In America, car culture seems to always be about the Big Numbers. Zero to 60. The quarter mile. Top speed. Nobody cares how a car actually drives, or the experience it delivers, or how it makes you feel, just how it puts down the Big Numbers. This is why the Subaru BRZ has a hard time fitting in.
Never mind the fact that you can’t even wring these cars out on the street without risking life or license! If it doesn’t make you feel like you’re swingin’ the biggest dick in town, it’s worthless.
We’ve all become so jaded by this current age of insane performance. We expect everything to have 400 horsepower at bare minimum, to crack the 0-60 mph run in no more than four seconds. Nobody has to earn their speed anymore. Nobody has to know how to actually drive, either, thanks to the array of electronic nannies that will sort everything out for us.
If cars like that are the cheap but unhealthy fast foods of the car world — the McSportsCar, if you will — then the BRZ is the slow food, small plate restaurant where you take your time and eat something from a local farm. Except here there’s rear-wheel drive shenanigans, not mason jars and grating man-children with beards.
(Full disclosure: Subaru needed me to drive a limited edition 2015 BRZ Series.Blue so badly they sent one to my house for a week with a full tank of gas. It got rode hard and put away wet, as we say down here in Texas.)
Back when the BRZ launched, we called it The Car We Demanded. So why is it so misunderstood, so maligned as being underpowered and therefore worthless? Why have sales slowed so much? How did it end up with so many naysayers? And on the manufacturer side, haven’t there been meaningful updates to it or its Scion twin?
Maybe the car we demanded isn’t enough to fit in with Big Numbers car culture. If so, that’s an absolute shame, because three years after its release, the BRZ remains best sports cars you can buy.
A week’s worth of testing the BRZ made me conclude that it’s basically a poor man’s Porsche Cayman. Perhaps that’s part of why it feels so unappreciated these days. Like the Cayman, it excels in so many areas nobody else seems to value. Handling. A good gearbox. A nice sound. Accessibility. Balance. Just not the Big Numbers.
It’s a decently good-looking little car. The Series.Blue special edition comes in blue or white, and while I prefer Subaru’s fantastic shade of rally car blue, I have to admit it looks striking in white. Why is white so boring on normal cars and so beautiful on sports cars?
Better than the design is the size. It’s low without scraping, it’s wide without being unwieldy, and it’s only somewhere between a Yaris and Corolla in length. Modern sports cars haven’t just gotten fatter, they’ve gotten bigger all around, but this one keeps things small — and light, too, coming in at just 2,774 pounds.
You have to keep that weight figure in mind when you consider the BRZ’s 2.0-liter naturally aspirated boxer four puts down 200 horsepower and 151 pound-feet of torque. That doesn’t sound like a lot, and it isn’t, but it doesn’t take much to move this thing. It’s also not some sad economy car engine the way everyone seems to think it is; in fact, it actually feels quite special.
I’m here to tell you that if you want to make the BRZ move with any sort of urgency at all, you have to thrash it. Hard. You’ll have fun doing this, though.
You need to keep your gears low and your revs high, above 4,000 RPM and all the way up to its 7,400 RPM redline whenever possible. While you have to push it to be fast, it always wants to be pushed, abused even. It can live at those high RPMs just fine. Zero to 60 mph arrives in who gives a shit.
In this way, it’s a lot like the Honda S2000, or the Internet’s Favorite Car™ the E30 BMW M3, or the aforementioned Cayman. If those qualities appeal to you, as they do to me, you’ll like the BRZ. If not, look elsewhere.
True, it never feels like it can fly, like the turbo motors in the Ford Focus ST and Fiesta ST do. And passing anything on a two-lane back road requires careful thought and a good amount of momentum. But if you’re willing to work at it, you can make this car hustle. You just have to earn it.
What the BRZ does best, unquestionably, is carve corners. The steering is electric and it puts other electric systems to shame with its heft, directness and feel. It has this responsiveness on the road that ranks it among the best sports cars. In most normal driving it’s very planted and neutral, owing to that super-low center of gravity.
Subaru’s sports car is much more tail-happy and with far less body roll than a Miata, easier to rotate, but just as easy to sort out and get straight again. Turn off those two switches. Learn to powerslide yourself. The BRZ wants to teach you. Handling-wise, this car will do anything you ask it to. This stiff chassis does come at the expense of ride quality, which is noticeably on the harsh side, especially at highway speeds.
It helps that the BRZ is also loud as hell, so you always feel like you’re going faster than you are. A sound tube pipes in an angry, growly, thrashy boxer sound straight from the engine bay (better than coming from the speakers any day) which helps make it clear that while the car may not lay down insane numbers, it’s here to perform. Is it a pretty noise? God, no. But I’ll take it over being too quiet.
The BRZ has a damn fine six-speed manual gearbox to help you wring the engine out for all it’s worth. Shifts are short, crisp and require effort. This isn’t surprising since the linkage is mechanical, not done by cable. It’s a delight to use, probably one of the better gearboxes on the market right now.
It’s a shame I can’t praise the clutch as highly. It’s on the heavy side, and the uptake is too high, if you can feel it at all because it’s generally pretty vague.
There’s the matter of the inside of the car as a whole, too. The Series.Blue package adds some nice blue accents to the stitching, seats and steering wheel, but the BRZ’s interior still makes it look like it’s been on the market for 10 years, not three. As good as Subaru is these days, they still kind of suck at interiors.
Nowhere is this more apparent than the StarLink infotainment system, which has a “Phone” icon that looks like a Palm Pilot and functions about as well. And while I know the BRZ is supposed to be a pure driver’s car, the option of audio control buttons on the steering wheel would be nice. The Mazda Miata has those, and last time I checked, nobody accused it of delivering a watered-down driving experience.
Maybe it’s all true to the BRZ’s mission, part of its charm. It’s supposed to be a stripped-down, back-to-basics sports car, and the interior makes it feel that way.
It’s an honest car. Refreshingly honest. Below the gear shifter, there are two buttons: one that switches off traction control, and one that switches off stability control.
That’s it. There is no “sport mode” button, no menu where you can adjust every aspect of the car’s “dynamics.” The BRZ knows what it is and makes no apologies. It doesn’t need gimmicks to make you happy.
The best thing about the BRZ wasn’t even the handling, though; it was the way the car, as a whole, made me feel. I looked forward to driving it. I made excuses so I could be in it. I tackled every back road on my extended list of great back roads, and the BRZ never let me down. Best part was, I could hammer it as hard as I wanted.
This is a car you never have to hold back — you never have to search for a road where you can open it up because you can open it up almost anywhere. The BRZ is fun at 60 and 70 mph the way a supercar is approaching 150.
The sound of that boxer engine revving to redline. The click-click of the manual. The ultra-precise steering. The chassis when I got things a little sideways turning onto an empty road at speed. The staggering lack of modern-car bullshit that waters down the whole affair of driving. I drive a lot of cars, but few approach this level of satisfaction.
At the same time, driving the BRZ and enjoying what it can do was one of the loneliest experiences I’ve had behind the wheel in a long time. I appreciated this car for what it is, but no one else seems to.
Am I wrong if I love something that no one else seems to love? I just get this car, and it gets me. Its characteristics fit with my values, with what I want in a car. But I get it’s not what everybody wants.
Then again, more and more the BRZ feels like the antidote to everything enthusiasts complain about when it comes to modern cars. Everything’s getting too fat? This one’s pretty light. Not enough manuals anymore? This one has a great stick. Too expensive? Starting price is just under $26,000; $30,285 as loaded like this Series.Blue. Fake engine noise? Here it’s real and it’s fantastic. Electric steering sucks? They nailed it pretty good here. Turbos are ruining everything? Hey, this one waves its NA flag proudly.
Car companies don’t listen to enthusiasts? The BRZ exists.