Car reviews - Subaru - BRZ - tS
Excellent ride comfort as well as the magnificent upgrade to handling and grip, great infotainment set-up and standard kit, excellent seats, sense of fun
Room for improvement
Extra dynamic prowess makes the BRZ – and driver – beg for more power, number of STI badges borders on tragic, Brembo brakes feel uncharacteristically wooden
Sharper, grippier Subaru BRZ tS is a magnificent handler but hamstrung by its engine
1 Mar 2019
WHILE the Toyota 86 gets all the sales and market recognition, those in the know harbour a preference for Subaru’s version, the BRZ.
In producing the tS flagship tested here, Subaru has further differentiated the BRZ from its 86 sibling with a smattering of handling upgrades (and far too many badges from the shelves of its STI performance division).
But fear not, as the suspension tweaks have resulted in this 2+2 coupe becoming a better daily driver and Subaru’s vastly superior infotainment system – with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone connectivity – also helps make it that bit more liveable than the Toyota.
Add to this the relative rarity – and therefore exclusivity – of the Subaru-badged version, and our next question is “where do we sign”.
Price and equipment
For 2018, Subaru introduced the flagship tS version if its BRZ sports coupe tested here, which commands a higher price of $40,194 plus on-road costs, which is a $4404 hike over the mid-spec Premium BRZ. Entry to the range starts at $34,280 before on-road costs.
Significant revisions have been made under the BRZ’s skin for the tS range-topper, consisting of high-performance Sachs dampers with STI coil springs, more powerful Brembo brakes with red-painted callipers, and some strengthened suspension components for improved rigidity.
Marking it out as the ultimate BRZ are 18-inch black STI-emblazoned alloy wheels wrapped in stickier Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tyres. Other minor tweaks include a bespoke tS grille for the nose, black-finished mirror housings, a black shark fin antenna and STI badging. Lots of STI badging.
The tS cabin also gets a mild overhaul consisting of red leather accents for the Alcantara-trimmed seats, extra padding on the door trims, red seatbelts and yet more STI badging, including the STI-branded steering wheel.
The equipment list is otherwise the same as the BRZ Premium and includes dual-zone climate control, a 7.0-inch media system with sat nav, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto support, cruise control, Bluetooth connectivity, a rear-view camera, electric folding mirrors and heated front seats. The spare wheel is a 17-inch temporary item.
If you want an automatic, you’ll also have to stump up another $2000 for the privilege – but that upgrade includes a set of steering wheel paddles for manual shifts.
Seven colours are offered, and all of them are a no-cost option. Subaru also offers a range of dealer-fit accessories and options for the BRZ such as reversing sensors, a front spoiler, a different gear knob and a short-shift kit.
Various upgrades Subaru serves up in the tS cabin do make it feel a little more bespoke and interesting. We appreciated the padded Alcantara door trim caps that added a bit of highly visible premium finish and added meaningful comfort.
The interior is a pretty inviting environment these days and has certainly come a long way since the model first hit the market, too, maturing with better materials, a more usable and attractive multi-function trip computer with a digital speedo and a better integrated multimedia.
On this topic, a big reason to go for the BRZ over its near-identical Toyota 86 rival is the infotainment unit, which although small, has Subaru’s latest – and excellent –software as seen in the Impreza, XV, Outback and now Forester.
It has Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone mirroring, which, compared to the dated Toyota unit, makes the BRZ much more user-friendly. If we had to daily our affordable sports coupe, we’d be much happier in this BRZ as a result.
Everything else, save for the tragic amount of STI branding in here – reflected on the exterior as well, unfortunately – is typical BRZ.
This means great driving position – we found the front seats amazingly comfortable – and visibility, enough space, ok-ish storage, a pretty generous boot, solid build quality and the ability – believe it or not – to fit child seats and share in the BRZ fun times with your offspring.
We’re not saying the latter was easy, but neither is parenting. And like parenting, the reward was more than worth the effort as our pre-school passenger absolutely loved the experience, which was a joy to share in.
On journey where the main noise did not consist of various demands to go “super fast” from the back seat, we enjoyed the mechanical sounds accompanying each gear change or throttle input and the sense of connectedness as we felt the rear differential at work even during low-speed driving.
Road noise might seem high if you’re stepping out of a sedan or SUV, but the BRZ is more than peaceful enough for just cruising about and is commendably isolated on coarse-chip country bitumen.
The engine note is a bit contrived at most revs and artificially cuts in and out in terms of loudness piped into the cabin, but it does get addictively rampant-sounding in response to heavy throttle inputs above 5500rpm.
And we know from our week with the BRZ that the effect of this on your mood is the same whether you’re nearly three or nearly 40.
Engine and transmission
Another opportunity to whinge about the amount of STI badging on this BRZ variant. It is visually masquerading as the WRX-powered BRZ we have all been waiting for, but its 2.0-litre flat-four puts out the same 152kW and 212Nm as any other manual BRZ (automatics put out 147kW and 205Nm).
Being pretty lightweight at around 1200kg, the BRZ rarely feels strained and is pretty relaxed on the motorway, with enough torque to punt around town without wringing its neck. You wouldn’t call it slow for this type of driving, although it needs revs.
There is noticeable increase in urge as the 7000rpm power peak approaches, preceded by peak torque 400rpm earlier, so especially if you upshift near the redline to keep it on the boil.
But with all the suspension upgrades, and the bigger, better tyre footprint, we found the relationship between the BRZ’s engine and chassis had been dulled somewhat, at least when driven responsibly swiftly on dry public roads.
At these higher speeds, especially when attempting and failing to convincingly punch out of corners, the engine feels distinctly undernourished. It was inevitable, but still a shame.
On the upside, we revelled in the six-speed manual’s sweet-shifting, satisfying nature and intuitive clutch action. We took every opportunity and made every excuse to stir that stick.
Not that most BRZ buyers care, but we averaged fuel consumption of 8.4 litres per 100km during our week with the car, comparing reasonably well with the official combined figure of 7.8L/100km.
Ride and handling
When we first drove the BRZ on Australian roads back in 2012, we didn’t really get it – more to the point enjoy it – until we’d taken it for a fang on our favourite twisty road.
Revisiting the model many grey hairs later, we were surprised to enjoy the tS variant straight away. And we’re sure that’s down to the new suspension set-up.
The new Sachs dampers and STI springs are clearly a substantial upgrade and the BRZ tS rides astonishingly well as a result, despite rolling on wheels an inch bigger than regular variants. At high speeds it is positively plush for a sports coupe.
Quality suspension components really can deliver better ride and handling at the same time. Ironing out lumpy urban roads makes the point-and-squirt responsiveness of this car much more exploitable and enjoyable round town, too.
At higher speeds it is truly remarkable how flat the BRZ tS corners, yet it shrugs off mid-corner ridges and ripples without drama but with a level of poise, sophistication and precision unheard of at this price, or even twice the price.
It genuinely hugs the road and feels immensely tied down but without feeling at all fidgety or introducing a spine-shattering ride.
The steering is as slack-free, sharp and quick as ever too, with the upgraded chassis, wheels and Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tyres providing almost endless front-end bite. There’s an almost Lotus-like quality about how this car darts around.
But a big chunk of the BRZ charm has been lost. On a series of faster bends where a regular BRZ would be quite interactive and begin to move about, the tS just digs in and grips. It gets a bit boring and predictable to be honest, for at legal speeds there is little to challenge this car or the driver.
And there’s not enough power and torque to exploit the additional dynamic athleticism. We got the sense that this BRZ has much more to give on track in terms of lap times than thrills for the everyday driver. The challenge there would be maintenance of momentum due to the paltry powertrain.
Similarly, red Brembos peeping from behind black wheel spokes promise much, but we found the brake pedal feel on our test car to be disappointingly wooden. Hauling up this light little car repeatedly was no problem for them, and they remained utterly consistent and faithful, but they stood out as the least interactive part of an otherwise highly engaging drive experience.
But the tS does come to life on slower, tighter turns, where it’s possible to really lean on and learn its limits. Again, the envelope is so much larger than we’ve become accustomed to with the standard BRZ, but at least a bit of squeal and squirm can be enjoyed on the quest for a perfect line through your favourite hairpin.
Safety and servicing
The BRZ attained a full five-star crash-test rating from ANCAP in 2012, with 34.40 out of a maximum 37 points overall. Its performance was strong across the board, with particularly high marks in the frontal offset, side impact and pole crash tests.
All BRZ variants include stability control, anti-lock brakes, emergency braking assistance, traction control, hill-start assist, dual front and curtain airbags, a driver’s knee airbag and a reversing camera. The BRZ even features two sets of ISOFIX anchoring points for child seats.
In terms of safety, the only notable difference between the entry-level BRZ and the flagship tS is the addition of more powerful Brembo brakes – consisting of four-piston callipers up front and two-piston callipers out back, plus the stickier Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tyres.
All BRZs come with a five-year, unlimited kilometre warranty and 12 months’ roadside assistance for private buyers.
BRZ service intervals are every 15,000km or nine months, whichever occurs first. The servicing costs are capped as part of the three-year/60,000km program and each of the four services, within that time and distance, will cost $224.55 (correct at time of writing).
With the BRZ tS, Subaru has built a version of the car that can clearly take much more power without giving it any more power. and for this reason, it left us feeling a bit disappointed after our dynamic test.
If your favourite roads are hairpin-strewn mountain passes, the tS is still grin-inducingly brilliant. It’s just not as interactive as a regular BRZ on faster, sweeping corners.
At the same time, Subaru has also built the best BRZ for daily drivers. Its superb suspension set-up combined with additional cabin comforts make it significantly more pleasant to live with.
To our eyes, the tS looks the business – though we’d remove a few excess STI badges for reasons of taste – and it is certainly the most track-ready variant out of the box. Upgrading the suspension, wheels and tyres of a BRZ Premium to the tS equivalent would cost a lot more than the $4404 price difference between the two variants as well.
In conclusion, the tS is the best BRZ and deserves its position at the top of Subaru’s sports coupe tree.
But so much of what’s good about it – and all those bloody STI badges – constantly remind you that Subaru stopped short of raising the BRZ’s engine performance to match its newfound dynamic ceiling.
Toyota 86 GTS manual (from $36,640 plus on-road costs)
Potayto potarto. Almost identical to the BRZ, the 86 is unquestionably a great car that is arguably let down by an uninspiring engine. As a daily driver, we’d go the BRZ tS for its superior infotainment set-up and excellent ride quality.
Mazda MX-5 RF 2.0 manual (from $39,400 plus on-road costs)
If you’re looking for a little top-down action but don’t want to live with a soft-top roadster, the diminutive and recently refreshed MX-5 RF with more power could be a good compromise. It’s sweet to drive and has a good cabin, but the fact this is a base RF for top-spec BRZ money and a cramped driving position for taller folk count against it.
Abarth 124 Spider (from $41,990 plus on-road costs)
Not fussed by natural aspiration and fancy more muscle? This hot little Mazda-based Abarth, which packs 125kW and 250Nm, could be just the answer. Its more aggressive styling might win it some fans, too, but its interior differentiates too little from the Mazda beneath its skin.
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Model release date: 1 December 2017
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