Ollie Marriage 03 December 2011

First drive: Subaru BRZ coupe

Yes, we’ve finally got behind the wheel. Ollie Marriage reports back from Subaru’s Japanese test track

First drive: Subaru’s new BRZ coupe

First of all, let’s solve the mystery of the name. BRZ stands for Boxer, Rear-wheel drive, Zenith. That’s pretty clear isn’t it? Well, the first two parts are, and as for Zenith, that’s just Subaru’s way of saying this is the best it can do. Personally I think Subaru Zenith has more of a ring to it than Subaru BRZ which, let’s face it, isn’t exactly a dynamic name.

And this is a shame for a rather dynamic car. That’s right, we’ve finally, finally driven the BRZ. We had to go all the way to Subaru’s test track, two hours north of Tokyo to do so, but it was worth it.

So where to start? As suspected, both Subaru and Toyota have had specific tasks within this joint project. Toyota has been responsible for the design (certainly not the most dynamic aspect of the BRZ), and has lent its direct injection technology to the engine. Subaru has done pretty much everything else. Talking to the engineers you get the sense this is very much Subaru’s car – the first development prototype was a cut n’ shut Legacy, the next an Impreza. This is good news, as we know Subaru can build great cars. The BRZ clearly has potential.

It’s a brand new car from scratch – a rare thing these days. The engine is mounted so low, Subaru believes it has a lower centre of gravity than a Ferrari 458. And a low engine is not only good for handling, but also means the driver can be sat low, yet still see over the bonnet. It’s snug inside, the design largely functional, the colour scheme mostly grey. It’s no Audi TT, but the impression is good because you’ve dropped so low into a wrap-around seat and your hands are clasping a small, feelsome wheel.

The driver’s seat is definitely the place to be. Subaru boasts that this is the world’s smallest four seat rear-wheel drive coupe, so you can guess what that means for those travelling in the back. And the boot seems to be a complete afterthought.

See all the pictures from the Subaru BRZ first drive

But enough of that, it’s the driving that counts. The 2.0-litre flat four is naturally aspirated, revs to 7,400rpm and develops 200bhp and 151lb ft of torque. These, you don’t need me to point out, aren’t massively impressive figures these days. And the BRZ isn’t a massively fast car. Final homologation happens next month, the expectation being a 0-62mph time of around 6.8secs with the CO2 target being 160g/km. I’d guess at a top speed of around 145mph, and 42mpg on the combined cycle.

It’s light though (1,220kg), and Subaru has worked the torque hard, so although the peak is between 6,400-6,600rpm, you have almost all of that before 3,000rpm. Put your foot down at low revs and it picks up healthily, aided by super-quick throttle response. But it tails off a bit through the mid-range, meaning you have to head for the high numbers to get your kicks. And that’s where the BRZ is at its best. It zips through the final 2,000rpm, feels keen and energetic and then, well, and then there’s the noise. We have high hopes…

Of course, it sounds different. This Boxer doesn’t chunter and warble like an old Impreza, it’s a smoother note than that, still slightly off-beat and noisy enough without being intrusive. It’s not Honda Type-R addictive, but it’s a plus, a whack more interesting to listen to than any four cylinder turbo you care to mention (VW Scirocco? Renaultsport Megane? Mini Cooper S?). It makes this a fun engine to use, but it’s not the best thing about the car.

Because the best thing is the handling. The BRZ steers like it has no weight to deal with. It doesn’t appear to roll, pitch or dive. It’s neither nose nor tail heavy, just a sense of the front and rear working in perfect harmony. You steer, it goes and when the grip runs out (it was pouring with rain in Japan), the BRZ is almost totally neutral. And you get so much warning of when that’s about to happen. I was nervous when I found out it had electric power steering, but this has to be about the best system I’ve tried – the springy weighting is lovely and real sensations are fed back into your hands.

How best to describe it as an overall package? Keen. Eager. It’s not puppy-ish in its enthusiasm, it’s a bit more measured than that, but it’s a lot of fun. Easily better to drive than a VW Scirocco; more agile and rewarding than any Audi TT. It may not have the lungs on a Nissan 370Z, but it’s way more dextrous and I can’t think of any hot hatch except possibly the Renaultsport Clio that provides as much satisfaction.

You can still tell that it’s a Subaru at heart – not just in the engine, but the steering and manual gearbox – but it’s like they’ve let Lotus loose on the chassis. Well, almost. The light frame does get a bit thrown by big bumps, but it never feels unnerving, instead it inspires confidence.

The manual gearbox is really good – mechanical and precise – and the six-speed auto is better than expected. It’s not a double clutch, but it’s just fast enough and intelligent enough to justify its presence in a sports car.

See all the pictures from the Subaru BRZ first drive

Any other criticisms? Well, being honest, the BRZ seems slightly out of step with other rivals. Subaru has ditched the turbo just as others have adopted it, it’s available with an unfashionable auto rather than a double clutch, the biggest wheels are likely to be 17s, there’s no adaptive damping or any other chassis trickery. But does this matter? It will to some buyers, just as the styling is too plain to tempt others. But if you enjoy driving, if you relish the thought of a compact rear-drive coupe, this is the car for you. Roughly 1,000 per year will come to the UK, starting in June, with prices from around £26,000-28,000.

 

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