First Drive: Subaru BRZ

The antithesis to the brawny Impreza, Subaru’s agile BRZ gets a facelift.

It’s tough work selling a proper sports car these days. Hot hatches like the Volkswagen Golf GTI or Ford Focus ST promise to combine all that’s exciting about the genre with the practicalities that modern life demands – doors you can fit through, a decent boot, cupholders and so on.

Even if you wanted an affordable sports car, the list is pretty short and full of talent. There’s the Mazda MX-5 and its cousin, Fiat’s 124 Spider, and the Toyota GT86. That’s made life tough for Subaru, who introduced the BRZ back in 2012. It’s a four-seater coupe that’s focused almost entirely on driving pleasure; power is provided by a 2.0 litre engine up front and sent to the rear wheels via a limited slip differential, with much effort made to keep the weight and centre of gravity down. And it’s almost identical to the Toyota, even being built in the same factory.

To keep it fresh, Subaru has facelifted the BRZ a little and, while the changes seem subtle at first, they make quite a difference overall. A new bumper and grille makes the car appear wider and lower, with new LED headlights and tail lights adding a modern sparkle. The side vents look higher quality now, and a rear spoiler has been added as well, although I’m sure that’s just cosmetic. The BRZ wasn’t a bad looking car to start with, but it’s been finessed beautifully now.

The same is true of the interior, at least partly. Home to too many low quality plastics and dated design, Subaru argued that the car was designed for those that focussed on driving. Buyers disagreed, as no matter how enthusiastic you are about motoring, you still have to deal with the car every day, so Subaru has gone about giving it an update to improve perceived quality. There’s a new steering wheel multifunction controls, less plastic and more leather, a new digital screen in the instrument binnacle and red stitching all over the place to remind drivers this is a sports car. It goes some way to improving matters, but stepping out of the Golf GTI into the BRZ will highlight just how far off the car is in terms of material feel and quality.

You’ll also notice the change in practicality. The rear the seats in the Subaru are a token gesture, but at least they fold down to make the sensible sized boot even more usable, while a pair of cupholders sit far enough back to be used by front or rear seat passengers – assuming they can squeeze in! Just ahead of those are some buttons for switching the stability control to Track mode, or off entirely.

If you ever drive one of these cars, press that button. Every time. Switching the car to Track mode simply transforms it from a car that feels compromised to one that will make you smile on every journey. The BRZ no longer just follows a line prescribed by a computer but actually moves around and feels alive. It’s now that I understand what the BRZ is all about.

The trend of recent years has been to hunt for ever increasing power outputs, higher top speeds and faster times round the Nurburgring. Subaru has taken that and ignored it all; the skinny tyres suddenly make sense when you’ve only got 197bhp to play with – there’s the perfect amount of grip, able to handle 95% of the power, the back end able to step out ever so slightly before the computers prevent it going further. Electronics don’t stop play entirely, but keep the game moving.

The weight distribution of the car is near perfect, a 53/47 balance at rest but moving rearwards under power, the weight transfer keeping the tyres planted. A limited slip differential prevents wasting any of the power on wheelspin, until you push that bit harder. Never does it feel unsafe, just engaging.

The Volkswagen Golf GTI is the sensible option. It’s spacious, well equipped, comfortable, grown up. The Subaru BRZ isn’t, and it’s all the better for it.

Model Tested: Subaru BRZ SE Lux
Price: £26,050
Engine: 2.0-litre petrol
Top speed: 140 mph
0-62 mph: 7.6 seconds
Power: 200 PS (197 bhp)
Torque: 205 Nm (151 ft lb)
Monthly PCP*: £383
Official fuel economy: 36.2 mpg
Road Test economy: N/A
CO2 Emissions: 180 g/km
Car Tax: £140 (£800 in Year 1)
Insurance group: N/A

* Monthly PCP estimate based on 20% deposit, 36 month term, 5% APR, final payment of 36%.