OPINION: Argue all you like, there's no doubt which company puts most DNA into the Toyota GT86/Subaru BRZ joint venture, writes Dave Moore.
To say that Toyota and Subaru took different tacks with marketing their cloned sports coupes would be to utter the understatement of the decade. While Toyota has plastered the media with references to its half of the bargain (I use that word in its literal sense too, by the way) Subaru New Zealand has quietly gone its own way, launching its car as an internet-only prospect at first before exposing its BZ fans, customers and journalists - in that order.
This was about six months after its joint-venture partner Toyota allowed selected media a drive of its GT86.
The first of Subaru's BRZs in New Zealand found owners in mid-December, with most of them enjoying a track day at Hampton Downs, courtesy of the importers.
Who did what with the development of the car is fairly clear. Subaru did most of the engineering and builds the car, along with the Toyota and North American Scion versions, at its plant in Gunma, Japan. Toyota did the car's interior and exterior styling and other design work while providing components like the direct-injection system and had the common sense to use the old 86 marketing links with its well-regarded rear drive coupes from the mid-80s.
Subaru hasn't a similar connection, technically, with all of its prior performance vehicles having been turbocharged all-wheel-drive models. But for all that, anyone with a skerrick of automotive knowledge will note the in-line mounted flat-four engine and realise that the mechanical "daddy" in this delightfully simple car is Subaru, though Toyota must take plaudits for driving the project, when during more than a decade as a technical partner with Fuji's pride and joy, General Motors didn't even think of it.
Simplicity is a key element in the car. It has been done before by Mazda when the similarly spare and nicely crafted MX-5 arrived in 1989 becoming the poster child for a new generation of drivers for whom a relatively cheap, light, rear-wheel-drive car would accurately hit the mixed metaphors of the funny bone and seat of the pants simultaneously.
Since then, the Germans have tried it with the Z3 and SLK, missing by a mile through combining too much complexity and weight, asking too much money and providing too little talent. So in 24 years the realm of relatively inexpensive, fun-driving cars was only added to by Honda's S2000 and ironically General Motors' short-lived Pontiac Soltice roader - destined to become with the death of Pontiac the most revered four-cylinder American car since the Model T.
The BRZ/GT86 clones don't have a soft-top, of course, but they do have that inherent evenly-balanced poise of the MX-5, and like the wee Mazda, an achievable price tag that means on an Impreza sedan budget you only need to find another couple of grand.
There are drawbacks. Unlike the MX-5, which even in folding hardtop form doesn't pretend to be more than a two-seater, the BRZ has a vestigial rear seat into which even quite small people would have to be surgically implanted or removed. For a laptop or shopping however, the BRZ's a champ!
Apart from all that, the BRZ is an absolute joy to drive, with every curve and corner welcomed with gusto. It's that seat-of-the-pants thing again, where its light, eminently biddable chassis chimes in to cash every cheque its looks and powertrain write.
It doesn't take long to start savouring the predictable, well-sorted cornering feel of the BRZ. Using heavily braced low-slung MacPherson struts up front and STi Impreza-inspired double wishbones at the rear this rear-driven Subaru allows a subtle transfer of weight from the front to rear wheels during the cornering process when pressing on.
The car's steering is quick and accurate and offers a lucid conduit for information streaming from the road surface to the driver's hands. There are few if any affordable cars that allow such quick and accurate reactions from its user: If the tail feels a little ragged, you'll correct it without over-compensating. It'll come back into line and that's it.
That solid confidence is reinforced by the car's remarkably low centre of gravity. It's evident from the first time you turn the car, and Subaru says it's the lowest of any production car, at just 46 centimetres.
On the car's standard 17-inch rims, I found the ride was firm, but not raw-boned in any way. It does not crash and thump over bumps, but road noise is harsh when traversing coarse chip surfaces.
Another key to the BRZ's chassis strengths is that the horsepower story is not an overwhelming one, which is quite right as Mazda found out with its own sports car. No MX-5 owner wanted or wished for more power, but Mazda couldn't resist doing a turbocharged version of the final series two MX-5 and simply ruined it. It was quicker, but it lost that delicious throttle adjustability its fans appreciated and Mazda has said more than once that it was an embarrassing mistake.
If ever Subaru decides to turbocharge the BRZ/GT86 they have a lot of knowledge to tap into, but I fear too much power could corrupt this nigh perfectly-balanced car.
As it stands, the BRZ's 147kW/205Nm flat four is no slug and with so little weight (1216 to 1230kg) to drag about, the arbitrary 100kmh number can be clocked in the mid to late seven-second bracket with the six-speed manual, with an extra half second needed if you opt for the automatic.
If you keep the engine on the boil, the car will scythe through apexes and set itself up for a sprint from one corner to the next with surprising alacrity. It's a good idea to keep the engine over 4000rpm to allow it to give of its best, and that's the point after which the engine starts to make all the right noises with a very satisfactory Alfa-Sud-like rasp. Under such revs, it sounds really rather ordinary, truth be known.
With the paddle-shift override on the automatic, a "Sport" setting allows the transmission to sharpen and delay its upshifts, while when coming down off the power and downshifting, it's absolutely brilliant at matching the selected in-coming ratio with the right revolutions, emitting a pleasing "blip" of the throttle at the same time.
While purists will prefer the manual car, commuters and those who like the tactility of a well-balanced car on the road will see the automatic as a welcome option.
The BRZ starts at $48,990 in New Zealand, asking another thousand for the automatic.
It does cost a little more than the base version of its more common Toyota sibling, but there's more equipment and better-looking wheels for a start.
The BRZ's specification includes a VDC/VSC system with electronic traction and stability control, ABS brakes and with electronic brake distribution and brake assist. It also gets bi-xenon headlights; seven airbags; and meets the NCAP five-star crash testing rating.
Inside, alloy pedals, leather-covered steering wheel rim, gear lever and handbrake lever add a bit of tactility while there's a six-speaker stereo with iPod and Bluetooth compatibility; dual zone air conditioning; remote central locking with engine immobiliser and smart key; cruise control; height and reach adjustable steering; push button start and sports front seats with leather and Alcantara upholstery.
Add in daytime running lights; front and rear fog lights, a subtly designed rear diffuser and twin exhausts plus a three-year unlimited kilometre warranty and it's a pretty compelling package.
For those wishing to be more individual about their BRZ, the company's STi tuning and parts division offers a lot of ways to personalise the car.
But be careful, a set of alloys can add almost $4500, while a sat-nav system with a parking camera costs another $4000. We'd advise some practical changes rather than overt styling beef-ups.
Not only is the car quite a neat looker anyway, it's what it does that counts.
Subaru is only importing limited numbers again this year and while you might see one of two Toyota GT86s, which are just as desirable and delightful to drive, it's the BRZ that's the daddy, that's plain.
AT A GLANCE
Drivetrain: Front in-line mounted RWD DOHC direct injected 1998cc 16-valve flat-four, with a six-speed manual or paddle-shift automatic.
Outputs: Max 147kW at 7000rpm, 205Nm at 6600rpm, 226-210kmh (MT/AT), 0-100kmh 7.6 to 8.2 seconds, 7.8-7.1L/100km, 181-164g/km CO 2.
Chassis: Front MacPherson struts; rear double wishbones; electric rack and pinion power steering; 17x7 alloy rims; 215/45R17 tyres.
Safety: Vented disc brakes; ABS, VDC/VSC system with electronic traction and stability control, LSD; seven airbags; 5-star ANCAP rating.
Dimensions: L 4240mm, H 1245mm, W 1775mm, W/base 2570mm, F/track 1520mm, R/track 1540mm, Fuel 50L; Weight 1216-1230kg (MT/AT).
Pricing: BRZ six-speed manual $48,990, BRZ six-speed paddle-shift automatic.
Hot: Elegantly sufficient engine; supreme chassis balance; neat restrained looks; great driving position; surprisingly practical layout.
Not: Everyone knows what it is and wants to tell you about it; tight rear seat; engine note neither here or there; more expensive than 86.
Verdict: Rarity factor will make it more desirable than the 86. A terrifically well-sorted Japanese car, the best since the MX-5 nearly 25 years ago.
- © Fairfax NZ News