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2013 Subaru BRZ (Subaru/Subaru)
2013 Subaru BRZ (Subaru/Subaru)

2013 Subaru BRZ

Subaru shows what a real sports car should be Add to ...

Minimalism is a wonderful and generally unusual thing in today's auto industry.

Yet here we have Subaru taking the minimalist road with the highly entertaining 2013 BRZ, a lightweight, low-slung, long-nosed, short-rear-decked gem with just enough horsepower (200) and more than enough balance and precision where it matters most – in the corners, whether they are tight or sweeping, on-camber or off.

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As a driving machine in an age of dizzying Command Control Modules, Multi-media interfaces, iDrive and MyFord Touch and all the electronic features they oversee, the BRZ, with focus its on the driving part, not to mention the Porsche 911-like 2+2 seating configuration, is a throwback to a time when too much horsepower in a sports car was simply gauche, and less was seen as more. Reminds me of the 1960s.

And that, of course, was when the Minimalist tradition in art emerged. Justin Wolf, writing for The Art Story Foundation, describes minimalism as a movement born in the early 1960s that emphasized “cool anonymity” over “hot expressivism.” Minimalist artists such as Frank Stella and Donald Judd avoided “suggestions of spiritual transcendence” (how often have we heard car companies talk about transcendent performance?) and instead “reduced art to the minimum number of colours, shapes, lines and textures.”

This is what Subaru has done with the BRZ. Just as Stella and his ilk favoured the simple or even the austere in their paintings and sculptures, so has Subaru focused on creating a rear-drive sports car that is straightforward and forgiving in the way it handles any number of road types and rally-like challenges. The look is unadorned, too, aside from a few oddball shapes in the BRZ's flanks that confuse rather than delight the exterior design. Stella, known for his geometric shapes, might offer a useful critique of the design, in fact.

Meantime, the cabin is not laden with an overabundance of electronic excesses, especially the base car at $27,295. And it's clear the designers and cost-cutters shared what we'll call a minimalist point of view. That is, black is largely the order of the day for dashboard materials and the like. Heck, even the tiny buttons that line the left side of the Pioneer stereo faceplate are so minute they are impossible for most middle age men to read sans reading glasses. I suppose you can take minimalism too far, but here it's not a deal-breaker in the BRZ.

As a whole, Subaru has gone exactly far enough with only the odd exception. You will enjoy “cool anonymity” if you wheel around in a BRZ. Yes, of course, the cognoscenti will know you're driving a joint-venture sports car, a collaboration between Subaru and Toyota which, by the way, owns 16 per cent of the smaller Japanese company. But for the masses of everyday onlookers, the BRZ's design is not hotly expressive and therefore you will not be overcome with oohs and ahs. Minimalist.

As well, the car is sold in a minimum number of colours – black, white, silver and blue – with just one engine choice and one group of options, the Sport-tech package ($2,000): black leather/Alcantara seating surface, heated front seats, illuminated vanity mirrors, dual-zone climate control, fog lights, a rear trunk spoiler, a push-start ignition and a few other odds and ends.

You can also buy the six-speed automatic gearbox ($1,200) instead of the six-speed manual. You purists should not discount the automatic out of hand. It delivers crisp shifts that you can control with steering wheel paddles. The downshift blip is real and effective, too, and you can dial in a sport shift mode to help snap off faster shifts if you are really feeling randy behind the wheel.

Truthfully, milking the 2.0-litre, four-cylinder engine for all it's worth is part of the fun. Yes, it's a boxer or horizontally-opposed design; the engine and all the engineering, in fact, were done by Subaru, while Toyota handled the design work inside and out and the major part of product planning.

“Make no mistake, this car definitely is a Subaru,” says Anton Pawzuk, who heads up product planning at Subaru Canada. It is, indeed. The BRZ is based on a modified version of the Subaru Impreza hatch and sedan. Except…

Except the idea here was to create a sexy Subaru. Don't laugh, really. The thought of a sexy Subie is like trying to imagine an alluring shot-putter at a track and field meet. Yet…

Yet they do exist, I suppose. The BRZ does and it has the kind of sex appeal Subaru wants to tap into now that the company is fully in expansion mode. The aim is to increase global sales to about one million from the 600,000-700,000 range now. Subaru thinks that to grow the brand, the image must change from safe and sturdy and sensible to, well, something sexier, or at least more expressive.

The BRZ not only is “a new thing we can talk about,” says Pawzuk, it's also a sign of confidence and ambition. Still, Subaru is an inherently conservative company run by engineers and those sympathetic to an engineer's aesthetic. That means the best solutions are the simplest and most elegant, though not always the prettiest.

What does that mean? To keep weight under control without losing strength, Subaru used lots of high-tensile steel. Heck, even the hood is made of aluminum. At 1,255 kilograms, the BRZ is light and, at 459 mm ground-to-crank, this sports car has a lower centre of gravity than a Mazda MX-5 and a BMW M3.

The BRZ's engine is lower and further back than you'll find in any other Subaru, too. The 53/47 per cent front/rear weight distribution doesn't sound overly impressive, yet in driving the car feels balanced and forgiving.

Yes, forgiving is the best way to describe the BRZ. Go hot into a corner and the car is easy to pull back under control. It does not want to oversteer nor understeer, just steer.

Alas, Subaru might have gone just a little too austere with the cabin design. Functional? Yes. That's as positive as I can be. That said, the sporty seats are perfectly snug and surprisingly comfortable, and for such a low car, the visibility is surprisingly functional. As a whole, the BRZ is a success.

I don't want to go overboard, but minimalism here works in all the most important ways other than the look of the cabin. For the latter, more inspiration is required.

Five things to know about the brz

  1. Balance: A sports car needs to be balanced, not tail-happy nor nose heavy. To get there, Subaru's engineers not only pushed the engine further back in the chassis – closer to the centre – they also made that 2.0-litre four-cylinder more compact by, among other things, going with a shorter intake and exhaust manifolds and a shallower oil pan. Heck, they even moved the battery to the rear of the engine compartment to optimize balance.
  2. Engine: Subaru claims the engine is not shared with any other Subaru model. At 100 horsepower per litre, it is powerful enough and, while peak torque comes at 6,400 rpm, the redline is at 7,300 rpm. Premium fuel is recommended and Subaru estimates fuel economy at 9.6 litres/100 km city and 6.6 highway with the manual gearbox.
  3. Chassis: I'm betting the rear double-wishbone suspension is key to how well the BRZ absorbs road imperfections, not to mention imperfect driving – though for the latter, the Torsen limited-slip differential helps, too. The steering is quick and sharp and the small, three-spoke steering wheel (366 mm in all) is an ideal minimalist size.
  4. Design: The roof height is just 1,285 millimetres. That's a sports car. The rest of the car's shape is a combination of muscular fenders, wheels pushed to the edges for low overhangs and squared-off haunches. The latter seem contrived, but not overly offensive.
  5. Space: The rear seatback folds flat. That may not seem like much, but in a sports car it makes a difference. With the seat down, the cargo area expands to 196 litres. You can get two golf bags in there. And those rear seats can handle front-facing child seats, though you'll blow out your back using them, what with all the bending and twisting required.

What's next for the auto maker? Find out here: Subaru: Aiming for growth

jcato@globeandmail.com

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