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2019 Subaru BRZ tS long-term review

By Scott Newman, 04 Aug 2019 Reviews

Subaru BRZ tS long-term review feature

BRZ tS joins the MOTOR garage for an extended stay

Introduction: Purity Test

This isn’t your typical long-term test. We’ve dedicated enough words to the Toybaru twins in this magazine, including an 86 long-termer a couple of years back, that most readers should have a pretty good handle on what they’re like to drive. As such, this introduction will be the only time we’ll discuss the on-road behaviour and day-to-day liveability of our new 2019 Subaru BRZ tS.

The reason for this is that each successive update will cover a different motorsport discipline. It’s getting more and more difficult to enjoy performance cars – and driving in general – on the public road. Even a car like the BRZ, which definitely sits towards the more leisurely end of the performance spectrum, can easily find itself in contravention of the law when driven enthusiastically.

2019 Subaru BRZ tS

The easiest way to avoid any trouble with the constabulary is to take it off the streets. Every weekend around Australia there are dozens, if not hundreds, of club-level motorsport events catering to virtually every taste and budget. Over the next few months we’ll hopefully bring a few to your attention and assess their viability for those of you whose financial reserves struggle to match their enthusiasm.

But first, the BRZ. We chose the Subaru because it’s – hopefully – the perfect car to answer the question we’re asking: can you compete in a variety of weekend motorsport events with a stock-standard car without spending a massive amount of money? The tS variant could’ve been tailor-made for this test. 

A standard BRZ or 86 is already a very enjoyable package, but the brakes can be a bit marginal on some tracks and the standard Michelin Primacy tyres are crap. In fact, in researching this assignment, we discovered some events ban the use of the standard low-grip Toybaru tyres due to the racket they make under hard use.

BFYB 2018: BRZ tS track review

2019 Subaru BRZ tS

The tS overcomes this with Brembo brakes and Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tyres wrapped around 18-inch wheels, while adding Sachs dampers, STI springs, body bracing and plenty of cosmetic garnish like a rear spoiler, red seat belts and the like.

It costs $39,894 as a manual and $41,894 as an auto, $5904 and $4404 more than the standard and Premium grade BRZs respectively.

Testing duties have kept me out of the BRZ’s driver’s seat more than I’d like, which suits the other MOTOR-heads just fine – it’s never difficult to find a taker for the Subie’s keys at day’s end. This has actually been beneficial as the tS arrived with just 45km on the clock, not ideal for a car that’s going to be used enthusiastically over its life with us.

2019 Subaru BRZ tS

The BRZ makes driving fun. Any driving. The steering wheel is set lower than I remember but the driving position is otherwise excellent with pedals perfectly placed for heel-toe downshifts – just the thing to liven up a dull commute. The gearshift is a bit notchy, hopefully it frees up with time, the ride is firm but fine and the steering just superb. Seven years on, this is still one of the better EPAS systems around.You can easily notice the extra tyre grip, too.

The biggest downer is the engine. There’s a massive dip in the torque curve between 3500-5000rpm, just where you spend most of your time in day-to-day driving. Whether the BRZ’s relative lack of grunt – it’s not that slow, but it feels slower than it is – counts against it on track will probably depend on the track we choose, but more on that in a future update. 

Still, the aim of this is to improve the bit behind the wheel, not the bit under the bonnet. See you next month, when we end up feeling a bit dusty. 

No short flings on MOTOR long-term reviews

2019 Subaru BRZ tS

2019 Subaru BRZ tS Pros & Cons

Three things that excite us:
1 - RWD! RWD! RWD!
2 - Durability
3 - Learning skills

Three potential concerns:
1 - Too slow?
2 - Too much grip?
3 - Others taking it

Update 1: Budget Bash

Who says motorsport has to break the bank?

2019 Subaru BRZ tS

Motorsport is expensive. Everyone knows this, especially anyone who has attempted to take part. But it doesn’t have to be.

A quick recap for those who missed last month’s introduction, over the coming months we’ll be using our long-term 2019 Subaru BRZ tS to examine whether a completely standard car (as long as it’s the right one), a modest budget and hefty helping of enthusiasm is enough to enjoy a variety of motorsport events.

First up, motorkhana. In terms of cost and vehicle preparation, motorkhana is the simplest form of motorsport there is. Those who get serious about it invent all sorts of wacky specials, but any standard vehicle will be fine, though a well-adjusted handbrake is certainly an advantage.

2019 Subaru BRZ tS

For the come-and-try event attended by myself and Dylan, the BRZ tS needed nothing but some fuel in the tank and some air in the tyres, not even a fire extinguisher. Just make sure the battery is clamped down nice and tight if you have an older car.

The variety of machinery on display was honestly astounding. As well as your usual array of beaten-up mid-1980s hatchbacks which make great motorkhana hacks, there was a Walkinshaw-tuned Holden VY SS, a bug-eye Subaru WRX hatch, a new base-model Renault Clio, a Mitsubishi Mirage Cyborg rally car, a Humpy Holden and even a pair of W126-series Mercedes-Benz S-Class Coupes.

Related: Here's why you should sign up for a 'Drive Day'

2019 Subaru BRZ tS

The event was held by the Ford Four Car Club of Victoria at the Werribee motorkhana track which is – there’s no polite way to say this – a scruffy paddock. It’s easy to miss, for the entrance was dominated by near-metre high grass and the paddock – sorry, track – was overgrown with a variety of small plants, weeds and clumps of dirt and looked about as much like a motorsport venue as Spa-Francorchamps does a dairy farm.

As it turns out, looks can be deceiving. This come-and-try day was the first event for the year, thus the rather unruly condition of the grounds. It didn’t take long on a hot summer’s day for the paddock to become a dust bowl as the surface was churned up by dozens of enthusiastically spinning wheels.

A tip for unsealed motorkhanas: wear old clothes and be prepared to spend plenty of time vacuuming dust out of crevices. The car’s, that is, not yours. Don’t use a vacuum for that.

2019 Subaru BRZ tS

It’s easy for more seasoned motorsport campaigners to look down their noses at motorkhanas due to its low-speed nature. After all, most courses can be completed in first gear with short forays into second, but the courses themselves are often fiendishly tricky, requiring not only the ability to adjust a car’s direction quickly at low speeds but also to remember the course while driving as quickly as possible.

Thankfully, as a come-and-try day Editor Dylan and I were saved the humiliation of ‘flag hit’ and ‘wrong direction’ penalties, which would have scuppered any chance of success. There was no timing and no winners, although with an empty field and a rear-wheel drive sports car to play with we certainly felt like winners.

A number of courses were laid out, from a simple slalom to one that if you traced it correctly would look like the Toyota badge from above. Somewhat appropriately, given the origins of our vehicle, this faster test was our favourite, mainly because it involved doing two massive circles of an imaginary dusty roundabout.

2019 Subaru BRZ tS

It was great fun, but also brilliant driver training. It’s a completely consequence-free environment, allowing you to try a Scandinavian flick or tweak of the handbrake to see what happens, actions that seem intimidating even on a racetrack due to the higher speeds involved and possibility of ‘falling off’ or inconveniencing other track users with a spin.

The good news is that motorkhanas are held all around Australia on most weekends and, if you’re allergic to dirt, they hold them on bitumen, too. 

No short stint here on MOTOR's long-term car review

2019 Subaru BRZ tS

2019 Subaru BRZ tS Pros & Cons

Three motorkhana wins
1 - Cheap as chips
2 - Easy on the gear
3 - Endless skids

Three motorkhana sins
1 - Dust everywhere
2 - Waiting a turn
3 - Tests memory

Update 2: Track Twist

A visit to Australia’s finest racetrack with surprise results

2019 Subaru BRZ tS

Track days are one of the most popular club-level motorsport activities. If you want to let your car off its leash and find out what it can do, the most obvious place to do so is a racetrack. There are many options and a quick Google search should result in a number of tracks to choose from.

I tagged along to an Evolve Driver Training event at Phillip Island, which is usually one of the more expensive options due to the track hire fees, but Evolve’s ‘car club practice’ option was a very reasonable $285 and offered 15min of track time every hour. More than enough. Prices and track time can vary considerably depending on the circuit and the organiser, so give them a ring if you’re unsure.

2019 Subaru BRZ tS

Phillip Island was chosen very deliberately. I know from previous experience that the Subaru BRZ is a blast at Winton, however, would it feel underdone and a bit, well, dull on PI’s fast, flowing layout? No, as it turns out, not even slightly. In fact, the day spent at Phillip Island was one of the best motoring experiences I’ve ever had, both in terms of enjoyment and education. 

The Subaru BRZ is the perfect example of why outright speed and driving fun aren’t necessarily correlated. I’ve been lucky enough to drive at Phillip Island in everything from a Porsche Cayman GT4 to a BMW M5 to a Ford Focus RS and the little 151kW/212Nm Subie was as good as any of them (okay, maybe not the Cayman…).

Yes, it was slow in a straight line, hitting just over 200km/h down the long straight, but 165km/h through turn one, flat through Hayshed at 155km/h and 145km/h through the probably-flat-but-I’m-too-scared last corner is plenty fast enough for me, thank you very much.

2019 Subaru BRZ tS

A best time of 1:57.3 was the result and to provide some context, I dug up some lap times from previous MOTOR tests at Phillip Island. With Sir W. Luff driving, a Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X clocked 1:55.1 at PCOTY 2008, while in 2011 a VW Golf R managed 1:55.3, a Renault Megane RS250 1:54.4 and a Ford Focus RS 1:54.3.

Go back even further to Bang For Your Bucks 1996 and not a single car could best two minutes, the Mercedes-Benz C36 AMG coming closest at 2:00.19, which itself was quickest by more than two seconds. Viewed thus, the little BRZ does alright.

The Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tyres that are part of the tS package provide support lacking in the standard eco-spec Primacys without robbing the car of its adjustability. Through Phillip Island’s long, long corners the challenge was to keep it balanced right on the edge of grip, attempting to correct understeer or oversteer before they reared their heads and robbed the car of precious momentum. If you’re just starting out, this process is made easier by the BRZ’s well-judged ‘Track’ ESP setting.

2019 Subaru BRZ tS

Warm weather and high speeds meant the Michelins worked hard, though a side-to-side swap at lunchtime at least kept the wear even. Phillip Island isn’t particularly hard on brakes (at least not in a BRZ) so the Brembos proved their worth, with no fade or groans all day. Or so it seemed. According to Subaru the BRZ needs new rotors and pads (partly due to the old pads not fitting snugly with brand new rotors).

The size of the hardware and the weight of the car makes this a bit disappointing, but it also serves as a valuable (if expensive) lesson. If you plan on using your BRZ on track in standard form, be sure to limit the number of laps as wear is clearly occurring even if all feels well. If we had to offer a hypothesis, we’d suggest the rotors are the weak link in the chain, given the lack of any signs of brake stress from behind the wheel (usually a soft or hard pedal).

If you want to track your BRZ regularly – and you should, because it’s fun – it’s clear a rotor upgrade (for tS models) or complete brake overhaul (for standard models) is in order. If that all sounds a bit too serious, next month we’re investigating a relatively little-known motorsport that’s cheap, loads of fun and results in virtually zero wear to any component. 

No short flings on MOTOR long-term reviews

2019 Subaru BRZ tS

2019 Subaru BRZ tS Pros & Cons

Three track day wins
1 - No speed limit
2 - Driving lessons
3 - Friendly folk

Three track day sins
1 - Component wear
2 - Fuel use
3 - Highly addictive

Update 3: Dirty Dancing

Long-termer goes for a spot of autocross, familiar territory for a Subaru, if not a BRZ

2019 Subaru BRZ tS

A LOT OF people are scared of dirt when it comes to their cars. I’m not sure why, but I’m here to tell you why there’s nothing to fear. Autocross has always been one of my favourite motorsport disciplines and the best way to describe it is basically driving around an unsealed go-kart track.

There are tracks dotted all over the country (there are more than half a dozen in Victoria alone) and they vary in length, speed and roughness. To be honest, the rougher tracks are fine for some road cars but probably not something low-slung like the BRZ. Thankfully, the Kyneton track, an hour north of Melbourne, is frequently graded, well-maintained and of a similar quality to a country driveway.

Essentially, autocross is a step up from the dirt motorkhana tackled in month one of this long-term test. It replaces a memory-testing flag arrangement with a defined circuit, Kyneton’s facility having the ability to offer many different course layouts to keep things fresh. None are particularly high-speed, mostly tackled in second gear, but 80-90km/h is plenty on a slippery surface.

2019 Subaru BRZ tS

It’s cheap entertainment, costing just $35 for the day, or $45 if you want to use rally tyres. I’d love to, but sadly none fit 18-inch rims. There is a Toyota 86 wearing the appropriate shoes wrapped around 15-inch Subaru wheels, which j-u-s-t clear the standard GT brakes and suspension.

A common theme in club motorsport is the wide variety of machinery that takes part. There is a rally-spec MY05 Subaru WRX STI, a handful of standard Rexes, plenty of French hatchbacks, a group of BMW E36 3 Series, random old Japanese cars (Toyota Corollas of various vintage, Mitsubishi FTO, Mazda 323 Astina, Nissan Pulsar Q), a Renault Scenic and a truck with a rear-mounted Chevy V8.

What’s more, you don’t need to spend much to be competitive. The top placings are occupied by all-wheel drive turbos, but driven well, a decently-powered front driver (anything with 100kW or more) on rally tyres could easily finish in the top 15.

MOTOR feature: Celebrating 30 Years of Subaru STI

2019 Subaru BRZ tS

Each entrant receives eight runs, two attempts at four different courses, and to level the playing field and prevent a ’road-sweeping’ disadvantage – early runners being penalised by a thicker layer of loose gravel – the course is watered between each run and the running order shuffled.

The BRZ’s rear wheels begin spinning quicker than the fronts as soon as the light turns green and barely stop for the entire run. There’s very little grip on road tyres and it’s extremely easy to over-drive the car, which I spend most of the day doing. Small inputs are required; the BRZ may not have much grunt, but it has more than enough to fling the rear out very sideways if you’re greedy with the throttle.

It’s a tough thing to get your head around, but you can go very quickly without ever reaching full throttle – in slippery conditions, you’ll often go quicker if you avoid it. On run four, I win whatever the opposite of the jackpot is and run first on the course, directly after the water truck.

2019 Subaru BRZ tS

The Michelins work very well on the road but struggle on wet mud; still, it’s probably my best run of the day. I knew I was going to be relatively slow on this run so didn’t push too hard and it paid dividends.

There’s a healthy level of competition. No one is driving for sheep stations – if you care that much there are better motorsports to be involved in – but everyone still wants to do their best and the time gaps are usually very small.

Having driven for fun, not speed, and spent too much time sideways, I was surprised to see the BRZ finish 18th out of 48, but had I shaved another five seconds off (less than a second per run) the Subie would’ve finished 10th!

Worthy Watch: How to "drive" a Subaru Impreza WRX

2019 Subaru BRZ tS

This is the beauty of autocross. Not only does the unsealed surface help car control, the brief nature of the runs means any mistakes are punished harshly on the scoreboards but the closeness of the competition means any hesitation will cost you places. It’s cheap, fantastic fun. The slippery conditions also result in virtually zero component wear: you barely touch the brakes, there’s little lateral load to wear out tyres, gear changes are few, etc.

Next month we’ll be using a similar set of skills, but in a very different environment.

No fast blasts here at MOTOR long-term reviews

2019 Subaru BRZ tS

2019 Subaru BRZ tS Pros & Cons

Autocross wins
1 - Easy on the gear
2 - Slidey fun
3 - Value!

Autocross sins
1 - The clean up
2 - No rally tyres
3 - Not coming 10th

Update 4: Spin Class

A day at school where you’ll want to do homework

2019 Subaru BRZ tS

The Subaru BRZ is the black sheep of the Subaru family. For a brand built on the virtues of symmetrical all-wheel drive a rear-wheel drive sports car is like having a hamburger on the menu of a Chinese restaurant. This unusual scenario is the result of Subaru’s tie-up with Toyota to develop and build the 86, a car built in 10 times the numbers.

Toyota’s AE86 Sprinter, the car that inspired the Toybaru twins, became a cult classic thanks to its affinity to drifting. Car makers aren’t usually too keen to associate their products with such underground activities but Toyota Australia didn’t hesitate to leverage the appeal of the ‘Hachi Roku’ (eight-six in Japanese), creating an ad with the ‘Godfather of Drift’ Keiichi Tsuchiya.

As such, it seemed only appropriate that the final instalment in our grass-roots motorsport series should examine this often-misunderstood sport. Getting involved in drifting isn’t easy.

2019 Subaru BRZ tS

Skid pans are sadly extremely scarce (in Victoria at least) and even starting at a practice day level is difficult as it requires a decent investment in a suitable car and a reasonable level of proficiency to avoid embarrassment or accidents. Events like the motorkhanas or autocrosses we’ve tackled previously are a step in the right direction but still very different disciplines.

Thankfully, Victorian company Drift Cadet operates a drifting school on the Winton Raceway skid pan, offering curious punters the opportunity to learn the basics of car control in a risk-free environment.

Even better, it provides the machinery, a standard Toyota 86 and Subaru BRZ for Level 1 and a pair of supercharged beasts for the more advanced Level 2, giving the long-term BRZ tS some respite.

Completion of Level 1 is required before moving on to Level 2, so I find myself at Winton on a beautiful sunny day. The groups are small, just six drivers who each receive eight one-on-one instruction sessions of four minutes. The Level 1 setup couldn’t be simpler, just a pair of cones set about 10 metres apart on a sprinkler-soaked section of the skid pan.

2019 Subaru BRZ tS

It’s difficult to know where to set expectations. Without sounding like an idiot, I have some experience with sliding cars, so I was unsure whether such a basic course would deliver value for money. After all, $599 is not cheap, though nor is it exorbitant when you consider the cars are provided and a 12-month CAMS licence is included.

My instructor for the day is John Dreyer, a 12-year drifting veteran who has competed in Australia and Japan. In our first session we start with a simple clutch-kick donut, which thankfully is mastered with little fuss. A satisfied John immediately starts throwing new exercises at me, including a moving clutch-kick entry, handbrake entry, a loop around both cones and the tricky figure-eight, which involves transitioning from a right-hand slide to a left-hand slide and managing the weight transfer accordingly.

MOTOR review: Beau Yates' 2JZ-powered 86 drift car

2019 Subaru BRZ tS

From there John starts chucking random combinations at me: tight donuts around one cone, then two figure eights, then a handbrake entry into a loop, followed by another figure eight and so on. Although the speed is low – first gear is all that’s used – the concentration required to keep the car in a constant state of oversteer while not knowing what’s required next quickly works up a sweat.

It’s hard work, yet slowly comes together, the movements becoming smoother and less frantic along with a feeling of being slightly ahead of the car rather than constantly reacting to it.

I said earlier the Level 1 cars are standard, which isn’t quite true. Under the bonnet it’s all factory, with the 147kW/205Nm of these series one models being deemed sufficient, but Drift Cadet installs steering rack spacers for extra lock, mechanical two-way LSDs, coilovers and the all-important duct tape over the handbrake button.

2019 Subaru BRZ tS

A quick run in the BRZ tS shows the value of the modifications. The fundamentals are similar, but my long-termer isn’t as keen to lose traction – which feels as much due to the grippier Michelin tyres as the chassis setup – and isn’t as predictable once the wheels are spinning due to the lack of a mechanical LSD.

But while a couple of choice mods enhance the Toybaru’s sliding capability, the base vehicle is capable as long as you’re on a slippery surface. Power isn’t everything in drifting, but a certain amount helps to avoid torching clutches trying to overcome the grip of dry tarmac. When it comes to oversteering fun, this black sheep provides three bags full.

No fast blasts here on MOTOR long-term car reviews

2019 Subaru BRZ tS

2019 Subaru BRZ tS Pros & Cons

Drifting wins
1 - Feel like a hero
2 - Valuable lessons
3 - Looks

Drifting sins
1 - Tough on the car
2 - Expensive
3 - Few locations

Update 5: Conclusion 

Reflecting on six months of fun in the BRZ tS

2019 Subaru BRZ tS

It’s farewell to our long-term Subaru BRZ tS. It’s been a tough gig. Not only has it had to work extremely hard, it hasn’t even been the star of the show, as this was a long-term test with a difference.

For once we weren’t focusing on the car but what you could do with it. As cars get faster but opportunities for enthusiastic driving become ever more limited, the only place to enjoy any performance car is in a closed environment.

As such, we wanted to discover whether you could take a dead-stock production car and compete in a number of different club motorsport disciplines. The BRZ tS was chosen for a number of reasons.

2019 Subaru BRZ tS

Firstly, it’s affordable – a 911 GT3 will lap all day long but few have access to the $300,000-plus entry ticket. Secondly, it comes standard with a number of upgrades, including extra bracing, revised suspension, bigger brakes and stickier tyres, that made it all the more suitable for our intended use. 

Our journey started with dirt motorkhana; motorsport at its most basic. No safety gear is required, just $25 for entry and a willingness to get dirty. To most folk, the idea of driving around a paddock in circles might be madness, but it’s a lot of fun.

Bang For Your Bucks 2018: BRZ tS on Winton

2019 Subaru BRZ tS

There are no consequences for making a mistake other than a time penalty, and the slippery surface and low-speed nature make it the perfect place to learn the basics of car control. If you want to take it seriously and shave tenths from each (often fiendishly tricky) course layout you can, or just enjoy throwing the car around without fear of breaking anything.

The next logical step from a dirt motorkhana is autocross. For this, some basic safety kit is needed, namely a helmet and a mounted fire extinguisher, and some of the rougher circuits may not be suitable for standard road cars.

But many will be and, while there are now consequences in the form of tyre walls and dirt banks, speeds are still quite low and if you really want to unleash your inner Ari Vatanen, simply pick a corner with plenty of run-off!

2019 Subaru BRZ tS

The best part about autocross is that it feels more like ‘real motorsport’ (which isn’t to denigrate motorkhana, but it’s a different art) yet component wear is virtually nil. Dirt doesn’t wear out tyres, you barely touch the brakes, and there’s very little stress on the driveline.

Sadly, the same can’t be said for our next test, the track day.

Phillip Island was the chosen venue; while we know the BRZ/86 are fantastic fun at slower tracks like Winton, would a fast circuit like PI expose its lack of grunt? Not at all, as it turns out. No, it wasn’t that quick, but demanded excellence from the driver to give its best and was happy to slide around even in third and fourth gears.

2019 Subaru BRZ tS

Unfortunately, during its post-track checkover, Subaru advised that the BRZ needed new brakes, a disappointing result given PI is not that hard on brakes, the car isn’t particularly quick or heavy, and the tS version comes with larger Brembos.

Subaru’s line is that customers wanting to drive on track should replace the brakes with aftermarket items; so what’s the point of the tS’s Brembos, then? We suspect there’s a degree of extreme caution in Subaru replacing the stoppers – and fair enough, it needs to present its car in the best possible condition to media – as there were no signs of distress felt through the brake pedal.

Nevertheless, it’s a lesson: if you’re going to hit the track regularly, it might be worth buying the base model and upgrading the brakes and tyres to suit your needs.

2019 Subaru BRZ tS

Our final chapter examined the motorsport arguably closest to the BRZ’s heart: drifting. For this, our long-suffering long-termer scored a brief respite, as we attended Drift Cadet’s Level 1 course on the Winton Raceway skidpan – though we snuck in a couple of cheeky laps for comparison’s sake.

The comparison was necessary, as Drift Cadet modifies its cars slightly. Not in terms of power like some might assume, but with steering rack spacers for extra lock, coilovers and, most importantly, mechanical two-way limited-slip diffs. The latter provided much more control when sliding than the standard car’s Torsen unit, though putting up with the chatter of a two-way every day would require patience.

To answer our original question: yes, you can take a standard performance car and compete in all manner of motorsport. You could do a combination of motorkhana, autocross and, say, hillclimb regularly without great drama or expense. Taking the next step into track days or drifting may require some small modifications, but whichever way you go, just get out there and do it.

A statement of a commitment with MOTOR long-term car reviews

2019 Subaru BRZ tS

2019 Subaru BRZ tS Pros & Cons

Motorsport wins
1 - Incredible fun.
2 - Improved skills.
3 - Can be affordable.

Motorsport sins
1 - Maintenance.
2 - Highly addictive.
3 - Post-event blues.

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