Every so often you drive a car that in the first hundred metres or so reveals itself to be greater than the sum of the numbers on the spec sheet.
The 2012 Subaru BRZ was one of those cars. It wasn’t the fastest, most powerful, or even the best-looking sports car on the market. But it was a real driver’s car. Like the original Mazda MX-5 or Porsche Boxster, it had a sweet chassis the engine simply could not overpower. The BRZ taught you not to waste momentum; to be economical with the brakes, and precise with your lines; to make the most of the chassis and the power and the grip at your disposal.
It’s a tough act to follow, but the redesigned 2021 BRZ, which is expected to arrive in Australia in the third quarter of 2021, looks up to the challenge. It has a new 2.4-litre flat-four under the bonnet with more power and more torque.
The new body structure is more rigid to further sharpen handling response, and it gets bigger wheels and tyres. Both the interior and the exterior have been restyled. And it’s still low and light and rear-wheel drive.
The original Subaru BRZ was the result of one of the car industry’s oddest joint ventures since Alfa Romeo teamed up with Nissan in the 1980s to produce the ARNA, a car that spectacularly combined Alfa’s suspect reliability with Nissan’s sloppy handling and boring styling.
But Subaru joining forces with Toyota was a win-win deal: Subaru got a sports car it could not afford to build, and Toyota got a sports car it had no room to build.
Toyota did the planning and the design. Subaru did the engineering and manufactured the BRZ and Toyota’s identical 86 in its Gunma plant in Japan. More than 120,000 of them have rolled off the line at Gunma since the beginning of 2013, two-thirds wearing Toyota badges.
But the sports car market is a finite and fickle one: Combined 2019 sales were barely one-fifth those of 2013, though the BRZ held up much better than the 86.
The joint venture strategy hasn’t changed – there will be a new Toyota 86 – but as with the original, it’s the new Subaru BRZ we get to see first.
Though the internet buzzed with rumors the 2021 BRZ would get the 194kW, 375Nm turbocharged 2.4-litre flat four that powers the Subaru Ascent SUV in the US, it launches with a naturally aspirated version of the engine.
Fitted with Toyota’s D-4S direct and port injection system, the engine develops 170kW at 7000rpm and 250Nm of torque at 3700rpm, increases of 12 percent and 18 percent, respectively, compared with the outgoing 2.0-litre.
Significantly, the new engine’s torque peak arrives 2700rpm lower in the rev band.
As before, buyers will be able choose from two Aisin six-speed gearboxes, one a manual, the other an automatic with manual control via steering wheel mounted paddles. The automatic features a new sport mode that enables more rapid downshifts, the software blipping the throttle to match revs, and uses data from yaw sensors to hold a lower gear during hard cornering.
A limited slip diff is standard, and the integrated traction and stability control system, which has five settings, has been recalibrated to allow more input from the driver before intervening.
Chassis hardware follows the template of the original car, with struts and coil springs up front, specially designed to allow for a low bonnet line while maintaining a long stroke to ensure optimal compliance and ride quality, and a multi-link suspension at the rear.
There have been subtle but significant changes to the body structure, however. The front and rear subframe mounting points and other connection points reinforced to improve stiffness. Subaru claims front lateral bending rigidity has been improved 60 percent, improving turn-in response.
The new BRZ’s more coherently aggressive design is the result of more than just a major facelift. The wheelbase has increased five millimetres to 2575mm, while overall length has gone up 23mm to 4265mm and overall height has dropped 10mm to 1310mm.
Every exterior panel is new, even the roof, which is slightly narrower because the tumblehome has been increased to accentuate the bodysides. The front guards, the bonnet and the roof are all made of aluminium to counter the extra weight of the bigger engine.
According to Subaru’s numbers the new BRZ weighs between four and 12kg more than the old car, depending on trim and transmission.
While flourishes like the large side vents that open on to pronounced sills running under the doors catch the eye, it’s the detail changes that truly transform the car. For example, the glass behind the side windows is trapezoidal rather than triangular, allowing a subtle line to run right along the top of the door and onto the front guards, eliminating the jink at the base of the A-pillar seen on the old car.
The bulges over the front wheels have gone, too, and the cleaner surfacing of the bonnet allows the new front fascia to roll down to a broader, shallower grille. From front on the new BRZ has none of the squinty demeanour of the old car; from the rear it looks less fussy, more sophisticated.
Not all the new styling elements are there for show: Those side vents pull air from under the bonnet and the front wheel arches and direct it along the upper surfaces of the sill panels, which kick up towards the rear of the car like spoilers and, says Subaru, help generate downforce at speed.
The new wheels are an inch larger in diameter, with 17-inch items standard, and 18-inchers fitted to the more highly equipped models. Base tyre is now a 215/45 R17, with a 215/40 R18 tyre fitted to the bigger wheels.
Inside, the redesigned interior features a customisable digital instrument panel. The standard display features the tacho front and center, with the water temperature and fuel gauges on the right. On the left, the display can be switched to show amps or peak g loadings.
With the traction and stability control system in track mode, the tacho display is automatically changed to a linear graphic with colour coding to help time upshifts right on the 7000rpm red line. In the middle of the dash is an infotainment touch screen.
The Subaru multimedia system offers standard smartphone integration, supporting both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
A slightly better weight-to-power ratio means the new Subaru BRZ should be quicker than the old one to 100km/h. More significantly, though, the improved mid-range torque should punch the car harder out of corners.
Combine the extra performance with sharper responses, courtesy of the front stiffer structure and – on the 18-inch rims – lower profile tyres, and it all adds up to a car which, for enthusiast drivers, promises to deliver terrific bang for the buck.
FIXING A WASTED OPPORTUNITY
Wayne Cherry, the former vice-president of design at General Motors, cleared his throat, looked at the 2012 BRZ, and quietly declared: “This car is a wasted opportunity.”
There was stunned silence for a moment as eyebrows shot skywards, then a babble of voices filled the room. Wha…? No! Huh? Cherry stood his ground. “This car,’ he said, “has a mechanical package any designer would kill for. And they wasted it.”
Cherry explained the BRZ’s unique combination of a front-mounted flat-four engine and rear-drive meant it could have been wrapped in sheet metal that gave it the proportion and stance and flair of, say, an Aston Martin.
“The BRZ should have been a beautiful car,” he said bluntly. “It’s not beautiful.”
Now, the new BRZ won’t shame a Ferrari Roma. But lessons have been learned. Sharper, cleaner, with subtly tweaked proportions, it’s a much more glamourous sports car than its predecessor.
THE BRZ YOU WON’T SEE
What about those rumours the new Subaru BRZ would get the 194kW, 375Nm turbocharged version of the 2.4-litre flat-four? Will the Toyota 86 get the engine instead? Is it being saved for a mid-cycle facelift of the BRZ?
Nope, and nope, insist well-placed Subaru sources.
While a turbocharged engine would raise the car’s price to the point where the GT86 version would start to encroach on Supra, and Subaru dealers might struggle to sell a turbo BRZ, the simple reason is the engine, codenamed FA24F, just won’t fit.
Why? The single turbocharger sits underneath the block. The entire front structure of the new BRZ/86 would therefore have to be re-engineered to mount the engine high enough to ensure adequate ground clearance.
That, say Subaru insiders, would add weight, destroy the BRZ’s low bonnet line, and raise the car’s centre of gravity, compromising handling. Add it all up and 2.4 Turbo versions of the BRZ or GT86 are non-starters.