Can refined Subaru BRZ still deliver driving thrills?
The press release title was innocuous enough: ‘Subaru tweaks BRZ for 2015’.
While this usually means there’s a new option on the colour palette or a different stitch to the steering wheel, in the case of the 2015 Subaru BRZ it was the phrase ‘revised suspension dampers’ that piqued Trailing Throttle’s interest.
Said to deliver ‘smoother motion’ with ‘optimum contact’ for uneven road surfaces, the updated 2015 BRZ was something we just had to sample.
First, a quick flashback to the last BRZ I drove. To ‘S’ specification, it was adorned with spoilers and splitters from the STi parts bin, its lowered ride height and added stiffness (thanks to a modified strut brace and shorter, firmer springs) making for a jarring on-road experience, the aim of the game not to scrape that splitter.
Thankfully, the six-speed manual 2015 Subaru BRZ we have before us is bodily unadorned. Coupled with the damper changes, it’s an instantly more promising prospect on our undulating roads.
In addition to the revised damping the Subaru BRZ also gains a shark fin antenna, carbon-fibre style interior trim to lift the interior, an enhanced smart key that enables keyless entry and start, a frameless rear-view mirror and silver adornments to the instrument panel.
Unchanged is the 12.5:1 compression, direct-injected 2.0-litre ‘boxer’ four-cylinder engine, its 147kW at 7000rpm and 205Nm at 6600rpm sharply responding to the throttle via a six-speed manual transmission as it sends drive to the rear wheels via a mechanical Torsen limited-slip differential. Also static is the price, at $37,150 driveaway, Australia-wide.
As ever, narrow 17-inch alloy wheels are adorned with 215/45/17 Michelin Primacy economy-biased tyres – all the better to slide with, apparently, though the first thing any serious BRZ owner changes is the rubber – while braking is taken care of via 295mm rotors clamped by twin-piston calipers up-front, with 290mm discs and single-piston calipers under the rear.
The Subaru BRZ / Toyota 86 twins have always reminded me of the mid-1990s Porsche 944/968, being driver focused, small, light (the BRZ is 1256kg), rear-drive and four-cylinder. A quick look at the classifieds suggests a used example of Stuttgart’s small sports car could be had for a similar price to a new BRZ, but that’s a story for another day…
Slipping low into the cabin, the BRZ’s relatively upright dash architecture immediately strikes a contrast to the contoured, cosseting seats. The steering wheel itself is nicely-sized, set low and offering decent forward vision, while the small 2015 BRZ updates such as the upgraded keyless entry and go functionality are welcomed. Even the carbon fibre-style trim lifts the cabin.
Poking around, however, it’s apparent that the cabin fit and finish could be better, the harsh plastics flimsy to touch, especially when pressing the boot release.
To the left, wrist falls to gearshift naturally, the gate instantly feeling meaty, while the all-important VSC Sport and ESC buttons sit just below the gearshift surround.
Firing the BRZ’s flat-four reveals an immediately gruff idle, lacking the throb of Subaru’s famed STi-tuned turbo-fours of the 1990s in favour of a near air-cooled dryness, though without the charisma of a Porsche flat-six. It’s also razor-sharp to each touch of the chrome-look throttle pedal, rising in revs and decibels through the twin exhaust system.
Moving off smoothly takes some practice, the relatively weighty clutch and notchy gearshift at odds with the instant keenness of the boxer engine.
A lot may have been said about the Subaru BRZ’s attributes over the last couple of years, but it’s in the steering that most confidence is generated. Despite being electrically-assisted (gasp), this system proves that feel, feedback and immediacy need not be separate from electrics. The BRZ’s helm is well-weighted, consistent and confidence-inspiring.
The steering works in conjunction with the uprated damping to deliver an enjoyable experience over a wider variety of surfaces than before, Subaru coming good on its promise for optimised contact on low-quality surfaces. Indeed, through a sweeping, bumped-up fourth-gear left sweeper, the body control impresses, returning the Michelins to the surface without any detectable bump steer. The latest BRZ also rides more smoothly on quietly smooth highway commutes, though there is still a high level of tyre roar and engine noise intrusion the moment throttle is applied; but the latter induction-growl-followed-by-hardening-boxer sound is part of the BRZ game, surely?
On smoother surfaces the BRZ responds with less composure than previous experience. Whether that is a good thing or not is subjective, but in approaching the cornering grip limit the latest car reacts more loosely through fast sweepers when throttle pressure is adjusted. It’s interactive fun, no doubt, but may be little disconcerting for some who favour the grip and go method of most modern hot hatches.
Approaching a slow, second-gear right-hand hairpin reveals the brakes leave a little to be desired, with an initially wooden feel not improving with heat or added pedal pressure. The BRZ needs a fair squeeze to generate solid, if unspectacular, braking g-force. After a double-action downchange (there’s a distinct pause through neutral into the lower gear), the relatively low tyre grip levels can be exploited into oversteer, though it is quickly quelled on-road thanks to a relative lack of torque and the quick-acting Torsen LSD.
Beyond the brakes, about the only area where the Subaru BRZ lags behind the aforementioned (pesky) hatches is in engine performance. Sure, it likes a rev, and the last 1500rpm to the 7500rpm red-line are relatively brisk, but once the immediacy of response has worn away there’s a flatness to the boxer’s low- and mid-range that is at odds with the noise it generates. A turbo may dull its keen-ness, but a supercharger would deliver the best of both worlds.
If you look at the price and performance of the Subaru BRZ on paper, you may quickly conclude that there are grippier, quicker hot hatches out there (such as the Kia pro_cee’d GT), but it is in the driving experience itself that it wins points back. It’s refreshingly analogue in a digital age and, though it misses the mod-cons of sat-nav (a near-$2000 option) and a reversing camera, you will not find many cars that offer as many smiles per kilometre for the money. With the 2015 damper upgrades, that smile figure has never been higher.
|Specs||2015 Subaru BRZ|
|Price||$37,150 (national driveaway)|
|Engine||1998cc flat four-cylinder|
|Power||147kW at 7000rpm|
|Torque||205Nm at 6600rpm|
|Power to weight||8.54kg/kW|
- Superb steering
- Improved body control
- Razor-sharp response
- Intrusive road noise
- Lack of standard equipment
- Torque-light, especially low-down