Subaru's rear-drive sports car is better in every regard, although there's still room for improvement when it comes to the automatic transmission.

In some ways, it’s surprising that the Subaru BRZ is still kicking about given the climate of today’s car market. Even in the years following its 2012 debut, it was already one of the last bastions of affordable rear-wheel drive performance out there.

Despite being an oddity coming from the company known globally for building all-wheel drive cars, the BRZ and its twin, the Toyota 86, quickly became the darlings of the tuner scene – and of every car journalist out there with a penchant for driving like Jeremy Clarkson.

But with it feeling its age after 10 years, the BRZ has finally been given an overhaul. So, too, has the 86 – so much so it’s now called the GR86. The BRZ is the first of the pair to hit the market, though, which is perhaps fitting given Subaru is the company that actually builds the pair, designed the engine for them, and even provides the interior switchgear.

Although an initial batch of 500 cars was delivered to Australia for the 2022 model year, all were accounted for before the car even launched. However, deliveries of 2023 models are now commencing as we enter the third-quarter of 2022 – nothing changes between the two other than the price, which unsurprisingly has risen.

Two trim levels are available, both with the choice of a manual or automatic transmission. The 2023 range kicks off at $40,290 plus on-roads for the base manual, but the top-spec S automatic on test here sits at $45,390. For either trim level, the auto charges a hefty $3800 premium.

Certainly, it must be said this new Subaru BRZ is a real looker – especially given it’s far from ‘all-new’, as it’s still based around the same core. After all, building a new model completely from the ground up would likely provide a poor return on investment; reworking the bones of what you’ve got makes far more sense in this case.

It looks far more sleek than it did before, no doubt due to if sitting half an inch lower and an inch longer. The sculpting of its lights, front bumper, and side skirts all has it looking a lot more mature as well.

But then, there are still signs of its tuner-friendly origins. That ducktail spoiler isn’t metal – it’s plastic that can easily be unbolted to fit a bigger one in its place. It’s the same story with the flared-out side skirts – they can also be ditched in favour of more lary ones.

At least you won’t have to throw the tyres in the bin straight away, though. All Australian-delivered Subaru BRZ models come on stylish 18-inch alloys with Michelin Pilot Sport 4 rubber which is a massive upgrade from the skinny eco tyres old models wore to enable oversteer more easily. However, some other markets do still feature smaller wheels and less grippy treads on base models.

Inside is where it feels most similar, with the steering wheel remaining unchanged and the climate control dials, shifter, and centre console all remaining fairly similar to before.

This is a bit of a downside when it comes to things like the handbrake placement. Now of course, I love that it has a proper mechanical handbrake, but I didn’t love smacking my elbow against it every time I hopped in the car.

Still, the driving position is excellent, the seats are comfortable but still very snug and supportive, and the steering wheel is the perfect size – good thing it wasn’t changed.

It’s worth noting, the only difference between the base Subaru BRZ and the S model tested here is those seats – they’re cloth in the former, and Ultrasuede with heating in the latter. There’s no power adjustment or anything else to be gained in the S model, so it seems a bit pointless to dedicate a trim level just to that. Of course, the tokenistic back seats also remain – at least they have ISOFIX mounting points, as a child seat is about all they’re good for.

At least it does gain two good things – a 7.0-inch digital instrument cluster that looks crisp and has a special horizontal rev counter for Track mode, and an 8.0-inch infotainment screen running the Subaru Starlink operating system. It does offer Apple CarPlay and Android Auto but you’ll need to plug your phone in as it’s not wireless.

The only truly questionable change is the turn signal stalk. Subaru is fitting all its cars now with one that automatically returns to the centre position after you’ve indicated the direction, making it more difficult to switch it off if you need to yourself. I’d hoped this type of indicator stalk would die out after BMW tried it in the noughties – why Subaru is bringing it back, I do not know.

Perhaps the most noteworthy upgrade inside, though, is the addition of the EyeSight active safety system. It’s only fitted to automatic models, but it does bring radar cruise, front and rear AEB, and lane keep assist to the model for the first time.

While not a total revolution inside, it’s still a worthwhile upgrade over the BRZ of old, and it does feel to have been brought forward to today as it really was feeling its age. However, the interior was far from the old BRZ’s greatest weakness – that had to be the engine.

The old 2.0-litre may have been designed uniquely for the BRZ and 86 – indeed, its bore and stroke were both 86mm just to drive that point home – but it was underpowered and strained, and the infamous torque dip in the 4000rpm range made it a real disappointment.

That engine is now gone, and in its place there’s a new 2.4-litre naturally aspirated flat-four. Producing 174kW at 7000rpm and 250Nm of torque at 3700rpm, those are increases of roughly 20 percent in both regards. It’s not been designed to feel peaky, either – power is up across the entire rev range, and the torque dip is now gone.

It’s worth noting this engine is still unique to the BRZ and is based on the old one, with the bore increasing to 96mm to give it that extra displacement. Everything from the intake port diameter to the valve springs and even the diameter of the connecting rods’ big end has been revised to ensure it’s a more fitting engine for this up-to-date BRZ.

Without question, Subaru has worked wonders with this new engine. The mid-range is really where you feel the greatest difference, as there’s far more torque that’s accessible for a lot longer. However, the top end power is still there, and it similarly feels like a night and day difference.

Dare I say, it’s actually quick. Not quick for something with a naturally aspirated four-pot – it’s quick full stop. With it hitting triple digits in the six-second range, it’ll keep up with a Mk8 Volkswagen Golf GTI or the BMW 128ti – both of which are more powerful and far more torquey than it.

In the corners, the reworked chassis can clearly be felt working. Subaru will tell you it has 60 percent more front lateral bending rigidity and 50 percent more torsional stiffness; what the seat of my pants told me is that it feels tighter, more planted, and more balanced than before. The steering is still nice and direct as well – something increasingly rare to come across these days.

The new tyres are one of the greatest improvements in this regard as well. The old model sacrificing grip with eco tyres in the name of oversteer was fun for five minutes, but frustrating on a daily basis and especially in the wet. These Pilot Sport 4 treads deliver far more grip and are an excellent wet weather tyre, but with the extra power and stiffer chassis, it still kicks the back end out when you want it to.

However, there is one truly glaring problem with the Subaru BRZ – the automatic transmission. It’s still a six-speed torque converter unit like before, and although Subaru claims to have rather thoroughly revised it, the results aren’t quite as great a leap forward as the rest of the car is.

It’s certainly better than it was before when you’re using the paddles – the shifts no longer take an ice age to complete, although they’re far from rapid – but when left to its own devices, it’s still a dim-witted thing. Give it a boot to merge into a gap in traffic, and you’re simply left waiting for it to sort itself out.

With that said, if you’re driving it in a more relaxed fashion, the auto is very smooth and unobtrusive. If you plan on buying a BRZ to drive it to work, this, combined with the auto’s active safety tech, makes for a great daily driver recipe.

It’s even far more comfortable than you expect, with the suspension managing to tread the line between too soft and too stiff just about perfectly. What rather spoils its comfort factor, though, is the deafening amount of road noise that makes its way into the cabin – it’s utterly tiresome on a long drive.

Additionally, given the short supply up until this point in time, I’ve not been able to sample a manual model just yet. I dare say, given the $3800 saving it presents, I’d probably go with it anyway.

The Subaru BRZ is a tale of two cars, then. Option the automatic and you’re getting a stylish daily driver that’s compromised on the weekends; stick with the manual and you’ll get the less frustrating sports car for backroad blasts but miss out on day-to-day conveniences.

Regardless, the BRZ is still an utterly good purchase – not least as it’s now this or a Mazda MX-5 when it comes to affordable rear-drive performance. With the extra power and up-to-date styling, the BRZ only adds to its existing appeal. It’s an even better starting point for making it your own, or for simply enjoying as it is.

Plus, it’s just nice to still see a naturally aspirated rear-wheel drive sports car that’s still available for well under $50,000. The only way to keep cars like this around is to keep buying them – good thing this one’s worth buying.

2023 Subaru BRZ S Automatic List Price: $45,390
  • 8/10
    Performance - 8/10
  • 9/10
    Ride & Handling - 9/10
  • 8/10
    Tech & Features - 8/10
  • 7/10
    Practicality - 7/10
  • 8.5/10
    Value for Money - 8.5/10

Pros: Far more usable power from its 2.4-litre engine, Pilot Sport 4 tyres make it far more grippy, stylish new looks, up-to-date tech
Cons: The auto is still a bit frustrating, deafening amount of road noise, you’ll hit your elbow on the handbrake every time you get in it

In a nutshell: More power, stylish looks, and a better chassis with more grip – the Subaru BRZ truly has been brought forward 10 years with this update. Despite those upgrades, it’s still great value for a fun rear-wheel drive sports car as well.

Principal photography by Marcus Cardone. Additional photography by Patrick Jackson.

Full Disclosure: The vehicle tested here was provided by Subaru Australia for a week with a full tank of fuel. All additional fuel costs were covered by the author.

Patrick Jackson
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