Subaru's 2017 BRZ Performance Pack delivers seriously frisky business

Finesse cars are tough to nail. It's hard enough to engineer a sports car that can walk right up to its limits of adhesion -- and occasionally beyond -- while simultaneously flattering the driver. And it's a tougher trick to manage in lightweight cars with lower performance limits, because they just don't have the horsepower to entertainingly distract from any shortcomings in precision. But when an automaker gets the cocktail right, it's exactly these types of well-balanced cars that tell us so much about the joy of driving. On the right road, a modestly powered sports car can actually be more satisfying to drive than a six-figure supercar. They're that magical.

Introduced for 2013, the BRZ (and its Scion FR-S -- now Toyota 86 -- counterpart) quickly became favorites among enthusiasts looking for exactly this sort of affordable rear-wheel-drive experience.

But whenever automakers introduce higher-performance variants and mid-cycle refreshes like this 2017 BRZ with optional Performance Pack, there's a worrying tendency to ladle on more of everything. As cars like this one disproportionately live or die by their balance and communicability, adding more power and equipment isn't always the right answer. That tends to pack on the pounds, which dulls responses. In finesse cars, every extra ounce and every line of code matters.

Subaru's BRZ is a compelling argument for precision over power.

Subaru

So how do things like wider tires, a retuned suspension, tweaked powertrain and improved cabin tech impact what is already one of the most entertaining, best-balanced cars extant? At Subaru's invitation, I took to winding mountain roads and a tidy little racetrack near Granada, Spain to find out.

The BRZ's visual update for 2017 is both surprisingly comprehensive and effective, even if you can't always put a finger on what's changed. Its lights are perhaps the most obvious alterations, with new LED units doing a lot to modernize appearances while also improving visibility. A new lower, wider-looking fascia also takes up residence in front, and out back, there's a set of whistle-shaped LED taillights and a pedestal-style wing perched on the trunk lid. The latter is notable because it's got an unusual aluminum airfoil, which helps keep it both lighter and thinner -- the latter being a real asset given the BRZ's narrow rear window. Overall, the new look is more harmonious, more modern and more upscale.

I'm both relieved and ecstatic to report that the BRZ's retuned running gear has done nothing to compromise its fine handling and frolicsome -- that's right, FROLICSOME -- nature. In the case of the $1,195 optional Performance Package, I worried that increased grip through wider tires and a rejiggered suspension might compromise the Subaru's inherently playful nature, but it's done nothing of the sort.

Nicer furnishings and improved tech are much-needed wins for the BRZ.

Subaru

Rather than fit much stickier tires, Subaru has stuck with Michelin Primacy HP radials -- sized a half-inch wider (17x7.5") to clear the uprated brakes. They're far from cheater race-ready gumballs, placing an emphasis on communicative, predictable breakaway characteristics over outright maximum traction. Track rats and autocrossers will doubtlessly want far grippier rubber, but this friendly, exploitable character is what made the original BRZ so much fun to drive, even at everyday speeds. I think sticking with them was a smart move.

Indeed, it doesn't take more than a few minutes behind the wheel to realize the BRZ still feels like the chassis' center of gravity is a good two inches below the pavement. Credit the low-slung boxer engine and tweaked suspension (including a slightly larger rear stabilizer bar, revised springs and shock absorbers). Plus, a liberal sprinkling of chassis reinforcements including around the rear shock mounts and the engine firewall stiffens things and allows the suspension and the quick-ratio steering to do their work more effectively.

Those new shock absorbers -- costly Sachs units -- deliver impressive handling without grenading ride quality. My day's drive in the Performance Package started out on gunslit-narrow, cobblestoned streets of Granada before spilling out onto freeways and mountain B-roads, and the ride was sportingly firm, but not unpleasantly so, just as it was with the original BRZ.

It's not just revised hardware that improves the BRZ's handling, it's software, too. Regardless of whether you go for the Performance Package or not, Subaru's engineers have revisited the car's stability control system, giving it a longer leash and smoothing out its intervention points. While the old BRZ's safety nannies didn't exactly rudely yank the chassis back into line whenever the driver's bravery outpointed their good judgment, the new system is more of a reassuring hand on the shoulder than a firm yank on the collar.

This friendlier nature was most evident when I was initially feeling my way around Circuito de Guadix, a very entertaining, very complex 1.8-mile roadcourse tailor-made for cars like the BRZ. But you needn't be on a racetrack to feel the benefits -- the car's default setting is more forgiving, too, and its Sport mode has been renamed Track to better reflect its intended usage. While Track does allow for a good amount of rear-end lift-off oversteer before reining in the fun, if you want to get all drifty, the BRZ will now leave you to your own devices -- you can fully extinguish all electronic safety aids by thumbing a button.

Hot-lapping Circuito de Guadix in a rainbow of BRZs is a fine way to spend an afternoon.

Chris Paukert/Roadshow

Hot-lapping Guadix also made the value of the BRZ's upgraded brakes self evident, too. The Performance Pack's binders are Brembo units -- four-piston calipers up front, two-piston units in the back. They clamp down on slightly thicker, larger-diameter discs (fronts go from 11.6 inches to 12.8 inches, while the rears grow an inch to 12.4). These new rotors are the same dimensionally as those on the WRX STI, a car that's nearly 600 pounds heavier and more powerful than the BRZ by half again. (WRX owners, don't think that you can just swap these onto your ride, though -- they won't bolt up). Such serious hardware pays dividends out on the track, where repeated thrashings failed to put a dent in the BRZ's braking performance, its pedal resolutely refusing to go all mushy.

Normally when talking about a sports car, auto reviews lead with headline metrics like torque and horsepower. And indeed, for 2017, the BRZ's figures have been nudged upwards. But I'm not burying the lead of the story here -- bench-racing engine numbers are almost beside the point with cars like the BRZ. And yet, at least on the surface, this Subaru's output figures remain unimpressive. If you're smart enough to choose the six-speed manual -- and Subaru says that 83 percent of buyers are -- you'll get your 2.0-liter flat-four with 205 horsepower and 156 pound-feet of torque. That's only 5 more horses and 5 more pound feet than last year, making it roughly the same corral of ponies as a Hyundai Elantra Sport, albeit paired with a lot less torque.

(Note: If you opt for the $1,100 six-speed automatic, power figures remain at 200 horses and 151 pound-feet. Serves you right.)

The $1,195 Performance Pack is splurgeworthy, if only for its Brembo brakes and Sachs dampers.

Subaru


Of course, as is true with the Mazda MX-5 Miata against which the BRZ is periodically compared, to fixate on spec-sheet performance is to miss the point of this car. Thus, Subaru continues to ignore calls for a turbocharged BRZ, instead focusing on reworked engine internals (new pistons, rocker arm pivots, low-friction camshaft journals, etc.) along with better breathing from a new aluminum intake and freer-flowing exhaust manifold. This laundry list of changes yields improved low-to-midrange torque, but the result isn't a night-and-day difference with the old model.

A lower final-drive ratio (4.1 to 4.3:1) to improve acceleration on manual-transmission cars rounds out the changes. Given that this car is still only around 2,800 pounds, 0-60 mph happens in a bit over 6 seconds -- quick enough to be entertaining, but slow enough that you won't want to engage in any stoplight shenanigans.

Despite Guadix sitting at 3,000 feet, the BRZ's normally aspirated flat-four provided enough power for its tight, technical confines, but on a bigger track with longer straightaways, you'd be looking for more power. Perhaps oddly, the point at which I wanted more huevos was not at the track, it was on a long freeway incline, when passing power was at a premium.

Fuel economy continues to be unremarkable, with the EPA calling for estimates of 21 miles per gallon city and 29 highway in manual models, and 24/33 figures for automatics.

If you buy a BRZ and it doesn't have three pedals and this lever, I will fight you.

Subaru

The BRZ has never been about advanced tech or luxury, and that's been particularly true in its cabin. In fact, the BRZ's simplicity was a willful decision -- Subaru purposefully eschewed higher-quality plastics and better, more feature-rich cabin in order to focus on lighter weight, lower pricing and -- most importantly -- to keep the driver focused on the road ahead. How focused? The original BRZ's steering wheel didn't even have secondary volume and tuner controls, and the center stack's infotainment was so poor as to best be ignored altogether.

While that strategy may have been the right move to emphasize the BRZ's driving-first philosophy, it may have kept more than a few interested buyers from pulling the trigger. And while none of the new-for-2017 cabin tech is likely to draw buyers into showrooms on its own, the BRZ's cabin materials and tech conveniences are now less of an impediment to purchasing than before.

Subaru's latest Starlink infotainment system has found its way into the BRZ's center stack, and while not industry-leading stuff, it's much better. It includes a 6.2-inch touchscreen, backup camera, SiriusXM, and an app suite featuring Pandora and Aha, along with -- wait for it -- an identification tool for birdwatching.

How intensely Subaru.

6.2-inch Starlink infotainment system is a big improvement, even if it's nowhere near state of the art.

Subaru

More useful is a cloud-based Magellan navigation app that runs using your smartphone, and a new steering wheel that finally gets redundant audio controls. Plus, there's a 4.2-inch multifunction LCD in the gauge cluster on Limited models that keeps tabs on engine vitals and various performance metrics, as well as providing a stopwatch for lap times. But if you want Android Auto or Apple CarPlay, look elsewhere.

The first rung on the BRZ trim ladder starts with the $26,315 Premium model (including $820 for delivery), while the $28,465 Limited model includes LED fog lamps, Alcantara seat trims, keyless pushbutton start, dual-zone climate control and the aforementioned in-cluster display. To get the bigger brakes, better dampers and wider wheels, you'll have to splurge an extra $1,195 for the Performance Pack, and to be honest, I can't imagine not doing so. Even tune-it-yourself types couldn't get this kind of upgraded hardware for such little money.

While mechanically identical to the Limited, $30,515 Series Yellow models like the one shown here feature unique black alloy wheels and matching trim to along with... That Paint. Inside, contrasting yellow stitching and seat highlights dominate the Series Yellow experience. Just 500 of these joyful little bumblebees are coming to the US, and if you don't like attention, well, save yourself some money.

The 2017 BRZ in its Happy Place: Mid corner.

Subaru

The takeaway from my drive is that if you're the type of enthusiast who liked the BRZ's driving character before -- and I'm one of them -- you'll find even more reasons to fall in love for 2017. The new car is sharper to drive, nicer to look at, and easier to both justify buying and live with. Conversely, if you're someone who cares more about straight-line power and bellowing exhaust notes, well... this coupe still isn't for you.

As the BRZ has been something of a slow seller, Subaru's more-of-the-same strategy may not do much to improve the BRZ's fortunes, but cars like this have always been more about pursuing a passion than they are attempts to pad an automaker's coffers.

Lucky us.

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