2013 Subaru BRZ Premium review: Subie's simple sports coupe is a purist's delight

The Boxer engine's exhaust note has a nice burble at wide-open throttle that, while not as guttural as the Subaru Impreza WRX 's note or as loud as the WRX STI's, has a nice deepness when compared with the buzzy in-line four-cylinder engines that it competes with. More importantly, the engine feels responsive. Blips of the throttle for downshifts are immediate and there is little rev-float when upshifting.

Fuel economy is estimated by the EPA at 22 mpg city and 30 mpg highway with a combined average of 25 mpg. Interestingly, despite my flogging the BRZ almost everywhere I went, the dashboard trip computer seemed pegged around 24.9 mpg for most of the week, peaking at 26.1 mpg after a long highway cruise on the last day, so it looks like the EPA estimates are right on the money this time.

six-speed manual
The BRZ is available with a six-speed automatic transmission, but for enthusiasts, the six-speed manual is the only option. Josh Miller/CNET

Users who want a few more miles per gallon of premium gasoline can opt for a six-speed automatic transmission with rev-matching downshifts and a manual shift program to bump the EPA estimates up to 25 city, 34 highway, and 28 combined mpg. I've driven this variant and will attest that, as slushboxes go, this is a pretty good automatic transmission. However, I think most would-be BRZ drivers will prefer to row their own gears.

The manual shifter features a relatively short throw and good engagement, settling into each gear with a satisfying "ka-thunk." I did find the gates weren't that well-defined, requiring special care to avoid getting hung up and stuck between gears on the 3-2 downshift, for example. Also, the clutch's engagement point was a bit vague, despite the pedal's relatively short travel and light weight.

There's not a lot of forward grunt on tap here, not in a world where you can pick up a Hyundai Genesis Coupe with 274 horsepower or a 263-horsepower Mazdaspeed3 for about the same price. However, the BRZ's 2.0-liter earns its power with the lag-free, linear delivery of natural aspiration. Even so, the BRZ is no drag racer; it'll be beaten down the quarter mile by either of these cars with the greatest of ease. Instead the Subaru's thrills come from the way it tackles corners.

Amazing handling and feel
Everything about the Subaru BRZ's engineering seems to be focused on reducing the coupe's weight down to a rather lithe 2,762 pounds and then getting that weight as low to the ground as possible. (Subaru boasts that the BRZ's 18.1-inch-high center of gravity is one of the lowest of any production car in the world.) The engine sits low and far back in its compartment, helping the BRZ to approach a perfect 50/50 front-to-rear axle weight distribution.

2013 Subaru BRZ coupe
The low-slung BRZ has an even lower center of gravity, just 18.1 inches from the ground. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

You don't so much sit in the BRZ as climb down into it, your bottom just inches off of the ground. From this vantage point, Volkswagen Golfs look like Tiguans and SUVs are downright gargantuan.

What the BRZ lacks in power, it makes up in power-to-weight ratio. 151 pound-feet doesn't sound like a lot of torque on paper, but it's more than enough go to scoot the BRZ through traffic and, with its stability and traction control systems set to their most lenient, light up the narrow rear tires for a grin-inducing powerslide.

Despite its willingness to powerslide on command, the BRZ is remarkably neutral up to its traction limits, which are fairly high despite the smallish contact patches of its 215-width tires. It offers fantastic driver feel, both through the seat of the pants and the tips of the fingers. Even though it uses an electronic power-steering rack, I was never unsure of what was happening with the front contact patches, which inspired loads of confidence when tossing the coupe back and forth on back roads of varying surfaces.

Were this my personal BRZ, my first step would probably be to opt for wider, stickier tires. Many complain about the low power, but I think I'd focus on augmenting the already stellar handling to enable the coupe to carry even more speed in the turns.

Subaru BRZ wheels
The sports coupe doesn't put much gimmickry between the driver and its four 215-width contact patches. Josh Miller/CNET

Now, I've driven faster cars, but few vehicles made me feel as connected to the road as the BRZ did. The BRZ is a rewarding ride. There isn't a lot of electro-gee-whiz gadgetry between you and the road, so when you nail that apex perfectly, you'll know that it was due to your abilities as a driver and good old-fashioned suspension tuning.

What's more, the BRZ didn't feel particularly punishing over the rough streets and highways leading up to my favorite back roads or autocross course. Unlike, for example, a hot hatchback or a performance econobox, the BRZ doesn't need superstiff springs to compensate for a high center of mass. Its suspension can be a bit suppler, which allows it to soak up bumps without compromising its ability to stay flat when cornering. That's not to say that the coupe rides like a Cadillac. Over some of the Bay Area's roughest highways, the BRZ bounced me and my passengers around quite a bit and exhibited a good deal of road noise that the stereo was woefully ill-equipped to compensate for -- but the ride, while bumpy, never felt harsh.

In sum
There was a lot of hype leading up to the launch of the 2013 Subaru BRZ, but deciding whether the coupe is worth all of the brouhaha is a matter of your expectations.

The BRZ Premium with its manual transmission starts at $25,495. There are no options, save $1,100 for an automatic transmission. Nearly every dollar of that sticker price must have gone into making the 2013 BRZ one of the best-handling sports cars that you can buy for the money, because the dashboard feels like it only cost about $40 to put together. If you're looking for function over form or are one of those commenters on my Mazda Miata review who claimed to never listen to the stereo while driving, you won't find much to dislike about the Subaru BRZ.

But if you're looking for straight-line power, this isn't the car for you. There are plenty of more powerful cars, but few that round a bend like this one does. I'm of the school of thought that adding power is easy to find and looks good on paper, while handling with finesse is rare and should be valued, but that's just my opinion based on my personal driving style.

2013 Subaru BRZ coupe
There are faster cars for the money, but few match the BRZ's handling prowess. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

If you're considering the BRZ for its "premium" amenities, you will be sorely disappointed. Even stepping up to the $27,495 BRZ Limited only nets you fog lights, a spoiler, keyless entry and start, and leather and Alcantara trim on the seats -- none of which addresses my major complaints about the BRZ's cheapo dashboard materials and poor cabin tech offerings.

For my bucks, I'd pass on the Limited trim level, and instead get my mitts on the cheapest 2013 BRZ Premium with an as-tested price of $26,265 (including a $770 destination charge), then spend $2,000 on a better stereo and speakers; stickier, wider tires; and a membership to an automotive club for track days and autocrossing.

Tech specs
Model 2013 Subaru BRZ
Trim Premium
Power train 2.0-liter Boxer 4-cylinder, 6-speed manual transmission, Torsen LSD, RWD
EPA fuel economy 22 city, 30 highway, 25 combined mpg
Observed fuel economy 26.1 mpg
Navigation Yes, standard with traffic
Bluetooth phone support Yes
Disc player Single-slot CD
MP3 player support Standard analog 3.5mm auxiliary input, USB connection, Bluetooth audio streaming, iPod connection
Other digital audio SiriusXM Satellite Radio, HD Radio
Audio system 8-speaker, 196-watt
Driver aids None
Base price $25,495
Price as tested $26,265

What you'll pay

Pricing is currently unavailable.

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2013 Subaru BRZ

Part Number: CNET101407255

MSRP: $25,495.00

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  • Body style Hatchback
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