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Wednesday 28th March 2012


DRIVEN: SUBARU BRZ

Toyota's let us drive the GT86 on the track but Subaru's let us loose on the road in its BRZ - Dan's still grinning

Proof that BRZ plus sideways equals big grin
Proof that BRZ plus sideways equals big grin
The traditional comedy duo usually hinges on one big ego and one hard-working support act; Bob Mortimer to Vic Reeves is one example that springs to mind, but there are many more. So is that really the relationship between the Subaru BRZ and its better-funded, more mainstream-friendly doppelganger the Toyota GT86?

Well, what other colour would you choose?
Well, what other colour would you choose?
Is Subaru really the subservient junior partner, drafted in because it had some time on its hands and some production capacity and granted the right to sell a few of its own with a different badge on the nose? And just why would you buy one over the other? Well, perhaps because Toyota's economies of scale look like making the GT86 a grand or two cheaper for a start, subject to confirmation.

More on the fraternal comparisons in due course, but one thing's for sure; that little cough as you hit the starter button before the boxer four catches is pure Subaru. And that chunky, mechanical gear shift action, likewise the beautifully placed pedals and thrummy flat-four hum. From initial impressions it feels a lot more natural with stars of Pleiades in the centre of the wheel than the Toyota ellipses. But maybe the traditionally long and convoluted press presentation has done a good job of softening us up - quick, more meaningless graphs showing indecipherable measurements of ...who knows what! It's the Subaru way.

Basically good, few plasticky details though
Basically good, few plasticky details though
On the road at last
This drive in the south of France for the BRZ is the first time the Toyobaru has been unleashed on the street; drives in the Toyota half of the equation until this point have been restricted to track sessions. Which gave Chris Harris the perfect environment to answer the all-important question: will it go sideways?

His video should answer that one quite neatly. But you'd have to bloody hope so, given the combination of low weight, low centre of gravity, an LSD and surprisingly skinny 215 section tyres - 205s on the stripped out versionwith the steel wheels we'll be getting next year. The centre of gravity is a biggie, one of the less indecipherable of the graphs relating to the fact the BRZ's 460mm is lower than a Mazda MX-5's and comparable with a Boxster or Cayman, both of the latter of course sharing the boxer engine layout.

Low centre of gravity a big deal for Subaru
Low centre of gravity a big deal for Subaru
Subaru makes excuses for the fact that it's dropped its signature four-wheel-drive technology as much as Toyota makes tenuous claims at 'ownership' of boxer engine technology - it once made a dinky coupe with a horizontally opposed engine called the Sports 800 it seems. Both have compromised their values in pursuit of the shared goal then, Subaru's dropping of four-wheel drive at least meaning the engine can sit much lower and further back than it does in the Impreza.

Numbers game
But these cars aren't about graphs or statistics. Indeed, they're a rejection of all that. Subaru's 'pure handling delight' is a classic bit of Japanese-English but it does at least get to the point, likewise the 'have fun!' command at the end of the press conference. We've waited a long time for someone to have the guts to build a sports car that opts out of the horsepower arms race and concentrates on feel and fun. And this is it.

Junior partner or not, Subaru has beaten Toyota to letting us sample the BRZ/GT 86 on the road. And it's an immediately confidence-inspiring little car.

Needs a thrashing to give its best
Needs a thrashing to give its best
The engine on our test car feels a little tight and wheezy with just 4,000km on the clock and you get the impression it'll loosen up nicely with a few more on the dial. But the dull whirr at lower revs gives way to a more assertive bark past 5,000rpm and the insistence that it revs to over 7,000rpm was apparently laid down early in the development process. And you get the impression a cheeky aftermarket induction kit, the like of which will inevitably follow the cars over from Japan in no time, will give it a much clearer voice.

The all-electric steering is neat, pointy and direct and the weighting is good. It's a precise and tidy little car the BRZ, and it encourages you to drive it so. Tight or not, the engine responds crisply to throttle blips and other demands and works brilliantly with the tightly gated manual. Driving position and controls are all spot-on, these little factors hugely contributing to the general sense of well-being and confidence.

A bit fussy from behind?
A bit fussy from behind?
So, is it any different?
Around town it feels crisply sprung and not exactly compliant, though it's not stodgy like some and the damping is at least nice and quick to react. There's much talk of Subaru opting for different suspension settings to Toyota and, chatting with Subaru engineers, they admit that this is so while proving unwilling to offer up numbers or percentages. Interestingly we are told that damper settings are different (though the difference is officially 'nuance'), but Subaru opts for stiffer springs up front while Toyota goes the other way round. Our spokesman suggests that Subaru's emphasis is on stability while Toyota opts for a more fun-focused set-up, which may seem surprising if you reckoned the BRZ was going to be the more enthusiast-ready of the two. Whatever, it rides beautifully at speed with a gentle but well-damped amount of body movement that lets you really feel what's going on. Which is the kind of subtlety we can all enjoy.

Out of town the BRZ shares much in spirit with the MX-5, in that it's less about building speed than carrying it. There's more power than the Mazda of course, but not the grunt of a 370Z, the more delicate feel of the BRZ encouraging neatness and precision rather than lead-footed thuggery.

Really it comes down to which badge you prefer
Really it comes down to which badge you prefer
In pure numbers terms the BRZ is actually not a million miles off a Clio 200 and both boast similar power and revvy, normally aspirated engines but, once again, it goes to prove how meaningless the numbers really are. In a Clio you'd be attacking these roads like a maniac. In the BRZ you're no less quick but the progress is somewhat more elegant, the gentle transition under power from stabilising understeer to a tighter, rear-balanced trajectory on faster corners or easily indulged wee drifts on slower, tighter ones likely to be a revelation for a generation raised on front-drivers.

Bedded in
You do need to pedal it pretty hard to make meaningful progress, though. But the reward for keeping it above 5,000rpm is a much more aggressive note and a real last minute surge towards the redline, reflected in the fact peak power doesn't come until 7,000rpm. You need to keep busy with the gears to keep it there but that's no chore, perfectly placed pedals and a precise gate making it a blipper's delight. And it's stuff like this that matters more than horsepower or lap times.

The right badge in the centre of the wheel?
The right badge in the centre of the wheel?
Subaru makes no pretence at the BRZ being a track car - in fact it actively discourages such thoughts - and on the road it really does shine. For too long we've been convinced that we need cars that bully the driving experience into submission, be that with over-damped suspension or aggressively mapped turbo engines dumping peak torque in your lap from 1,500rpm. The Toyobaru gives you time and space to savour the experience, much in the way you would in a Boxster or Cayman in fact. It'll dance about on its skinny tyres when you want it to as well, which'll please the hooligans among us.

But for the rest of the more mainstream audience it'll pootle about and do all that their TTs, Sciroccos, Mini Coupes and RCZs do. Let's hope they drop their badge snobbery and buy the buggers in decent numbers, so a few years down the line we've got a ready supply of affordable rear-drive coupes to fill up the PH classifieds for years to come!


SUBARU BRZ
Engine:
1,998cc flat-4, direct injection
Transmission: 6-speed manual/6-auto, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 200@7,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 151@6,400rpm
0-62mph: 7.6 sec (auto 8.2 sec)
Top speed: 144mph
Weight: 1,239kg (manual, Premium spec)
MPG: 36.2mpg (combined)
CO2: 181g/km (manual, Premium spec)
Price: 26,000-28,000 (subject to confirmation)


Related links:

Stripped out BRZ coming to the UK
PH Blog: Subaru vs Toyota
Subaru BRZ: big brother's little brother
Driven: Toyota GT86
Chris Harris video: Toyota GT86
Toyota GT86: 24,995





Author: Dan Trent