2017 Subaru BRZ first drive review

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Remember when fun-to-drive cars were rear-wheel drive? When neutral handling trumped tricked-out suspensions with variable-ratio everything? When manual gearboxes weren't just available, but standard?

The Subaru BRZ is trying to save sports cars with headsmackingly simple counterprogramming. It's heroic stuff, stuff that would have been written about in the ancient sagas, if those sagas had had a first-drive column.

It's so straightforward and unironic, it's almost impossible for a Gen Xer to bear. The car world is powering through the adaptive-everything era, stepping into uncharted territory with autonomy and electricity, obsessed with kilowatt-hours and charge times, and the BRZ is worried about...turn-in feel.

It is just nailing the Twitter-friendliest proverb of them all: you do you.

Sharpen the reflexes, loosen the stability-control apron strings, the BRZ does better by itself for 2017 in lots of little ways.

You might find all of them if you go on the hardcore Easter-egg hunt I did last week. The sketchy itinerary included a 12-hour trip through Russian airspace, a fearsome Fuji Speedway draped in mist and fog, four hours of bus rides without a single hottodoggu break, and a track pack of right-hand-drive 2017 BRZs, their stability control switches turned off.

2017 Subaru BRZ

2017 Subaru BRZ

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Weekend update

For its fifth year on sale, the BRZ isn't trying to change the world, or any of its charming fundamentals. It's a real sports car, focused entirely on its low center of gravity and its near-perfect weight distribution.

It's red meat for fan boys, in a small niche of sportscars that also includes the Mazda MX-5 Miata, not to mention the BRZ's fraternal twin. Now it's called the Toyota 86, but in years prior it took its victory laps under the Scion FR-S banner. 

This is not a huge universe the BRZ inhabits. Since March of 2012, Subaru's sold more than 55,000 copies around the world, about 26,000 of them in the U.S. For every BRZ you might see in the wild, you'll see five Mustangs--or more, if you're on California's Highway 1 or Maui or anywhere else with significant fleets of rental convertibles.

This is the BRZ's most comprehensive touch-up since it launched as a 2013 model. The slight alterations to the two-door coupe shape cover more moderate changes to its suspension, purposeful choices made to tighten up its act.

2017 Subaru BRZ

2017 Subaru BRZ

Enlarge Photo
2017 Subaru BRZ

2017 Subaru BRZ

Enlarge Photo
2017 Subaru BRZ

2017 Subaru BRZ

Enlarge Photo

On the 2017 BRZ, the front end wears most of the visible upgrades. A new front bumper cap flanks new LED fog lights with body-color winglets, giving the car a bit more connection with the ground. The headlights are now full-LED units, a first for Subaru, and integrate the car’s daytime running lights.

Other visual stamps include a standard rear spoiler, full-LED taillights, and new wheel patterns.

The cockpit goes through only a modest refresh. A redesigned leather-wrapped steering wheel is a bit smaller than before. Limited-trim cars get a wrapped instrument cluster hood and seats embroidered with the BRZ logo.

Limited cars also received a 4.2-inch display in the instrument cluster with additional gauges. There's a lap-time stop watch, a G-meter, a braking-force and a steering-angle indicator, and readouts for oil and water temperature, and battery voltage.

2017 Subaru BRZ

2017 Subaru BRZ

Enlarge Photo
2017 Subaru BRZ

2017 Subaru BRZ

Enlarge Photo
2017 Subaru BRZ

2017 Subaru BRZ

Enlarge Photo

Track-day tweaks

The BRZ gets the equivalent of a deep-tissue massage for its mechanical innards. It's a refresh so soothing and subtle, the premium gas it drinks should probably come with a cucumber slice and an Enya playlist.

The flat-four is revamped lightly, and only when it's teamed with the 6-speed manual. A net of 5 additional horsepower comes from a more extensively reinforced engine block, tougher valve stems, and lower-friction cams and piston heads. The manual BRZ breathes a little bit better with an aluminum intake manifold taking over for the former plastic unit; it's a bit freer-breathing but taller, which means the trim cover over it has been ditched. (To make it look nice, it's painted a shade of red just outside of Italian copyright law.)

The vocal, moderately scootworthy flat four does what it needs to in the BRZ, but not much more. It can grunt its way out of low-speed corners so long as you keep the revs high. A Torsen limited-slip differential is standard, and helps keep the rear wheels in harmony as the car exits tighter corners. We've been praying for turbocharged STI magic fingers, but at this stage of its life, the BRZ will take what it can get.

Total output checks in at 205 horsepower and 156 pound-feet of torque. With the 6-speed paddle-shifted automatic, it's a carry-over with only the addition of the engine-block reinforcements, and power stays at 200 hp and 151 lb-ft.

Of course, we'd point you to the BRZ's short-throw 6-speed manual. It's precise and engages its gears with the snicky touch of a fencer's epee. Out in the real world, the 6-speed automatic is probably the right choice, and given its steering-wheel paddle shifters, sport mode, and downshift rev matching, it's not a bad one. But in a nice show of priorities, Subaru says only a quarter of these cars go home with someone with an automatic.

Automatics get better fuel economy, too, but both versions are admirably efficient, just like a 911 or a 718 Boxster. The stats for 2017 aren't out yet, but with so few changes, the BRZ's 2016 numbers of 25 mpg city, 34 highway, 28 combined for the automatic should still register higher than the 6-speed manual, at 22/30/25 mpg.


 
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