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Subaru BRZ (2014) long-term test review

Published: 05 August 2014

Month 11 running a Subaru BRZ: the end of CAR's BRZ long-term test review

After four months in my care, our long-term-test Subaru BRZ has gone back. The greatest compliment I can pay it is that it did exactly what Toyota and Subaru intended it to: namely to remind us of Toyota’s cultish AE86 coupe, usually known as the Hachi-Roku, or 86 in Japanese.

I say ‘remind’, but that car was made in the mid-’80s, before my driving career even started. For buyers in their late 20s it’s ancient history. But I recently drove a rare unmodified one, and it shares the same sweet balance of not too much power and not too much grip with the BRZ and the Toyota GT86. Younger buyers entirely raised on over-tyred front-drive hatches will find this car a revelation.

The modern cars also share a ‘need to be thrashed to be fun’ with their ancient forebear. After four months the appeal of doing that wasn’t wearing off, even if the high road noise and slightly tinny construction were starting to wear a little thin. While the outright pace of the 2.0-litre boxer engine wouldn’t threaten your licence much, you do risk points for hooliganism.

You just want to reach for that traction-control button every time you start it, and enliven every dull trip with little drifts. Perhaps my least appropriate was to exit a quiet junction in a gentle slide with my pregnant, morning-sick wife in the passenger seat, en route to a scan at the hospital. Bad Ben.

All this you can probably guess from our first drives: what we learned living with the BRZ is that it doesn’t wear off. And you don’t need to be in a permanent drift to enjoy it. My wife, having banished me to the passenger seat on the way back, kept it in a straight line but still pronounced it generally ‘exciting’ to drive, and certainly complained less than usual when occasionally forced to swap the quiet luxury of her Mercedes C-class wagon.

Problems? Slight tinniness and the woeful but optional aftermarket sat-nav aside, nothing major went wrong. Seat comfort was just okay on long trips, but the cabin was thoughtfully laid out with decent stowage, and the rear seats easily handled a rear-facing ISOFIX child seat (‘it’s an ideal family car, dear’).

Economy fell predictably short of the official figure at 30.7mpg, and while this and the range were acceptable for a car of this type, customers swapping in from a different kind of car (and there isn’t much else like this) might be slightly taken aback by having to fill up often well short of 300 miles. Our logbook for nearly 9000 miles and 11 months in total on our fleet shows 43 fill-ups. The fuel cost might be tolerable and predictable, but the time spent on forecourts might get to be a pain.

But did our time with the car help to answer the big Toyota-Subaru dilemma (or Scion, if you’re in the US)? I think so. I’m glad we had the Subaru. The GT86 is helping to warm up the Toyota brand, as Akio Toyoda intended, but Subaru still has a loyal enthusiast following, recent road and rally car form, and distinctive engineering (that flat-four).

I’d rather be part of that heritage than part of Akio’s marketing campaign, and I’d sooner have the rarer badge, and the badge of the firm that actually engineered the car. I’m no arbiter of cool, but I think the Subaru is the cooler option, and I certainly felt warmer towards this car than I would towards a Toyota.

By Ben Oliver


Month 10 running a Subaru BRZ: the racing spec

No, I haven’t decided to race my Subaru BRZ. And anyway, this isn’t a Subaru. It’s a Scion FR-S, the marque and name under which the BRZ/GT86 is sold by Toyota in the US and Canada. But not all Scion versions run that wing: this is the car that Ken Gushi runs in the American Formula Drift series. I spotted it on the Scion stand at the Detroit motor show and it reminded me of two things.

Firstly, that I hate that awkward, angular, apologetic wing on my car, and second that the BRZ/GT86/FR-S is one of the few cars to have the honour of being sold under three badges at once. The Toyota Aygo and its Peugeot and Citroën co-triplets are another example. Got any more?

But I’m glad I have the Subaru. Partly because Japan’s oddest car maker did most of the engineering, so it feels right to put its badge on the nose. But also because the gruff flat-four that gives all these cars their character is so distinctively Subaru: few other car makers have such recognisable and consistent engineering. Each time I start it, the BRZ reminds me of the Impreza Turbos that I fell in love with in the ’90s, even if it can’t match their urge.

By Ben Oliver


Month 9 running a Subaru BRZ: our BRZ takes to country roads

Story so far: city-dwelling, A1-commuting previous keeper Damion Smy was exhilarated but infuriated by our long-term Subaru BRZ, and admitted he just didn’t get the chance to drive it often enough on the roads that suit it best. I live in the middle of such roads in deepest Sussex, so the BRZ has been sent to me to see if I get on better with it.

And I do. After a few early trips to London, where I liked its nimbleness and the attention it got, I made a few long B-road trips in it. Each had another purpose (one was editor Phil’s wedding) and I wanted to see how much fun the BRZ could add to normal life.

Plenty, as it turns out. It’s an odd throwback of a car, the BRZ. It has the lightness and eagerness and need to be thrashed of my old 205 GTi 1.9, or Toyota’s cult AE86 which inspired it; the same balance of keen handling and not too much power, and a dose of those cars’ tinniness too. But unlike an ’80s classic I can trust it to start at 5am on a cold February morning when my flight leaves in 90 minutes, and that’s a pretty appealing combination of characteristics.

Others have complained about the BRZ’s lack of torque, but I find it a challenge rather than a chore to drive around. I’m less keen on the much-vaunted steering though: our car doesn’t seem to offer quite the immediacy and detail that others have praised. And economy of well under 30mpg isn’t great, but the fun just about justifies the cost and I don’t mind filling after 300 miles.

Still, I like it. It genuinely does seem to have the ability to turn every trip – on my roads, at least – into a trip back to the times we all seem to yearn for, before car design got locked in that vicious upward cycle of power and weight. But isn’t this what the Mazda MX-5 has been doing, now largely unheralded, since 1989?

By Ben Oliver


Month 8 running a Subaru BRZ: Ben Oliver's review

The previous keeper of our long-term Subaru BRZ, Damion Smy, liked the car but didn’t love it. His view might have been coloured by the fact that he commutes to CAR’s office in Peterborough from one of London’s more fashionable districts, and commuting and city driving are not what the BRZ excels at. His view was definitely coloured by the optional Pioneer sat-nav and audio system, which he hated.

So the car has been sent to me for its final few months in our care. I live in rural Sussex, amidst the roads the BRZ really does excel on, and my commute is the ten metres from the kitchen door to The Manhut. My driving is done a little more by choice and for pleasure.

I’m enjoying the BRZ, but this is despite the car having spent much of its time in my care in London, where I’ve found it incredibly wieldy in traffic, and gratifyingly popular with passers-by, lots of whom stop to ask about it. But I have to agree with Damo about the nav, which is comfortably the worst such unit I have ever encountered in a car. Fortunately, it’s an option: stick with the standard audio, buy an excellent TomTom and you’ll be far better off. I won’t mention it again, and more on life in the country next time.

By Ben Oliver


Month 7 running a Subaru BRZ: nasty cabin plastics and a terrible sat-nav

Ben Oliver was on a mission. Clearly, this man wanted the BRZ like no-one else. It was like an alcoholic and the end of dry July. Did I care? No. Well, okay, a little. But circumstances had conspired to prevent me spending enough time in the BRZ for a few weeks, so it was in need of some big love. Ben needed no persuasion. But he did need advice. First up, as an out-of-the-blue addendum at the end of an email: ‘God that sat-nav in the Scoob is terrible’. This vindicated my constant whining, which had become so incessant I was starting to wonder if I was being too hard on the BRZ.

Then, on a Saturday afternoon, a text: ‘Is there any special trick to getting that nav unit to play iPhone music? Head unit recognises iPhone and gives full control – just no volume!’

The dashboard of the Subaru BRZ. The Japanese Institute of Plastickiness approved

It took me back to why the BRZ has failed to convince. As a driver’s car, it’s near without peer for the cash, and the only change we’d made was a set of Dunlop SP Sport Maxx boots after Ben Barry melted the standard Michelins on the track. Still, I’d have a BMW M135i if I had £30k, but for the BRZ’s £27k price – which would be a few grand cheaper with a lower-spec model than our SE – you won’t find a more satisfying drive (well, not from a new car, anyway).

It’s just the rest of this picture that’s not quite right: the nasty cabin, the lack of straight-line poke and the high fuel consumption in spite of it. One last email from Ben after I’d explained that you have to plug in two cables to get the iPod happening. ‘Mate, thanks for the tip on the cable – I hadn’t actually seen them! But still, why two connections? What a piece of sh*t that nav is – inexcusable. At least it’s an option.’

By Damion Smy


Month 6 running a Subaru BRZ: a split personality

The BRZ reminds me of my nephew. I don’t have kids, so the entertainment provided by a seven-year-old who is discovering the world with unrivalled energy is a pure joy. Ultimately, it’s great to give him back to his parents and let them deal with his demands for ice-cream, chocolate and constant need to be the centre of attention. And that’s the BRZ in a nutshell. Truth be told, it hasn’t been driven as often as it should, which isn’t that surprising with F-types, Porsches and the like parked next to it. Yet a quick trip to the shops at lunch – a ten-mile drive – proves utter joy. As soon as you get into the BRZ it tickles you with its driving position and firm, solid steering wheel, pedals and gear lever, all of which serve as openers to the main event of supreme handling and thrashability. You have to drive it hard, or it’s a bore.

The character is two-fold. As a daily driver it’s impractical, rough around town, and thirsty yet not responsive enough in traffic – you could be in any Japanese econo-box. For a 20-minute blast? It’s almost untouchable. Drive a supercar and you’re scared of being locked up or taking out low-flying aircraft. Yet the BRZ is utterly accessible, usable and won’t have you gasping for air: it lays on the compliments to you as a driver without demanding courage.

To drive every day though, when you can’t always drive it hard, you just want something else. I’ve had enough entertainment; now it’s time for some grown-up conversation.

By Damion Smy 


Month five running a Subaru BRZ: It wasn't built for this...

The BRZ isn’t designed for my motorway drive home – nor is it designed to swallow flat-packed Swedish furniture. I realised both these things on the same evening, albeit as I wheeled a trolley loaded with a coffee table, dining table and side table towards the car. It reminded me of the time I went grocery shopping in a Caterham…

Yet the BRZ didn’t fold: while the taillights eat into the rear opening, the widening top allowed me to angle the largest of the trio – the dining table –through the gap and into the boot. With the biggest in, all three items fitted snugly on the top of the rear seats, which fold perfectly flat. They were also jammed in – which means that, to curtail any chance of boredom, I could take the long way home.

The Subaru BRZ in flat-out cornering mode

To its credit (or perhaps it’s a reflection of the flimsiness of the furniture) the Subaru still sat flat on its firm suspension, with the same posed stance. It didn’t feel any different to drive, either, a credit to its incredible balance and handling.

I’ve whined about the nav and the cabin enough, to the point that I use my phone’s maps instead and regard the interior as a workstation rather than the window into a true sports car’s soul – a sports car than can cope with cheap furniture and still thrill you on the way home.

By Damion Smy


Month four running a Subaru BRZ: why Subaru should build a BRZ STi now

Subaru fans are a-buzz at the moment with news of a potential BRZ STi. The concept car first reared its head in 2011, but it just won’t go away, and that’s great to hear – because I’d love a BRZ with more poke. It’d give Subaru a chance to steal some of the limelight back from Toyota, which seems to have benefitted most from the cut-price coupe that the pair co-developed.

The BRZ came up in an interview recently with a rival car maker. The exec in question was talking up his brand’s performance cars, with 0-62 times in the low 5.0sec bracket. ‘Some cars’, this particular chap said, ‘are claiming to be sportscars but do the same in mid 7.0sec.’ ‘Hang on,’ I hit back, ‘a performance car is about much more that its numbers.’ Take the BMW M3, which has less power than its key rivals yet wins all the tests. And tell me that for a winding road you’d pass up the Porsche Cayman S, which has less power than the A45 AMG that we had on our Sports Car Giant Test, and take the all-paw Merc hatch instead. The BRZ doesn’t serve up a tasty set of numbers, but you can’t deny its corner-carving ability.

Yet an STi version of the BRZ would be even better. The BRZ isn’t what I’d call slow, it’s just not that fast. Now as I’ve said, this doesn’t dilute the utter joy and punting the silver coupe down a winding road – but it would on the motorway and in traffic. You see, the lack of torque makes small gaps hard work for the BRZ: it needs a large dose of revs to get moving off the mark, and it’s even more sluggish on the motorway. You’ll need several downchanges to make use of every one of the 197 horses. It also means that I’d spend less time in traffic, becoming more aware that I am in one of my least favourite cabins.

The frame around the horrible excuse for an infotainment system no longer sits square, and while the sat-nav went AWOL for a while, it came back – only to disappear again. I did have the sense (on a Sunday morning of course) to search for a dealer, but alas, its staff was out enjoying the weekend while I was uttering words like ‘unacceptable’ and John McEnroe-esque ‘You cannot be serious!’ to my girlfriend. I still don’t know what the nav’s problem is, but I know it shouldn’t be this difficult. Meantime, I’ll keep relying on my phone for directions.

The biggest, single niggling irritation is the microphone that sits in front of the instrument cluster: who on earth passed that? The microphone’s square base is tacked onto a lop-sided square of double-sided tape like it was 5pm on a Friday afternoon and the nearest ATM was paying out freely. It looks like a dodgy aftermarket job – yet it’s on a brand new car.

This is where I’d love an STi version: that cabin could be stripped out for the meanest Subaru since the Impreza 22B. Less weight, more shove, or more shove and more padding, either way works for me.

So a call to those at STi: let’s build this thing and bring back the legend built by legends like Colin McRae. Forget that TRD GT-86 – who wants to spend £6.5k on cosmetics and a set of stickier tyres? – let’s build a proper BRZ, not the ‘blank canvas’ touted in marketing garb, but the full picture of what this brilliant chassis is capable of. Just make sure it all lines up…

By Damion Smy

CAR magazine's Subaru BRZ long-term test car

Month three running a Subaru BRZ: the Scooby shows up flaws in a Porsche 996 Turbo, but infotainment grates

Our Porsche 911 50th Anniversary celebrations showed just how good the BRZ is. How? Well, I was given the task of collecting the 996 Turbo on my way home, trading it for the BRZ. You’d think the 911 would make the BRZ feel soft, wouldn’t you? Not so. The Porsche, carrying the baggage of 110,000 miles, felt doughy, the steering light, and the throttle flimsy after the firm Subaru. I loved driving the 911, but am just as satisfied having the BRZ in my drive – both have cred with the right people, only the Porsche has some with the wrong kind…

Yet it’s not all praise for the Subaru. The ‘infotainment’ system is the worst I’ve experienced in a new car. Its layout is horrible and unintuitive: changing stations is a chore, and the iPod connectivity requires two cables, one of which easily falls out, while the sound is as 1980s as the centre screen looks. The nav’s horrendous, warning to turn in ‘two-tenths of a mile’ and now has switched itself off with no explanation. Without a smartphone, the BRZ would be lost somewhere, having run out fuel, its other great vice. So while getting lost on winding back roads still brings a smile to my face, I’m beginning to wonder: is the BRZ a one-trick pony? I’m still waiting to see its second act.

By Damion Smy 


Month two running a Subaru BRZ: on track expolits vs the Ford Focus ST

I should have seen it coming. Two hours into our Rockingham trackday and Mark ‘I really hate the Focus ST’ Walton and I both end up in the paddock at the exact same time. These little coincidences happen, of course, but Mark was right there, hanging about like those blokes you see on CCTV striding backwards and forwards past the bike rack in a slightly agitated manner.

‘Hey Ben,’ he says. ‘Fancy a go in the Focus ST? You should have a go. See what you think. It’s er… Here are the keys. I’ll take these keys…’

It was like that trick where you give the cashier £20 for a 50p chocolate bar, take the change, then tell them you’ve found 50p after all and ask for the £20 back. Before I’d figured out what was going on, a distant squealing of tyres alerted me to a tiny, Subaru-BRZ-shaped blob at the very back of the circuit.

But I had a Focus ST in front of me and at least three laps’ worth of fuel – Rockingham’s International Super Sportscar Circuit is 1.94 miles long – so out I went. What. A. Mess. The brake pedal was instantly on the floor with almost no impact on my forward momentum. And the ST either oversteered easily when you backed off on corner entry (good fun), or understeered wildly when you got back on the throttle on the way back out (not fun). Now, we’ve used this ST at Anglesey and at Rockingham before, and both times it felt significantly less sorted and less intuitive on track than the Toyota GT86 or Subaru BRZ twins. But this was a new low. It felt broken.

So I came in and watched Mark. And watched. Eventually he returned, and I immediately took the BRZ straight back out. Despite its pounding, it still felt pretty fresh, staying flat through corners, steering beautifully, and constantly itching to oversteer, something that – when scratched – earned me two black flags in quick succession, a personal best.

To me, though, the BRZ feels like a starting point. I want stickier, more precise tyres, I want a more controlled, more mechanical feeling from the rear diff and I want better brakes. Do that and I’d be very happy. Increase the power and stiffen the suspension and you’d have a proper weapon on your hands – and a proper effort to get Walton off your case.

By Ben Barry


Month one running a Subaru BRZ: we welcome the long-awaited rear-drive Scooby to CAR

Tell me if you think that my first drive of the BRZ isn’t fair – honestly. I’ve subjected the Silver Sube to the toughest, most hospitable environment, one that is as far from the engineers’ minds as chastity is from a lead singer – the British motorway. Yep, 70-odd miles of coarse, near-straight blacktop with long sweepers teasing the BRZ’s brilliant steering into thinking that it might – just might – have an opportunity to impress me with a ferocious front-end bite on turn in.

Turns out that my entire 81-mile commute (that’s each way) is more than enough to reacquaint myself with the BRZ. The last time I drove one was at the Millbrook proving ground last year. Since then, Subaru seems to have lost out in the brand/image perception wars, with the BRZ’s close cousin, the Toyota GT86, taking all the glory for the hard work done by Subaru.

If it proves anything it’s that the prowess of Subaru – as evinced by oddities like the ’80s Vortex and its ’90s follow-up, the SVX – is still chiefly engineering based. The BRZ is no luxo coupe but its tough looks have plenty of appeal. I love its pumped haunches and the silhouette it creates in the supermarket car park as I walk back to it at night. I seem to be stopping off for Bonox* more frequently these days (‘Yes darling, we’ve run out again – I’ll have to pop to Tesco’).

Our BRZ is the SE Lux model, which gives you a limited-slip diff, keyless entry, heated Alcantara and leather seats as well as an upgraded audio system with USB port. There are only two options available with this car: sat-nav (£1000) and metallic paint (£500) and we’ve said yes to both. This brings the base price of £26,495 up to £27,995 on the road.

Beyond the bullish stance and eye-catching looks there’s a few too many clues that this isn’t an expensive car. Doors close with a slightly tinny feel and while I love the red stitching on the seats, handbrake lever, gear knob and perfectly-sized steering wheel, the dash finish looks cheap. The Pioneer-branded head unit looks as aftermarket as the decorative silver panels above the glovebox. One passenger mistook it for the glovebox itself and found them worryingly easy to remove.

The BRZ, though, is all about balance. There are actually a few roundabouts connecting the motorways on my journey and that’s all it takes to show the car’s brilliant turn-in, superbly weighted steering and ability to power up and cover ground rather quickly. I’d love more low-down torque, especially in traffic, to avoid the black cabs which seem to randomly fall out of the sky in front of you in London, but the sound of the 2.0-litre boxer engine is hard-working and strong. It’s hardly the menacing bark of a WRX – so I can’t channel Colin McRae’s ’95 WRC-winning Impreza – but it’s a refreshing sound in a world becoming dominated by down-sized turbo fours. It’s atmo all the way, here.

The BRZ is balanced in terms of power and handling, price and spec, but can it be both a chuckable, weekend party animal yet also provide the calm and comfort required for a weekly nine-to-five? Is it great on the Nürburgring but not the M25? Our research is ongoing with the latter, so now we need to head to the ’Ring. But that’s for another time…

*That’s Aussie Bovril, for you non-Antipodeans

By Damion Smy

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