Ed Hellwig, Executive Editor
It's cold, gray and damp at Subaru's proving grounds about an hour north of Tokyo. Perfect weather for wringing out an all-wheel-drive WRX maybe, but today we're behind the wheel of the new 2013 Subaru BRZ Coupe. Lighter, less powerful and rear-wheel drive, the BRZ promises something very different from Subaru's bigger and heavier Impreza-based sedans.
As on most test tracks, there are various rules we were asked to follow. No more than 100 mph on the oval, no more than a few laps on the infield handling course, the usual preservationist restrictions. It's not surprising given there are only two U.S.-spec cars on hand, one a six-speed manual, the other a six-speed automatic, and there are no spares around if someone detours into the weeds.
We try not to think about that as we accelerate onto the straightaway with the gas pedal pinned to the floor. Sure, there are rules, but we've been waiting to drive this car for a couple years now and we're not about to leave until we see if the 2013 Subaru BRZ lives up to the hype.
Yep, It'll Spin the Tires
A firm yank of the shifter into 2nd gear and the BRZ lays a small stripe with a chirp. There may only be a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder under the aluminum hood, but it definitely has some kick. In fact, the all-new flat-4, or "FA" engine as Subaru calls it, can deliver nearly all of its 150 pound-feet of torque at just 2,800 rpm.
It's only a momentary burst of torque, though, as it falls off a bit before rising again at 4,800 rpm. It then peaks at 6,300 rpm and stays flat right through 7,000 rpm. That's where the 200-horsepower peak sits, too, and the redline is another 400 rpm after that.
Building speed down the straight, the engine spins smoothly but sounds gravelly. Even with a sound-induction tube plumbed into the cabin for added effect, the 2013 Subaru BRZ isn't going to win over any converts with the noises it makes.
When we snap the gearbox into 3rd there's yet another chirp from the tires. There's no doubt about it now, the BRZ gets its power to the ground very efficiently. Subaru says it uses more than 400 different variations of high-strength steel in the body of the BRZ to give it plenty of rigidity while keeping the curb weight in check. The result is a BRZ that came in under its target weight at 2,690 pounds according to Subaru. That's about 100 pounds less than a Honda Civic Si, and it feels like it, too.
Two Great Transmissions
After a few laps at varying speeds, the biggest eye-opener is the BRZ's new six-speed manual gearbox. Compared to the rubbery vagueness of the shifters in the WRX and WRX STI, the BRZ's Aisin unit feels far more precise. We have no trouble finding the gates and it moves with a mechanical feel that makes ripping gears in the BRZ more satisfying than any Subaru we've ever driven.
We swap into the automatic car for a few laps and it's shockingly good, too. It's a conventional automatic with paddle shifters and two driving modes. We leave it in Sport and watch as the tachometer swings right to redline and then shifts with an instantaneous pop. There's probably a dual-clutch setup out there that's faster, but not by much.
Under hard braking it pulls off rev-matched downshifts, too, sometimes dropping more than one gear at a time. And in manual mode it'll let you bounce off the rev limiter all day without slapping your hand by upshifting for you. Other than the plastic shift paddles, there's little room for improvement.
The Big Test
Throughout our introduction to the car, Subaru officials insisted that everything in the BRZ was geared toward making it handle well. This meant getting the engine mounted as low and as far back in the chassis as possible to drop the BRZ's center of gravity.
To get there they first designed the engine to be as shallow as possible from front to back so it could nestle up to the firewall tightly. Then they flipped the lower control arms of the MacPherson strut front suspension used in the Impreza to open up even more room down low. They also moved the electric steering box from the rack to the top of the column to get it out of the way. Even the battery was relocated to a space behind the strut towers to get its weight farther back in the chassis.
To see how it all feels, we dive down into the tight infield handling course for a few laps. After the first dozen turns or so, the most obvious handling trait is the BRZ's buttoned-down chassis. It doesn't dive under braking and barely tilts when we turn. It feels much more tightly wound than the WRX, which has plenty of give to it before it really starts to dig in.
The steering is also noticeably quick. There's instant response off center and never any sense that the electric-assist system is falling behind. With the stability control turned completely off (just hold the button for 3 seconds) the BRZ understeers just a little bit before starting to swing its tail out.
Absolute road feel is the biggest drawback here, as it's hard to get a good sense what the tires are really doing. The tires themselves are 215/45R17 Michelin Primacy HPs, which are certainly not overly big or sticky. We asked Hiroyuki Nakada, chassis engineer for the 2013 Subaru BRZ, why they didn't use more aggressive tires similar to those on the WRX. He said the BRZ's low weight means it doesn't rely on grip as much as heavier cars like the WRX, so it simply doesn't need that much rubber on the road. That said, he also mentioned that the Primacy tires deliver better mileage and comfort, so there's obviously some room for improvement here.
It's the same story with the brakes. They're not overly large and use only two-piston calipers in front and single pistons in back. On paper they're not very aggressive, but when we get into them hard from around 100 mph they bite just fine and have little trouble stopping the BRZ.
It's Easy To Overlook the Rest of the Car
With hardly enough time to get a sense of the BRZ on the track, we barely even notice the interior, mostly because it's a very straightforward setup with few options. There are two trim levels — Premium and Limited — and both get a fairly extensive list of features.
There's a standard navigation system, Bluetooth, satellite radio, HID headlights and a limited slip on all Premium models, while the Limited adds leather seats with Alcantara trim, auto climate control, seat heaters, push-button start and the all-important foglights.
Yes, there are backseats and no, they are not very comfortable. Subaru went to great lengths to open up the interior space but there just isn't much room to work with. It's a smaller car than you think, with a wheelbase of just 101 inches. The fact that there's still a trunk with 6.9 cubic feet of usable space is a pretty remarkable piece of packaging.
This 2013 Subaru BRZ is not for lightweights. Anyone who picks one up merely because it's nice-looking and gets decent mileage (estimated 30 mpg highway) will likely end up hating it. The ride is too stiff, the engine is too noisy and the tires are too loud. In other words, this is a car for true enthusiasts.
Granted, it's not terribly fast and probably won't lay down eye-popping track numbers, but it gets the basics right. A lively, predictable chassis, plenty of usable power and two different transmissions that both work exactly the way they should. Not to mention fully defeatable stability and traction control.
Subaru hasn't said exactly how much it expects enthusiasts to pay for the BRZ, but officials have hinted that it will fall closely in line with the pricing of the Impreza WRX. That means a base price of around $25,000 when the BRZ goes on sale in May of next year. Expect to see them clogging up track days all over the country by the end of the summer.
† Edmunds.com received the highest numerical score in the proprietary J.D. Power 2014 Third-Party Automotive Website Evaluation Study℠. Results based on responses from 3,381 responses, measuring 14 companies and measures third-party automotive website usefulness among new and used vehicle shoppers. Proprietary study results are based on experiences and perceptions of owners surveyed from January 2014. Your experiences may vary. Visit jdpower.com.