2015 Subaru BRZ review: Subaru's sport coupe goes from over-hyped to underrated

Roadshow Editors' Rating

8.0 Overall
  • Performance 10
  • Features 6
  • Design 9
  • Media 6

The Good The 2015 Subaru BRZ is one of the best driver's cars that I've ever tested. Its ride is extremely responsive and the Boxer engine feels like a good match for the lightweight chassis. The cabin features excellent ergonomics.

The Bad The standard touchscreen navigation system is disappointing, with slow map rendering and an underwhelming audio system.

The Bottom Line The 2015 Subaru BRZ is an outstanding sports coupe for drivers who value handling prowess over outright power, but for the money there are so many compelling alternatives.

I am in love with the Subaru BRZ, but sometimes I feel like I might be the only one. The car won me over two years ago with its laser-precise handling and truly driver-focused cabin. More recently, I fell in love all over again behind the wheel of the 2015 Subaru BRZ Series Blue edition. From the ground up, the coupe just feels like a car that was built with enthusiasts in mind and sporty driving at its core.

But whenever I discuss the coupe with the enthusiasts around me, the response is usually the same: "It's kind of over-hyped, don't you think?"

Driver and driving focused

The BRZ starts with classic sports car proportions, sitting low to the ground and with a wide stance within its compact footprint. The sheet metal almost appears to be poured over the wheels, the arches bulging slightly over the fenders. Everywhere I went, the BRZ elicited, "Wow, that's a Subaru?" from passersby, over and over again.

But there's a function to this form. Beneath the looks is a lightweight and stiff chassis that forms the basis of the BRZ's excellent driving dynamics. The low-slung construction keeps the coupe's center of gravity low and gives the suspension a good platform from which to work. So the BRZ's ride, while stiff, doesn't have to be punishing. In fact, the 2015 model year sees a revision to the BRZ's suspension setup aimed at improving grip by smoothing out the suspension's travel over uneven pavement.

The purposeful design continues in the cabin where the seating position is nearly perfect. The pedals are well spaced for easy heel-and-toe downshifting and the wheel and shift lever fell into my hands as if the car were tailored to my frame. There's an efficiency and a simplicity to the BRZ's cabin that I found appealing. The steering wheel, for example, doesn't have any buttons on its face; there aren't a half-dozen buttons for complex driving modes; and even the central mirror is constructed using what looks like the absolute minimum amount of material in an attempt to keep weight low.

The sporty BRZ was designed from the ground up with the drive and the driver in mind. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Powered by Boxer

Beneath the low-slung hood, the BRZ is powered by a 200-horsepower, 2.0-liter Boxer four-cylinder engine. It sends 151 pound-feet of torque to the rear wheels via a six-speed manual transmission and a standard Torsen limited-slip differential. Here again, Subaru's engineers kept the handling in mind by mounting the power plant as low in the bay as possible, and as far back, which contributes to the coupe's low center of mass and nearly 50/50 front/rear weight distribution.

And so we come to the BRZ's most cited "weakness." It's lacking in the power, particularly low-end torque. Subaru and Toyota didn't set out to build a drag racer; they built a corner carver, so stoplight hole shots are a bit outside of the scope of this car. But enthusiasts like gobs and gobs of power, so most love affairs with the BRZ end at the test drive when the low-slung coupe gets smoked by a soccer mom in a Honda Odyssey or Toyota Camry. How embarrassing.

The BRZ has been criticized for being low on power, but I think there's just enough. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

What the Boxer engine lacks in low-end grunt, however, it more than makes up for with its playfulness at the mid-to-top swing of the power band. The four-banger has a unique and satisfying sound at full bore and feels like a good match for the lightweight BRZ and its six-speed manual transmission. During my testing, the BRZ never felt underpowered when it counted, but that's mostly because it's so easy to maintain speed through a bend rather than power out of one.

Telepathic handling

From the driver's seat, the BRZ's relentless focus on handling, balance and low weight manifests as almost telepathic performance. The BRZ boasts fantastic fingertip and seat of the pants feedback and excellent responsiveness. The coupe felt like an extension of my body, as familiar after just a few hours behind the wheel as a car that I'd owned for years.

Like the Mazda Miata, the Subaru is a car that delivers thrills at any speed. The characteristics emphasize "driving joy" over "red mist." Dancing lightly through city traffic at 25 mph can be just as satisfying as a 65 mph highway on-ramp blast. And any speed on a twisty back road had me giggling like a madman.

The BRZ is the sort of car that delivers driving joy at almost any speed. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

It's no secret that the Subaru BRZ rolls off of the lot on narrow 215-width tires. The coupe's engineers tell us that they didn't want to give the BRZ too much grip and that the 215s allow just enough of the mid-corner rotation that makes driving a small RWD so much fun. Tires are an easy upgrade -- and lets be honest, most enthusiasts were probably already going to swap the wheels and tires anyway.

Even with this "handicap" I found that the BRZ cornered like a champ, tucking nicely into each apex without a hint of drama or much understeer. Oversteer, on the other hand, was always just a tap of the VSC Sport button and a stab of the accelerator away -- and always accompanied by more senseless giggling.

Check the tech? Why bother?

Here's the part where we normally go into detail and "check the tech", but I'll cut to the chase.

The BRZ's standard touchscreen navigation system is pretty terrible and the audio system is equally so. The maps are so slow to load that you can watch the system drawing the roads ahead. Voice command is standard, but is also so slow that it's hard to resist the temptation to just pull out a phone and search with Siri or Google Now.

Sound quality is also fairly uninspired; it's not a terrible system, but the standard setup struggles to be heard clearly over road noise. The BRZ does ship as standard with a good list of audio sources, including USB, Bluetooth streaming and Aha app integration. However, my first upgrade to the BRZ (after new tires) would be an aftermarket double-DIN stereo. Fortunately, the stock rig looks like it'll pop right out.

Pricing and competition

The 2015 Subaru BRZ Premium starts at at $25,695 in the US, £24,995 in the UK or AU$37,150 in Australia. The Limited trim level upgrades a few of the coupe's creature comforts for $27,695. For the money, the BRZ feels like such a great platform for building an excellent autocrosser or weekend track car. An automatic transmission can be had only at the Limited trim level for an additional $1,100 and is the way to go if you're interested in maximizing the BRZ's fuel economy and missing the whole point of this excellent driver's car.

My example is a limited edition Series Blue model that, for $29,490, upgrades the BRZ Limited with a black STI body kit that improves aerodynamics, a decklid spoiler and gloss black STI wheels. The interior also gains unique blue trim. Only 1,000 Series Blue examples will be built -- 500 painted WR Blue Pearl and 500 in Crystal White Pearl -- but as the upgrades are mostly cosmetic, I don't think it's really worth pushing the price north of $30,000 when destination charges are added.

The limited Series Blue edition adds exclusivity and a few STI styling tweaks but no real performance upgrades for the money. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

I think the main reason that many are so lukewarm on such an awesome little coupe is because there are a lot of good performance options to make the prospective BRZ driver think twice at that price range. This includes the Scion FR-S (or Toyota GT 86 in the UK or Australia) which is a nearly identical car with a lower starting price. One could also have a very well equipped 2015 Ford Mustang V6 -- a car that, at 300 horsepower, few will call under-powered. There's also the Hyundai Genesis Coupe 3.8 with even more power, the Volkswagen GTI with its functional daily-drivable hatchback, and both the current and upcoming Mazda MX-5 Miata.

I felt like the Subaru BRZ was close to the perfect car for me (longtime readers will know that I only love the Miata more), but depending on where you fall on the power-finesse-practicality spectrum, any of these tempting alternatives could be a better car for you.

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