You won’t find the term “simple pleasure” in any dictionary, so it can mean a great many things, from something as innocuous as a cold beer on a hot summer day to a Hallmark moment such as a sunset watched with a loved one or a morning stroll along a sandy beach. From an automotive standpoint, I would like to think it means any car — but preferably one relatively inexpensive — that fully engages the driver, leaving one with a yearning to explore roads less travelled.
With over 40 years testing vehicles, I have experienced more than a few simple pleasures, but the ones that come to top of mind share common traits in addition to being affordable — manual transmission and light weight being the two biggies. Oh, plus the fact that none of these memorable performance-oriented sports cars/coupes/hatchbacks — the Toyota Corolla GT-S and MR2, VW Rabbit/Golf GTIs, Mazda’s first-generation RX-7, the zoom-zoom company’s beloved Miata (I own one), BMW’s Mini Cooper, Ford’s Fiesta ST — are/were blessed with an overabundance of muscle — less than 200 hp in most cases. Still, each left a profound impression, which can be succinctly summed up as the visceral experience of driving a moderately speedy car with confidence.
To this list I happily add Subaru’s reworked second-generation BRZ and, by extension, its collaborative corporate twin, the Toyota GR86. I hold the first-gen BRZ in high regard, the precepts for a sporting machine front and centre — classic GT looks courtesy of its long hood and short deck, light weight, rear-wheel drive, superior handling and grip, strong engine, and affordability. It wasn’t perfect by any means, the downsides being a rather coarse engine note at higher revs, a notchy shifter, and minimalist to the extreme.
For the 2022 model year, the 2+2 BRZ features more power (thank you) from a new engine, revised, cleaner styling, a 50 per cent increase in stiffness and an upgraded interior. Oh, and the standard six-speed manual. Seriously, how can it get any better? Well, it’s still noisy, stiff-riding and somewhat confining. So, yes, there’s pain to go along with the pleasure. It’s a matter of priorities. Do you want genteel manners, weight and complexity, or simplicity and rawness, a low, low centre of gravity and an almost direct connection to the road, ass to asphalt as it were?
If voting for the latter, it doesn’t get much better than the BRZ. Starting at less than $30K for the base model, even the higher-optioned Sport-tech tester ($32,495 for the six-speed manual and another $2,400 for the automatic) is dirt cheap for the experience provided.
Let’s start with the all-new, larger 2.4-litre boxer four-cylinder, replacing the old 2.0L. The naturally aspirated, direct and port-injected motor produces a solid 228 horsepower at 7,000 rpm and 184 lb-ft of torque, up from 205 hp and 156 lb-ft for the previous generation’s manually equipped car. In addition to the updated six-speed manual, the BRZ is available with an enhanced six-speed automatic with paddle shifters and downshift blip control. (But if you opt for the automatic, you should be ashamed of yourself.) A limited-slip differential is standard regardless of transmission.
At a time where automakers are seriously ramping up EV production, I find myself thinking that the BRZ will, if not now, soon be compared with this form of propulsion, a case of the old guard in a valiant struggle with the new. And at face value, even prosaic electric vehicles — never mind the high-performance versions — can easily hit 100 km/h in five seconds or less, which makes the BRZ’s low-six-second charge to the century seem a retro walk on the milder side. It isn’t, though. No EV can duplicate the coarse snarl of the boxer as you push down on the gas pedal, the tach needle sweeping linearly up to its 7,500-rpm redline. (Unlike the old 2.0-litre, there’s no mid-range stumble at the half-way point.) Noisy, gritty, primitive? Yes, suck it up and enjoy the show.
Adding to the enjoyment is the six-speed stick. Short throws, closely spaced gates and a very precise clutch take-up make rowing through the gears a giggle, other than a bolt-action notchiness as the lever slots in. Be firm, not ham-handed, and you will go out of your way to find snaking stretches of tarmac to practice your heel-and-toe downshifts.
The BRZ’s handling is equal to the task. First off, the new model stays trim, employing elements such as aluminum hood, roof and fenders that help make it, according to Subaru anyway, the lightest rear-wheel-drive 2+2 production sports car in the country — as in less than 1,280 kilograms, within 10 or so kilos of the previous generation despite the additional safety features. Along with the same front-to-rear weight distribution as the original model, the results guarantee more nimble handling.
First Drive: 2022 Subaru BRZ
Battle of the four-cylinder Toyota sports cars: Supra vs GR86
The MacPherson strut front suspension features custom-designed struts that retain a long stroke for improved handling “and ride quality,” says Subaru, though the latter is subject to interpretation. Yes, the multi-link rear suspension system provides superior bump absorption that enhances tire grip over varied road surfaces. But never will the word “cosseting” spring from your lips when extolling the car’s many virtues to curious passersby.
No such compromise to the BRZ’s electric power steering, though. There’s plenty of feedback, and the quick 13.5:1 steering ratio and small-diameter steering wheel deliver a rapid steering response when diving into a series of S-bends. And, bumping up to the Sport-tech adds Michelin Pilot Sport 4 rubber, a big plus. (Note: As much as the sport coupe deserves to be flung about on a tight circuit, Subaru Canada politely but firmly insisted that no track testing be performed.) That said, the vehicle stability control system does offer five different settings, with the system designed to allow more input from the driver.
The one thing guaranteed to keep your hooning in check, however, is the ever-escalating price of fuel. You see, the BRZ’s energetic four-banger runs on premium fuel. And even though the sport coupe is not particularly swinish — I averaged 10.1 L/100 km during my week with the car, mixing highway jaunts with around-town use — it was still (at the time) more than 100 bucks to fill its 50-litre tank.
Looking inside, the new “premium” interior — with an abundant use of plastic throughout — is configured with the driver in mind. The BRZ’s seating position is low, which makes finding the BRZ’s corners difficult, an issue when pulling into a parking spot, not to mention a less-than-dignified affair when trying to vacate the car, especially if you happen to be on the taller side. The contoured sport bucket seats are exceedingly comfortably, though, hugging the driver and passenger in all the right places. Forget the back seats; they’re only good for stowing the gym bag or take-out. The 7.0-inch digital dashboard is dominated by a centre-mounted tachometer/speedo setup with a configurable display that can change to show amps, water temperature or a g-force meter. When the BRZ is placed in track mode, the tach shifts to a linear graph with a colour display for quick reads. And bumping up to the Sport-tech trim means heated leather and Ultrasuede front seats along with an eight-speaker audio system with amplifier. A three-year free trial of Subaru StarLink, side/rear vehicle detection and steering responsive LED headlights round out the upgrades.
So, what’s the upshot? Beyond the BRZ’s good looks — sculpted and aggressive without being exaggerated — it comes down to superior human/machine interaction: Drive the car well and be rewarded for the effort. Conversely, drive it poorly and it will make sure you know you screwed up. You strive for that connection and that reward. Sure, there are many sophisticated and faster sports cars, but few will give you a purer experience or a bigger bang for the buck.