Think of this as Part Two of my Scion FR-S review. The BRZ and the FR-S (Breeze and Freeze?) were designed jointly by Toyota and Subaru (mostly by Subaru, actually), and while there are slight differences in trim, suspension tuning, and price, the two cars are nearly identical -- and identically excellent. Which one you should buy -- and if you are a sports car fanatic, you really ought to buy one of them -- is down to taste.
Let's start with a question
Before I get into the ins and outs of the BRZ, I have just one question for Subaru: Why have you been holding out on us so long?
We all know that all-wheel-drive is your thing, so I didn't expect much from the BRZ. With all the millions invested in that "Beauty of All Wheel Drive" campaign, I half expected you to do a half-hearted job on purpose, just so you could prove once and for all that all-wheel-drive sports cars are better.
But you didn't do a half-hearted job. The BRZ is really good -- no, that's not right. The STI is really good. The BRZ is friggin' brilliant.
So why the hell haven't you done a car like this before? Surely you're not still mad at us for laughing at the XT? Come on, guys, that was twenty years ago. And you have to admit, it did look like a doorstop with wheels.
Whatever the reason, I'm glad you have gotten over it and given us this new BRZ. Or, perhaps I should say, I'm glad Toyota made you get over it and give us the BRZ. Toyota's side of the story is that they did the concept and design, and the two of you worked together on the engineering. Bologna -- it's obvious who did the bulk of the engineering work. I know a Subaru when I sit in a Subaru, and this is a Subaru. Even if the engine is only connected to half of the wheels.
Subaru vs. Scion
I'm going to stop writing directly to you, Subaru, and start addressing the reader, because I think I've over-used that particular literary device. So for you, the reader, who is wondering what the differences are between the Scion FR-S and the Subaru BRZ, the short answer is: Not a whole hell of a lot. It's down to equipment and trim (the BRZ is a little more posh and expensive) and suspension tuning (the BRZ is, allegedly, a little softer).
Let's talk about the drive. After running the FR-S on the track, I got to spend a few days driving the BRZ on local roads, including the About.com Top Secret Curvy Test Road. According to Subaru, the FR-S is set up for a firmer ride and an easier transition to oversteer (breaking traction at the back end), while the BRZ is set up to be a little more compliant and a little more neutral. A bit of hooning showed this to be true, but in real-world driving, the difference between the two cars is marginal. Both are are well balanced and exceptionally well behaved, both will hang out their back ends with the proper (and deliberate) steering and pedal inputs, and neither will do anything so sudden or unexpected as to cause an inadvertent soiling of the trousers.
Different Is Good
While it feels weird to drive a sporting Subaru without an insanely powerful turbocharged engine, I like the way the 200 hp Boxer four interacts with the chassis. In most rear-drive sports cars, the shadow of power-on oversteer -- a technical term for giving it too much gas, breaking the back tires loose, and sending the car flying tushy-first into the bushes -- is always present. In the BRZ you can dance on the pedals with reckless abandon and still have plenty of time to recover from any impending spins (and there's no need to worry about recovery at all if you leave the electronic stability control system in Sport mode). The BRZ is neutral and docile -- a great combination. And I have to put in a plug for my test car's outstanding automatic transmission -- the BRZ is one of the few sports cars where an auto 'box doesn't spoil the fun.
Normally I'd say the stock tires should be the first thing to go on a car like this, but the Michelin Primacy HPs that come with both Scion and Subaru versions of the car are better than your average all-season touring tire, and the modest grip is all part of the fun -- as with a Mazda Miata, you can push this car to its limits at fairly moderate speeds.
After a week with the BRZ, there are a couple of areas where familiarity has bled contempt. The first is styling: I accused the FR-S of being dull and generic, but the more often I saw the BRZ parked outside my house, the more I liked it. Some credit is down to my test car's dull and generic silver paint, which really shows off the classic sports-car shape. And then there's the trunk spoiler, which comes on the top-of-the-line BRZ Limited. Normally I abhor these things, but this one adds a nice flourish to finish off the BRZ's rump. Second is the engine note. I found it course and annoying in the FR-S, but after several dozen trips to the BRZ's redline, I have declared it good -- different, perhaps, but good. And speaking of good, I averaged 26.3 MPG during test week, not too far off the EPA's estimated 25 MPG city/34 MPG highway.
So which one should you buy?
So we've established that you should definitely buy an FR-S or a BRZ. (And I mean everyone. Yes, Mom, even you.) So which do you get?
With the cars so close in trim and temperament, it largely comes down to equipment. The Scion FR-S remains the cheapest; the BRZ Premium (funny name for an entry-level model, don't you think?) starts at $26,265, which is $1,335 more than the Scion. For that, you get all the same equipment as the FR-S plus high-intensity discharge headlights with fancy light piping and navigation. Keep in mind that Subaru dealers allow haggling while Scion doesn't (although I doubt anyone will be cutting deals on the BRZ, at least for the first few months of sales). Subaru also offers a Limited model for two grand more; it gets leather and Alcantara trimmed seats, dual-zone climate control (with smooth electronic dials rather than the cable-operated crap in the FR-S and BRZ Premium), push-button ignition, and the aforementioned trunk spoiler. As with the FR-S, the only option for either model is the $1,100 automatic transmission. Unless you want the extra features of the Limited -- and with the car priced this cheap, I probably would -- which one you buy may well come down to whether you like the black dashboard trim in the FR-S or the silver stuff in the BRZ. (That said, the purist in me yearns for the FR-S' more tail-happy suspension setup, even if the difference in day-to-day driving is nearly negligible.)
There's one other obvious question we must ask: Is Subaru still holding out on us? Is there an all-wheel-drive turbocharged version in the BRZ's future? Subaru is staying mum on the turbo issue, but it would seem to be a distinct possibility. All-wheel-drive, however, isn't -- Subaru says the way the engine is mounted in the BRZ means that an AWD system will not fit.
Well, I can live with that. We've been seeing a rear-wheel-drive resurgence over the last decade, but few cars have taken advantage of the format the way the Subaru BRZ has. Other car owners can brag about having a proper rear-drive sports car, but BRZ owners (and FR-S owners) can put it to good use.
Bottom line: The BRZ is terrific -- it's a classic sports car designed for people who like to drive rather than people who equate performance with tire smoke. It's also the last car I expected to see in a market where 40 MPG is the new black.
Thanks, Subaru. I'm glad we're back in your good graces. -- Aaron Gold
What I liked about the Subaru BRZ:
- Terrific balanced feel -- a true sports car
- Reasonable pricing
- Automatic transmission doesn't spoil the fun
What I didn't like about the Subaru BRZ:
- Back seat is useless, trunk is nearly so
- Scion FR-S is less expensive
- BRZ is Subaru's version of the rear-drive sports car developed by Toyota and Subaru
- Price range: $26,265 - $29,365
- Powertrain: 2.0 liter horizontally-opposed four/200 hp, 6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic, rear-wheel-drive
- EPA fuel economy estimates: 22 MPG city/30 MPG highway (manual), 25/34 (automatic)
- Best rivals: Scion FR-S, Hyundai Genesis Coupe, Volkswagen GTI
Disclosure: The vehicle for this test drive was provided by Subaru. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.