My last vehicle review was of this car’s twin. Two mechanical children borne of the union of Subaru and Toyota, working in unison toward a singular goal.
That goal was to make a bang-up sports car, and rebadge it as they each see fit. Underneath the hood, they are the same, and for the vast majority of the componentry inside and out, they are identical. Little tweaks happen on each side before they get shipped out to the awesome people of the world that are buying these cars, but overall, you’re looking at cars that look, feel and drive very, very similarly.
Therefore, if you read my review of the Scion FR-S, much of this review will feel familiar – because most of the car is.
I had the pleasure of attending AJAC’s Test Fest in Niagara this past week, and Subaru Canada was kind enough to offer me this beautiful blue BR-Z as my ride during the week.
Because Subaru and Toyota/Scion promised a sports car for a reasonable price, and because the press has thrust these two cars into legendary status before anyone even drove one, they’ve had big shoes to fill. People were expecting physics-defying machines.
The cars can’t help it. They have nothing to do with the buzz and the hype. They’re just along for the ride. I tried to keep an open mind and forget all the things I’d read or seen when I was handed the keys to the BR-Z at the Toronto airport and settled in for the 100+ kilometer highway drive to the Niagara region.
The sticker on a BR-Z starts at CDN $27,295. Mine was equipped with the Sport-tech package, which adds some goodies and it had the optional automatic transmission – the final tally on this blue beauty is CDN $30,495.
Under the Hood
Let’s just get this out of the way. There have been plenty of folks saying the car is perfectly balanced and doesn’t need a shred more power than it has. There have been practically an equal number of complaints saying it needs more jam.
So what’s going on under the hood? It’s a 2.0-Liter, flat-4 (boxer). No turbos, no blowers, nothing fancy. Well that’s not entirely true either. There is some fancy technology going on, but nothing that makes headlines. The mill cranks out 200 HP at 7000 RPM and a surprisingly low 151 lb.ft at 6400 RPM.
The fact that it’s only schlepping around about 2750 pounds makes a big difference though. The power is pushed to the rear wheels through a 6-speed automatic transmission. Nice and simple. You’re going to see that become a recurring theme here.
Fuel economy is quite good. The automatic-equipped version of this car pulls off measurably better fuel mileage – it’s rated at 8.3 L/100 km (28 mpg) in the city and 5.9 L/100 km (40 mpg) on the highway. Those are great numbers. The BR-Z with a manual is rated at 9.6 L/100 km (24.5 mpg) in the city, and 6.6 L/100 km (36 mpg) on the highway – which are also great numbers. The fuel tank holds 50 Liters and these twins sip premium vintage stuff at the pump.
Normally I don’t get into the weight distribution, but those buying this car will often care about it. Subaru has managed a near-ideal 53/47 front-rear distribution. Also, have a look at the engine bay. Nothing in there sits higher than the struts. The center of gravity in this car is purportedly lower than a Porsche Cayman. HELLO!
I understand why someone would want to buy this light, rear-wheel drive sports car with a manual transmission. But if you’re OK with giving up that ultimate amount of control for some convenience, you’ll be rewarded with a fantastic automatic transmission. It’s a 6-speed, with manual modes on the shift lever as well as steering-wheel mounted paddles. In automatic mode, the transmission is very impressive. The shifts are quite quick and you’re treated to lovely rev-matched downshifts. It almost always seemed to be in the right gear, adjusting to your driving style and keeping up. I rarely found it to be in a wrong gear – as a matter of fact, it doesn’t mind holding a gear longer instead of hunting for a higher gear right away. I was very impressed with it, and in manual mode, it rarely left me wanting more control. You can have a lot of fun with this car – with an automatic transmission. There – I said it.
There are two buttons on the console. One turns off the traction control, and the other turns off the stability control and puts the car into Sport mode. Both of them turn up the fun factor a bit, but some of the electronic grannies stay in place, and if you kick out the rear end too much, you’ll feel one thing or another scrambling to bring you back into line. Not too much fun now, y’hear?
I was a bit disappointed by that. The car is so capable, but slide around a corner with a bit of hustle, and things start shuddering and the fun gets cut in half as the stern overlords of electronic control waggle their fingers at you and shake their heads. I’m here to help you beat them. Hold down the traction control button (the left one) for about 5 seconds, and you’ve got the real “Fun” setting. It turns off all the electronic gadgets, and it leaves you with a car that will force a grin out of you every single time you go around a corner.
Let’s talk power. The BR-Z has it, but it seems a bit short in a straight line. This is not a quarter-mile car, but it’s not tough to get over that. That was never the point of this car. The sounds the boxer engine makes under throttle are simply fantastic. It is a nearly perfect sound in the car. They did a great job with it. Step on it and send it through its gears, and you’ll get a decent, if not thrilling, sprint from 0-60 mph in what Subaru says is 8.4 seconds. I actually think it feels faster than that, but never timed it. For the record, the manual transmission is quicker by a second or so.
Driving around town, that snarly boxer is flexible, but feels a bit lackluster at low revs – not a big surprise there for anyone who has driven Subaru’s boxers. It will pull very smoothly through the gears, but it comes alive above 3000 RPM. Keep things around 3000 to 4000 RPM and it will pick up the pace nicely from there. I’d appreciate another 30-50 lb.ft of torque to make the rear end a tad slipperier when I want it that way, and to make it feel a little snappier off the line.
The steering is unbelievable. It could actually qualify as perfect for me. It’s firm, not overboosted, the turn-in is remarkable, yet the car never feels nervous. It’s stable and on-center until you turn the wheel. Road feedback comes back aplenty, yet it never feels overwhelming where you feel every single pebble in the road. Pretty awesome for electric steering, y’all.
The BR-Z’s handling is almost tough to describe – it’s that good. Though the car stays flat around turns, but I love that the car actually has a tiny bit of body roll. Throw it into anything that’s not straight and it feels as though it’s rotating around a pivot point. Turn into any curve, turn around any sharp corner, blast through any cloverleaf onto or off a freeway – you’ll never be surprised, you’ll never be disappointed. This is a 100% predictable car, and it will never leave you wanting more in terms of handling. Take some speed into a curve with you, and the rear end swings out a tad, only to slide back into place. Take some speed and some revs with some more throttle into that same corner, and you can push the rear end out. Yet I never felt the car wanting to bite me back. Steering with the rear end of the car is one of the greatest joys of driving a rear-wheel drive car, and the BR-Z simply excels at it. I never felt it snap back into place too quickly, and you can essentially corner at will without bothering to use your brakes. Let off the throttle when required, get back on whenever you want to. It will never say no. I never felt the rear end coming around less than predictably and I never felt that I had lost even a shred of control. Drop a little counter-steer and some more throttle into the equation, and suddenly you’re a drift champ. OK, not quite, but it’s so easy to drive this car exactly how you envision yourself wanting to drive it. Think about that for a second. It says a lot.
The ride is firm. Quite firm, in fact. Here is one of the differences that I noticed between the two twins. I felt the Subaru’s suspension was dialed in more to my liking. It didn’t get jittery on the highway and it felt less nervous on city streets. I did appreciate that the suspension didn’t get crashy over even the harshest surfaces, which shows how much effort went into it. Where I got tired of the FR-S’ ride after a while on the road, I was never bothered by the ride in the BR-Z.
Braking – wow. The brakes feel flawless. This is how the brakes in every car should feel. The pedal is firm, and the brakes are always powerful, yet never grabby. You touch them, they start working. You push them down, they’ll bring you to a controlled stop. You step on them with authority and they will haul the BR-Z down at an alarming rate. They were always easy to modulate, and very precise and even after hard, repetitive braking, there was no fade.
Noise isn’t always well-controlled. Wind noise is never an issue, and the engine remains subtle until you step on the throttle at which point it snarls at you – just the way a sport car’s engine should. I did feel that road noise intruded into the cabin occasionally, yet I felt it was better than with the FR-S. I noticed that certain road surfacing makes more noise than others – nothing unusual about that.
Visibility out of this car swings from one end of the spectrum to the other. Your view of the road ahead of you is essentially perfect – the hood slopes out of your view and you are looking at road. The exceptions, and they are glorious, are the upper parts of the front fenders. See how they blister out of the hood? When you look forward, all you see is the tips of those bulges which lets you know exactly where your front wheels are at all times. Brilliant. The view out the sides is spectacular and open as well. The story changes toward the back – looking out the rear is a bit constricted, and the B and C pillars act together to completely block your view for shoulder checking your own side of the vehicle. It did make me a Nervous Nelly occasionally when I was wanting to change lanes and realized I couldn’t tell what was beside me – especially on the infamous 401 after leaving the Toronto airport. Yikes!
Though the changes are subtle, I prefer the styling of the BR-Z over that of the FR-S. It strikes me as a tad more aggressive. I should also mention that this colour is my absolute favorite on this car. It just MAKES the car.
It’s a small car. When you’re standing beside it, it’s a surprisingly tight package. It’s short and low. The hood slopes down to swept-back headlight clusters – they contain HID headlights in the BR-Z – and a gaping trapezoidal grille – complete with what looks like a mouth guard – the BR-Z is ready for a fight! There are some faux intakes on either side of the air dam, containing foglights and in a BR-Z exclusive, LED running lights which look great on the road. There are little fake air vents on the cowl.
The roof has a lower portion in the middle, and then slopes back into a line that terminates at the back edge of the trunk lid. There are some lovely rear flanks that sprout out behind the doors, and the rear end sports some (in my opinion) dated-looking tail lights, a nice dual exhaust and an integrated rear diffuser out of dark plastic. The Sport-tech package adds a very clean and low-profile rear spoiler which, in my opinion, looks great!
The wheels are handsome. On paper, the combination of 215/45s on 17-inch rims seems small, but they look fine in real life, because the whole car is small.
The first thing you’ll notice before you even see the interior is how long slung this car is. Why? Because it’s an exercise in butt dropping just to get into it. It takes a few attempts until you get the hang of getting in without looking like an old person.
The seats. Oh boy, those seats. Well, let me start by saying they’d be fantastic if you spent each day at the track with the BR-Z. They are firm, relatively comfortable and exceptionally well bolstered – you aren’t sliding (or moving for that matter) ANYwhere in these seats. Now, let’s say you spent more of your day driving on the road instead of racing on a track. In that case, these seats might be more sporty than you want. The manually adjustable buckets (heated in my BR-Z) have a slightly uncompromising air about them. For me, they were fine, and I don’t know if this is psychological or if there is a difference between the FR-S and the BR-Z in terms of the seats, but I actually found them slightly more comfortable in the Subaru. It might just be that I got used to them after two weeks.
There’s tons of headroom in the front, and the foot wells are spacious. Although it’s a small car, you never feel cramped.
Once you’re in, you’re in. Feast your eyes on that steering wheel, baby, and grab on. It qualifies as one of the best I’ve driven with. No buttons, small diameter, perfectly circular, grippy, perfect rim thickness, adjustable for height and reach. Behind it sits a large central tach, right where it belongs. There’s a tightly spaced and difficult to read speedometer to the left, and temperature/fuel gauges to the right. There’s a digital speedometer inside the tach circle, as well as a multi-function driver information screen with odometer, trip meters, fuel economy, etc.
The materials are decent, and suitable for this vehicle’s price and class. The dash is sculpted – it’s not my favorite look, but it’s covered in nice, soft-touch plastic which I noticed does a great job in not reflecting the sun onto the windshield. There is nicely stitched padding on the door panels, but there is also an abundance of hard plastics. Fit and finish appears to be excellent, and everything felt solid.
At the upper center of the dash, you’ll find air vents. Below that sits the media/nav system, and below that, a nice automatic dual-zone climate control unit that uses three chunky rotary dials. This is a nice improvement over the FR-S’ manual system.
The center console houses the fantastic automatic gear selector lever and a traditional, perfectly placed parking brake lever on the left. I say perfectly placed should you want to, you know, yank it back whilst driving the car around corners and such.
The interior keeps it simple and it works very well.
Everything is powered – door locks, mirrors, windows. There’s a power trunk release button too. My BR-Z had the push-start ignition in addition to keyless entry – two things I love and that I missed in the FR-S.
The stereo system is Pioneer-branded. It’s based on a small touchscreen with a few impossibly small hard buttons and a tiny knob on the left. Sources are AM, FM, CD, auxiliary, USB and Bluetooth-streaming audio. There are 8 speakers, and it sounds OK but I was never that impressed with it. That matters little, because the music coming from under the hood sounded better anyway. I never did use the navigation system, so I can’t comment on it – something to note if you’re wanting a nav system: you can only get one in the BR-Z as it is not an option in the Scion FR-S.
There is also an added rocker switch in the center console, allowing you to switch the car from regular driving mode to Sport mode or to Snow mode, which changes some of the programming to be more appropriate under those conditions – if you see fit.
Honestly, you’re not buying this car because you care about rear seats but here’s what you need to know: if your friends are very small children or amputees, they’ll be fine back there. Nobody else will be.
There are 2 sets of LATCH anchors, should you hate yourself enough to want to transport little ones back there. Getting in there to buckle them up will be a different story. Oh, and if your amputee friends want to help navigate, there’s a single seatback map pocket for their convenience. And that’s it.
This will be a woefully short section, which is fine when we’re talking about a car with sporting intentions.
You get a decent glove compartment and door bins that are essentially bottle holders. There’s a tiny rubberized slot at the bottom of the center stack – it has a lip to hold something in place, but it won’t be your phone – it’s not big enough. The auxiliary and USB plugs are in the glove compartment, along with a 12V plug. The back of the center console is an open bin containing a moveable double cupholder and another 12V plug.
The trunk is small and shallow. That’s right. It’s a trunk, not a hatchback. Why? Because it saves weight. It’s usable space though. The engineers planned it such that you can transport a set of 4 track tires if you fold the rear seats down. Now that’s cool!
You’ll find a great dead pedal in the footwell, alongside a set of perfectly sized and placed pedals. Well done, Subaru. I wouldn’t change a thing here!
I liked the red shift light. It’s simply a bright red dot at the top of the tach that comes on when you rev the engine over 7000 RPM. It’s just simply a warning that you’re nearing redline if you’re driving in manual mode and one that catches your attention even when you’re not looking at the instruments. That’s all I need, thank you.
There is no grab handle to close the trunk with. I just hate that! I know they’re all about saving weight, but the few grams a plastic handle would add would be worth it so that I don’t have to get my pawprints all over the trunk and the trunk’s dirt all over my paws.
The left rear tail light had condensation in it when I got it, and that didn’t change throughout the entire week. That may seem trivial, but that’s the kind of stuff that would drive me crazy if I owned this car. Of note, the FR-S I had the week before had the exact same issue.
It took me a day or two to understand these twins. But now I do. I understand what it is to enjoy simplicity again. I understood how well a basic, well-thought-out and well-engineered car can handle anything you throw at it. I felt the joy of getting into a car that didn’t over-promise and under-deliver.
I always appreciate honest vehicles. I like when they deliver on what they promise – visually, on paper, etc. The Subaru BR-Z never lied to me. The numbers on paper make it seem a little weak, certainly in a straight line. And it is.
The combination of a low curb weight and rear-wheel drive makes me think it will be easy to sling around corners. And it is.
The addition of a well-tuned suspension, one of the best automatic transmissions I’ve driven and an incredibly low center of gravity makes me think it will take sporty driving and handling to a new level, most certainly at this price level. And it does.
The no-frills interior makes me think I will be given everything I need to live with this car, and nothing that will distract me from driving it the way it should be driven. And I was.
This honesty and the BR-Z’s ability to make me smile any time I was driving it lands the car an 8.5 out of 10.
I loved that the steering seemed to know exactly what I wanted it to do. I loved that this car never held back from me. It always felt as though it would work as hard as I needed it to in order to get the results that I wanted. This car is a partner on the road, rather than an adversary that you need to flog to get results. It’s easy to drive around town, and it’s easy to drive as hard as you can. And the driving position is near perfect.
People have complained about the fuel economy that is lower than they expected, and that the BR-Z is slower than they wanted it to be. Well, great rear-wheel drive coupes aren’t always about scrimping at the pump, nor do they need to be the fastest in a straight line. This one is about being an enticing driving machine – on your roads or on the track.
As I mentioned, I do want a little more power (not a lot) and I’d want to see a little compromise toward comfort from the front seats if I were to live with the BR-Z. But overall, and especially for this amount of money, this is by far the most competent sports car I’ve driven in a long time. But the fact that it’s playful, and simply enjoyable, makes that competence infinitely more accessible. Add to that the fact that this thing is put together by Subaru and Toyota, and you can almost guarantee solid reliability for a long time to come.
As a final note in terms of comparing the two cars, my preference would be the Subaru. I preferred the way the suspension treated me on the road, and it handled just as well and maybe even a little more the way I like it. I definitely appreciated the few extra touches of goodies inside in terms of tech and convenience, and I do prefer the subtle styling differences over the FR-S. Just keep in mind that the cars are very, very close to each other in absolutely every facet and nothing just jumps out as a major difference. I also prefer that the BR-Z will be a more rare commodity and you’ll be less likely to see one driving by you than an FR-S.
Thanks for taking me back to what it means to enjoy a sporty drive, Subaru.
Thanks for giving us a car that says “The more fun you have, the happier I’ll be”.
Thanks for keeping it simple. Nice and simple.
Disclosure: Vehicle was provided by Subaru Canada.
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