By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
It has taken almost 25 years but — finally — someone has figured out how to build a better Miata.
Subaru — and Toyota.
The union has resulted in brilliant and most unusual (for their respective parents) offspring: the Subaru BRZ (subject of this review) and its fraternal twin, the Scion FR-S.
It’s the first rear-drive car Toyota has put out in years. And it’s the first non-AWD car Subaru has put out in decades.
They both do everything the much-beloved Miata does — only better. And they give you several things the Miata can’t — such as back seats.
And a boxer engine.
Well, there is one thing the twins can’t do for you: Muss your hair. Because — for now — the BRZ and FR-S are only offered in hardtop coupe form. A convertible version is probably inevitable, though. Because once word gets out about the endless goodness of this car — well, these cars — demand will make it so.
Miata, move over.
It may be all over.
WHAT IT IS
The BRZ (and FR-S) are sports cars. 190 proof, no-nonsense, no BS, real-deal sports cars. Like Miata — only so much better. Low-mounted flat-four boxer engine and 200 hp. Driving dynamics you have to experience to appreciate — after which you will be sorely tempted to sell your oldest daughter to a Saudi sheik — if that’s what it takes to get the $25k or so it takes to acquire one of these things. The best automatic transmission on the market. Yes, a six-speed manual is standard — as it ought to be — but the automatic in this car — anticipatory (and rev-matched) double downshifts, spot-on upshifts — is just as good. Maybe better.
God, I could go on and on.
Prices start at $25,495 for the base (but very nicely equipped) BRZ Premium with six-speed manual. The same car with the optional six-speed automatic starts at $26,595. There’s a step-up Limited trim with more luxury and technology equipment, including high-end leather/suede interior, dual-zone climate control and heated seats. It starts at $27,495 for the manual version, $28,595 with the automatic.
The BRZ is priced just a notch above the functionally identical Scion FR-S, which starts at $24,200 and tops out at $25,300.
Though neither car is available — yet — in roadster form, the obvious target is Mazda’s Miata ($23,720-$30,350) which has been the hegemonic ruler of the affordable sports car world since its introduction back in 1989.
The BRZ and FR-S are also likely to deeply cut into sales of higher-end sport roadsters such as BMW’s Z4 — $47,350 to start — for which you could almost buy a BRZ and an FR-S.
The works. The BRZ (and FR-S) are brand-new models.
If handling and fun to drive were translated into IQ, this car would rate genius.
No, super genius.
Superbly good six-speed automatic — if you swing that way.
More interior space than Miata.
34 MPG on the highway — with the optional automatic.
No “chick car” issues.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
No convertible — yet.
30 MPG on the highway with the standard manual.
A bit beefy (2,762 lbs. vs. 2,480 for the convertible Miata).
Probable dealer mark-up.
UNDER THE HOOD
From the Subaru side of this collaboration comes the 2.0 liter flat-four “boxer” engine that’s standard equipment in both the BRZ and the Scion-badged FR-S. This engine produces 200 hp — 33 hp more than Miata’s also 2.0 liter four cylinder engine. But far more important than how much more hp the BRZ and FRS offer is how the hp is produced.
The Mazda’s engine is a conventional in-line four, with its cylinders all lined up in a row and upright. The Sciobaru’s engine has pairs of cylinders laid on their sides (horizontally) opposed and mounted low. This puts the weight of the engine lower in the chassis — and also spreads it out more evenly — both of which confer advantages when it comes to handling. (Ask any Porsche driver.) It also permits a very low hoodline — a visibility and aerodynamic advantage.
So far, so good.
Ditto the BRZ/FR-S’s gearboxes — both the standard six speed and the optional six-speed automatic — which (in Sport mode) does anticipatory throttle blip double downshifts, among other tricks.
Everyone who’s read about the Sciobaru drivetrain knows how good it is. Brilliant, actually. Especially in a car with a $24k price floor.
But, there’s a catch — 282 of them, actually. That’s the difference in curb weight between the “twins” and the Miata: 2,762 lbs. vs. 2,480 lbs. The Miata is appropriately weighted — the Sciobaru isn’t. It’s nearly 2,800 lbs. empty — and with a 200 pound driver in board it’s over 3,000 lbs. That is heavy for such a little car — for a sports car.
It’s the reason why, despite its significant power advantage over the Miata, it’s a dead heat between the two as far as acceleration. Both cars get to 60 in just under 7 seconds (with manual transmission; the automatic versions of either car are a few tenths slower).
If the Sciobaru weighed the same as the Miata, it would smoke the Miata. And the fact is, the Sciobaru ought to weigh less than the Miata — because it (the Sciobaru) is a hardtop coupe and hardtops usually weigh less than convertibles — because they don’t need the extra body reinforcement to make up for the loss of roof structure.
Mazda’s ace in the hole, despite the Miata being an older design (and arguably, a less sexy design) is that it’s — somehow, miraculously — not a fatty.
So how come the Sciobaru is (for what it is)? My guess is it was designed to anticipate the next round of government crashworthiness standards — which usually means more mass (and so, more weight).
The current Miata may only be a lightweight for now. It will be interesting to see whether the next Miata porks out, too.
One other thing. The manual BRZ (and FR-S) is not a little bit less fuel efficient than the same car with the optional automatic: 22 city, 30 highway vs. 25 city, 34 highway. Of course, you pay about $1,000 more to get the extra 4 MPG on top.
One other thing: Subaru (and Scion) urge premium fuel only. Regardless of transmission. The Mazda Miata is ok sipping regular.
One more thing: Check out the location of the oil filter. It’s right there in top of the engine — making oil filter changes an almost no-tools-required job.
ON THE ROAD
Every once in a blue moon, a car comes along that does for jaded car journalists — who routinely get to drive all sorts of new cars, including exotics — what going for a ride in an F-18 probably does for other people.
The BRZ is such a car.
I did not want to surrender the keys. I have toyed with buying one. That almost never happens. It happened this time.
I’ve driven every sports car — just about — that’s been sold during the past 20-something years. Everything from kit car Lotus 7s to the BMW Z8 Alpina. In between there have been S2000s and NSXs, MR2s, Exiges and Caymans. Z4s — and many Miatas. All of them in their own ways, outstanding cars.
But all of them, in their own ways, limited in one way or another. Sometimes, more than one way.
Some — like the Alpina and Z4 and Cayman — are rich men’s toy’s. Which is great if you’re rich but not so much if you’re not.
Some — like the S2000 — are terrible at anything less than full scream.
There is a reason why they’ve all failed. Only the Miata has endured.
And the BRZ is better than the Miata.
The boxer engine, for starters. It’s something you don’t encounter in the run-of-the-mill. In-line fours, you do. Nothing wrong with the Miata’s engine. It is peppy enough to be fun — and it has proved itself to be all but unkillable. But it is also nothing special. The Sciobaru’s boxer engine is. Listen to it growl. The sound is like nothing else. So also the fruits of the layout: Crouched low — spread out — vs. a centrally mounted lump of metal. The resultant balance that’s achieved has to be experienced to be believed. This is a car that will challenge you — even if you happen to have an SCCA license in your wallet. But at the same time, it is not a difficult or intimidating car for the person who hasn’t got an SCCA license in his wallet. In this respect, the BRZ is very much like the Miata — and very much unlike a car such as the old Honda S2000, which was brilliant at speed, in the right hands — but frustrating and not much fun otherwise.
Like the Miata, the BRZ could be a daily driver. Its engine — though a sweet little thing when you call upon it — is just as happy at 2,000 RPM as it is at 7,400 RPM.
It’s not unreasonably thirsty — and it’s not unreasonably pricey, either.
It can also be teamed up with what I will state for the record — as someone who has driven just about everything — is perhaps the best automatic transmission on the market. And more than that — an automatic that’s suitable for a sports car. Everything about this transmission is sporty — starting with the shifter, which looks and even operates as close to a manual stick as it’s probably possible to get. The gate moves left-right (and up-down) very much like it would move if you were selecting one of six manual gears. Just behind the shifter lever are the important buttons: Trac off, Sport (or Snow) and — most important, VSC Sport. Press to engage — and disengage most of the electronic intervention. And engage anticipatory (and rev-matching) double downshifts, as when decelerating hard just before entering a turn. Whatever your right hand and left foot would do in a given situation given a clutch and driver control of gear changes, this unit will do for you better — and quicker. There is no slop, ever. No lag time in between shifts. No premature (or late) shifts, either.
Just perfect (and perfectly timed) shifts. Every time.
You can control the action manually if you like via the steering wheel mounted paddle controls, but — trust me — this transmission is smarter than you are. It is also beyond merely “better” than the optional automatic in Miata. That car must be ordered with the stick — or else you’ve ruined the car. With the BRZ and FR-S, you can go either way — and not be disappointed.
This is not only unusual. It is unprecedented. At least, at this price point. The Porsche Cayman’s “PDK” dual-clutch automated manual is superb. As it should be in a car that starts at almost $52k.
At this price point — or within $15k of it — there’s nothing that can touch it.
Now, some reviewers have bitched about the 7 second-ish 0-60 times. That a new Mustang V-6 is much quicker — which it is. In a straight line. But the BRZ driver will have his say when the road is no longer straight. God help the Mustang jockey trying to keep up. That goes for the V-8 Mustang, too. It’s a big, beefy, brawny car that handles very well… for a big, beefy brawny car. Even though I personally wish the BRZ were 300 pounds lighter, a new Mustang (the V-6 Mustang) is almost 700 pounds heavier. It also almost two feet longer (188.1 inches vs. 166.7) , nearly four inches wider through the hips (73.9 inches vs. 69.9) and five inches taller (55.6 inches vs. 50.6). It — and cars like it (Camaro, Challenger — even the Hyundai Genesis coupe ) are huge cars in comparison. And, they feel it.
It’s not that they’re oafish. Just big. Heavy. A handful.
The BRZ isn’t.
The same’s true of the Miata, of course — which accounts for much of its perennial appeal.
But now we come to the fork in the road.
AT THE CURB
Anyone’s who has driven the Miata probably likes the Miata. It is a very likable car. But it has two problems — or at least, problems relative to the BRZ and FR-S.
The first is the much-discussed “chick car” thing. Like it or not — and fair or not — the Miata is harder for a guy (especially a big guy) to drive. He looks a little silly, first of all. It’s not as bad as driving a white VW Rabbit cabriolet. But it’s something like that.
And some guys care about that.
No such worries with either the BRZ or the FR-S (which has somewhat different exterior cosmetics but the same general shape).
There are some derivative styling affectations I would have left off had it been up to me — such as the Aston Martin-ish side vents (trim plates, really — because they’re not functional). But they don’t look silly — and that’s what’s important. Meanwhile, the subtle double speed humps along the roof look very good. The three-piece rear airfoil, too. It’s not over-the-top (WRX Sti) but — to my eye — just right. And the car’s overall squat is perfect.
No chick car issues here.
And even if the chick car thing (as regards Miata) isn’t something you care much about, you probably will care about the Sciobaru’s superior interior.
Obviously, the back seats are useless. For carrying passengers. But you’ve got interior cargo capacity for stuff that you don’t have in the two-seater-only Miata. Plus a bigger trunk on top of that: 6.9 cubic feet vs. 5.3 in the Miata.
The Miata does post more front seat legroom (43.1 inches vs. 41.9 for the BRZ/FR-S) but the measurement that matters more — if you’re not-small — is shoulder room. The Sciobaru has 54.5 inches vs. 53.2 for the Mazda. This is very noticeable if you’re a fairly big guy, as I am. The Miata’s not claustrophobic. But it is a bit tight.
I mentioned the major flaw with this car — as I see it: It’s a few hundred pounds too heavy. But inspect the thing and you’ll discover they tried to keep off the beef. The hood, for instance. It is literally almost paper thin. You could bend it in half by hand. You — not Arnold Schwarzennegger. This car will get hurt badly if it ever hits anything other than the slipstream at 100 MPH. Or rather, your wallet will. This is a fairly common problem with all late-model cars: Extremely thin and dent not-resistant panels — designed to fold and so absorb the energy input during “first contact.” But, wow — this one’s papier-mache thin, almost.
Be very careful raising — and closing — the hood.
More power is needed. Or, less weight (somehow). A true sports car’s primary qualification isn’t how quickly it gets to 60. But the BRZ/FR-S ought to be quicker than Miata, given an almost 40 hp advantage.
One way to possibly fix this might be to offer a “delete option” for AC — and make the fixed front quarter glass moveable. That alone might take 100-150 pounds off.
Finally, there’s the roof issue. Or rather, its lack of absence. One of the Miata’s chief draws is its drop-top. People just like a roadster. Something about warm summer days, the wind in your hair.
I expect this will be addressed soon. Probably, Subaru-Toyota wanted to wait and see what the reaction to the Sciobaru would be before going whole-hog and committing to a convertible.
This car — these cars — are going to be such monster hits as it is that I have no doubt a drop-top is already being prototyped. Give it a year.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Triple aces. Home run. Top of the heap. The Duke of New York and A Number One.
It’s hard to see how it could get any better — though 230 hp and a convertible top would be great place to start.