Sporty car fans were surprised to learn three years ago that behemoth automaker Toyota was teaming up with diminutive Subaru to create a jointly sold coupe. Subaru would get the job of adapting a powertrain to a sleek body crafted by Toyota. Each car would wear different faces and have unique handling and interior refinements that would identify the rear-drive car with its respective brand.
Toyota elected to sell its model, the FR-S, under the Scion badge in a further attempt to jump-start languishing sales at the company’s entry-level dealerships. Eschewing the venerable Celica badge looks like a mistake now.
Subaru would market the rear-drive coupe — a recent first for the generally AWD automaker — as the BRZ. Again, perhaps a more descriptive nameplate might have helped buyers create some association to the car, a la Mustang, Camaro, Challenger — the midsize coupes that are selling rather nicely.
Despite critical acclaim, the BRZ/FR-S twins are not setting the sales charts afire. Pundits have poked, prodded, and otherwise grilled the two little speedsters and proclaimed them equally fun, great small performance cars for the price, and reliable machines for a new generation of millennial drivers.
In year three, sales are tepid. Year-to-date, BRZ sales are just over 2,800 units (through the end of June). Scion FR-S sales are double that due mostly to a much larger dealer network. For context, Toyota has sold 215,000 Camry sedans in the same period, or roughly 1,200 each day.
As the market shifts to more crossovers, pickup trucks, and luxury sedans, sports cars — at least the compact class entries — are taking a hit. Corvette sales continue to grow, as do Jaguar F-Type, while Porsche sales are steady — if not expanding. Other than Chevy’s C7 Corvette, with 41 percent of two-seater/sports car sales, none of these marquees is generating what one would consider significant sales numbers.
So what is the issue? Why are buyers not embracing what are easily the most fun small cars available, or for that matter, ever produced? After a week in the visually exciting Subaru BRZ — in resplendid Blue Pearl Paint — my conclusion is a lack of power.
The BRZ has taut handling, (the ride is almost too firm and unforgiving for winter-ravaged roads) crisp steering, and serious brakes — although the brake pedal could have less of a wooden feel. The engine snarls, the shifter is easy to snick through the gears, and the cabin supports whatever exaggerated driving you want to pursue.
Yet, the BRZ never felt “fast.” The 2.0-liter boxer engine is eager; however, 200 hp did not make my spine tingle with excitement. Compared to a VW GTI, which only has 10 hp more, the GTI’s turbo engine creates drama, hurried power that can be summoned easily at any rev, in any gear, the turbo pushing the car to elevated velocities without any extra effort other than planting your right foot. The lighter BRZ does not feel as quick and definitely lacks the torque available from the VW’s turbo motor. The BRZ is crying out for the WRX’s turbocharged engine.
The cabin is also noisy — too much tire, wind and road noise assaults your aural senses. With no notable exhaust note to exhibit some sporting intensions, the BRZ fails part of the sniff test for a sporty car — the sensory rewards that you hear, and feel, when you plant your accelerator foot.
Honda’s departed S2000 had the same traits. You could zing the 2.0-liter engine to its 8,500-rpm redline, but the mechanical commotion discouraged this action in everyday life. Not many of us truly drive our cars “like-you-stole-it.” I felt the same with the BRZ.
Comparisons to Mazda’s long-running Miata MX-5 are also inevitable. While the BRZ is longer and offers a nominal rear seating space for two persons lacking legs, there is no convertible version. The Miata, a convertible with a hard-top edition, also packs crisp responses like the BRZ — steering, braking, and turning efforts are right-now extensions of your brain’s efforts to operate the car quickly.
In addition, the Miata accomplishes its sporting maneuvers with more suspension compliance, more ride comfort than the STI-package equipped BRZ. Shod with low-profile sports tires on handsome 17-inch alloy STI wheels, the Subaru was a firm-riding coupe with twitchy steering on broken surfaces. The aggressive stance — with a low-hanging splitter crossing the front fascia just inches above the road — signals road course supremacy, which may very well be the BRZ’s forte.
But there is no denying the BRZ’s street presence. The car just looks fast, even at rest. The WRX/STI series inspired blue paint is gorgeous — everyone commented, and lots of people just plain stared — and the handsome alloy wheels with red-painted brake calipers surely add to the image. Sitting low, very low, access is an athletic exercise not suited to everyone.
The logbook was not all whining; nice clutch, snick-snick shifter, push-button ignition, supportive Alcantara suede sport seats, comfortable steering wheel (with controls) plus fuel economy stats revealed a consistent 30 miles per gallon regardless of my pace. EPA ratings are 22/30/25 mpg and base pricing starts at just under $26,000. As shown, our STI-trimmed BRZ stickers for $30,285.
Subaru and Toyota have teamed up to build a nice beginner sports car. Edition two needs more optional power, or a performance model with lots more power, as well as a convertible version should be on the agenda. Lacking those two changes, the BRZ could become another highly regarded car that just didn’t have the mass appeal to generate any kind of sales numbers. No automaker has room in their portfolio for products like that.