Some cars work everywhere. Michigan’s the perfect place to find those that do: The roads are flat and pockmarked, and the seasonal extremes are brutal. It’s easy to love a car on one of those bucket-list Alpine passes, but on Michigan roads the car has to work hard to win you over. For example, the MX-5 Miata works in Michigan just fine. It’s fun in all conditions in which you can get the rear tires to hook up, and some that you can’t. It cheerfully entertains in traffic, on city streets, undulating but uninteresting country roads.
Some grand tourers work perfectly well there, too, soaking up enough punishment from the atrocious roadways without battering the occupants. The more voluptuous Aston Martins are particularly good at this trick, and they’re plenty entertaining to cruise around in — or mash it flat after a scan of a country intersection shows nothing doing for at least 50 miles in every direction.
These cars have more than just compliance — they have a subjective, elusive charm in suboptimal conditions. And the 86 twins, well, aren’t Miatas. The car isn’t lacking in dynamic ability, of course, but there’s a flatness, a one-dimensionality to it. It’s simply suffocated, starving for a little bit more.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Put the 86 in a better situation and its foibles recede but don’t disappear. Straight, pock-marked slabs are the death of the thing. So I grabbed one out West, in Washington state where I now live, and fed it revs and curves until I was satisfied that the BRZ works as intended when you keep it happy. And when it’s happy, you’re happy.
The BRZ was on high-performance summer tires, and some of the best roads in Washington are up in the hills currently blanketed by slush and ice, so that was a nonstarter. But there’s a windy, weedy little farm road bending through a river valley just 20 minutes from my house. It’s got lots of sudden, blind bends — not to mention working farms — so it’s not the place to exercise a Corvette Z06. But there are enough turns you can see all the way through to make it fun, and three unbelievable uphill hairpins right at the end.
We’re talking 15 mph posted speed limit turns, and those signs aren’t far off. The rest of it feels like a warmup lap before an Olympic sprint, since the tightest section only lasts for maybe 60 seconds before spitting you out on the top of a ridge with a view of the Cascade Mountains.
There was no question the BRZ would be fun on the best part of this road, but what about the freeway portion? The arterials that this little road branches off of? Whatever slow process of dialing down on the littlest details Subaru has been through, before now it’s been basically imperceptible. But the 2017 refresh didn’t just change the exterior, it also brought some much-needed fine tuning to the engine’s torque curve and the suspension.
The BRZ always had softer rear springs than the FR-S, and now they’re even softer. Usually automakers want to eliminate squat, but in the BRZ it’s increased to help the front end point. The vehicle stability control software now works better with that retuned suspension, so its intervention is less perceptible. And while it’d take a slalom course, both cars, and a Vbox to really put a number on the improvement, the overall effect is nice. It’s nicer than I remember from the last time I drove a BRZ, a pre-facelift car in a completely different setting.
The extra midrange torque is also not immediately obvious, but it seems like there’s less of the infamous bog midway through the range. And man, the engine really sings at higher revs. It doesn’t hurt that it’s got shorter rear gearing, either. I love boxer engines, but I always felt I had to begrudgingly accept its lack of charm in the BRZ. The newly revised engine gets subtly closer to that ideal, and it seems to be a better partner for enhancing fun than the pre-facelift engine.
The shifter is still, for a Subaru, some sort of black magic. I personally find the high engagement point of the clutch a bit hard to deal with from a stop, but once you’re moving it’s great — and if I owned one, I’d simply adjust the pedal travel a bit. Plenty of folks have done this; it only takes a few minutes contorted in the footwell, with basic tools. In any event, once moving the clutch pedal’s easy, pillowy travel becomes second nature. Get into a rhythm with this thing and it’s easy to get to that zen-like place, where every control input becomes virtually autonomic.
But it’s the symbiosis between the BRZ and this environment — and the extra challenge getting the summer rubber to hook up on these slick roads — that underlines everything great about the BRZ. So it’s not the generalist the Miata is, sure. The Miata spreads its fun around in all situations, and the BRZ saves its fun for high revs and technical twisties. If you can feed the tweaked BRZ what it needs to thrive, I think it (and its 86 twin) might be the best sports cars for the money, period.