First drive: 2013 Subaru BRZ

As most Porsche and Subaru drivers know, the boxer engine got its name by the movement of its pistons. Unlike every engine you, I or our ancestors ever tore apart, the cylinders that house the pistons in a boxer engine — be they four or six — do not form the familiar V.

Rather, boxer pistons move much like the gloves of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, each man with his back to the other throwing continuous jabs to the ropes. Each stroke of the combustion cycle is like Ali throwing punches on one side, Frazier on the other, except with infinitely more consistency and intensity if not equal finesse.

The boxer architecture is square, able to lower the mass of the engine, not just improving handling by moving weight lower but also resulting in an uncanny smoothness due to the cancelling out of opposing forces. If the engine is the heart of the car, the boxer is the kind that will withstand the most rounds in the ring while never really breaking a sweat. First patented by Karl Benz, the boxer engine is only one of four that have a natural dynamic balance, the other being the straight-six favoured by BMW, the V12 and the wankel. In a way, it’s almost magical.

Subaru and Porsche, the only automakers to routinely use boxer engines, have long enjoyed the beauty of the flat-four and flat-six. It is also why Subaru’s new BRZ rear-wheel-drive sports car beats with a specially developed 2.0-litre boxer engine, purposely engineered for the BRZ (Boxer, Rear-wheel-drive Zenith) and Toyota’s Scion FR-S. The engine may produce only 200 horsepower, or 100 hp per litre, but its delivery is as shrewd as Don King negotiating a title match, able to manipulate the 150 pound-feet of torque to make the car feel almost as if there’s a turbo lurking beneath that long aluminum hood.

Driving the BRZ through the twisting canyon roads of Oregon for several hours, it became clear that this boxer engine is a sweetheart. While able to redline at 7,450 rpm, the power arrives much earlier, starting at around 3,500 rpm. The smoothness of the boxer engine is obvious, but you can also get a sense of the inherent mechanical workings of the engine by the way it sounds and feels, giving the driver a level of intimacy so seldom felt in modern sports cars. Coupled with the car’s light weight of 1,255 kilograms (44 kg less than a Civic Si), the 200 hp easily motivates the BRZ up hills and through sweeping bends. It’s only when passing at high speed that a little more power would be welcomed (possibly reserved for a future STI model).

Regardless, the true delight of this car is its handling, so pure is its response. The BRZ’s steering, through a fat, 36.6-centimetre wheel turning with a 13:1 ratio, feels utterly connected to the road and to the car. It seems perfectly weighted and quick to turn in, never keeping any secrets should understeer set in, which it rarely did at Oregon Raceway Park, where I pushed the BRZ as fast as it could possibly go.

Even though the car has an ideal weight balance of 53-47 biased to the front, the BRZ was more likely to oversteer as it exited a corner. The 215/45R17 Michelin Primacy tires that all BRZ models wear over 17-inch alloy rims tended to hold the car better than expected for a rear-wheel-drive vehicle. Pushed quickly out of a corner, the rear tires gave up only a little as full throttle was applied with the traction control off. Understeer rarely showed up. The car’s beautifully arched front fenders, visible from the driver’s seat, made pointing the car wherever I wanted it to go as easy as sending a Labrador after a Frisbee.

Indeed, lap after lap in the BRZ proved that it only wants to have fun, that the only way to ever encounter trouble is to do something seriously egregious. Driven smartly, however, the BRZ responds with a delightful sense of playfulness and purpose, holding itself up with considerable composure through the corners, diving quickly into sharp turns, revealing itself as a car with a truly enjoyable character. In other words, it’s an honest-to-goodness sports coupe.

That, of course, did not come by luck. In the BRZ, the engine sits lower (by 120 millimetres) and further back in the engine bay than the Impreza. The crankshaft was lowered, too. The car’s centre of gravity is 460 mm from the ground, lower than a Porsche Cayman’s. The battery was moved back near the firewall, the starter motor and power steering motor strategically located, such were just some of the measures taken to make the BRZ one of the best-handling cars one can buy for $27,295.

That price is for a BRZ equipped with a six-speed manual transmission. An automatic is also available. While the six-speed manual and its short-throw shift lever feels almost like the manual in a Nissan 370Z but with an easier clutch, the six-speed automatic comes with a Sport mode for sharper shift points, along with a manual mode controlled by paddle shifters that will blip the throttle on downshifts to rev match the engine with the lower gear. With the six-speed automatic, the base car rises to $28,495.

The BRZ’s agreeable price doesn’t mean Subaru cheaped out on the interior either. While there was noticeable road noise in the base model car and some wind noise, too, the cockpit is dressed in decent soft-touch materials and good-looking gauges, aluminum pedals and a proper centre-mounted tachometer inset with a digital speedometer, much like the way Porsche does it. The sport seats in cars with the Sport-tech package wear leather, Alcantara inserts and coloured stitching; just don’t expect two adults to fit comfortably in the rear. Heated seats, however, only come with the Sport-tech package, which also adds fog lights, a tasteful body-coloured rear spoiler, dual zone auto climate control and smart key with push-button ignition. Still, the cost of the BRZ with this only option package is $29,295 for the manual and $30,495 for the automatic.

Yes, the base BRZ does sell for $1,305 more than its twin, the Scion FR-S, but the BRZ includes such standard items as LED lighting, HID headlamps and touchscreen navigation that includes Bluetooth phone and audio. And it was Subaru that did the majority of engine and powertrain development, leaving the styling aspects to Toyota (which owns about 16% of Subaru), so the BRZ’s DNA is more aligned with Subaru.

Built in Subaru’s Gunma, Japan assembly plant, the BRZ will undoubtedly reveal to the world that Subaru is not just about sensible, all-wheel-drive Outbacks and Legacys. The BRZ will prove that Subaru does indeed have a sexy side, one that doesn’t need a single Sumo wrestler to help sell its cars.

2013 Subaru BRZ
Photograph by: Subaru, handout