Nothing. No, really.
Preferring the new Subaru BRZ over the Toyota GR 86 or the GR 86 over the BRZ is like preferring Coke versus Pepsi. They aren’t exactly the same, and I know some people are hardwired to ask for one and not the other. But they’re also not so different that one can’t replace the other. In the case of the new Toyobaru, unless you’ve driven both flavors back to back, I doubt you’d be able to tell them apart. Hell — having driven them two weeks apart, I’m not sure I can.
The moral of this story is don’t sweat the differences. Just pick one, dammit.
Full disclosure: Subaru invited a group of journalists including your truly to drive a fleet of BRZs at and around Lime Rock Park, one of my favorite tracks in the whole wide world. I can’t believe they still let serious race cars compete here. They also put us up in a cute hotel on an idyllic estate for two nights.
Testing conditions: Driven on a humid and cloudy but slightly cooler-than-average summer day — until the sun came out. Then it got real hot.
It’s the second generation of Subaru’s delightful, accessible two-door, rear-wheel drive sports car, and it starts at $28,000. It’s also mostly identical to the Toyota GR 86, save for some very minor stylistic nips and tucks, plus some changes and tuning to suspension and chassis components. The big upgrade for 2022 — the 2.4-liter, naturally aspirated flat-four with 228 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque — is crucially present no matter which badge is on the hood.
I happened to drive the GR 86 two weeks ago, and I had only good things to say. If I did a little copy/paste and swapped out some proper nouns, pretty much all of those things would apply to the BRZ, too. But that’d profoundly disappoint my college professors; besides, I figure it’d be more useful to split them hairs and talk about the few changes between them. So let’s get to it.
Setting aside design, the material differences between the BRZ and GR 86 mostly pertain to the way their wheels are designed to interact with the road. According to Subaru, the BRZ’s front spring rate is 7 percent higher, while the rear spring rate is 11 percent lower than the GR 86's. The BRZ has aluminum front knuckles in the interest of reducing unsprung weight, whereas the GR 86 swapped that part for steel in search of weightier steering feel. At least, that’s based on what a Toyota engineer told me before I drove that car.
The thickness of front and rear stabilizer bars between the two models vary by a millimeter or less according to Subaru, though the spec sheet Toyota provided in tandem with the GR 86 showed identical values to what Subaru quoted. Subaru also says that the rear trailing link bushing on the BRZ is harder than that of the GR 86, which supposedly uses a carry over part from the prior-gen 86.
In terms of curb weight, manual versions of the GR 86 are two to four pounds lighter than those of the BRZ. The margin goes up for the automatics, with the Subaru tipping the scales 13 pounds heavier than either AT trim of the Toyota.
Add in adjustments to damping, electric power steering and engine mapping, and that’s pretty much it. If you put a gun to my head, I’d still struggle to explain how, if at all, those modifications have appreciably differentiated the way each car drives.
Part of me wants to say that the GR 86 is a little more tail-happy, but it’s not like I couldn’t feel the BRZ slide under me coming out of Turns 1-3 at Lime Rock, or on the wicked-fun autocross circuit in the infield. I only had the opportunity to drive the BRZ in Limited trim, which features upgraded Michelin Pilot Sport 4 rubber, just like the top version of the GR 86. Even despite the extra grip, the punchy low-end torque of the new 2.4 still had my coupe scurrying like a dog on a linoleum floor while in second gear during the autocross. This inevitably resulted in spins, especially as I got more comfortable with the car and liberal with the use of my right foot.
If I drove the BRZ and GR 86 literally back to back, would the behavioral discrepancies have stood out more? Probably. But the fact I had a stupid fun time with both of the new Toyobaru twins and for very similar reasons essentially tells me that if you want one of these cars, it doesn’t matter which you choose. Prioritize the one associated with the logo or front bumper you like more; if you can’t get it, go across the street to the rival dealer and order one of those instead.
On the road, the BRZ didn’t feel any more compliant over the bumps and inconsistent road surfaces of upstate New York than the GR 86 did. Perhaps there was a little less heft to the BRZ’s steering wheel upon initial turn-in, but it wasn’t flimsy or imprecise by any measure. The car never tracked or darted around on straights; both felt equally sure and planted.
All my favorite qualities of the Toyota’s interior also apply to the Subaru’s. I found the fit and finishes attractive and pleasant enough to the touch, however if you’re the kind of person put off by the noise some plastics make when you scratch them, you might complain a bit. To which, I’d ask why you’re considering this car. Apples to oranges I know, but it’s considerably nicer than my Fiesta ST’s rattly, misfitting interior — and that car was in a similar price bracket when it was new.
The BRZ and the GR 86 have the same seats, though the stitching and accents on the more bolstered, optional Alcantara ones are red in the Subaru and gray in the Toyota. (Gray is a little more grown up in my opinion, but I’m not picky.) The infotainment system, gauge cluster and pretty much everything else is shared between the cars, right down to the features of Subaru’s EyeSight 3 Driver Assist suite. That includes amenities like adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist and automatic high beams, though you can only get many of those features on the automatic cars. That’s also true of the GR 86.
While Toyota is still weirdly tight-lipped about GR 86 pricing, Subaru’s is all out in the open. Unfortunately, the naming convention for the trim levels is just as nonsensical as with the old car, with the base BRZ titled “Premium,” and the upgrade called “Limited.” Toyota’s base GR 86 doesn’t have a name, and its Limited equivalent is called Premium.
It’s all far more muddled than it needs to be, but the upshot is a standard BRZ with a manual will cost you $27,995 before destination. A Limited manual, which adds the nicer seats, grippier tires, an upgraded audio system and blind spot detection among other safety features, costs $29,595. The automatic Premium and Limited trims cost $30,495 and $32,495, respectively.
Subaru would like you to think the modifications it made to the BRZ’s dynamics were done to promote “stability” and “precision.” (Those are words the company used in its own presentation materials, I assure you.) I’m paraphrasing, but I imagine Toyota would probably like you to think the changes it made were done in the interest of visceral feedback and livelier antics.
I don’t think one pair of ideals is inherently more righteous than the other. Even granting the slight ways each car embodies those virtues, the gap is marginal. These are both wonderful little sports cars, and we’re lucky to have them at a time when everything’s getting big, expensive and spiritless.
If you experienced the original Toyobarus, you’ll appreciate the new engine for its increased responsiveness and usability low in the range; you’ll also probably be happier with the punched-up interior and its more modern, techy amenities. And if you never drove either of those cars, well — don’t make the same mistake twice if you can help it.