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

The 2013 Subaru BRZ Premium puts little gadgetry between the driver and the road, but literally falls apart where cabin comfort and tech are concerned.

Antuan Goodwin Reviews Editor / Cars
Antuan Goodwin gained his automotive knowledge the old fashioned way, by turning wrenches in a driveway and picking up speeding tickets. From drivetrain tech and electrification to car audio installs and cabin tech, if it's on wheels, Antuan is knowledgeable.
Expertise Reviewing cars and car technology since 2008 focusing on electrification, driver assistance and infotainment Credentials
  • North American Car, Truck and SUV of the Year (NACTOY) Awards Juror
Antuan Goodwin
10 min read

The 2013 Subaru BRZ is a gorgeous car. For all intents and purposes, it's identical to the Scion FR-S that we tested last year, but with a few superficial styling differences. It's got different badges, a reshaped lower grille, different wheels, and a different cap on the cosmetic fender vents, but in the broad strokes of the sports coupe's design it's so similar to the Scion model (and the Toyota model that both of them are based on) that you'd have a hard time telling the difference if you passed one in traffic.

Subaru BRZ interior

2013 Subaru BRZ Premium

The Good

The <b>2013 Subaru BRZ Premium</b> is a joy to drive, with light, direct handling that doesn't separate the driver from the road with gadgetry. Driver ergonomics are fantastic. Torque from the Boxer engine is adequate and linear.

The Bad

The extremely cheap dashboard materials and build quality were a disappointment. The premium audio-and-navigation system was frustrating and difficult to use, and the stereo sounded, frankly, horrible.

The Bottom Line

Choose the spartan 2013 Subaru BRZ Premium if you're looking for a fantastic driver's car that carves corners with unmatched precision, but steer clear if cabin tech and "premium" comfort top your list of requirements.

One easy way to distinguish our Subaru from its Scion-badged cousins is the signature WR Blue Pearl paint, which is unique to the BRZ and is a stunning color in person.

Cheap dashboard, poor cabin tech
Let's go ahead and get this out of the way, so that I can get on to gushing over how much I loved driving the BRZ: the entire dashboard experience is crap. The build quality is low and the best thing about the audio and navigation system is that it looks easy to remove and replace.

The dashboard itself is an eyesore, made of cheap, hard plastic that felt hollow when rapped with a fingertip. The buttons and knobs for climate control felt toylike and the silver plastic that covered much of the upper dashboard and center console buttons looked like it'd be fairly easily scratched off.

One could argue that a hollow plastic dashboard keeps the sports car's weight down, but it also makes the car feel flimsy. At one point, when removing a music-filled USB drive from the dashboard port, I pulled an entire panel loose -- the USB drive, on the other hand, was still firmly connected to the port. That the panel clips weren't stronger than the USB's grip is just ridiculous.

Subaru BRZ interior

I gave the USB drive a tug and the dashboard panel just popped out.

Antuan Goodwin/CNET

The navigation receiver has all the features I like to see in a modern vehicle. It's got a 6.1-inch LCD touch screen that displays maps for navigation that are stored on an SD card. When routing a destination, the BRZ's navigation system can even give you fuel use, trip cost, and emissions estimates on the trip summary screen. However, these numbers are estimated based on preset values for the car and fuel prices that are input in a menu, not populated live from the vehicle's ECU or the Web.

At the base of the center stack are USB and 3.5mm analog auxiliary inputs. The USB port will allow the system to read and control an iPod. You get Bluetooth wireless connectivity for hands-free calling and audio streaming, AM/FM with HD Radio decoding, and SiriusXM Satellite Radio, which also provides NavTraffic data for the navigation system. And there's a single-disc CD player with MP3 capability. This is a respectable list of audio sources. Unfortunately, the interface design of this receiver is severely lacking.

There are no steering-wheel controls for volume or skip, which means that you'll be reaching all the way over to the receiver quite a bit. The only physical controls are a volume knob and three buttons for audio, voice command, and map. Simple functions, such as skipping tracks, can take multiple screen or button taps depending on where in the interface you are when you decide to change songs. Also, the system isn't very responsive to input and lags noticeably between a tap and its result.

Subaru BRZ interface

The infotainment system features small physical and virtual buttons and a display that's susceptible to glare.

Josh Miller/CNET

The onscreen buttons and the few physical controls are tiny and quite difficult to hit precisely when the stiffly sprung vehicle is bouncing around -- the most heinous offenders are the onscreen audio source buttons, which are arranged in a narrow strip along the left edge of the screen and need to be scrolled through to go from, for example, satellite radio to Bluetooth audio streaming.

Voice control is standard and should help, but you'll still have to reach all the way over to the receiver to tap a tiny button to activate the prompt. Even then, the system is slow and lacks integration with the navigation system. Oddly, the voice command system recognizes the command "Navigation" but doesn't offer any functionality beneath that heading, so either the system is incomplete or a more comprehensive list of voice commands is coming soon.

Perhaps most annoying is the audio coming out of the eight-speaker, 196-watt stereo system -- it was, frankly, not good. There was overwhelming bad distortion in the lower range output at high volume levels and there was a noticeable bass buzz coming from one of the A-pillar speakers at moderate volumes that would be filtered out on a better stereo with some sort of crossover. Even at lower volumes, there seemed to be an odd tonal dead spot between the midrange and bass where the volume just dropped off; the midrange frequencies were a bit muddy, and the highs were harsh. You can make minor fixes with the seven-band EQ, but there's only so much that you can do. Either the speakers or the panels to which they are mounted are just not up to the job.

I don't think I've heard a stereo this bad in years. Just for kicks, I tossed in a Skrillex CD and cranked the volume to see what would happen. The resulting audio sounded more like controlled flatulence than listenable audio -- though some would call this an improvement. It would almost be funny, if I didn't want to actually listen to a song now and then.

A Subaru unlike any before (pictures)

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Excellent driver's seat ergonomics
It's not all bad in the cabin, however. Fortunately, the 2013 Subaru BRZ's ergonomics are fantastic. The steering wheel and shifter fall perfectly into hand, and the seat offers a good amount of manual adjustment to make sure of that. Deep bolstering on the seats helps keep the driver in place during hard cornering, so I didn't have to brace myself with my knees like I often do. Pedals are perfectly placed for heel and toe downshifting. Drop a water bottle in the door panel cup holders and you'll be able to grab a swig without stretching -- I don't think I've ever actually used a door panel cup holder before, but I was impressed by the Subaru's. Toyota and Subaru's designers have clearly done a good job of wrapping the cockpit around the driver.

Forward visibility is also quite good. The raised arches over the front wheels makes it easy to spot the vehicle's corners despite the low hood.

Subaru BRZ seats

The BRZ's sport seats grip the driver and passenger during high-speed cornering.

Josh Miller/CNET

If I have one complaint about the ergonomics, it's rear visibility. The high rear deck makes reversing a tricky affair. Meaty C-pillars make reversing out of a perpendicular spot or changing lanes a matter of double and triple takes. Of course, the BRZ's track- and enthusiast-focused design is probably to blame here -- you don't do much rear-mirror checking on an autocross or road course -- but owners will need to live with the coupe off-course, as well. That a rear camera isn't available on the BRZ must be noted.

Subaru Boxer engine
Underneath the BRZ's hood is the same 2.0-liter, horizontally opposed (aka Boxer), four-cylinder engine that you'll find powering the Scion FR-S. There are no tuning differences or surprises here. Power is given as 200 horsepower and the crank is twisted with a mere 151 pound-feet of torque. That torque is multiplied by a standard six-speed manual transmission before reaching the rear axle, where it is split between the 17-inch wheels shod with 215-width tires via a Torsen limited-slip differential.

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
Model2013 Subaru BRZ
Power train2.0-liter Boxer 4-cylinder, 6-speed manual transmission, Torsen LSD, RWD
EPA fuel economy22 city, 30 highway, 25 combined mpg
Observed fuel economy26.1 mpg
NavigationYes, standard with traffic
Bluetooth phone supportYes
Disc playerSingle-slot CD
MP3 player supportStandard analog 3.5mm auxiliary input, USB connection, Bluetooth audio streaming, iPod connection
Other digital audioSiriusXM Satellite Radio, HD Radio
Audio system8-speaker, 196-watt
Driver aidsNone
Base price$25,495
Price as tested$26,265
Subaru BRZ interior

2013 Subaru BRZ Premium

Score Breakdown

Cabin tech 5Performance tech 8Design 8


Available Engine GasBody style Hatchback