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2013 Subaru BRZ: Back to the basic sports car

Subaru's version of the joint project with Scion is a blast to drive


by: SUBARU OF AMERICA INC. - Crisp styling and refereshing performance should make the 2013 Subaru BRZ a hit.Subaru and Scion have set Mr. Peabody’s WABAC machine for the days of simple sports car. How simple? Simple like really small, with only one underpowered engine, sparse interiors, limited options, hard to get in and out of, and no need to read the owner’s manual. Simple like the first TR3, MGB, Datsun 240Z, Mazda RX7 and Mazda Miata.

Sound like Improbable History? Well, the results are in and the 2013 Subaru BRZ is the most basic and fun to drive new sports car in decades. Not the fastest. Not the one with the most technology. But the most like sports cars used to be — entertaining because you sit low to the ground, are encouraged to ring every bit of power from the noisy engine under the hood, and it instantly goes where you point it.

Although we haven't had a chance to drive the Scion FR-S yet, it is so mechanically similar, we imagine it must be at least as enjoyable.

And they are both affordable, beginning at around $25,000 and topping out at under $30,000 for the most expensive models. In a week of driving Subaru’s version in a mix of downtown, suburban and freeway traffic, we found it to be one of the most enjoyable cars we’ve tested in many, many years.

In truth, the BRZ and FR-S differ from some of the earlier sports cars in a number of important ways. They are hardtops not convertibles, making them more like the MGB GT, 240Z and RX7. But, unlike those three cars, they are not hatchbacks. Like the Nissan 350Z, they are fastbacks with trunks.

The engine is also different from the earlier in-line ones, although not as unique at the rotary powerplant in the RX7. Instead, it is a horizontally-opposed four-cylinder “Boxer” engine, which is what Subaru uses in all of its cars. It was developed primarily by Subaru, which says it is entirely different from the other all-new 2.0-liter engine in the revamped Impreza.

The BRZ engine is rated at 200 horsepower and 151 foot-pounds of torque. That's significantly more horsepower than the 148 in Subaru's other new 2.0-liter engine, but only a little more torque than its 145 foot-pounds.

Porsche has used such a design for years, of course, but this one is mounted in the front of the BRZ, like every other Subaru model. Unlike them, is not offered with all-wheel-drive, either standard or as an option. This makes the BRZ the only two-wheel-drive car Subaru sells.

So why do it then? Well, the answer from the company is, without the all-wheel-drive components, the engine can be mounted lower and farther back in the car, giving it a lower center of gravity and better weight distribution. And that’s important because — here Mr. Peabody is repeating himself — the goal was to make a simple sports car that handles well, like they used to.

After a week of driving under all conditions, we are ready to declare the trip to the past a complete success. In fact, we were impressed after just the first few minutes. Our butts were mere inches off the ground, making everything seem fast. The engine was noisy, rough, underpowered and a blast to continuously rev up as high as possible. The six speed manual gearbox was one of the sweetest we’ve every tested. The steering was light and precise, the brakes were susprislngly strong, and the car was so well balanced that cornering was a much fun as straight-line acceleration, maybe even more.

The BRZ also looks great — low, sleek and uncluttered, with a tapered nose that flows up into a flared but not fat rear end. It attacted attention everywhere we went, including questions from people who both did and did not know what it was. Everyone immediately understood our explanation that it was a return to the earlier days of simple sports cars, and they liked the idea.

In fact, the only modern touch is the least enjoyable part of the car, the integrated entertainment/navigation system that uses the touchscreen for selecting just about everything. It worked but seemed crude, as though designed for children. But it helped keep the dash, console and steering wheel free from the multiple buttons and knobs that clutter most interiors these days.

Just about the only major option is a six-speed automatic transmission. We think that might undermine the basic concept of the car, but at least it comes with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters for those who enjoy them.

The only complaints will be coming from anyone forced to sit in the tiny back seats, but that was true for any of the older 2+2 sports cars, too.

We don’t know how different the Scion FR-S drives, if at all. Although we can’t imagine how the BRZ can be improved, we’ll let you know if we find out. Maybe the idea is to make one for Mr. Peabody and one for Sherman.

Facts and figures (all models)

Model tested: 2013 BZR.

Manufacturer: Subaru.

Class: Compact sports car.

Layout: Front engine, rear-wheel-drive

Style: 2+2 coupe.

Engine: 2.0-liter flat four cylinder (200 hp, 151 ft-lbs).

Transmissions: Six-speed manual (as tested); six-speed automatic with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters.

EPA estimated city/highway/average mileage: (engine/transmission): 22/30/25 (2.0/manual); 25/34/28 (2.0/automatic).

Price: Beginning at approximately $25,000 ($26,265 as tested).