New BRZ/FT 86 designed for the evolved tuner?

Journalists check out Toyota Motors' production prototype of the "86" compact rear-wheel-drive sports car during its press preview at the Toyota Gazoo Racing Festival at the Fuji Speedway, Japan, on November 27, 2011. (Toshifumi Kitamura, Getty Images)
Like all tuners out there, I’ve been anticipating the day I finally get to see the new Toyota FT-86 or the Subaru BRZ on the streets. It has been long since any car manufacturer designed a car solely for performance enthusiasts. And after teasing us for so long since the original unveil of the concept, we finally get a better sense of what this car is all about underneath its skin.

For the true international unveil, Subaru welcomed a host of North American journalists to get a taste of the BRZ around a track. Autoblog conducted a review so thorough that it went into details as specific as the types of suspension bushings used and, in the same article, took on the tone of a consumer buyers’ guide in delving into cargo space.

Though the photos show only the BRZ whereas it would have been ideal to see both cars, we get a much better idea of its shape and proportions. But as any car writer should do, I’m going to refrain from commenting on aesthetics because it’s entirely subjective and, given that there is a nice gallery of photos to look at, everyone can make up their own mind.

Some preliminary specs for North America are in the grapevine, and they consist of a six-speed manual, a lofty redline at 7,000 rpm, 200 hp from its 2.0L flat-four and an estimated price of $25,000 U.S. On paper, these specs remind me of the latest generation Civic Si (which the BRZ is lighter than by 100 lbs), but the underpinnings of the new Subie is entirely different. Rather than starting from the ground up as a commuter car and then given a sporty treatment, the new Scion/Subaru 2+2 coupe used the Porsche Cayman as a benchmark to achieve a standard of handling that befits a true sports car. Of course, this was all covered in the reviews by Autoblog and InsideLine, so I won’t regurgitate their excellent reviews.

But as food for thought, it makes me wonder if Subaru and Toyota are redefining the tuner car. These new models are undoubtedly targeted towards the crowd which grew up salivating over posters of Toyota Supras, GT-Rs, enjoyed the pocket-rocket status of the four-cylinder VTEC and dabbed in turbo-tuning as well as settings for coil-over suspensions to go sideways in the most recent drift craze.  And this makes me wonder, has the tuning scene evolved? For those who are still racer-boys at heart, the vast majority of whom began their passion with a fixation on horsepower, maybe the natural progression is towards vehicle dynamics – a mentality that translates directly from drifting where balance and cornering becomes the bigger focus rather than outright power.

Admittedly, in North America, the traditional culture was passed down from the muscle car era to run from stoplight to stoplight. When I talk cars with most people my age, the conversation still centers on the potential of different engines, not the merits of independent suspension or the importance of finding the right braking point before a corner.

Maybe the BRZ/FT 86 will change all that. From the accounts of the journalists who came back from Japan, the engine is impressive in achieving 100hp/Litre, but this car was designed from the ground up around the purists’ philosophy for good handling – low centre of gravity, balance and light weight. That’s what makes this car so refreshing; it targets the tuner crowd without relying on the gimmicks of a factory-supported aftermarket – which can never replace the originality or the uniqueness of true aftermarket companies. They’ve made the car as good as it can be at the core of its architecture – an obsessive pursuit of a low centre of gravity, and they’re leaving the rest up to the crowd. For example, one of the reviewers remarked how the factory tires aren’t the aggressive models but are instead meant for comfort and road noise. For a tuner, that means more savings from the MSRP because tires and rims are one of the first items we customize to our own tastes. One of the reviewers remarked how the sound of the exhaust was uninspiring – but wait until the factory piping is swapped out for a tuned item which will let the boxer engine breathe properly. What’s most inspiring of all is the dash is shaped in such a way that a serious track-day driver can install a roll cage without having to cut into a steel component. Now that’s hardcore.

But I digress. To me, the BRZ is a really refreshing approach by a car company to reach out towards the most difficult of crowds amongst car buyers. Rather than give us what they think we want, they’re trying to create a new taste for the excellent vehicle dynamics they’ve developed in the BRZ/FT 86 twins. I hope I don’t come off in being arrogant as one of the few who have “seen the light,” because my penchant for cornering only came about when I unwittingly bought a car that happens to have excellent balance when I was only fixated on straight-line power. Ever since, I’ve never looked at spirited driving the same way.

Let’s see if this new offering from Toyota and Subaru could enlighten more of us in North America.