2018 Subaru BRZ tS First Drive Review


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First things first: I’m calling this car, limited to 500 units, Brats. Pronounced like the sausages cooked in Lambeau Field’s parking lot. It’s also a nice homage (says me) to the only Subaru Ronald Reagan ever owned, the half-car, half-truck, all-love Brat. Let’s just face it. BRZ tS is a bad name. As a writer I doubly hate it because, like iPhone, you can’t even start a sentence with tS.

What is it? Well, tS stands for “Tuned by STI.” STI is Subaru Tecnica International, essentially Subaru’s go-fast shop. STI works in three main areas: motorsports, production performance variants (like the WRX STI, for instance), and performance parts, like a short-throw shifter or a strut tower brace. For the Brats, STI’s mission was to take the BRZ—a car designed around the notion of “fun to drive”—and turn it into “pure handling delight.”

To try to achieve such a goal, STI did the following. First, the body-in-white is stiffer. That results in less chassis flex, which means the suspension is able to do its job better and keep the tires in contact with the road. The stiffening was achieved via the use of high-tensile steel, and some of it showed up in some weird places such as the cavity where the navigation/infotainment unit sits. If you think about it, that is a fairly large opening, one that would be subject to flex, and now there’s a steel hoop surrounding it.

Next, STI added flexible V-bars to the engine bay. The V-bars look like a typical V-brace, but halfway down the length you see that each bar is actually two bars connected by pillow ball joints, the idea being that allowing a little movement on each bar will reduce harsh impacts and result in better suspension behavior. There are also two flexible draw stiffeners connecting the front subframe to the body. The idea here is to reduce yaw time and improve steering accuracy. Still with me?

STI added some aero tweaks, including a bunch of underbody spoilers to the front, sides, and side-rear of the car, as well as a two-position dry carbon-fiber wing. Subaru claims that drivers will notice the Brats’ improved aerodynamics over 50 mph. However, because the coefficient of drag is now increased, both acceleration and top speed are reduced. We won’t know by how much until we test one.

The tS employs German Sachs dampers that are tuned differently than those on the standard BRZ. They are 15 perfect stiffer in the front of the car and 3 percent stiff in the rear. The suspension setup as a whole has been retuned, resulting in 10 percent less roll reduction and 15 percent less pitching. Brembo handles braking duties. The wheels are now 18-inches shod in sticky, grippy Michelin PS4 215/40R18 tires. Do all of the tweaks add up to STI’s goal of pure handling delight?

Let’s play a game. Imagine you ordered a bowl of ramen. You take a bite and say to the waiter, “This needs more tare,” tare being the Japanese word for flavoring and one of the four principle ingredients in ramen. The waiter then brings you more noodles. You request more tare. You’re given another slice of pork belly. “Tare, please bring me more tare,” you beg. You’re handed an additional bowl of broth. You stare at the waiter in disbelief as the waiter smiles back at you.

I’ve never met anyone who has driven a BRZ or the Toyota cousin and asked for more handling. All anyone has ever said is “More power.” As in, can we please have more power? Everyone knows that the 200-hp 2.0-liter flat-four powering the BRZ is the same basic engine as the turbocharged one in the WRX, engine code FA20D versus FA20F. Persistent rumor has it that for packing reasons such as the WRX’s top-mounted intercooler, there’s no way to fit the turbo FA20F under the BRZ’s hood. I’ve long said “then cut a hole in the hood.” Anyhow, Brats here, the BRZ tS, needs more power. Instead we get more noodles.

What happens then when you give one of the worlds’ best-handling cars even more dexterity, prowess, and grip but keep the power levels the same? It’s less fun to drive. Sure, it’s probably quicker around tests such as our figure eight or around a track. But the joy is diminished. In a normal BRZ, as you’re whipping through a canyon, you get to spend some of your time dealing with the modest grip and progressive breakaway from the stock tires. On the tS’ gumball Michelins. There’s no drama whatsoever.

A certain subset of car journos have made a side career out of denouncing the normal BRZ’s stock Michelin Primacy HP tires. Apparently someone overheard someone else mention that the Primacy HPs are optional summer tires on a Euro-spec Prius, and ever since the car world’s been subjected to claims that the BRZ comes on “Prius tires.” For the record, the Toyota Prius comes on Dunlop Enasave O1 A/S tires. The point is, because the drama’s been dialed out, you are acutely aware at all times exactly how underpowered the car is. Not just down the front straight. Yeah, I’m saying it. The BRZ tS is somehow boring. Pure handling delight? Naw.

Brats is not a bad car by any means. I can even see where it would be useful. For instance, if you’re a track coach and you have a student that’s never turned a wheel in anger, the BRZ tS is the best teaching tool out there. The car doesn’t make wrong moves, and it’s handling is near flawless. However, once said student learns the basics with Brats, he or she will be begging for a go in something spicier, something with a little more personality, some extra tare. With just 200 horsepower and a price tag of $34,355—especially as the Honda Civic Type R starts at $34,990—I think Brats is a hard sell. Good thing Subaru dealers only have to worry about 500 of them.