2013 Subaru BRZ Limited: Believe (most of) the hype

The 2013 Subaru BRZ's reputation precedes it, for better or worse. We take a spin (on the road and the track) to cut through the hype.

2013 Subaru BRZ Limited
Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Take a moment and mentally process all of the hype surrounding the launch of the 2013 Subaru BRZ. Go on, I'll wait. Now take that hype and dial it back to 80 percent. That's how good the Subaru BRZ is. It's not the second coming or the messiah for performance driving -- it's not perfect -- but it is quite good.

The B in BRZ should stand for "balanced" because that's exactly what Subaru's new rear drive coupe is. This car is all about balance with a near 50-50 weight distribution between its front and rear axles and a low center of gravity that is helped in part by its engine configuration, but is mostly due to the BRZ's purpose-built sports coupe design. This is no repurposed and hotted up econobox; it's a bona fide sports car.

It's also rather lightweight. Tipping the scales at 2,882 pounds in its heaviest BRZ Limited with six-speed automatic configuration (the heaviest setup the BRZ comes in), the BRZ is only 263 pounds heavier than a similarly equipped Mazda MX-5 Miata PRHT. Ditching the automatic gearbox in favor of one you shift yourself further closes that gap, but we'll come back to that in a moment. Even thought it is heavier, the BRZ has a slightly better power-to-weight ratio than the Mazda, only toting around 14.41 pounds per pony versus the Miata PRHT's 15.3 to 16.6 depending on configuration.

Speaking of power, the BRZ's comes from a 2.0-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine that can be tucked low and far back in the engine bay, thanks to its horizontally opposed "boxer" configuration -- which is what the B in "Boxer Rear-drive Zenith" actually stands for. We've already gone into detail about how this Subaru engine makes use of a Toyota head that supposedly combines the best bits of port and direct injection tech. And many of you have gone into detail about your thoughts that its output of "only 200 horsepower" seems a bit low. We'll come back to that bit momentarily.

Sports car meets tech car

Subaru BRZ receiver
The BRZ is a simple car, but it also packs a lot of tech thanks to its single-option navigation rig. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

On the first of my two days with the car, I was tossed the keys to a 2013 Subaru BRZ Limited with six-speed automatic on a rainy day in Monterey, Calif., so you can imagine that although I'd been looking forward to driving this car for months, I was already a bit disappointed. Additionally, the friendly Subaru representative hanging out in the passenger seat was a not-so-subtle reminder that a short cruise on wet public roads was not the time or place for switching off the traction control and getting sideways. So, I made myself content with evaluating the BRZ's creature comforts.

The BRZ is a bit of a clashing of automotive philosophies. For starters, its a rather spartan sports coupe. There's not much to be found in the vehicle's simple cabin that doesn't directly relate to the driving experience. The instrumentation is simple and easy to read at a glance and, even shod in their optional Alcantara finish, the seats are simple, manually adjustable units. However, despite appearances, the BRZ is anything but a stripped-down model. It also checks a lot of the right boxes as a tech car. You can't even think about buying one without navigation and premium audio, they're both standard features. As is Bluetooth hands-free calling, A2DP audio streaming, HD and satellite radio, and Aha Radio app integration. The infotainment interface appeared simple enough, but I still had a harder time locating options than I would have liked to. Obviously, I'd need more than a few wet miles to fully dig through the cabin tech feature set, but I essentially liked what I saw.

On public roads, the automatic BRZ was mild mannered and mostly comfortable, however its sport-tuned suspension did not enjoy being subjected to potholes and larger imperfections in the road. While at no time was the BRZ as brutal as the Mini Cooper Coupe JCW that we recently tested, as a low and stiff sports car, the BRZ makes a few comfort concessions in the name of speed. Think somewhere between a Honda Civic Si and a Nissan 370Z and you'll have an idea of how rough a ride to expect.

Trackside at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca
Driving the BRZ slowly was fine, but it wasn't what I signed up for. Thankfully, on day two I was tossed the keys to the same Subaru BRZ trackside at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca for a few unsupervised laps. Oh joy!


Click through our gallery for even more large photos and details about the 2013 Subaru BRZ.

And what a joy it is! With its stability control system in the Sport VSC setting, which only intervenes at the brink of disaster allowing a bit of tail happy play, the BRZ is a revelation to drive. Other motoring journalists before me have compared the BRZ to the Porsche Cayman and while I think such a comparison is hyperbole, I can see what they're getting at. (Note: Subaru itself claims the Cayman was a handling target for the BRZ's suspension tuning.) The automatic transmission wasn't really a detriment when left in its manual-select mode, delivering crisp, nearly instantaneous shifts with the pull of either of its plastic paddle shifters. The feel was close to that of a dual-clutch model, but not nearly as direct. I'd have rather spent my track time with an example equipped with the six-speed manual gearbox, but wasn't given the option. Still, as slush boxes go, the BRZ's is one of the good ones.

Subaru BRZ drive modes
The BRZ's traction control system features three modes: default, VSC Sport, and off. The automatic gearbox also adds sport and snow programs. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

The word that kept singing in my head during my laps of MRLS was "balanced." The BRZ seemed to do everything just right. Its steering was responsive and communicative without being tiring. The suspension and tire package enabled agile, neutral handling with just a touch of oversteer when you needed it and understeer when pushed too hard. And its output of "only 200 horsepower" seems just right. Two hundred ponies is enough power that the BRZ can keep up with its fantastic chassis's ability and feel lively when accelerating away from a traffic light, but not so much that it overpowers the coupes 215-width tires.

This isn't the sort of car that you can ham-fist through the turns and make up for your lost speed on the straights. Rather, the BRZ is all about the art of the turn. The coupe is always chatting with you through your hands, feet, and the seat of your pants, but it's also always ready to listen to your commands and respond with nimble handling, sharp acceleration, and a chassis that is willing to rotate and dance when you ask it to.

In sum
I'm sure that some of you are still thinking, "MORE POWER!" More power and stickier rubber are easy to add to any car on the road with simple bolt-ons. Heck, most of you could do that yourselves. However, Subaru wasn't out to create a bruiser with the BRZ -- that's the Impreza STI's job. Rather the BRZ is a finesse fighter, a floating butterfly, and a stinging bee. Driving the BRZ quickly is more about technique, efficiency of motion, maintaining inertia, and cornering mastery. The BRZ would respond more positively to a driver upgrade than a power boost, so your modding dollars would be probably best spent of a performance driving school.

Choosing a Subaru BRZ couldn't be simpler. There are only two decisions to make: Limited or Premium trim, and six-speed manual or six-speed automatic gearbox. Stepping up to Limited trim nets you keyless entry, a spoiler, automatic climate controls, and Alcantara seating surfaces. Our BRZ LImited with automatic tops out the scale at $29,370 including its $775 destination charge. That's a bit pricey, but you can save a few bucks by stepping down to the Premium trim and shifting your own gears. (There's also the less expensive, less fully featured, but mechanically identical Scion FR-S if you want to save a few bucks.) Buying a BRZ, on the other hand, might prove to be difficult as Subaru is only importing the BRZ in limited numbers and dealer markup due to rarity is sure to run rampant.

If you can find one for the MSRP, I think the BRZ is worth every penny, but your personal value assignment will depend on what sort of driver you are. If you've ever lusted after a Mazda Miata for its handling chops, but stayed clear of the roadster because of its chick car reputation, the BRZ may be the perfect car for you. But if you're already comparing the BRZ to a similarly priced Mustang, you're probably looking for something with a bit more straight line power than the Subie offers out of the box.

 

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