My in-laws are a family of upscale, professional, WASPs who dress sensibly, vote Democrat, and spend their weekends hiking, biking, and canoeing. As such, when we get together for holidays, my BMW is often the only vehicle present that is not a Subaru. My partner's family is not ashamed of this lemming-like confluence. Rather, like many Subaru owners, they see the cars from Fuji Heavy Industries as the sole modest and utilitarian option in a vehicular landscape crowded with flashy Europeans, trashy Americans and blandly inoffensive Asian models.
This heritage creates an interesting challenge for Subaru with the release of the BRZ coupe, which is, in contrast to every other car in the manufacturer's lineup, sporty, attractive, impractical, and not available with a roof rack, a dog cage, or all-wheel drive. Yes, the WRX STI has muddy cred with a small sub-segment of rallyistas. And the graying among us may recall FHI's past efforts at "performance" vehicles: the isoscelean XT of the 1980s, the Gallic SVX of the 1990s. But the BRZ—jointly developed with Toyota—is intended to be a true, affordable, RWD sports car, akin to the original Datsun Zs: a segment in which the brand has no real experience.
Yet, with modest first year sales goals (6,000 U.S. vehicles), a slim field of real competitors, a commitment to low weight (2762 lbs) and decent power (200 hp, 150 lb-ft), and a swoopily embellished design that's just this side of overwrought, after seeing the car in person, I thought it stood a decent chance. A full day behind the wheel negotiating narrow roads that plaited around French mountain villages, blasting along sweepers that bisected alpine fields, and attempting to avoid transcending flimsy guard rails and becoming a 1,250-kg outcropping in the Gorge du Verdon, made me certain of three things: This car is very, very, very good.
Much of the credit goes to the new, 4-cylinder boxer engine, not because it makes 100 horsepower-per-liter, has a flat torque curve, delivers up to 34 mpg with the intuitive 6-speed automatic, or speaks with a maundering susurration, amplified—particularly on the passenger side—by the brand's patented Sound Creator noise tube. Rather, glory and gratitude goes to motor for the advantages rendered by its intentional design and placement, which, like that randy aunt doing the limbo at your bar mitzvah, followed Subaru's engineers' challenge to go as low as it could go.
The result is a vehicle that has Spitfire-like ground clearance without ever proffering Triumph-ant levels of punishment, pivots around its driver with a delightfully ass-y center of gravity, and maintains a Porsche Boxster-mimicking 47/53 front/rear weight distribution. Moreover, there's innate joy in a contemporary rear-wheel-drive sports car that's been designed from scratch to be nimble, and doesn't need to compensate for an outdated chassis or augment its abilities with obscene horsepower. The entire BRZ package feels as dependably lithe, stiff, and tossable as your teenage self.
Subaru won't confirm a price, except to say it will be in the mid-$20,000. For this, come late April, you can get a Premium model, which includes an integrated navigation system, a notchy six-speed manual, and defeatable traction control. For two grand more you can garner a Limited, which features heated leather and alcantara seats, dual automated climate controls, keyless entry, and a finny rear spoiler that looks like a squashed version of the plane from Monopoly. You can also pony up for the aforementioned automatic. One thing you won't be able to buy is a rear seat suitable for anyone born before 2004. (With this useless seat folded, a set of track tires will fit in the non-hatchback trunk.)
But at this price, and with this amount of fun baked in, the Honda Civic Si, Hyundai Genesis, and even the V6 Ford Mustang and Chevy Camaro become nearly irrelevant. I don't see my in-laws picking one up anytime soon, but I could almost see myself becoming smitten enough to sign.
Full Disclosure: For this review, Subaru provided transportation and hotel accommodations.