Wednesday November 28, 2012

BENNINGTON -- So what makes a great sports car - gobs of horsepower? Steamroller tires and prodigious amounts of grip? A huge wing tacked on the rear?

In a word, the best have always been about balance. Sure, straight-line acceleration needs to be up to snuff to quickly bring the car to a high rate of speed, but your model sports car also needs brakes up to the task, and a suspension that can handle the corners.

In terms of turns, the car needs balance there too. The best performing allow the driver the ability to turn in and take a set, hit the apex, and then roll on the throttle as the car tracks out, with ease, duping the driver into thinking they’re the next Mario Andretti.

The worst meanwhile are difficult to drive, don’t want to turn, or simply break. Many have succeeded in one category or another but still come up short because of glaring deficiencies.

Did the mid-engine Pontiac Fiero ever stand a chance once they started spontaneously catching fire? The all-new 2013 Subaru BRZ (and its identical sibling the Scion FR-S) strikes a balance as a lightweight, affordable sports car during a time when such options are dwindling. That’s good news for people who enjoy cars.

Of course, "balanced" in the sports car world doesn’t confer the same connotations as what can be expected in other segments. The BRZ eschews easy ingress/egress for a lowslung, swept-back styling and side profile. Marketed as a "2+2," the twodoor coupe does indeed contain four seats -- just don’t expect to fit anyone in the rear who has legs. (And before you venture back there for a test, have the fire department on speed dial with extrication equipment handy.) In addition to space and utility constraints, the BRZ also sets itself apart from the rest of the Subaru line in that the powerplant only powers two wheels: The rear ones. The marked departure for Subaru comes as a result of the car being jointly developed with Toyota, ergo the also-available Scion (sold abroad as a Toyota). Discernible differences between the two include revisions to the front fascia and an optional spoiler and higher trim levels on the Subaru (more features, like the 6.1-inch touch-screen navigation).

Based on the Impreza platform, the BRZ includes a Subaru signature horizontally opposed "boxer" engine, although mounting points are stuck lower in the engine bay for a reduced center of gravity. The lower dimensions can be easily confirmed by a quick peak under the hood.

The 2.0-liter, four cylinder powerplant is naturally aspirated but features a high 12.5:1 compression ratio that results in a peaky 200 horsepower and 151 lb-ft of torque. Sound underwhelming? The BRZ carries around less mass -- a base curb weight of 2,762 pounds for the manual transmission car. While not a fire-breather, it still manages to quickly scoot to extra-legal speeds. Understandably, the BRZ is a "second car" for most prospective buyers, many of whom may be new to the brand. It’s also the type of car to illicit cackles of glee, at least from its driver. Passengers may gasp, while passersby will certainly take notice; particularly our friends in law enforcement. (Choose the as-tested WR Blue Pearl or Lightning Red for the best effect on the latter.) The front-engine, rear-wheel drive BRZ stacks up most closely to open-top icons like the Mazda Miata, still in production, and the Honda S2000 which ceased being built in 2009.

And in comparison ...

For comparison’s sake, buyers might also look to the Nissan 370Z, Hyundai Genesis Coupe, or BMW 1 Series -- although each fit into a slightly different, larger niche. The 1 Series, for example, measures six inches longer and taller, but has a narrower width and track (the distance between wheels), and also carries an additional 500 pounds -- and a starting price of more than $5,000 over the BRZ.

The 2013 Hyundai Genesis Coupe 2.0 meanwhile pumps out 274 horsepower and 275 lb-ft of torque, at a starting price of $25,125 -- but it hauls around 3,294 pounds.

As Miata owners already know, the sales pitch for the lightweight, lower-powered combination is simply to drive one. My test vehicle was a six-speed manual in Premium trim carrying a starting Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price of $25,495.

For an additional $2,000 in Limited trim, you get fog lights, trunk spoiler, Alcantara and leather upholstery, heated front seats and side mirrors, dual-zone climate control, keyless access and start, and an antitheft security system. It’s a toss-up if you have the cash.

Irrespective of trim, the BRZ conjures up good first impressions, from the outside extending onwards to the first time you squeeze into the driver’s seat. "Performance design" seats provide excellent side bolstering for the fun to come, while snazzy red stitching accents the seats, steering wheel, and interior door surfaces. The cockpit and truncated greenhouse envelopes occupants, but there’s adequate space for most front passengers to avoid feeling confined.

That svelte exterior is good for a slippery drag coefficient of .29 -- besting any Subaru since the automaker’s luxury/performance model of the 1990s, the commercially unsuccessful SVX.

On first take-off, the BRZ’s manual gearbox reveals a tight shifter with short throws and light, "on-off" clutch feel that results in snappy up- and down-shifts. The six-speed features shorter revised ratios and a reverse gear placed to the left of first.

Around town, the ride is noticeably firm but not punishing. Occupants will feel each pothole and frost heave, but the bumps are dampened and, depending on your tolerance, livable for everyday driving.

Similar to the high-revving S2000, the BRZ makes peak power up high, meaning the car needs to be fully wound out to be appreciated. Provide the right inputs, and the BRZ will show its driver some appreciation in return.

The BRZ communicates well, sending feedback on what’s happening at each contact patch. Steering feel is initially light but tightens as the car takes a set through turns. And the BRZ likes to turn: It’s quick and nimble in transitions thanks in large part to its RWD configuration and light weight. Contributing to neutral handling is a weight distribution of 53 percent front, 47 percent rear.

Through higher speed corners (Route 2 from Massachusetts to New York, for instance), the BRZ demonstrates tenacious grip exceeding what one might expect from a car shod in original equipment tires fresh off the dealer lot. In low speed, tighter maneuvers, the RWD aids in turning the car with a smooth and expected transition to oversteer.

The BRZ also includes electronic traction and stability control, the latter of which is now required by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on all new light vehicles (beginning with 2012 models). Using computer sensors to detect wheel speed, steering angle, and the vehicle’s motion, such systems can independently brake one or more wheels, or reduce engine power, as the vehicle loses traction to aid the driver in regaining control.

The NHTSA estimates that universal stability control across all light vehicles could save between 5,300 and 9,600 lives annually. For spirited driving, where slip angles might exceed those experienced on a daily grocery run, such electronic nannies quickly become a hindrance.

The BRZ has buttons for that.

The car defaults in what could be described as a "newly licensed teen driver" setting that abruptly corrects the slightest wheel spin. That’s not to say you want to toss Johnny the keys, as an intermediate "VSC Sport" setting allows a certain amount of slip and is less intrusive in its corrections; but a flashing light still illuminates to tell you when it has had enough.

Holding down an alternate traction button for about three seconds fully disengages the stability control, useful for the weekend track day where the BRZ will assuredly feel at home.

And these cars really should make it to the track - let’s say Lime Rock Park -- to fully utilize the potential available here. Woe to the BRZ that spends its days cruising public roads, simply looking flashy and turning heads. Like any good sports car, the BRZ needs to be fully uncorked to be totally appreciated.