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First drive: Subaru confident on BRZ coupe

Twin under the skin: Similarities between Subaru's BRZ and the Toyota 86 are obvious, but engineers say dynamic differences cater to each brand's customer profile.

Suspension tweaks to give all-new Subaru BRZ coupe different character to Toyota 86

5 Dec 2011


SUBARU says it won’t decide whether to release its all-new BRZ coupe Down Under until the week before Christmas, but a clue to the ground-breaking new rear-wheel drive sportscar’s local future could be the number of Australian journalists invited to drive it for the first time.

Australian media outlets at the world-first BRZ drive at Subaru's Kenkyu Center (SKC) proving ground in northern Japan over the weekend outnumbered those from the UK, which has already confirmed it will be taking the sleek new two-door boxer coupe.

What’s more, GoAuto and another member of the Australian media were flown in especially for the event – which consisted of a one-hour presentation followed by about 20 minutes behind the wheel – while the other two attendees joined the program after Tokyo motor show duties.

The BRZ represents Subaru's first dedicated sportscar since the SVX – a six-cylinder luxury coupe that sold in limited numbers during the early-to-mid 1990s – but this time around Subaru has taken a different approach.

Along with its Toyota 86 sister car, the BRZ was conceived as a way of combining modern technology with old-school weight minimalisation and responsiveness to inject youth appeal to both brands by representing both an affordable foil for the current crop of highly competent but more complicated (read: expensive) sportscars and a stylish rear-drive coupe alternative to circa-$40,000 hot hatches.

The BRZ's rear-drive layout is likely to find appeal with enthusiasts, drifters and tuners and Subaru insiders suggested that each country that receives the car will offer its own dealer-fit, factory-approved range of accessories.

Naturally, a whole aftermarket industry will emerge to support the car and its Toyota equivalent, but one of the event's surprises was that in some markets the BRZ will be offered with 16-inch alloy wheels – even smaller than the lost-looking 17-inch items fitted to the Tokyo show car and two inches down on the 18s fitted to the ‘GT 86’ – as it will be known in Europe – shown in Tokyo.

Toyota Australia says the 86 will come standard here with 18-inch alloys, but Subaru deputy general manager for corporate communications Masashi Uemura told GoAuto both the BRZ and 86 would be offered from the factory with the same wheel sizes and that for some reason Toyota had opted to display its coupe with larger 18-inch wheels at the Tokyo show.

Contrary to reports elsewhere, engineers at the event also revealed that the Subaru employs different springs and dampers to the Toyota, in order to offer a tweaked suspension set-up designed to better appeal to the brand's customers.

Although he would not be drawn on how Subaru and Toyota customers differ, Mr Uemura agreed that Subaru's rallying success and long-standing WRX line-up gave it a more sporting image than Toyota’s.

However, with much of Subaru’s reputation based on all-wheel drive models, he described the brand's aim with the BRZ as “making sure the car is very stable, with good handling and feeling confident to drive”.

“Every (Subaru) should be very stable and give peace of mind,” he said. “That is the differentiation.” On show at the presentation, beside a final production prototype BRZ similar to the car on Subaru's Tokyo show stand but with a discreet boot-lid spoiler, were two development mules including one based on a shortened rear-drive Liberty sedan from 2007 and a more recent chopped Impreza prototype.

2 center imageHowever, engineers went back to the drawing board for the final BRZ and 86 platform, which was developed with expertise learned from the Impreza, resulting in a similar suspension layout comprising MacPherson struts up front and a double-wishbone rear-end.

The compact Subaru-built naturally aspirated 2.0-litre 'boxer' engine up front is based on the latest FB design that debuted earlier this year in the Forester – and will power the new-generation Impreza small car and compact XV crossover due for Australian release early next year – but with modifications to the intake manifold and exhaust headers resulting in a 120mm lower profile compared with the Impreza engine.

Fed by a Toyota-sourced fuel-injection system that combines both port and direct injection to enable a high 12.5:1 compression ratio, the BRZ engine's 7400rpm redline helps to achieve an impressive specific output of 73.5kW per litre.

A slightly weedy-sounding 205Nm of torque is available at some 6000rpm, with the 147kW power peak arriving at 7000 revs. However, Subaru engineers claim that because the BRZ weighs little more than 1200kg (with six-speed automatic variants adding an extra 20kg), the six-speed manual car can achieve the sprint from rest to 100km/h in “less than seven seconds”.

Like the Toyota 86, which has been confirmed to go on sale in Australia by June next year priced around $35,000, the BRZ measures 4240mm long, 1775mm wide, 1300mm high and rides on a 2570mm wheelbase.

Upon opening the frameless doors – once a Subaru specialty – it is clear the BRZ has the best-looking Subaru interior for a long time with its simple, logical and functional layout and high-quality, well-chosen materials including a soft-touch dash and door trims capped in red-stitched leather.

The style of the leather/Alcantara upholstery and red stitching on the seats are clearly WRX-inspired and suitably racy, as are the three-pack instruments, gear-shifter and steering wheel, save for its lack of audio and telephone controls.

Climbing aboard is typically sportscar-tricky but once the body is cradled low in the comfortable, supportive bucket seats with legs outstretched towards the aluminium-faced pedals, all the major controls fall easily to hand with little need for adjustment.

Our brief drive on Subaru's test track in the still-camouflaged, left-hand drive final prototypes began with the six-speed manual. Pressing the starter button churns the boxer engine into life with a distinctive Subaru burble, which quickly settles into a quiet thrum at idle.

Moving off, we were immediately impressed with the feel of the BRZ's well-weighted user-friendly clutch pedal feel and the satisfying short-throw snick of the gearlever, which soon displayed the benefits of replacing 80 per cent of the Aisin transmission's internals in a bid for improved shift feel.

Throttle response is sharp, with little travel required to rev the engine higher than anticipated but once accustomed, it was easy to trickle the car along.

Accelerating onto the rain-soaked high-speed loop, the BRZ gains speed in a sprightly, if not startling manner but its peaky-on-paper 6000rpm maximum torque delivery was offset by how the engine spins up to its 7400rpm redline in typically seamless flat-four fashion.

Engineers designed a system to transmit the engine's induction roar into the cabin, resulting in loud but slightly artificial-sounding soundtrack under hard acceleration, but once relaxed into a 130km/h cruise, the BRZ was quiet enough for only the sound of the windscreen wipers to upset the serenity.

Slicing through large patches of standing water before hitting the banked turn failed to ruffle the super-stable BRZ, which - along with the pleasantly cocooning effect of its compact interior and those cosseting sports seats - gave us an early impression that this sportscar will make a fine long-distance partner.

Turning onto the Subaru test track’s twisty section, peppered with deliberately-placed surface undulations, it quickly became clear that the BRZ rides impressively well for a sportscar and although we drove in controlled, speed-limited and rainy conditions, the Subaru's confidence-inspiring road manners shone through.

Inputs to the sharp but evenly weighted steering had the car deftly changing direction while resisting bodyroll well – thanks in part to its low 460mm centre of gravity – so the BRZ felt alert, agile and responsive without being at all nervous or twitchy.

A 53/47 front/rear weight distribution, achieved in part through the use of an aluminium bonnet under which the engine and battery are mounted well back in the engine bay, plus the presence of a beefy Lexus-sourced Torsen rear differential, helped the BRZ feel well-balanced and neutral within its generously bolstered seats.

Although it was difficult to upset the BRZ - despite the slippery conditions - ploughing through bends too fast then applying full throttle in second gear after the apex induced a fun little kick from the rear-end, which was quickly and neatly gathered by the electronic stability control but progressive enough to suggest Subaru’s first serious coupe is capable of controllable, on-demand power oversteer.

Whether it would be so predictable with more power – or indeed a turbocharger – remains to be seen, but the BRZ’s super-neutral chassis certainly feels as if it could easily handle more performance.

In fact, the only thing that marred confidence for us – and other journalists of varying heights – was the difficulty in judging the car's width, due to the combination of a low seating position and the peak of the nearside wheel-arch bulge that obstructed line-of-sight, while visibility on some sweeping left-hand turns was also obscured by the A-pillar.

Engineers pointed out that the BRZ's 285-degree forward visibility trumps that of other sportscars – helped by the large windscreen and front quarter-light windows ahead of the door mirrors – and we suspect better familiarity and more time to fine-tune the driving position would negate both issues.

Repeating the loop in the six-speed automatic, we discovered the throttle-blip on paddle-operated downchanges that produced an addictive rasp from the tailpipes, which almost compensated for the slightly more sluggish and less involving driving experience – although in Australia's auto-centric car market this is the BRZ most likely to fly out of showrooms.

The BRZ's auto – another Aisin transmission - has custom software featuring sport and snow modes, the former resulting in higher revs and more aggressive gearchanges and the latter delicately measuring torque delivery to the rear wheels and executing standing starts in second gear to avoid wheelspin.

The BRZ's cabin is a pleasant environment and the car exudes a feel-good factor that is hard to put a value on but is seldom found in cars from mainstream brands like Subaru. Ease of operation, cruising refinement and confidence-inspiring dynamics all add up to a promising package.

Although we only saw the BRZ in motion wearing camouflage, it - like the 86 - looks great in the metal, with curves in all the right places and a more purposeful, aggressive stance than can be communicated by photographs.

Ironically, the BRZ's looks could be its undoing, since it looks faster than it is, but perhaps in this safety-conscious, speed camera-infested age, point-to-point ability and driving pleasure will become the new fast, with the traffic light grand prix taking a back seat to overall driver satisfaction.

Cars that can be fun at legal speeds are less likely to encourage drivers to push the envelope to get their adrenaline fix, so Subaru and Toyota are onto a good thing with their twins under the skin.

Both cars are certain to attract a rash of aftermarket engine and chassis tuning components, but in standard form it will take a back-to-back comparison to confirm if the BRZ is the sharper of these two new tools.

Whether Fuji Heavy Industries can compete with Toyota’s marketing might and the 86’s expected sharp pricing in Australia remains to be seen, but Subaru’s more sporting image and the BRZ’s potentially more rewarding dynamics should see it attract a good number of affordable sportscar customers here.

So fingers crossed that Subaru Australia makes the right decision and gives fans something to celebrate this festive season.

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