Subaru BRZ: Small, stylish, affordable

The BRZ, Subaru's small, stylish, and affordable sports coupe, has remained virtually the same car that debuted as a 2013 model.

Until now.

For 2017, the car has undergone a fairly ambitious refresh that ranges from new front-end styling to extensive structural and suspension revisions intended to improve the BRZ's already agile handling.

Its direct-injected two-liter engine was also upgraded. The changes included valve, camshaft, and cylinder block modifications, and a reduction in exhaust back pressure that raised horsepower from 200 to 205 and torque from 151 to 156 pounds.

(The BRZ, by the way, is a product of a Subaru/Toyota joint venture in which Subaru provided the engineering and assembly and Toyota furnished the styling. The nearly identical Toyota counterpart, the 86, was previously an offering of the automaker's now-defunct Scion brand called the FR-S.)

Like its Toyota twin, this reasonably priced rear-drive sporting machine - it starts at $25,495 - has a rather youthful clientele.

"The BRZ buyer's median age is 36," said Dominick Infante, Subaru's communications director, "while the [Mazda] Miata's is 65."

Also interesting is the number of customers who choose the six-speed manual gearbox over the six-speed automatic. When offered, manuals typically garner about 5 percent of car sales. In the case of the BRZ, the manuals get 83 percent of the action, according to Infante.

The new car's cornering has been well served by the chassis revisions, which included stiffening up the structure with new subframes fore and aft and fitting the rear suspension with a larger stabilizer bar. Infante said the car's springs were stiffened up front and softened out back to improve cornering.

Cornering is, indeed, pleasurable thanks to the BRZ's structural rigidity, suspension design, and the fore-to-aft weight balance afforded, in part, by the rear-drive layout. The car is a lot of fun to toss around on a back road. It stays flat and planted in the corners and turns in nicely.

Steering is another plus. Most electric power steering systems are pretty numb, but this one passes along a decent amount of road feel. It's also precise and nicely weighted.

Braking also gets good grades. The vented discs are hefty business for a car that weighs less than 2,800 pounds. This means the curtain can come down quickly on the car's velocity. If you want to stop even faster, Infante said, the BRZ will be available later in the model year with a performance package that includes Brembo high-performance brakes.

While the BRZ is no stoplight serial killer, its 205 horses and low body weight make it fast enough to be fun. The tester, a $27,645 Limited model equipped with a manual gearbox and a limited-slip differential, got from zero to 60 in about 6.5 seconds. The fun quotient is enhanced, at least for shiftaholics like myself, by the manual gearbox's short throws and precision.

The BRZ's good vibes begin with its styling. With its muscular haunches and a runner's forward lean in the starting blocks, it looks as if it's going somewhere standing at the curb.

The interior, with its new steering wheel and gauges, is another expedition into handsome design. The front seats are comfortable and bolstered well enough to keep centrifugal force from unseating you when jousting with a spirited turn. The backseat of this 2+2 coupe is less useful. In fact, it's useless if its occupants are larger than Ken and Barbie's newborns.

The performance-minded BRZ provides a predictably firm ride, but it doesn't beat you up. Visibility and instrument/control placement are good.