Paul Cowland

Paul Cowland



ROADTEST: Subaru BRZ SE Lux Manual

21 Nov , 2014  

I have read a lot of road tests on this car, seen a lot of forum posts and spent a lot of miles in it. Therefore, I think it’s fair to say, for those who think the BRZ/GT86 doesn’t pack enough tech or power, you either haven’t driven it for long enough – or you’ve missed the point of the exercise entirely.

“Simplify – Then Add Lightness…” Colin Chapman knew what he was talking about when he uttered his famous maxim – and then proceeded to apply it to every race and road car he ever designed. While Lotus was previously never a company famed for its reliability, or practicality for that matter, what Chapman did manage to imbue in every single one of his four-wheeled creations was an incredible amount of entertainment and ‘grin’ factor, often from relatively modest power outputs and comparatively uncomplicated design.

Latterly, thanks to epoch-defining cars like the brilliant MX-5, designers have mercifully been turning back the clock to remember what really makes a bona fide sports car. The classical definition, exemplified by the little Mazda, has always been a crisp and punchy powerplant, benign handling and RWD in a lightweight and communicative chassis. Outright speed is important, but driver involvement and ‘feel’ come above everything else.

Prior to this, with the advent of mass-produced turbo-charging in the ‘70s and affordable 4WD and AWD platforms in the ‘80s, those looking to get a quick ‘point-to-point’ fix soon found another way to skin the proverbial cat. Chassis finesse and telegraphy isn’t quite so important when you have at least 200 forcibly inducted ponies under the bonnet and more than enough traction to save you when it all gets too much. For such occasions, simply point the nose where you wish to go and mash your foot into the carpet – the laws of physics and mechanical grip will do the rest.

For years now, this has been the way ‘fast’ cars have been made and marketed. Power figures must always be as huge as possible for brochure comparison and pub-boasting purposes, weight optimisation must come second to spec-level and kit for all those ‘must have’ gadgets and as for fuel consumption, well… nobody who wanted to go really fast ever worried about that, did they? And so, it became an arms race and willy-waving contest of ever increasing bhp figures, ‘Ring lap times and the quest for every-more pointless in-car gadgets. And sadly, somewhere in the middle of it all, despite biblically huge torque figures, calculator-esque steering wheels and fatter and fatter tyres, something got lost; that vital, simple connection between tarmac, chassis and driver.

How refreshing it was then, when Subaru and Toyota announced that they would eschew all of this unnecessary paraphernalia and go back to basics with their new sports coupe. To literally build a car around the driver, placing his hip right at the chassis’ centre of gravity, and continue from there. Mass could be kept low, thanks to Subaru’s proven boxer engine technology, and throttle response could be made crisp and responsive due to Toyota’s exceptionally brilliant direct injection system. Clever design saw a near-perfect weight distribution, yet surprisingly capable boot and cabin space. But, despite the rivers of gushing praise from the world’s greatest motoring journos – and undoubtedly the greatest collection of media superlatives in recent press history, not everyone was happy. “It only has 200 PS!” moaned one enlightened keyboard warrior. “It needs more power,” grimaced another. “Where are all the gadgets?” ranted a third. Yes, despite FHI and Toyota masterfully rewinding the clock back to a time where finesse and delicacy mattered above all else, and still managing to deliver a car that had all of that in a modern, reliable, safe and practical wrapper, people still were spitting dummies. “Sell it with 300 brake and I’ll buy one,” seemed to be the internet mantra… presumably from those that hadn’t even sat in the thing.

Let’s have a look at those vital statistics for a minute, shall we? From a teeny, lightweight, normally aspirated, 2.0 engine, the joint project team, under the watchful eye of FHI’s Toshio Masuda, have managed to produce 100PS per litre!! To put it into perspective, another RWD icon that most enthusiasts would give body parts to own, the E30 M3, has no more.

So this is a respectable figure, but it becomes even more impressive when you realise that it offers pretty sprightly performance, yet can easily return over 45 mpg on a run – and low to mid 30s if you thrash the pants off it. 280bhp turbocharged power houses like the old WTX STI may give a bigger immediate punch, but drive one like you stole it, and you won’t enjoy anything like that kind of gas mileage. Although ‘real’ enthusiasts will now be huffing and puffing and shouting, “We don’t care about that!” you have to agree, it was a lot easier to have that attitude ten years ago, with fuel at around 70p a litre. These days, with it averaging around £1.25, a sports car that shovels a bit – and doesn’t take the national debt of Guatemala to run – suddenly sounds quite appealing. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that a bigger engine will also mean a bigger sticker price, and then the Toyobaru’s other trump card, its relative affordability at £22,500 and up, will have been nudged nearer the heady heights of the thirty-somethings. Not many ‘real-world’ enthusiasts can afford to play at such rarefied altitude.

By not having the mixed blessing of prodigious torque and bountiful power, the Toyobaru’s design team has been unencumbered with the battle of physics that befall such cars. Big power means big weight and heat, which means lots of intercoolers, turbochargers, pipework and paraphernalia need to be shoe-horned under the bonnet, pushing the weight distribution further and further forward. By running a brisk normally-aspirated engine instead, you have just enough of what you need, and not a single thing you don’t. That ‘less is more’ mantra applies inside the car too. With the exception of a welcome cruise-control stalk, the steering wheel on both cars is unusually bare. Why? Because have a look inside any really focussed driver’s car and tell me what you see? The clue’s in the name; the steering wheel is for steering – and with a chassis as chuckable and hooligan-inducing as this car has, believe me, you’ll be doing an awful lot of that.

I’ll be honest, as a serial Impreza/WRX owner who has owned almost every notable example, including the 22B, my first few hours with a BRZ also made me wonder if it needed a few extra horses to move it along. Where was that shove in the back I was so used to? Where was the boost out of the corners that I craved? But, here’s the thing; after a day with the car I found that all I really needed to do was adjust my driving style to really start to enjoy it. The BRZ’s thrills come at the top of the rev range, so by holding onto each gear, before snicking the next through a delightfully precise gearchange action and giving the car bootfuls of throttle, it made startlingly rapid cross country progress. The lack of a turbo charger and AWD, rather than being a hindrance, started to really make me think about where I was placing the car on the road in order to keep momentum. Lines became critical and turn-in points imperative. All of a sudden, I found myself thinking harder about the process of driving and my interaction with the car than I had for a very long time. The BRZ rewards your inputs instantly, making you feel like a driving god. Leave the appropriate safety aids on however, and it’s also very forgiving as you begin your Jedi-like quest in the pursuit of driving purity.

This epiphany was repeated on the circuit when I took the car out during a packed Donington track session to see what it could really do in safety. Again, in this environment, the car really showed what it is capable of between any two points that are not simply connected by a straight line. I sat with an old friend who is a hugely experienced instructor to get his pointers on my driving style. As someone who has raced a little, I’d like to think I had half a clue where I was pointing the thing, but with the BRZ’s appetite for precise and thoughtful driver inputs and its instantly obedient chassis, I found I had much room for improvement. My years of fast, turbocharged, grippy cars had made me inaccurate and somewhat complacent. “Clip half a second later there,” he would say. “Ease the throttle for a millisecond here to settle the nose, before planting the back end,” on the next lap. Yard by yard, on a track I thought I knew backwards, the BRZ helped me to discover that actually, for a lot of the years I had been pounding its familiar curves and crests, the cars I had been driving had been the ones cashing the talent cheques my ego thought that I was writing. Now, with a car beneath me that needed to be set up precisely for each gear change, apex point and braking marker, I was truly learning the art of weight transfer and car control. It was a genuine revelation!

What so many people seem to have missed with these cars is that, joy-of-joys, they have been designed with an unusual clarity of purpose. Subaru’s somewhat cheesy strapline upon the BRZ’s launch was ‘Pure Handling Delight’. At the time it felt to me like a throwaway marketing tag, but having lived with the results of that vision for a few months and miles now, you can almost imagine that it was printed on a ten-foot banner and draped above the designers as they worked. For those that lament the car’s lack of power, let me assure you, unless your chosen sport is drag racing, it’s never going to be an issue. If you want to drive fast between two destinations in the real world, then the BRZ does it more capably than many cars costing 4 or 5 times as much, and with a practicality and usability that defies its impressive toolbox of motive talent.

F1 legend James Hunt once famously stated that amongst his notable race machinery and incredible road cars, the one he enjoyed driving most was his Austin A35 van. He said: “I can put everything I learnt in motor racing into driving it round the Wandsworth one-way system on a wet Saturday night, blow off all the Ferraris and nobody takes a blind bit of notice.” Although FHI’s meisterwerk is safely several notches further up the automotive food chain than Hunt’s Wallace and Gromit pre-cursor, its philosophy – and appeal – are pressed from the very same tin. You see, even when you are one of the world’s greatest drivers, with the most sublime cars at your disposal, sometimes the purest driving thrills come from being able to drive at the absolute limit in a car that has just enough grip and just enough power. The BRZ or GT86 is exactly that car.

If you’re the kind of driver that feels that anything less than 300 bhp is pointless, or indeed that any car that doesn’t possess at least a dozen acronymic digital aids to augment your meagre skill is a waste of your time and money, then you’re going to hate this car with a passion, because despite its pussycat demeanour and daily-driver good manners, when push comes to shove, it’s going to make you work for your thrills and demand your full focus and attention in order to go quickly. But, if you’re the sort of genuine driving enthusiast that feels like re-engaging with a more analogue driving experience in an increasingly digital world, then for a car that can realistically be had for around £300 a month, either one is going to give you more visceral enjoyment, adrenaline rushes and dopamine infusions than is probably legal. Better yet, when it’s not doing that, it’s probably one of the most engaging and tactile cars at low speeds that you’ve ever driven – a practical daily conveyance that thrills as much at 30mph as it does at 130mph. And that’s the really clever party trick. Go and see your local dealer, speak to them nicely and borrow a car for a few long and happy hours so you can re-educate yourself. As a package of speed, handling, price and, above all, involvement, both cars are simply untouchable.



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