A mid-cycle refresh brings small changes

The Subaru BRZ has been around since 2013 and has soldiered on unchanged. That is, until the 2017 model year updates have taken hold, bringing a slightly revised face, a new gauge cluster, some minor suspension tuning, and some major engine work that brings, sadly, imperceptible changes. Still, the BRZ makes a solid case for itself as a great driver’s car.

I recently spent a week with the updated 2017 BRZ, driving like I would any normal daily driver. Trips to the grocery store, to church, to the mall, and hauling the wife and kiddo to the in-law’s house all took place. Using the BRZ in this manner revealed some telling negative attributes. Its cabin is loud and cramped, its trunk is small, and the cabin is hard to get out of. However, one trip around a curvy road in the cool of the night with the windows down uncovers the true purpose of this car – to drive. All the negativity falls away revealing a fun, easy-to-handle, machine built to put a smile on your face. Best of all, the BRZ is inexpensive. That character hasn’t changed despite the wide array of changes for 2017.

But beyond these aspects, the 2017 Subaru BRZ offers plenty of desirable attributes for a semi-wide range of customers. Keep reading for the full scoop.

Continue reading for the full driven review.

Video Review


Exterior

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Subaru designers have given the BRZ some minor appearance changes for 2017. In fact, none of the sheet metal changes. The updates are confined the front bumper, headlights, and the rear taillights. Nevertheless, the slight changes give the car a fresh face and more interesting and modern details. Much of those details are found in the LED-studded headlights and taillights. Each light on each corner features a row of six LEDs that perform turn signal duties. The headlights also now feature a C-shaped LED daytime running light that look far more sophisticated that the DRLs from before.

the 2017 Subaru BRZ continues to look sharp and attractive thanks to its fastback coupe design, long hood, and short overhangs.

The only other changes are the rear wing and a new set of wheels. Constructed from aluminum and anodized with black paint, the wing adds more aesthetics than downforce. The BRZ isn’t a high-speed missile, so the effects of this low-mounted wing are likely minimal. Still, it looks really cool.

The new wheels are now standard fare for the BRZ. The 17-inch wheel features a 10-spoke design with machined faces and black-painted pockets. Subaru continues to use the low-grip, 215/45-series Michelin Primacy HP 87W GreenX summer touring tire. Also available are blacked-out aluminum wheels with the BRZ’s Performance Package. The wheels have a different 10-spoke design, but still measure 17x7.5 and use the same tire. Thankfully the Performance Package also brings performance Brembo brakes and Sachs dampers for a more controlled ride.

All told, the 2017 Subaru BRZ continues to look sharp and attractive thanks to its fastback coupe design, long hood, and short overhangs.

The Competition

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2016 Mazda MX-5 High Resolution Exterior
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The BRZ is in a unique category. Few cars out there directly compete with it. The two cars in my mind that come the closest are the Mazda Miata and Chevrolet Camaro. (Check out the “Competition” section below for more of an explanation.)

Anyway, the new Miata’s exterior is far more aggressive than it used to be. Angular lines give it a more purposeful and angry look. The BRZ’s new grille and headlights share, at least to some extent, this same agitated temperament. The Camaro, on the other hand, take a more muscular approach. Obviously designed to fit within the muscle car category, the Camaro has a set-back cabin like the BRZ with a long hood and short overhangs. The Camaro is undeniably American, though, with its wide, tall shoulders and thick hips. Regardless, aesthetics are all a matter of opinion.

Interior

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Like the outside, the BRZ’s cabin hasn’t changed much for the 2017 model year. However, what has changed makes a positive difference. Grab the steering wheel and look at the gauge cluster – you’ve now seen it all. Yep, the BRZ now has a new steering wheel and an updated gauge cluster with a far more informative driver information screen. Everything else is basically the same.

The updated wheel continues to offer a leather-wrapped rim with baseball stitching done in a great red hue that matches the stitching throughout the cabin. Its spokes now have aluminum-finished faces that look far better than the black spokes of 2013 through 2016. New controls make quick work of adjusting radio volume, song selection, input source, voice commands, and operating the new driver information screen. Included also are controls for phone pick-up and hang-up, along with the standard Toyota-style cruise control stock at the four O’clock position.

The BRZ now has a dyno chart that shows how much horsepower and torque the engine should be making at any give rpm.

The new driver information screen is a vast improvement over the180s-style red LCD screen from before. Now a full color screen is present and constantly shows a digital speedometer and fuel gauge. The larger portion hosts a range of engine parameters like oil pressure, coolant temperature, and battery voltage, along with a few menu screens.

Best of all, the display now has a performance page that includes a lap timer, G-meter, and a dyno chart. Yes, the BRZ now has a dyno chart that shows how much horsepower and torque the engine should be making at any give rpm. It might not be the most useful thing in the world, but it does help the driver avoid the dip in torque from 3,400 to 4,400 rpm. It’s also a blast to watch.

The remainder of the cabin soldiers on unchanged. The seats are still nicely bolstered and mostly comfortable, the rear seats are still tiny and almost useless, and the driver’s ergonomics are all very good. The BRZ’ cabin is still loud and could benefit from sound deadening around the wheel wells. Then again, it’s the visceral feeling – that loudness and connectedness that makes the BRZ a fun car to drive.

Like the back seats, the trunk is laughably small. It’s big enough for a weekend’s worth of luggage, but it’s not going to hold supplies for a weekend project from Lowes. The back seats do fold down for more storage space.

Back up front, the BRZ’s dash offers simple-to-use HVAC controls with dual zones. A bank of toggle switches control functions like the rear defrost and recirculation. The infotainment system works well enough, though it offers limited features and feel almost like an aftermarket unit. It’s worst attribute is the terrible glare constantly on the screen. Nighttime provides the only relief. Still, it offers AM/FM/XM, Bluetooth, and AUX input. Pandora, Aha, and Subaru’s StarLink are also included.

Functionally, the cabin does a good job at appropriating things in the limited amount of space available. The door pockets have good-sized cup holders, the center console has two more cup holders in an adjustable holder, and even folks with short arms can reach the back seats while sitting up front.

The Competition

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The BRZ’s interior is outclassed by both the Miata and Camaro. Chintzy plastic, loud noises from everywhere, and a below-par infotainment system all weight it down. The Miata offers a relatively rich environment with quality materials and excellent fit and finish. The Camaro, likewise, offers a smart infotainment system, even at the base level, and a comfortable cabin for two – or four in a pinch. The Camaro definitely offers the most wiz-bang technology thanks to a color driver information screen that comes standard. The larger configurable display is optional on higher trim levels. Nevertheless, the BRZ’s driver seat is a fun place to sit, especially on a curvy road.

Drivetrain

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Perhaps the biggest changes for the 2017 BRZ happen under the hood. The 2.0-liter flat-four Boxer has been heavily revised with new intake and exhaust manifolds, new cylinder heads, camshafts, and valves. The result is better breathing and decreased internal friction. Sadly this laundry list doesn’t bring a noticeable difference in power. In fact, the four-cylinder only produces five more horsepower and pound-feet of torque. The mid-range torque dip prevalent in the previous version has been decreased slightly, but peak horsepower and torque are still screaming high in the rev range (at 7,000 and 6,400 rpm respectively.)

It seems Subaru did a lot of work for almost no results. What’s more, the driving experience doesn’t seem different from the 2016 and prior BRZ. Still, we appreciate the time spent on the engine and what advancements were brought. Five horsepower and five pound-feet extra is more than the BRZ had last year.

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The 2.0-liter flat-four Boxer has been heavily revised with new intake and exhaust manifolds, new cylinder heads, camshafts, and valves.

Many folks will continue to complain Subaru’s lack of turbocharging. On one side, it does seem odd to not bolt a turbo to the 2.0-liter. Subaru has a long history with turbocharging. It’s halo model, the Impreza WRX STI has a 2.5-liter flat-four with a turbo that makes an impressive 305 horsepower. So why not launch a Subaru BRZ STI variant? Subaru has said in the past that adding a hairdryer would add cost to the BRZ’s affordable asking price, along with adding weight and upsetting the balance of the car. Apparently there are also clearance issues in mounting a turbo. It seems strange then how many aftermarket turbo kits are available for the BRZ.

Nevertheless, the BRZ’s lack of muscle car power isn’t as big a problem as most make it out to be. Sure, it lacks a bit of mid-range punch, but the car is built more as a corner carver and back road bomber, not as some Challenger Hellcat competitor. The same is true for the Mazda Miata.

Other parts were updated as well. The front strut mounts and rear damper mounts were strengthened, and a stronger transmission crossmember plate was added, the rear anti-roll bar was thickened, and the rear differential now has shorter gears (4.30:1 verses 4.10:1) aimed at improving acceleration. The results are hard to subjectively justify, but Car & Driver managed to shave 0.1 second off the BRZ’s 0-to-60 mph time and quarter mile run. C&D’s logging equipment registered the sprint to 60 mph at 6.2 seconds and the quarter in 14.8 seconds at 95 mph.

The BRZ comes standard with a sweet six-speed manual gearbox. A six-speed automatic is an optional extra, but it gets stuck with the previous-gen engine. The manual is the proper choice anyway thanks to its short throw, notchy shifter gates, and predictable clutch take-up.

Behind the Wheel

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Despite the BRZ not having 707 horsepower or forced induction, the car is plenty fast. Its 205 horsepower works just fine at getting the car to speed in a swift manner and has no trouble maintaining 70 mph on the highway in sixth gear. Outward visibility is good, though rear quarter blind spots are present. Large side mirrors help remedy that. A good driving position is easily achievable thanks to the manual-operating driver seat and telescoping and tilting steering column.

The shifter provides an excellent amount of visceral feedback, as does the direct steering feel. The seats are comfortable, but not so padded that they limit vibrations and road imperfections from speaking to your hind parts. The brakes work well at bringing the 2,777-pound car to a stop despite the skinny tires fighting for grip. This is a driver’s car. Period.

Subaru is due a lot of credit for building this car in an era when most cars are designed to coddle its occupants in luxurious comfort. Even so-called sports cars have become overgrown grand touring cars with outrageous amounts of power. The BRZ, its corporate cousin the Toyota 86, and the Mazda Miata are about the only true sports cars left.

Pricing

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The 2017 Subaru BRZ carries a starting price of $25,495. For that, you get the Premium trim, the manual transmission, and the infotainment system. Jumping to the Limited trim bumps the price to $27,645 and brings the Alcantara and leather-trimmed seats, keyless access with the push-button start, dual-zone climate control, and makes optional the automatic transmission and Brembo Performance Brake kit.

My Limited tester came completely free of options, making its MSRP $28,465 after a $820 destination fee.

Option Price
Six-speed Automatic Trans $1,100
Performance Package $1,195

These are only a few of Subaru’s available dealer-added options

10-inch Subwoofer in trunk $729
17-inch STI Alloy Wheels $1,654
Auto-dimming mirror w. compass, HomeLink $354
Footwell illumination Kit $233
Cargo Tray $72
STI Side Under Spoiler $618

Competition

Mazda MX-5 Miata

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Despite the Miata only being a two-seater and a convertible, it leads the inexpensive, lightweight sports car market by a long shot. Enthusiasts rave about its tight dimensions, tossable handling, and downright fun manual transmission. Weighing in at only 2,300 pounds, the Miata is the epitome of a compact convertible sports car. What’s more, the new generation no longer looks like your hairdresser’s car.

Power comes from a naturally aspirated 2.0-liter four-cylinder making 155 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque. A six-speed manual comes standard, but a six-speed automatic is optional should you only have one working leg. And like God intended, the Miata is RWD. Thanks to its weight, the Miata doesn’t feel underpowered. The same holds true for the BRZ.

Mazda lets you own a Miata starting at $25,750. Order the highest trim level, and you’re looking at around $32,000.

Read more about the Mazda MX-5 Miata here.

Chevrolet Camaro

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It might seem odd to compare the BRZ against an American muscle car, especially after saying the Subaru doesn’t try to compete against these high-horsepower monsters. But starting with the Camaro’s sixth generation birthed in 2016, this two-plus-two coupe now comes standard with a four-cylinder and a six-speed manual transmission. Despite the Camaro’s heavier curb weight of 3,400 pounds, the similarities are hard to deny.

Compensating for the extra weight is more power. The Camaro’s 2.0-liter turbo four makes a respectable 275 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. Of course, the rear wheels receive the power. The engine has enough juice to push the Camaro to 60 mph in just 5.4 seconds – nearly a full second faster than the BRZ. The BRZ, however, likely has a better seat-of-the pants feel thanks to the Camaro’s comfy cabin filled with sound deadening materials.

Surprisingly the Camaro’s price is also competitive. When option for the base car with no options, a 1LT trim with the four-cylinder and six-speed manual comes in at around $27,00.

Find out more about the Chevrolet Camaro here.

Conclusion

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The BRZ isn’t for everyone. It’s not for families with kids needing a daily driver. It’s not for the senior citizen looking to downsize. It’s probably not even a smart pick for a teenager’s first car. (I would have probably killed myself with it.) But the BRZ is an excellent RWD sports car for automotive purists on a budget. It carves roads, goes and stops well, turns even better, and has a very intimate connection with the driver. No, it doesn’t need a turbo or fatter tires, though both would probably improve the car. No, the mechanical improvements for 2017 aren’t blatantly noticeable, but they help nonetheless. However, Subaru has spent its resources to improve the car rather than letting it stagnate. There’s a lot to be said for that.

And despite the negative points mentioned in these pages, I love the BRZ. Like I mentioned in this short op-ed, I have this strange love/hate with the car. It’s hard to explain, but at the end of the day, love wins out and the BRZ remains on my bucket list of cars to someday own. I’ll just make sure it’s my weekend toy rather than daily driver.

  • Leave it
    • * Drivetrain changes are hard to notice
    • * Loud, cramped interior
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