Ah, the classic “mid-life” update. The facelift. That magical moment when a manufacturer can take stock of what’s working, what’s not, and makes a few choice changes. For cars that are already good—like the Subaru BRZ—the right improvements could make them great. Very rarely does an updated version of an already successful model go wrong. History, and used-car-buying-guides nearly always proves them to the “version you want.”
But this is Subaru we’re talking about here. They’re hardly conventional, remember? Remember the bug-eye Impreza and downgraded power of the year 2000? No? Well, that’s what they did to us in Europe. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater is something they’ve done before; making the track day-spec N24 special edition Impreza a CVT-only, JDM model springs to mind. Or making the European Levorg CVT only. Bad decisions.
Let’s get this out of the way really early: the latest iteration of the BRZ has indeed won me over. Convincingly. The $1,195 Performance Pack is a no-brainer. It’s hard to make a secret of it, and cruel to keep you hanging on until the very last paragraph. Yep; I’d like to take this car home, drive it, mod it, tune it and race the living crap out of it on every racetrack and twisty mountain road I can find.
But the very fact I’ve just admitted to the desire to mod it even more should be ringing some warning bells already. So please don’t pull out your checkbook just yet.
(Full Disclosure: Subaru USA needed Jalopnik to test this car so much that they flew Dale business class on no fewer than five flights and parked him in a classy hotel several grades above his pay grade and social standing. They corralled 8 brand-new BRZs from Japan, and sent them the long-way-around the globe just so that the assembled automotive journalists, could drive them in Spain, on a privately rented racetrack.)
I’m not going to waste pixels on your screen explaining those many 2016 changes. Your eyes can see the new bumpers with full-LED headlamps and taillights, and Jalopnik already reported on the Earth-shattering five horsepower increase back in May. And the “Series.Yellow” edition has been covered as well.
New Tech, Sort Of
We’re here to drive the Performance Pack. A set of wider wheels, bigger brakes and more expensive dampers. As soon as the tech briefing ends I’m already out the door and grabbing the first car in the queue, but these U.S.-market cars we’re testing don’t have any digital connections in Europe, so we were left with a sheet of paper to complete the navigation from hotel to racetrack.
The head unit is the same as the 2016 model, with even more STARLINK apps downloadable for everything from GPS to birdwatching (because Subaru, right?) But with the digital umbilical cord cut, all we can test in Spain is the AM/FM reception. Turn it off.
In town there’s really not much difference between a ’16 and a ’17 BRZ. Let alone a ’17 PP and none-PP model. They all drive identically. Sure the ’17 cabin is smarter, the colored stitching in the leather-look dash is a neat trick. Echoing Porsches, Astons and Ferraris, but coming in at 1/10th of the cost.
However, the new 4.2-inch multi-function-display set into the clocks is less neat. It’s an obviously square chunk of last decade’s technology, and it sits there like a reminder that somebody up high said “make it more digital” while somebody down low bought 20,000 old-spec phone screens from Alibaba.com. In a clumsy attempt to hide its rectangular origins, the screen is shared across the central speedo and the right-side cluster. Though it doesn’t work.
Sure, it can display the usual information like trip, mpg and whatnot. But the ‘performance’ functions are laughable and wholly unusable by modern standards. The G-meter can’t be switched in to on the move. You have to stop still to start it. Then there’s the “power gauge”, which is simply a vertical line on a big dyno curve. Because it doesn’t take into account the throttle position, it serves only as a visual reminder of the massive flat spot in the power at 4000 RPM. You wouldn’t even feel it, unless you’re looking at that gimmicky graph.
Oh well, it’s a 50 mile jaunt to the track, through cityscapes and canyons. And the BRZ’s a great way to get there. There’s no sense in being late for the limited track time, so we press on and around the Sierra Nevada peak through curvy canyon roads that wouldn’t be out of place in Southern California.
A serpentine rollercoaster of patchy tarmac, damp patches and the occasional frosty shadow—the BRZ loves it. So do I. This Performance Pack gets more expensive dampers, and now the technical briefing begins to make sense. This car is better than last year’s.
Despite being mechanically identical, the electric power steering feels much better near the limit. The steering ratio is pleasingly quick, and the precision is addictive. The little Aisin gearbox has some internal tweaks to strengthen the synchros, but it’s the shorter final drive ratio (4.1 up to 4.3) that you’ll notice first. The addictive BRZ/86/FRS driving experience is only intensified by shifting through the gears that little more often.
Inside the cockpit, the noise from the 2.0-liter flat-four is different. I don’t want to say better, I don’t want to say worse. Up top it sounds noisier, then in the mid-range it feels muted. What a shame that a 205 horsepower naturally-aspirated boxer still doesn’t sound more inspiring though.
The hills steepen, the road deteriorates. The softer rear springs of the ’17 should help the comfort, but if there’s a difference from those alone I can’t feel it. Only the ability of the Sachs dampers to regulate high-speed patter is noticeable. In fact, the PP-equipped BRZ is still surprisingly comfy for such an overtly sporty drive.
As the hairpins tighten, and the road heads downhill again, the massively upgraded Brembo brakes feel just a little bit better than the stock units. A little more response, and a touch more braking power under your foot. But when you consider those four-pots are gripping discs the same size and thickness as an 800 pound heavier WRX, it’s surprising they don’t feel sharper at the pedal.
At canyon-hunting speed, the reprogrammed stability control also begins to feel better than before. Gone is the intrusive “grabbing” sensation of the old system, replaced with a very premium feeling of a magic hand holding back the car a little. The limits are now obviously higher, a refreshing change to our hand-holding world. But, like the brakes, even a spirited drive on European twisties isn’t enough to really exploit the difference.
Luckily, we’ve just arrived at the fantastic Circuit Guadix. Let the real fun begin. You can watch my lap in 360 degrees below:
Sideways at 60 mph, the horrific low-friction Michelins screaming in dismay, flat out in the top of third-gear, I’m learning a lot about the ’17 BRZ. For a start, that stiffer rear sway bar helps provoke a drift when you want it. Second, that “off” means “off” on this stability control system.
Previous generations would still implement an electric LSD effect on all models, braking the inside wheel regardless of whether the model you’d bought already had a mechanical Torsen differential or not (yes, you could buy open-diff BRZs in Europe and Japan). This resulted in dedicated autocross and track users enacting the ritual pedal dance cheat code to disable the ABS unit before each run. Now you can just hold down the ESC button until it says “OFF.”
The standard “ON” setting of the stability control is now more than half way to the “SPORT” position of the old car, and here at the endless turns of the two-mile Circuit Guadix, a novice could just leave it on without feeling robbed. Push the “TRACK” mode button and you’re well on the way to your fastest lap of the day though.
Track Mode, Bro
At this point, I need to admit something; I’ve already driven this software at the Nürburgring nearly a year ago. And the power steering reflash too. Albeit with a big Toyota logo on the front of our car. Yes, I was trying out the ’17 software updates all the way back in summer last year, when I was racing in the VLN in a Toyota Motorsports GT86 Cup machine.
What we found was that the “TRACK” setting on racing wets was a great safety device that didn’t detract too heavily from our Nordschleife lap times. And for novices the ESP even worked passably well on slicks. The power steering also doesn’t go ‘dead’ when you have to fight the car to a particularly reluctant apex, which was a big problem when fitting grippier tires to the old generation 86s and BRZs. On our hot 245-section Pirelli slicks the steering wheel would often just die in our hands completely.
But no more. This BRZ loves the racetrack. More rear sway bar and a little less spring might not be that noticeable on the road, but on the track it feels super sharp on hairpins, though just a little ragged on the long sweepers.
And the lack of the grip in these standard BRZ tires is undoubtedly part of the charm. Sure, they scream like a horrified aristocrat at the first sign of trouble, but the car feels alive. At this price point only the new-shape Mazda MX-5 can claim to be a better driver’s machine, and that’s not even in the same ball-park when it comes to everyday use, shopping and carrying little people on the back seats.
In the two 20-minute sessions that I’m driving, the Brembo brakes of the Performance Pack remain doggedly fade-free. And my car actually did four sessions total. The pads look and sound like OEM too, no obvious cheating on this press launch. In fact, a canny purchase of quality brake pads would almost undoubtedly have the Performance Pack car race-ready, if you so choose.
For sure, the 2017 BRZ Performance Pack is certainly track day-ready by anybody’s definition.
But now it’s barely 3 p.m. in the afternoon, and we’re told to head back to the hotel for a 7 p.m. dinner booking. The maths aren’t adding up for me. The paper-guided route back is the same as the route out, barely an hour long. In the middle of the banana-shaped route, are the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada. They’re actually visible from the racetrack right now, and the Grenada hotel is the other side of them. Come on Subaru, what do you think I’m going to do? I rope a fellow journalist into the crime, on a vague promise of getting some unique photos of a 2017 BRZ in the snow.
Now it’s impossible to do a press drive of any 86-shaped car without muttering the word “turbocharger.” For me, after nearly two days of impeccable self-control, I finally say the naughty word as we pass the 5,000 foot altitude marker. The snow is still some distance away, but the BRZ is already feeling a little dulled. The air might be crisp and cold, but there’s simply not enough of it.
Hairpin after hairpin, spectacular views becoming the norm, the BRZ is in its handling element. Though by 7,500 feet, there’s certainly not enough power for any wheelspin. Suddenly there’s snow in the edge of the road. Then there’s a wall of it, six feet high, looming on the side of the street. Promise fulfilled, we step out to grab photos of our white BRZ against the snow.
Looking at it there, I want one, there’s no doubt. But even with the Performance Package, it’s not quite perfect. I’d be fitting lowering springs almost immediately, and a loud exhaust too. The Sachs dampers could stay though. Maybe even some unequal length headers for a bit of rumble and mid-range torque fill. Like a paint-by-numbers Van Gogh, the BRZ is ready for you to add your own flair to a masterpiece.
Above us are astronomical observatories, and around us brightly colored Spanish skiers are looking at our Illinois manufacturer tags in open curiosity. Ahead of us, on the final quarter mile of the mountain road are big No Entry signs and some NATO-green army trucks.
It’s really the end of the road in both senses. We can drive no higher, and Subaru can’t make a better BRZ without leaving behind this “perfect balance” mantra and going full crazy, climbing on to a higher price point and adding WRX power.
Which won’t happen. Or it just might, later this year. Perhaps I’ve said too much...
Engine: 2.0L flat-four
Power: 205 HP at 7,000 RPM / 156 lb-ft at 6,400 RPM
Transmission: 6-speed manual
0-60 Time: 6.2 seconds (claimed)
Top Speed: 134 MPH (claimed)
Drivetrain: Rear-wheel drive
Curb Weight: 2,785 pounds, 2,813 pounds with Performance Pack
Seating: 4 people
MPG: 21 City / 29 Highway (from EPA)
MSRP: $25,495, $29,660 as tested for Limited + Performance Pack
Dale Lomas is the man behind Bridge To Gantry. He lives at the Nürburgring where he drives the RingTaxi most days of the week. This year he’s racing a Fiesta ST in the VLN championship and has just finished the 24 Hours of Nürburgring.