The Subaru Question: WRX or BRZ?
We’ve always loved the “what-if” nature of car debates and started the show, in part, to illuminate the discussions car people get into when buying something new. In the real world of limited budgets, commutes, and kids, our cars have to do a lot more than just excite us. Thankfully, every now and then great cars face off at the same price-point. But rarely are they both from the same brand.
Like many siblings, the new 2015 Subaru WRX and Subaru BRZ share parts and origin, but are strikingly different. Since it was first introduced in the US in 2004, the WRX has been a showcase for usable, affordable, fun. Similarly, the BRZ (or FRS, or GT86) burst onto the market offering a huge fun-per-dollar amount and continues to find itself on the short-lists of journalists and enthusiasts everywhere.
I own a Saab 92x, a two year rebadging of the WRX that ended in failure but left many unique re-bodied WRXs on the used market for people like me. The car has been reliable, inexpensive, and equally capable sliding sideways in the snow or carving mountain roads in the summertime. I’ve always liked the WRX, and my little hatchback has made me a true fan.
We first drove the FRS and BRZ together at a track event and since that first encounter I’ve had a real desire to own one of these toss-able coupes and the need to drive it hard. Truth be told, one of them is likely to be my next car purchase, meaning my garage will reflect this exact comparison. I enjoy and learn from every pairing we put on camera, but this shoot almost seemed just for me.
Armed with perfect weather and cars known to love corners, we drove across Los Angeles to one of our favorite roads in all of Southern California. As a result we suffered through stop-and-go traffic on our way to canyon-road-perfection. Doing both quickly reveals all the things you love about a car. And those you hate.
The WRX packs the same engine as the BRZ, but in a turbo-charged variant found in the current Forester. The result is as much power as the STI from two generations ago and all the urgency the BRZ lacks. The first hint of boost starts early, turning the torque curve into a broad plateau from 2500 RPMs onward. This confident pull is so readily available that you find yourself staying in one gear and working the rev-band like you can in a torque-heavy muscle car. Even in sixth gear on the freeway, one shove of your right foot musters a whistling boost of acceleration. The right pedal feels like less of a throttle and more like an on-off switch.
In contrast, the BRZ requires driver involvement to find power, and passing maneuvers require forethought and timing. This is not to say the BRZ can’t work through traffic, but it won’t provide point and click power like the turbo WRX. On one steep freeway ascent I found an open lane and got the BRZ blasting up the hill with authority, leading the WRX to higher ground. All the while the quick-revving 2.0liter was screaming its intentions throughout the cabin. Like many of the world’s best driver’s cars, the BRZ doesn’t hide or even soften any part of the experience, which can be both exhilarating and exhausting.
Both these cars cost around thirty thousand dollars, which puts them in competition with many other great used and new options. A used Porsche Cayman can be found for the same amount of money, but maintenance costs can be daunting. The Focus and Fiesta ST offer similar power and fun, but different drive wheels and packaging. Careful shopping could yield a Lotus Elise, an S4, or an M3 for the same price. But none of those come will still have a warranty. Plus, Subarus are reliable and cheap to maintain.
Climbing out of the BRZ and into the WRX, offers a stark difference between the interiors. The WRX has great visibility and surprising room but the driving position feels upright and truck-like when compared to the BRZ. The long-and-low styling of the BRZ offers up a cockpit interior with legs stretched out before you and a ride height perfect for staring at the bumpers of SUVs. You plug into the BRZ. You sit on the WRX.
Driving into the mountains north of Ojai, the scenery and road style change about every dozen miles. Tight scrub-brush corners give way to long mountainside sweepers and high-plains straights before kinking again into pine forests and cliffside hairpins. I keep checking my rear view mirror, expecting Paul to be closing the distance with the WRX. It never happens. When we stop at one ridge-line turnout he admits the WRX required real effort to keep up with the underpowered BRZ. Intrigued, we change cars and I instantly see what he means.
The BRZ rewards smoothness and once up to speed it can be driven with very little braking. While most tests of the 86s show the absurd ease of drifting, the balance available here is rare at any price and carving through a corner without sliding is not only possible, but still extremely fun. When you realize this balance and impressive cornering are done in spite of terrible tires, it makes it all the more amazing. As much as the BRZ could use more power, it simply begs for better rubber.
In addition to the turbo we wish for in the BRZ, the WRX also has high performance Dunlop tires, seemingly stacking the deck even further in this car’s favor. But, it still can’t carve through a canyon with the grace of the stock BRZ. The WRX attacks the road, like its rally history would suggest. There’s softness and longer travel in the suspension, and the taller shape and higher center of gravity introduce roll to every corner. The quick steering and all-wheel-drive bring confidence to tight corners, but after the BRZ there’s an unshakeable sense everything is working harder to force the issue.
Making the understeer-prone WRX into a cornering machine is accomplished with torque vectoring and the ever-present AWD. Braking an inside wheel in a corner is becoming a common technology, and Ford has used it extremely well in their current ST offerings. Here in the WRX it definitely assists, but you can turn it all off and still enjoy the WRX as a tire-scrambling menace.
Any time I drove the WRX I was struck by its versatility. It feels familiar to my car, certainly related, and really can do most anything an enthusiast could want from a vehicle. The back seats are usable. The trunk is averaged sized and offers fold down rear seats. It will laugh at bad weather and hunker down to enjoy an autocross. There’s really nothing it can’t offer, except of course a hatchback.
The BRZ is a specific tool for a specific job. It has more usability than a true two-seater, but it brings compromises for many daily tasks. The backseats aren’t really for people. It’s loud. And yes, it needs more power. But in exchange, the BRZ offers a car so connected and well-balanced that it seems foreign and special in the current world of computer trickery and turbo-magic. The limits of the BRZ are low enough you can go explore them without needing a runway and a waiver from the authorities. It will listen to the driver. It will also teach.
My last realization of the day came as we packed up our gear and began our commute back to home-base. As I pulled the BRZ back onto this great mountain road, Paul followed me in the WRX and looked back to see a 2006 STI closing in on us. With this older STI now running in formation, we began a Subaru family descent out of the mountains.
As we danced through corners I kept expecting the STI to become frustrated and look for a way to pass, after all he had more power and technology than either one of us. To my great surprise, no one challenged the BRZ. On many corners Paul would lose ground, only to close the gap with a turbo whistle. However, the STI kept dropping farther and farther back as we worked our way back to main roads.
I’d love to think it was our amazing driving that kept us out front, but I suspect it was just these impressive cars. In a car market where most manufacturers struggle to make one decent driver’s car, Subaru has two completely different ones available for less than $30,000. Pick either one and you’ll have a car that makes you smile on a back road.
Back on the freeway, I kept the BRZ’s engine spinning at high RPM to keep me in the power band and allow for passing when needed. Of course Paul was cruising at a low turbo rumble and much more relaxed in the quieter environment of the WRX. But I was still having fun.
I may have to buy one of these.