ROAD TEST: 2017 @SubaruUK BRZ
Where there's sheep, there's great roads.
And when you have a rear-drive sports car with a great engine like the re-vamped BRZ, from a purist's car manufacturer like Subaru, who describe it as being "all about delivering exceptional handling on-road" – you have to head to great roads and to the sheep to test it, right?
I spent most of my youth and pretty much all of my formative driving years pedalling the outstanding roads of the Lake District and North Yorkshire Dales. As a result, I know some seriously cracking drives up there. And one which I'm happy to share with you now and which the agile, accurate and advanced aero BRZ could have been made for is the A684: A must-do drive for the self-respecting petrol head.
Accessed off the A1 Great North Road near Leeming Bar services on the East, and running through the Yorkshire Dales National Park to the historic market, posh school town of Sedbergh, in the foothills of the barren Howgills and ultimately, the M6 at its highest point and the 'auld grey town,' Kendal in the West, this is an absolute belter of a road. It's fast, flowing, tight and twisty and loaded with blind crests and off camber tests, multiple surface changes (including new super smooth asphalt approaching Hawes) and no room for error cliff edge drops, unforgiving dry stone walls and the beautiful River Ure to avoid dropping off into. The raucous ribbon of road flows alongside the Ure, crossing it multiple times over ancient bridges and through delightful Dales towns and villages, like Aysgarth, Hawes and Garsdale. It's stunning.
Unlike the roads to get to the A684 from Norwich, which are unremarkable in the extreme – as I cut across country on the traffic loaded A47 to King's Lynn, the bleak, barren and cabbage-stenched A17 to Newark-on-Trent and a long drag up the increasingly-pleasant-and-quiet-as-you-head-north A1. But at least this gives us a chance to get to know the new-look, new-feel, £26,495 2017 BRZ.
The new bits start with some visual improvements to an already handsome beast – with improved aerodynamics – like the cool, flat black metal contrasting rear spoiler and a new, wider, lower, harder stance. Then there's the flashy new full LED headlights and re-designed 10-spoke, 17-inch, black alloy wheels: It's an attractive package for sure, as is the revised interior, which is snug to say the least, but amply big enough for a six-foot-plus, 16-stoner like me... although quite why they bothered fitting rear seats is beyond me, that's storage all day long in our book.
But the added levels of refinement, ace, clear and well designed digital instrumentation, superbly supportive and (far comfier than expected over 1,000 road test miles) leather sports seats and the addition of the well thought-out (although sadly rubbish at predicting traffic jams!) Subaru Starlink infotainment are all very welcome. As is the BRZ's fine-tuned and re-mapped symmetrically mounted engine – with its broader torque curve and even faster throttle response – and the tweeked suspension, which strikes a very good balance between heroic handling and cosseting comfort. Impressive changes to an already impressive car.
Faults? On test, the CAN communication set-up between Starlink and the steering wheel controls packed up more than once, but we're supremely confident this is just a teething issue, swiftly resolved under warranty and was very uncharacteristic for the normally uber-reliable Subaru brand. And everything else not only worked a treat, but was easy to operate and pleasant to be around, or operate.
Push comes to shove though and this low-slung, hard riding, tiny and some might say impractical little car is all about driving pleasure, surely?
Subaru say the BRZ is "beautifully poised... you can take every turn with confidence – and smile leaving each bend" and how right they are, as proven with aplomb here on the A684. Devouring a road like this, and putting a big grin on your Chevy chase is this car's raison d'être and it responds with a real bon vivure, all accompanied by a cracking intake and exhaust note from the low centre of gravity, horizontally-opposed, flat four Boxer lump; an engine I adore. What it lacks in out and out ballistic pace, it more than makes up for in character and throttle response and I for one admire Subaru for not caving to pressure to turbocharge the BRZ and overload the perfectly balanced chassis/ engine/suspension spec with 300PS, tempting and that might be.
Not one inch of the A684 was wasted in this car: The taut, balletic and agile BRZ was capable of putting a narrow tyre wheel wherever you wanted, reacting to every demand of the road and driver and offering up (a rare in modern cars) feeling of connectivity to the driving experience. It's basic, raw and simple old fashioned driving pleasure – with rear-wheel-drive at its core – yet the 2017 BRZ is also capable of great refinement and modernity too. It's very clever and very likeable.
Personally, I'd forget all about the unnecessary 'Sport' ECU buttons and modes, the typically C21st and over-fussy TCS system and the new for 2017 'Track' mode, which I was initially excited about, then swiftly underwhelmed.
I'd rather see them all scrapped and the ECU & safety systems respond to the throttle and yaw demands of the driver and road. But there's most likely legal issues for morons there. I just think in a car where the 'less is more' philosophy is rife, why bother caving to the fashion of the other manufacturers and delivering boys toys that unnecessarily detract from the excellent experience? Especially in a car that equally attractive to women as men...
Speaking of detracting experiences, why would anyone spec-up a BRZ with the automatic gearbox, as we tested? Surely that's a waste of the BRZ's part pieces of rear-drive and a cracking Torsen diff? Let alone the BRZ's attractive talent for hanging its backside out, with delightful ease and control? Madness...
On the flip side, we got stuck in a LOT off traffic jams on this 1,000-mile road test and were very grateful for the auto box then, saving us from dead clutch leg syndrome. And (ignoring the steering wheel paddles, which seem to operate with a mind of their own and are slow), the manual mode was actually pretty good... especially on the downshift, with it's perfect rev-matched heel and toe throttle blips. Swings and roundabouts I guess... ironically where most BRZ's like to play.
We really do like the BRZ and it's definitely improved in it's 2017 spec than original (although there was little to fault with that too). And to be honest, despite the fact I've been a whole lot faster, harder and with more raw edge (think Ariel Atom, 911 Turbo, or even WRX STi) along the glorious A684, few cars have offered up as much balance, accuracy, poise and simple pleasures along it. Ad that says a lot.
Even the sheep seemed to like it, and they've seen it all.