The 2017 Subaru BRZ is in its fifth year, hard to believe, since it has hardly become a household word. It’s more of a quiet revolution. It’s a true sports car. Nearly perfect balance, nimble handling, high-revving engine, no frills, not so many compromises for comfort (but far from uncomfortable). Well, air conditioning is standard, which puts it into perspective, and reality. But it’s still all about the driving experience. Name another car like that.
Even the Mazda MX-5, which certainly succeeds in the driving experience department, doesn’t carry the BRZ’s distinction of a track-day style. The BRZ is for drivers who want to be delighted by the act of driving.
When it was introduced for 2013, it had a twin, the Scion FR-S, which is now the Toyota 86.
New for the 2017 Subaru BRZ is a Performance Package that includes Brembo brakes with 12.8-inch rotors with four-piston calipers in front and 12.4-inch rotors with two-piston calipers in rear. Sachs ZF shock absorbers; and black 17-inch alloy wheels that are a half-inch wider, with 215/45R17 summer tires. Also new for the 2017 BRZ are LED headlamps and a front bumper cap flanking LED foglamps.
Like the Toyota 86, the BRZ uses Subaru’s 2.0-liter horizontally opposed four-cylinder FA engine with Toyota’s fuel injection making 205 horsepower that loves to be revved. The design of the engine, unique to these two cars, allows it to be mounted low to the ground, even lower than other Subaru flat-fours. The 6-speed manual gearbox is precise and has a short throw. There is also a 6-speed automatic with paddle shifters, sport mode, and downshift rev-matching.
With the fairly low weight of 2785 pounds, and smallish (non-turbo) 2.0-liter engine, the BRZ scores an EPA-rated 34 Highway miles per gallon.
The NHTSA gives the BRZ five stars overall, with four stars for the driver in a frontal crash; and the IIHS gives it mostly top ratings. A rearview camera is standard, however there are fewer safety options than with Subaru sedans and crossovers.
The 2017 Subaru BRZ Premium ($25,395) comes standard with power windows, air conditioning, cruise control and 6.2-inch touchscreen incorporating HD Radio, satellite radio, a CD player, Bluetooth audio streaming, iTunes tagging, a USB port, and an aux-in port. It’s compatible with smartphone apps for Aha, Pandora, and Stitcher, among others.
BRZ Limited ($27,395) gets heated seats and other niceties. BRZ Series Blue ($27,690) is a Limited enhanced with special trim.
With its rakish profile and long sloping glass, the two-door BRZ looks like it should have a hatchback, but there’s a small trunk there, which stiffens the structure of the body. Its looks are contemporary: a clean silhouette, arched roof, long low hood, sculpted flanks, flared fenders, and flashy five-spoke wheels.
The low beltline and wraparound glass not only makes the car look modern, it enhances visibility from the cabin. It’s a shame the side fender vents just ahead of the doors look like they were put there by Pep Boys.
The cabin isn’t all that comfortable or versatile. The bucket seats are sporty and the dash Spartan. The seats have enough room and enough bolstering, and they’re comfortable enough for commuting, but they’re upright, firm, and need more adjustability and lumbar support. Climbing in and out requires some contortion, especially for tall drivers, the price of the seat cushions (especially Alcantara on the Limited model) and low roofline. Once inside, there’s good headroom.
The back seats are good for maybe one child seat, while the seatback folds forward to fit gear. There’s more space in the trunk in back, but not a lot. The pass-through allows a set of four tires mounted on wheels to fit back there, says Subaru, pitching the track-day thing.
The cabin materials lack excitement. There’s lots of hard plastic places you touch. But we like the business-like aspect of the dashboard and controls. The leather-wrapped steering wheel is a bit smaller in 2017. The reddish orange displays are easy to read with polarized sunglasses, we like that. The interface is intuitive and communicative, but the audio and navigation controls are touchscreen-only. Tuning the radio requires concentration and effort.
The Limited model gets a 4.2-inch display in the instrument cluster with additional gauges, including a stop watch for lap times, a G-meter, a braking-force and a steering-angle indicator, and readouts for oil and water temperature, and battery voltage.
The Subaru BRZ has the dynamics to delight high-performance drivers on twisty back roads. Not only is the front-rear balance good, and the 2800-pound weight light, but the center of mass is one of the lowest of any car made. It’s a car that you feel in the seat of your pants. The handling is predictable and body control inspires confidence, even without all-wheel drive like every other Subaru made. However a Torsen limited-slip differential gives the rear grip on both sides, enabling sure footing exiting slow corners, especially.
The steering is quick and communicative, the suspension taut and compliant. However on even slightly patchy pavement, the BRZ bounds up and down, and it’s fatiguing. The noise doesn’t help.
The double-wishbone multi-link suspension is adapted from the high-performance Subaru STI sedan. Front struts and coil springs in front, mounted low. It’s designed to scrub speed off the front wheels and transfer weight to the rear, when the car is driven aggressively: hard on the gas, hard on the steering. In other words, it’s tuned to be easy to drive tail-out–that’s what it’s all about.
There is a sport mode for the stability control to allow the tail to go out, but also a full-off mode that allows the tail to go out and around. In 2017, the stability control has been programmed to allow more yaw, a complement to the car’s predictability.
The engine is almost just a vehicle to deliver the handling. It’s enough but not exceptional. The 2.0-liter boxer four delivers 205 horsepower with only 156 pound-feet of torque (with the manual transmission, five less of each with the automatic). It’s high-revving but lacks low-rpm torque, so the spirited driver must keep his (or her) foot in it. There’s not much grunt below 4500 rpm, but it fairly zooms from 4500 to 6500, while the exhausts like a Subaru WRX.
So you have to shift gears a lot, to keep the revs high. The 6-speed gearbox engages with a snick, and we love the short throw; it’s the transmission we go for and it just seems so right for this car. However, the paddle-shifting 6-speed automatic also makes it not too hard to stay in the power zone. The sport mode delays and sharpens shifts, and adds a big blip when you downshift hard. In that sport mode, it’s programmed to stay in the gear even at redline; we like having the power to shift at redline when we want to.
There isn’t a lot of competition for the Subaru BRZ (other than its fraternal twin the Toyota 86). If you want an affordable sports car with characteristics like this (in a word, tossability), it’s your call. When it comes to tossability, it’s hard to beat the Subaru BRZ or Mazda MX-5.
Sam Moses contributed to this report; with driving impressions by The Car Connection staff.