip and tuck is now accompanied by a price reduction, an improved infotainment system, plus a slight power upgrade and suspension tweak.
Vehicle Style: Sports coupe
Price: $32,990 (plus on-road costs)
Engine/trans: 152kW/212Nm 2.0 4cyl petrol | six-speed manual
Fuel Economy Claimed: 8.4 L/100km | Tested: 8.2 L/100km
The single-specification MY17 BRZ is now priced from $32,990 plus on-road costs, a reduction of $1235 compared with MY16 – or model-year 2016 – versions. A six-speed manual remains standard, with a six-speed auto continuing as a $2000 option.
Redesigned headlights, foglights and tail-lights are all now of the LED variety, while the front bumper has been reprofiled and the 17-inch alloy wheel design is new. The tweaks are similarly minor inside – limited to a new steering wheel, and audio and colour trip computer screen – but there are several under-skin modifications.
As with the 86, the BRZ gets extra spot welds in its C-pillar plus extra under-bonnet bracing and stiffer mounting plates for the rear suspension. Subaru claims the changes enhance body rigidity and have allowed for a softer chassis to improve ride comfort without affecting handling.
A new cast-alloy intake for the 2.0-litre boxer four-cylinder only raises power by 5kW to 152kW, and torque by 7Nm to 212Nm, and even then in manual versions only. The autos retain the previous outputs. The question, then, is obvious to all: has Toyota/Subaru really worked hard enough to keep this half-decade-old model fresh?
- Standard Equipment: Keyless entry, power windows and mirrors, multi-function trip computer, dual-zone climate control air-conditioning, leather-wrapped steering wheel and gearshifter, cruise control, and automatic headlights and wipers.
- Infotainment: 6.5-inch colour screen with Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, USB input, voice control and six speakers.
- Options Fitted: None.
- Cargo Volume: 230 litres.
The clear highlight of the BRZ’s interior continues to be its driving position. Engineers took full advantage of the fact that this chassis didn’t need to be shared with other mainstream models – like how, for example, a Volkswagen Golf GTI shares its body with the $25,000 entry-level model that lacks any sporting aspirations – and instead benchmarked the exotic Porsche Cayman in several ways.
Open the long, pillarless front door of this Subaru and it becomes apparent how low the front seats are positioned inside the cabin, or ‘tub’. Even the sill height – the gap between lower door edge and the floor – indicates that sporty seating awaits.
Placed in deep and nicely bolstered buckets, with legs positioned almost horizontal to the pedals and a fully adjustable steering wheel that is now even smaller in diameter than before, it all feels exotic and, perhaps unsurprisingly, Porsche-esque.
Basic cloth is standard, but leather/Alcantara with front seat heating is $1500 extra.
Even that single option package takes the BRZ to just $34,990 (plus orc) in manual guise. It’s especially a bargain given that Toyota’s top-spec 86 GTS asks $36,490 (plus orc) and only further adds a rear spoiler and satellite navigation missing here.
Even without nav, however, Subaru’s StarLink infotainment system bests the different unit found in that loftier near-twin. The 6.5-inch touchscreen’s resolution is higher, its menus more intuitive and its response times quicker. It also looks more finely integrated than the 86’s – although it lacks the Pandora app connectivity of other Subarus, as well as a decent voice control system, let alone a digital radio.
While Toyota also offer a cheaper $30,790 (plus orc) 86 GT entry-level model grade, the BRZ also adds keyless auto-entry, dual-zone climate control, colour trip computer display with steering wheel-mounted audio/trip buttons and metallic trim silver finishes, in addition to larger 17s and foglights on the outside, all for $2200 extra.
The added furnishings also has the added bonus of lifting the otherwise average interior quality of this BRZ, with the basic manual air-conditioning and black doorhandles of the 86 GT but a distant memory. That’s worth the extra, alone.
Either way, the Subaru/Toyota twins are surprisingly practical. The two-seat rear bench is cramped, but the base is heavily tilted to provide decent under-thigh support, while the vertically challenged might just miss the rooflining.
The boot is about on par with a Toyota Yaris hatchback, and although a narrow opening affects practicality, a split-fold rear-seat backrest is a boon.
ON THE ROAD
- Engine: 152kW/212Nm 2.0 4cyl petrol
- Transmission: six-speed manual, FWD
- Suspension: MacPherson strut front and independent rear
- Brake: ventilated front and solid rear disc brakes
- Steering: electrically assisted mechanical steering
If the BRZ continues to feel a fraction exotic in its driving position, then its newfound steering, ride and handling virtues provide ‘all the feels’ – as the kids would say.
Softening the suspension has only further enhanced this rear-drive Subaru’s panache. Around town, and despite riding on lower-profile 17-inch tyres, the ride quality is now beautifully rounded, where before it could be clunky. It gels with one of the best steering systems in the business, being quick and smooth.
Now the BRZ loves rough country roads as much as it does racetrack-smooth twisty corners. It breathes with the road surface to a much greater extent, and is backed by an overhauled electronic stability control (ESC) system that replaces the previous staccato intervention with less fuss than before.
The old Sport setting has been replaced by a new Track mode. Despite the title, it’s actually fabulously restrained in all conditions while still providing a very obvious safety net while allowing greater engagement with the rear-wheel drive chassis.
The Subaru now flows more fluidly between corners, serving up balance in spades without demanding racetrack speeds on public roads to have fun. The Michelin Primacy tyres are fine on dry roads, meanwhile, but they reveal an appalling lack of grip in the wet – where engineers of this car believe that less grip equals more fun, a Mazda MX-5 on Bridgestone Potenza tyres proves that grip and fun can co-exist.
However, the biggest issue of all in the BRZ remains its portly 1242kg kerb weight. And, again, the MX-5 highlights the problem.
The petite Mazda roadster also uses a 2.0-litre engine but it weighs an astonishing 207kg less and never feels slow. The Subaru, meanwhile, can feel frustrating.
Thankfully the manual shifter is brilliantly tactile, because it must be used often. With peak torque only delivered at a high 6400rpm, before power arrives at 7000rpm, this sports coupe feels hollow anywhere below 5000rpm.
Economy is decent – at 8.2 litres per 100 kilometres it exceeded its combined-cycle claim by just 0.1L/100km – but it also demands premium unleaded in order to deliver below average urban driveability, frustrating overtaking response and merely competent outright performance.
ANCAP rating: 5-Stars – the Subaru BRZ scored 34.40 out of 37 possible points when tested by ANCAP in 2012.
Safety Features: Dual front, front-side and full-length curtain airbags, ABS, ESC and rear-view camera.
WARRANTY AND SERVICING
Warranty: Three years/unlimited kilometres
Servicing: Subaru’s servicing package includes nine-month or 15,000km checks at an affordable capped price of $225 for each of the first four.
RIVALS TO CONSIDER
An MX-5 is less polished than this BRZ, and the two-seater is smaller overall with an inferior driving position – but it also offers a far better engine with stronger performance. Meanwhile the Abarth is more expensive than its Mazda near-twin, but is also less pure and immersive. In the battle of the siblings, the 86 loses to this Subaru because it is inferior value with a poorer infotainment system.
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
It might not sell up a storm, it might be ageing in some respects, and still lacking in others such as power, but the Subaru BRZ remains one very special sports coupe.
For under $35,000 it offers buyers more than a taste of steering, ride and handling finesse from exotic two-door models costing more than three times the price. With grippier tyres and greater performance, it could come close to offering driver perfection for the price.
As it stands, though, a 2.0-litre MX-5 is simply the more rounded and fun package – unless a particular buyer is completely turned off by a two-seat roadster, and unless someone can see the BRZ as a ‘blank canvas’ to then tune-up, as many do.
We can’t be too picky, though, because for the price there is simply so much to love with this so-very-different Subaru.
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