2017 Subaru BRZ Review - Better, Not Best
2017 Subaru BRZ
Back in May of this year, TTAC reported the list of changes coming for the 2017 Subaru BRZ and asked if what amounted to a rather modest workover would get consumers excited enough to reverse the sports coupe’s declining sales trend.
Having spent a week acting barely responsible in Subaru’s only two-wheel-drive offering, my belief is no, the BRZ will not buck the trend. After commuting in it, doing school pick up duty and grocery runs — all in a most irresponsible way, revving the little four-cylinder boxer engine to redline again and again — I expect there will be a blip on the sales radar this year. Sadly, I also expect the BRZ (and its Toyota 86 twin) to slowly slip into automotive obscurity.
This terribly depressing thought has mostly to do with declining overall consumer interest in fun, driver-oriented cars, and it does nothing to celebrate what a wildly fun machine this is.
Full disclosure: I specifically requested to review the BRZ because it was at the top of my next-car shopping list. Small, sporty, RWD machines with proper manual transmissions are becoming rarer than un-crashed Mustangs at Cars and Coffee events, so this thing holds tremendous appeal.
The BRZ is a good looking car — low, sleek — and even after years of familiarity, I still find they catch my eye on the open road. The visual updates for 2017 are nominal, including a reworked front fascia and LED lights, plus a new aluminum spoiler. If you liked the look before, you’re likely pleased with the updates. If not, well, this new one probably won’t do it for you either.
Inside, the changes are equally ostensible. The infotainment system — a version of Subaru’s StarLink set up — is a bit of an improvement over last year’s system, though this one still features a dull, low-res, 6.1-inch touchscreen and map graphics that look a generation or two out of date. Operation is straightforward enough and credit to Subaru for including the navigation as standard fare on even the cheapest-trim BRZ.
My Canadian Sport-Tech trim car (Limited trim in the US) also offered heated seats, dual-zone climate control, push-button start and new for 2017, a 4.2-inch multi-function display nestled into the right-most circle of the primary gauge pod. That display can be dialed in to show oil and coolant temperatures, voltage, trip computer info, a g-meter or a lap timer — all of which are controlled by the buttons that have newly mushroomed out of the BRZ’s steering wheel.
The seats were – and remain – comfortable and fairly supportive, even for aggressive driving (though they’re not as ideally suited for track duties as say, the Recaros found in a Fiesta ST). There are some areas of hard and cheap plastics throughout the interior, but this is an affordable car, and the overall design is both functional and stylish.
A large part of the appeal of this car for me — as opposed to, oh, say that other tiny two-door, RWD sportster from Mazda — is Subaru’s attempt at back seat accommodations. When I last reviewed a Scion FR-S, my then-five-year old son was diminutive enough to fit without too much trouble. Now nearly seven, he continues to grow, and on a few occasions he found his little feet getting squashed when the front passenger seat was pushed back to a position suitable to contain a human. Any semblance of practicality I’d held kinda flew out the window at this point.
That rear seat does fold down as a single unit, opening up the 6.9 cubic foot cargo space to accommodate a full set of track wheels and tires, which the BRZ still desperately needs. As before, the tires Subaru thinks are suitable for a sports car are the same ones found on the top-trim Toyota Prius. They howl and protest at the hard work of speedy cornering, and give up their grip on asphalt quicker than a car with such a good suspension has any right doing.
The argument for these tires is, of course, they allow drivers to break the back end loose into amusing drifts with relatively little effort, despite the engine’s meagre output. And indeed it’s easy to control those drifts thanks to Subaru’s efforts to take what was already one of the best-handling sports cars out there and improve upon it.
Spring rates have been tweaked (softened, in fact, in the rear), but the rear anti-roll bar is stiffer and the dampers improved, adding to a livelier handling machine than before that also rides slightly better. The stability-control system has a new “Track” setting allowing for a little more playfulness, and the Torsen limited-slip differential is still part of the package. These changes conspire to create a car with tremendous track potential, were it not for those tires (which, of course, can be easily replaced).
The BRZ has suffered plenty of internet abuse and been dismissed by many potential buyers for the feeble punch of its 2.0-litre four-cylinder Boxer engine. I’ll admit, during the first few stoplights and on ramps, I concluded pretty quickly that I didn’t think I could live with a car with such wheezy mid-range power. I’ve been drinking from the fountain of turbos for the past few years and have grown to like them and their corruptive power.
Still, it should be stated Subaru has made some updates to the engine, bumping the power for six-speed manual models up to 205 horsepower from 200. Torque is also up 5 to 156 lb-ft – still lower than a Honda Civic. Not a new sporty Civic Type-R, or even the upcoming Si, mind you, but the same Civic you see everywhere driven by everyone that weighs only about 100-pounds more than the BRZ.
The little Subie isn’t actually slow; it’s just that it’s not quick by modern standards. I get that this is a car all about balance and too much power would completely change its personality, but even a reasonable 250 hp — or, better yet, more torque — would make the already-great BRZ absolutely amazing. Subaru claims there’s simply not enough room under the BRZ’s hood for the extra plumbing required for forced induction. That’s a shame since WRX power would be just answer, especially with its crisp-shifting, short-throw, six-speed manual transmission.
Curiously, Subaru has reportedly beefed up the block and differential, despite its mediocre 5-point increase in torque and horsepower. It appears, however, that this has more to do with preserving longevity for those hell-bent on modifying their cars rather than a sign of a future STI variant.
A new turbo Mustang or Camaro solves the BRZ’s power deficit, but both of the pony cars – as accomplished performers as they’ve become – still feel large and ponderous compared to the tidy and frenetic BRZ. This is why it’s such a shame that Subaru seems to have only gone part way in making their little coupe as great as it can be; a change that might’ve earned the BRZ more internet respect and honor it deserves.
There’s no question the BRZ is one of the most fun new cars available today. Few machines offer such a raw and visceral driving experience these days without being complete track machines or extremely expensive toys. The BRZ demands its drivers to learn to really drive, especially on the track. It’s ridiculously engaging and raw in a way that so few contemporary cars are.
Subaru will continue to sell some BRZs, but since it’s just a little too impractical and a little short on the performance, they won’t be selling one to me.
[Images: © 2016 Jeff Wilson]
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