TOCHIGI, JAPAN – The Toyobaru. The Subieyota. After hearing about them for what seems forever but actually is more like four years, the jointly developed rear-wheel-drive sports cars from Subaru and Toyota finally are coming to market.

Both auto makers have been down this road before; Subaru, with its front-wheel-drive XT of the 1980s and SVX of the 1990s and Toyota with its Celica, MR2 and MR2 Spyder. All burned bright and then burned out.

Will the BRZ and its clones, the Toyota 86 overseas and Scion FR-S in the U.S., meet similar fates?

Based on our drive of the BRZ, it appears the trio has a good shot at making it, providing the auto makers keep their models fresh with variants and well-marketed. Subaru already is hinting at turbocharged and drop-top versions.

The car, which is a near-mechanical twin of the 86/FR-S save for some suspension tuning, lives up to its hype on our test drive here. The BRZ, which is short for Boxer Rear Zenith, should be one of the lightest cars in its segment when it goes on sale in the U.S. this spring.

Subaru estimates its weight at 2,770 lbs. (1,256 km). The Japanese model is slightly lighter at 2,690 lbs. (1,220 km) because of the absence of items such as navigation that will be standard in the U.S. model.

The BRZ is 1,000 lbs. (454 kg) lighter than the Chevrolet Camaro, weighs 500 lbs. (227 kg) less than the 2.0L turbocharged Hyundai Genesis coupe and is 100 lbs. (45 kg) lighter than the  Honda Civic Si.

However, the Subaru sports car is slightly heavier than the new, similarly sized but power-deficient Hyundai Veloster, which weighs 2,657 lbs. (1,205 kg) equipped with a 6-speed dual-clutch transmission.

The BRZ’s lightness largely is due to its all-aluminum engine and use of high-tensile steel in its frame. As with the new Impreza compact, 1,500 MPa-grade steel is used in the BRZ. For more weight-savings, the sports car’s hood is made of aluminum and it has a specially designed saddle-style resin fuel tank located under the backseat.

Subaru estimates the BRZ’s highway fuel economy is 30 mpg (7.8 L/100 km). That’s good but not great, considering portlier competitors, such as the 2.0T Genesis coupe, match that figure.

Much of the BRZ was designed around its 2.0L 4-cyl. boxer engine, which carries the FA designation, not FB like the 2.0L boxer from the ’12 Subaru Impreza. The FA takes up less space and will be used only for the near term in the BRZ. However, it reportedly may see use in the next WRX.

The FA is Subaru’s first perfectly square engine, with an 86 x 86-mm bore and stroke. Engineers here say the numbers are coincidental and not a Toyota mandate. The engine is placed some 4.7 ins. (12 cm) lower and 9.4 ins. (24 cm) farther back than the FB engine in the Impreza.

The FA also is Subaru’s first engine to use direct injection, via Toyota’s DI and port-injection D4S system. While D4S means the BRZ needs premium fuel, a Subaru engineer here says the system adds at least 10 hp, likely allowing the U.S. version to achieve 200 hp, officials say.

However, that figure and the 0-60 mph (97 km/h) time of under 7 seconds are not groundbreaking. The much-loved, first-generation turbocharged all-wheel-drive Mitsubishi Eclipse made a maximum 195 hp and did 0-60 mph in the mid 6-second range. But trust us, the BRZ feels faster and more powerful than the specs suggest.

The BRZ is equipped with Aisin-sourced 6-speed manual and automatic transmissions. The former is 80% changed from the supplier’s traditional 6-speed manual to maximize shift feel, while the automatic is 20% upgraded. WardsAuto experiences a manual-like gritty shift feel with the automatic.

The automatic has sport and manual modes, with sport mode maintaining a mid- to high-rpm range and able to hold a gear, especially useful in aggressive cornering.

Depending on the transmission, pedals also are raked differently, with the manual’s version perfectly situated for heel-toe shifts, Subaru says.

After driving both the manual and automatic versions of the BRZ on Subaru’s high-speed oval track and on a variety of handling courses, the words “fun” and “civilized” spring to mind. The electric power steering, with its motor located near the steering wheel for weight balance, feels heavy and precise, despite a few in our group complaining of understeer.

The ride from the driver’s seat is not overly harsh despite the pock-marked pavement course here.

The low, 18.1-in. (46-cm) center of gravity, less than that of Mazda’s MX-5 Miata and RX-8, BMW M3 and Subaru’s own STI, helps temper body roll. But it doesn’t prevent the car from pouncing, cat-like through the zig-zag handling course, where, even with traction control engaged, the rear breaks loose on our automatic-transmission car twice before regaining control.

Our tires seemingly meld with the pavement on the high-speed oval, where speeds exceed 110 mph (177 km/h) and the engine’s 7,400-rpm redline is tickled.

The BRZ has an exclusive suspension, although Subaru based it on existing systems from WRX and STI models. The front uses MacPherson struts and the rear employs a double wishbone.

Vibration is minimal even at the highest speeds. And the exhaust sound, partially an illusion thanks to a sound amplifier, never comes across as hoarse or strained. But the FA 4-cyl. engine has a somewhat high-pitched exhaust tone and isn’t as “throaty” as Subaru purports.

Our time in the BRZ is brief and lacks real-world, on-road driving. In the short jaunt to the test track, the cars are mild-mannered at low rpm, but a broader test on U.S. city streets would be more telling.

The BRZ’s interior is typical of a sports car: all black with red stitching on the door panels, steering wheel, shifter surround and parking-brake lever.

Subaru splurges in the most visible places, with soft-touch material on the top-tier of the instrument panel and upper door panels. The airplane-inspired switches on the center stack provide a nice touch and set the Subaru model apart the from the Toyota/Scion versions.

Unfortunately, the BRZ’s headliner material is rat fur, although sheared and less furry than most.

And in lieu of metal, there is an inexpensive-looking, silver-painted trim piece prominent on the lower IP. Plus, the door panel employs a large perforated hard-plastic piece.

Cabin comfort is relative. Front passengers are lucky to enjoy forward seats that are perhaps the most-supportive we’ve seen, with generous side bolsters to grip the upper and lower body during aggressive driving, minimizing stress and strain. The Japanese auto maker says the rear seat is suitable for two adults. Perhaps for the home market, but we find the space cramped.

Not only is the BRZ set low, but so are the seats, with rear passengers barely able to fit their feet under the front seats. Backseat head space isn’t generous, but we’ve seen worse.

The BRZ’s styling, almost identical to the 86/FR-S, is disappointing. It’s not nearly as aggressive as the three concept models. The show cars had some angularity and sculpted sheet metal not found on the production versions, which lack the sex appeal of American and Italian sports cars, or even the early Eclipses and Miatas.

The front fascias differentiate the Subaru and Toyota/Scion versions. The BRZ’s face wears a black bar atop its grille, lending an aggressive look.

Subaru will have two well-appointed BRZ grades available at launch: Premium and Limited.

Navigation with a touch screen will be standard, along with a Torsen limited-slip rear differential, high-intensity-discharge headlights and heated mirrors.

Heated seats and dual-zone climate control are optional. All U.S. BRZs will get 17-in. wheels and tires, up from 16-in. versions on the Japan models.

So after four long years, the BRZ actually lives up to the hype. It’s everything a sports car should be: light, fast and fun, even with many of today’s creature comforts.

But Subaru’s 5,000-unit annual sales goal for the U.S. may be a bit optimistic. The brand has no experience retailing a rear-wheel-drive sports car.

The target buyer, a late-30s male with an $89,000 annual household income, may be more realistic than the young dudes Scion hopes will purchase the FR-S. But due to the still-gloomy economic conditions in the U.S., even Subaru’s demographic may not feel confident enough to spend $25,000-ish (exact pricing still to come) for what realistically is a 2-seat sports car.

Buyers in the higher income brackets shopping for such a vehicle might prefer the prestige that comes with owning a Porsche or BMW.

Still, both the BRZ and FR-S deserve a close look from American auto enthusiasts.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com

 

’13 Subaru BRZ

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive 4-passenger, 2-door sports car

Engine:2.0L DOHC 4-cyl., aluminum block/head, gasoline direct/port injection

Power (SAE net):197 @ 7,000 rpm (redline 7,400)

Torque:151 lb.-ft. (205 Nm) at 6,400-6,600 rpm

Compression ratio:12.5:1

Bore x stroke (mm):86 x 86

Transmission: 6-speed manual

Wheelbase:101.2 in.(257 cm)

Overall length: 166.7 ins. (424 cm)

Overall width:69.9 ins. (176 cm)

Overall height: 50.6 ins. (129 cm)

Curb weight:2,770 lbs. (1,256 kg)

Price: $25,000 est.

Fuel economy: 30 mpg (7.8 L/100 km) highway (city undetermined)

Competition:Scion FR-S, Mazda Miata, Hyundai Genesis Coupe, Mini Cooper S, Honda Civic Si

 

Pros/Cons

Fling-able and fun            Keeping sales going

Feels powerful                        200-hp Eclipse 20 years ago

Front seats comfy            Rear passenger space cramped for Americans