You don’t ask to drive a man’s car unless that man is in the business of selling it. But when my friend Greg asked if I wanted a turn in his brand new Subaru BRZ, the Six-star version of the most anticipated sports car of our age, I didn’t turn him down.
Before we’d even switched seats, Greg demonstrated the brakes (perhaps so I wouldn’t have to) with a hard slow at a corner. I wouldn’t have tried a similar move in my WRX. But though the BRZ has ventilated discs and dual piston calipers in the front, I think most of its stopping ability comes from its weight, or lack thereof: just 2,700 lbs.
If the BRZ has a party piece, it’s the steering. The wheel was tight and the response almost precognitive, a confidence-injector. I learned much later that the power steering is, indeed, electric. I guess it’s time to toss out my notions about electric power steering’s numbness or lack of feedback. I noticed nothing of the sort. In fact, when Troy, who had somehow wedged himself into the back seat, wondered if the power steering was electric or hydraulic, I thought it a ridiculous question. Of course it was hydraulic.
I was able to shove aside my distracted, shaking glee for long enough to address another key question – yes, there is enough power. Since the days of Toyota Promotions Yore, before anyone ever even got to drive the thing, we said that 200 hp from the 2.0 boxer four wouldn’t be enough. And at the track, we may have been right. But in town, I’m pretty sure I never used all 200, and the tires came loose easily enough. There are benefits to the low power, too. Subaru advertises 34 mpg on the highway.
And I really think I’d be fine taking a highway trip in the BRZ. The seats were breathable, though the bolster was high, which might get annoying after a while. The similar pair in my WRX certainly do. The ride, while happily reporting every bump and pot hole, wasn’t obnoxious. The dash was tastefully lined with everything you might need, including a Bluetooth system and a more-than-serviceable speaker set.
In fact, my only ding toward the “comfort” category was the clutch, which had a distractingly high transfer point. You can get used to it, sure, but it felt out of character for the car, and in such close quarters, all the up-and-down gets troublesome for the left knee.
Of course, I wasn’t in the back seat, like Troy, who measures about 6’4.” Greg and I are both tall guys, too, so Troy’s leg room came courtesy of the seat beside him. In fact, unless you’re riding with Warwick Davis, the back seats are great for trunk space, and that’s about it. Greg’s wife Kim said she wouldn’t put a baby seat back there. Maybe a toddler seat.
Back to that clutch for a moment: It was paired with a genuinely excellent six-speed transmission. The shifts were tighter than Ben Howard lyrics, as if the lever was gated somewhere below the trim. Feeling a gear click home is a tremendously satisfying experience. A five-speed might have meant less shifting, but with such a shifter, who would want that?
I’ve said before that the Toyota GT86 twins, known stateside as the BRZ and its Scion counterpart, the FRS, are cars without a segment. Check the buff books for proof. I’ve seen comparisons between the 86 and the Miata (a two-seat convertible), the FWD Ford Fiesta ST, the awkward Hyundai Veloster, even a V6 Mustang.
What this means is that the small, cheap, lightweight, practical, RWD sports car is all but dead. This one example is about all we have. As I climbed out of the seat, I realized that it was unlike anything I’d really ever driven, not because it was particularly extreme or different, but because it wasn’t.
The 86 isn’t power hound, leaking magma and nitromethane all over the street. It isn’t a stripped-down time attacker. It isn’t a bastion of status or luxury, or a graffiti mural about how extreme you and your bros live. It’s just a normal sports car, balanced and secure, like the girl you know you want to marry, the one who makes you feel like yourself.
Last month Subaru announced the BRZ tS by STi. That’s a lot of letters, and we don’t really need to dissect them, because it likely won’t be sold outside Japan anyway. But the tS means upgrades to the brakes, the aero, the tires, and the suspension. Plenty of good stuff. When we first heard about the tS, we hoped again that would get more power, and now, having driven a stock BRZ, I don’t think we were unjustified. Not because 200 isn’t adequate, but because any decent effort to tune an eight-six will inevitably result in a dramatic change in the car’s whole character, and as long as they’re changing it, they might as well change it big.
Instead, the tS almost seems like Subaru is trying to make the BRZ even more like a BRZ, and comes across as a bit silly. This isn’t to say that the BRZ shouldn’t be modded. I’ve long thought it was designed as a platform. But even in stock form, it comes to an absolute point, the exact mathematical needle-tip where handling, power, value, styling, and practicality all converge.
If you want better handling, the cost will go up for tires and springs and such. If you want more power, you’ll lose a bit of grip around the corners and you’ll have to wait out the turbo lag. If you want less weight, you’ll have to give up the well-appointed interior. If you want more downforce, you’ll compromise the clean lines with a tray table wing.
This convergence might sound negative, but I think the dead-end sharpness might make the GT86 the most important sports car of our generation. It means that Toyota and Subaru have developed an uncompromising invitation to car enthusiasm for a generation increasingly being spoonfed compromise from others. We millennials all want a Corvette. We really do. But most of us couldn’t handle the power, we couldn’t afford to pay the premiums for magnetic suspensions and the like, and we don’t always want the attention.
The eight-six twins politely suggest that we don’t need to. Here’s an accessible sports car with actual rear-wheel-drive and an actual six-speed and no fine print or gimmicks. Here’s an incredibly pure and simple driving machine for you to enjoy and hoon and affordably insure and study for the finer points of enthusiast motoring. It’s a boxer-engined billboard that says, “I believe in you guys, and you’ll turn out just fine.”
Thanks to Kim for the awesome shots.
Andy Sheehan is a blogger, aspiring novelist, and relentless hoon. He plans to will his 2002 Subaru WRX Wagon to his firstborn, plans his daily commute around the swoop of its roads, and doesn’t plan to ever buy an automatic. A cool-car omnipath, he loves the common Mustang or Chevelle, but hunts for the weird and wonderful Velorexes and Cosmos of the autoverse. And when he can afford a garage, he’s going to turn an MX-5 into a race car.