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for affordable sports cars, you will find unbelievably few choices.
Mazda MX-5 is still the definitive choice, of course,
but what really disappointing is the lack of rivalry – Mini Coupe,
Peugeot RCZ and Honda CR-Z are hardly sports cars indeed. This
situation contrasts to 20 years ago, when we had a dozen good
affordable sports cars to choose from. How can car makers ignore such
an important segment? There are many reasons. Some people said the
market trend migrates towards hot hatches and recreational vehicles.
Some said young people turn their interest from cars to cyber space.
Some said the economy, higher fuel prices, emission tax and insurance
discourage young drivers to purchase such cars. All might be right, but
it is also undeniable that car makers, especially Japanese ones, did
not invest into the segment like they did before. Apart from MX-5, the
last entry into the segment was Honda S2000, and that was 13 years ago!
If you lose market share, first you have to ask yourself whether you
have delivered your best. The answer is negative.
Toyota boss Akio Toyoda share the same vision. Highly passionate about
sports cars, he is renowned for being a car nut. He test drive 200
cars a year. He raced in Nurburgring 24 hours. He pushed for the
creation of Lexus LFA. Now he is reintroducing a world-class affordable
sports car to the company bearing his family name. When Toyota acquired
a minority stake in Fuji Heavy Industries (Subaru) in 2005, all it
thought was to use Subaru's underutilized US factory to produce
additional Camry. It did not take Mr. Toyoda too long to realize the
potential of its Subaru ownership: to co-develop a mass production
sports car. The so-called "Toyobaru" plan was uncovered when Toyota
increased its stakes in FHI to 16.5% in 2008. Its conception and
styling was led by Toyota, whereas engineering and
production would be carried out by Subaru. Each company will sell its
own version of the car. The Toyota is named 86 (in Japan) or GT-86 (in
Europe) to reminisce the classic AE86 Corolla GT / Levin / Trueno,
US version will be badged as Scion FR-S. The Subaru is called BRZ,
which stands for Boxer engine, Rear-wheel-drive and Zenith. Their
combined volume is projected to be 100,000 units a year, with the
Toyota taking a larger slice of share. Most funding comes from Toyota,
You might ask: why didn't Toyota take it in-house? Because
collaborating with Subaru is more cost effective. There are a number of
reasons: 1) Production volume will be higher; 2) Subaru's Gunma plant
has the right capacity to carry out its production; 3) Subaru has
wealth of expertise to engineer and produce performance cars – think of
WRX and STi; 4) The car can share suspensions and boxer engine with hot
Imprezas, saving a great deal of development cost and time.
Before going deeper into the technical aspect, let us have a look to
their exteriors first. The duo is pretty compact for a 2+2 sports car.
They measure 4240 mm long and 1775 mm wide, with a low height of 1285
mm and 2570 mm wheelbase. The general profile is sleek, as evident from
its excellent aerodynamic drag coefficient of 0.27. The waist line is
pretty low, although visual effect is not helped by the smallish
17-inch wheels. The bonnet is low for a front-engined machine, if not
as low as we expected for one powered by a boxer engine. The
Corvette-style flanks should be interesting to look from the driver
seat. Pronounced wheel arches and diffusers inject the right sense of
sportiness. Overall speaking, this shape is handsome without being too
radical. It won't make you wow like an Audi TT or Peugeot RCZ. It has a
certain degree of restrain, especially the wheel size and windscreen
angle, to make sure it meet engineering objectives. From its exterior,
we can already see a character that puts driving above all. That's a
good sign for a pure sports car!
How to distinguish the two? The Toyota has a more radical front end
styling, but overall speaking they are very close. It is virtually
impossible to distinguish them from the rear without looking at the
badges. Side views are also identical except that the Subaru has a
pseudo hot air vent just before the A-pillar, whereas the same location
on Toyota is occupied by an 86 logo. Up front, both share the same
bonnet and headlights. The radiator intake and fog lamp clusters on
Toyota are more stylish, but the nose of BRZ looks sleeker and purer.
Personally I prefer the BRZ, especially when it is painted in typical
Underneath the sheet metal, both cars are virtually the same. In fact,
they differ only in detailed suspension tuning. They have 100 percent
the same engine, running gears, chassis, suspension design (except
springs and dampers), steering, brakes and even the same wheels and
Therefore we can combine our technical analysis into one.
At 1240 kg, the Toyobaru is pretty light for a modern sports car. A
Mazda MX-5 or Lotus Elise is lighter still, but for a 2+2 offering
proper space and everyday practicality, it is about as light as you can
achieve. It undercuts a front-drive Audi TT 2.0TFSI by a good 55
kilograms yet it does not resort to expensive aluminum chassis. Its
monocoque body shell is made entirely of steel, and the only
aluminum panel used is the bonnet, which adds negligible cost. Its
lightweight is achieved primarily with its mechanical simplicity (e.g.
no turbocharging and largely devoid of latest green tech) and a strong
discipline to control the use of luxury features and NVH suppression.
This mean the duo won't be the most refined or expensive-feeling cars
around, but to keen drivers that doesn't matter.
The car rides on suspensions adapted from Subaru Impreza's, i.e.
MacPherson struts up front and classic double-wishbones at the rear.
The front suspensions have their lower control arms reversed in order
to make space for the relocated engine (which sits further back in the
engine compartment compare with Impreza's), while rear subframe has
been modified to accommodate a Torsen limited slip differential. As
mentioned before, the suspension settings on both cars are different:
the Toyota version employs slightly softer front springs, stiffer rear
springs and altered damping rates to promote more playfulness – read
"oversteer". In contrast, the Subaru setup is more about stability.
However, the differences are very small and either car can claim a
Frankly speaking, the 1998 cc FA20 boxer four-cylinder engine is not
as powerful as we hope for. This motor is derived from the FB20
unit of new Impreza. Instead of the latter's undersquare combustion
chambers, it gets equal bore and stroke (86 mm) to promote rev and
power. It also gets a much higher, 12.5:1 compression
ratio as a result of the Toyota D-4S dual-injection
(direct injection + port injection) system. No wonder we can find both
Subaru and Toyota badges on the engine. The FA20 produces 200
horsepower at 7000 rpm and only 151 pound-foot of torque at a heady
rpm – although the torque curve is linear. It is no more powerful than
a Renaultsport Clio, let alone a comparison with the craziest 2-liter
NA motor known in history, the 240-hp and 9000-rpm
Honda S2000. The lack of variable valve lift and switchable intake
manifolds might be the main reasons, but equally influential is the
need to deal with current emission standards and modern expectation for
fuel economy. It is rated at 41 mpg in European combined cycle and 160
g/km of CO2 emission, pretty good for a
Alright, the engine is not hugely powerful, but at least it contributes
to good chassis balance. Open the bonnet, you will find the FA20 is
especially low – in fact, there seems to be enough space to fit a
turbocharger and intercooler. Subaru deliberately reduced its height by
slimming its intake manifolds, exhaust manifolds and oil pan. Moreover,
the boxer engine is a better match to the rear-drive chassis than the
typical 4WD chassis of Subaru. Because of the absence of front axle and
differential, the engine can sit right down to the bottom of the
chassis, or 120 mm lower than the case in Impreza. This enables the
sports cars duo to achieve a
center of gravity lower than most sports cars on the market, including
Porsche Boxster and Cayman!
Nevertheless, the front-to-rear weight distribution fails to achieve a
perfect 50:50. Theoretically, the elimination of front axle should
allow the engine to sit as close to firewall as possible. In reality,
the Toyobaru has to leave some space between the engine and firewall to
accommodate the steering rack. In some FR sports cars, such as MX-5,
the steering rack is mounted fore of the longitudinal engine to avoid
this problem. Unfortunately, this solution is not possible on the
Toyobaru because its very wide boxer engine would block the way for the
steering shaft. Consequently, the boxer engine can only be mounted 240
mm (9.4 inches) further back than the case of Impreza, which means more
than half of the engine locates fore of the front axle line. This
results in a static balance of 55:45, or 53:47 with two on board.
A rear-mounted transaxle like what Porsche 924/944/968 employed could
have offset the problem, but there is no such device in the parts pool
of both Toyota and Subaru (except that of Lexus LFA), so the car has to
settle with a conventional, Aisin 6-speed manual gearbox. Its roots can
be traced back to the old Toyota
Altezza, despite of unique ratios and improved shift linkages.
Two more parts are worth our attention. The first is the Toyota-sourced
electric power steering. Its electric motor acts on the steering
column, which is generally deemed to be an inferior design. However, a
lot of effort has been spent on its programming, and a set of skinny
front tires should benefit sensitivity. Another is the Michelin Primacy
HP tires. Incredibly, these 215/45WR17, low-rolling-resistance rubbers
come intact from Toyota Prius. Ridiculously, they are chosen because of
their lack of grip, so oversteer and drift can be easily induced by the
limited engine torque. When Akio Toyoda talks about driving fun, he
On the Road
Jump into the car, you will find a spacious cabin. The front seats
accommodate guys up to 6ft 4in. The rear seats are limited to small
children, but it is by no means a sin to a 2+2 coupe. The driving
position is near perfect. You sit much lower than in hot hatches, so it
feels every bit a sports car. The driver seat offers good lateral
support. The position of steering wheel and pedals are excellent.
Outward visibility is good, too. On the downside, this cabin lacks the
quality and visual desirability of the best. The dashboard and door
panels are made of largely hard plastics. The center console's audio
and air-con controls look both outdated and cheap. The white-faced
analogue instrument look old-fashioned. Just like most Toyota and
Subaru products, the cabin works well and you know it will be durable,
but it just doesn't have much showroom appeal.
Start the flat-four engine and stretch it through the gears, you will
be a little disappointed with its delivery. On the one hand, the
exhaust note is nothing special. Instead of the powerful off-beat
rhythm of traditional Subaru boxers, it sounds flat and subdued for
most of the time. Yes, it does get intensified from 6000 to 7400 rpm
redline, but that is still a noise rather than music. This situation is
similar to the 2-liter turbo engine on the Japanese market Impreza WRX
STi as both cars employ 4-2-1 exhaust system to promote rev and
efficiency. On the other hand, the FA20 motor feels somewhat sleepy.
The problem lies on a weak torque curve – not only the peak of 151 lbft
is modest, there is a dip in the mid-range (from 3300-4800 rpm) to
discourage the hard-fighting driver. It is not even adequate to be
described as "peaky", because it lacks the explosive top-end power of
Honda S2000. What it does is revving smoothly and progressively across
the wide rev range. As a result, performance is rather unremarkable. If
you are lucky to avoid upshifting the second time in the process of
doing 0-60 mph, you might get the job done just under 6.5 seconds. If
not, you will get an embarrassing 7 seconds-plus, which is slow even by
hot hatch standards.
However, performance is not the only factor to judge a driver's car. If
we look beyond performance, you will find the 86 and BRZ incredibly fun
to drive. In fact, there is simply no cars in affordable price range
can match the driver engagement it delivers. This feeling arises as
soon as you steer the car into the first corner. The steering is so
precise, progressive and even communicative – it's not ultimately as
tactile as the best hydraulic racks, but it trumps the 991's to be the
best EPS we have seen. The brake and clutch pedals are similarly well
tuned. The gearshift is solid but short and decisive. Most important,
the chassis feels light, agile and balanced. It turns in responsively
at your will. Its low center of gravity is evident from its lack of
roll in corners. Its ride is firm but controlled, allowing it to deal
with all kinds of roads as an everyday car but without filtering out
the communication from the road. You feel deeply connected to the car
through the steering, throttle and seat of your pants. Among all its
talents, it is the throttle steer that impresses most, especially on
the Toyota 86. This car feels so well balanced that you can oversteer
it with an abrupt turn of wheel, then hang on at your wishes with
throttle and opposite lock. Unlike most modern performance cars, you
can do that at much lower speed as adhesion of those skinny tires are
easy to be overwhelmed. As a result, you can enjoy its interactive
handling not only on race tracks but also in the real world. This
sounds like the return of the original MX-5, doesn't it?
That is also what makes the twins so inspiring. In the past 2 decades,
sports cars and hot hatches have been getting increasingly quick and
grippy such that they are no longer enjoyable to exploit on public
roads. The Toyobaru project is a welcomed change of direction. It gets
us back to the fundamental question: what makes a car great to drive?
Eye-popping numbers, soft-touch plastics or an ability to engage its
driver? The answer is always obvious, but only Akio Toyoda is willing
to go against the trend and pour so much money into such a mass scale
project. It fills up the gap left by Honda S2000, Mazda RX-8 and the
previous MR2. A perfect machine it might not be, the 86 / BRZ duo is
still worth our highest praises.