Cannes, France—Every so often in this business you get the chance to drive a new car that will make a big impression, and I've just spent the better part of a day in one: the new 2013 Subaru BRZ, an affordable rear-drive sports coupe that proved to be a tossable delight on the epic switchbacks and esses of the Route Napoleon in southern France. Frankly, I haven't had this much driving fun in a long time, the BRZ proving with each trip up to its 7400-rpm redline that 200 bhp is plenty of power when the chassis is light, rigid and eager to turn.
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On those sinuous French mountain roads lined with short stone walls, the 2762-lb. BRZ chassis felt tight, all of a piece, with minimal body roll, excellent balance and remarkably smooth break-away characteristics when the 215/45R-17s Michelin Primacy tires reached their limits. Acceleration out of corners felt crisp, thanks to the standard Torsen differential, low 4.10:1 final-drive gearing and the engine's ability to pull steadily all the way to redline. The 6-speed manual transmission does its part too, with short Miata-like throws and close ratios helping to keep the port- and direct-injected 2.0-liter flat-4 Subaru engine in the thick of its powerband.
Although you sit low in the car (the hip point is 4.9 in. lower than in an Impreza), the seat-to-steering wheel relationship feels natural. Moreover, the view ahead is excellent, with relatively thin A-pillars and a cowl that's lower than expected—a sweet byproduct of Subaru spending so much time and effort ensuring that naturally aspirated flat-4 with 200 bhp at 7000 rpm and 150 lb.-ft. of torque at 6400 rpm is mounted as low and as far back in the chassis as possible.
Location, Location, Location
The location of the engine in the chassis defines the BRZ. The powerplant sits 9.4 inches farther back than in an Impreza, and the crankshaft (in relation to the ground) has been lowered by 2.4 in. Most of the block is visibly aft of the front wheels (a big departure compared with awd Subarus), and the overall height of the powerplant itself has been decreased by 3.5 in., thanks to a shorter intake manifold and a new low-profile oilpan. Also, to help keep the hood low, the radiator has been canted back 17 degrees, and the battery has been moved to the back of the engine compartment to minimize front weight.
This all contributes to a laudable fore/aft weight balance of 53/47, and, perhaps more important, an 18.1 in. center of gravity, which is 0.7 in. lower than the Porsche Cayman's, a mid-engine car with a higher polar moment of inertia. A low CG does wonders for a car's handling, reducing the roll moment and load transfer to extract the most out of each tire—in this case the rather narrow Michelins that will undoubtedly be replaced by 225s, which would look more appropriate on this racy little sports coupe with large vented disc brakes at each corner. MacPherson struts are on duty in front, complemented by a double A-arm rear with a beefed-up differential.
The FA20 engine under that low aluminum hood is a marvel, putting out 100 bhp per liter. It's a 16-valver with chain-driven overhead cams, 12.5:1 compression (which means premium fuel is required), and roller rockers, AVCS valve timing and lift control on both the intake and exhaust sides. It's a square design, with an 86-mm bore and stroke, and the 4 into 2 into 1 exhaust helps maximize power while unfortunately robbing the BRZ of Subaru's characteristic pulsing flat-4 exhaust note. The BRZ does make good sounds with its twin tailpipes, just not so obviously from a Subaru. And to heighten the sporty sensations, a hint of intake sound is channeled into the cockpit via a small port on the passenger side of the BRZ's dash. The port opens progressively with throttle, so the BRZ is pleasantly quiet inside at mild throttle openings but properly raucous when mood and conditions warrant.
Inside, the BRZ has enough headroom and seat travel for drivers 6 ft. 4 and shorter, and the firm seats are a good blend of overall comfort and moderately good support. A 9000-rpm tachometer greets the driver front and center, with a digital speedometer contained within. The leather-wrapped 3-spoke steering wheel has a high-quality feel, devoid of excessive controls and electrically assisted, but without robbing the driver of any feel. In back, one gets the feeling that the BRZ's +2 seats are there more to lower insurance rates than to actually be used, but the seatback does fold flat to increase cargo capacity significantly. Subaru says two regular golf bags will fit back there, or a complete extra set of wheels and tires. Got that, autocrossers?
And come to think of it, the BRZ would make an entertaining autocross car. Or perhaps even better, a single marque club road racer along the lines of Spec Miata. The traction and stability control is fully defeatable, and this Subaru really is that good dynamically. With its relatively low power, light weight and predictably entertaining manners, the BRZ would be a great car for a beginning racer or the veteran who's tired of spending a grand to replace the tires on his Vette every other race. Subaru even added that a rollcage can be installed in the BRZ with no cutting of the dash.
On Sale Soon
Pricing has not been set, even though the BRZ starts shipping to dealers from in Japan on April 20, and will likely reach lots by early May. Our best guess? The Premium model will start at $25,000, and the more opulent Limited will be around $27,000. The Scion FR-S—the mechanical twin developed concurrently with the BRZ—starts at $24,200, but the base BRZ has more standard equipment, including HID headlamps and a navigation system. Expect the optional 6-speed automatic, with shift paddles and aggressive blip downshifts, to add about $1000 to those BRZ prices.
All told, I suspect the U.S. is ripe for an affordable rear-drive sports coupe, to get kids away from their smartphones and out driving—for the pure enjoyment of it. When I was blasting up and down the Route Napoleon in the BRZ, the word "balance" kept popping into my mind. Not just in the classic sense of power to weight, but also in level of grip to overall speed, and in not needing massive tires or brakes to have some good unadulterated driving fun.
Like the Mazda Miata and Nissan 240SX two decades ago, the BRZ is a great reminder that a good rear-drive chassis—in this case a compact coupe with a healthy 200 bhp—can be a very rewarding car to drive. Subaru, though, says only 500 BRZs a month will be sold in the U.S. for the first year, which equates to less than one car per month at each of the company's 600 U.S. dealers. Better get your order in now.