Green Car Guide focuses on cars with economy and emissions figures that are best in class; the automatic version of the Subaru BRZ/Toyota GT86 achieves this goal, but is it worth sacrificing a few mpg to get the manual gearbox?
The Toyota GT86 and the Subaru BRZ are basically the same car. We’ve tested the Toyota GT86 with automatic transmission , which has an official fuel economy figure of 39.8mpg along with emissions of 164g/km CO2. On a drive from Milton Keynes to York we achieved an excellent 50mpg. The GT86 ticked the boxes for being a driver’s car and for being efficient. The Subaru BRZ, in manual form, is less efficient according to its official figure of 36.2mpg (equating to 181g/km CO2). So what should you do? – buy the more economical automatic, or is the manual version a sufficiently better driving experience to justify losing a few mpg?
The brief for the designers and engineers was to make the BRZ/GT86 a driver’s car. To achieve this the car had to be lightweight (it weighs just 1180kg), rear-wheel drive, and responsive to driver inputs. Subaru’s 2-litre petrol boxer engine has a lower centre of gravity than tall, upright, conventional petrol engines, so this unit was used – but without a turbo, as a turbo adds weight, and turbo lag can spoil an engine’s response. Another interesting and refreshing decision was to use relatively narrow, low grip tyres which, combined with a limited slip differential, has resulted in the car’s handling having fantastic adjustability.
We think the BRZ looks good on the outside, and also on the inside; the design is functional but attractive, with a mix of interesting materials – although our GT86 test car had a visually interesting-looking carbon-fibre effect dashboard, whereas in comparison the BRZ had a very plain silver strip across the dash. The car has a great driving position, but there’s very little room in the rear seats; they’re fine for small children, but not for much more. It has a boot rather than a hatchback, which limits its practicality somewhat, but the rear seats do fold flat, creating a long space from the back of the boot to the rear of the front seats.
The ‘infotainment’ screen isn’t the most upmarket-looking of systems; the Subaru version looks similar to that in the Toyota, but the Toyota version is much better to use – in fact we just didn’t get on with the Subaru version at all. In the GT86 it was quick to get a phone connected via Bluetooth, and it was easy to use the satnav. Neither of these things happened easily with the Subaru. One complaint applies to both cars – the volume control on the system is very fiddly to use, and there are no steering wheel-mounted volume controls.
As with the GT86, we couldn’t find any read-out showing the remaining driving range, which is a very rare omission on a modern car.
The BRZ has a great driving position, direct steering and responsive brakes. When you really get going, the combination of its light weight, rear-wheel drive chassis, and the engine’s boxer soundtrack provide levels of feedback that are very rare in modern cars.
We tested the BRZ on some of the best roads in North Wales, back-to-back with a BMW 330d Touring that we had on a six-week loan. This may seem like a strange comparison test, but both models are front-engined, rear-wheel drive, both have a good performance-economy balance, and both claim to be driver’s cars. Watch the BMW 330d v Subaru BRZ video
. The challenge was to see if the 3-litre, 6-cylinder, twin-turbo diesel BMW estate could keep up with the BRZ. Although the 560Nm torque of the 330d gave it real thrust on (rare) straight sections of road, and the BMW did perform very impressively, it weighed 1680kg, exactly half a tonne more than the BRZ. This meant that the BMW felt heavy through corners, whereas in comparison the BRZ could be taken through corners at much higher speeds, and with half a tonne less weight, it was so much more adjustable through the bends. This is a car that really proves that the lightweighting of vehicles is highly effective.
Stepping between the BRZ and the 330d highlighted that the BMW was much more refined, but it made the Subaru feel like a real sports car that assaults your senses – a refreshing feeling. One area where the BRZ is lacking is in the torque department – its ability to accelerate up hills is one of the car’s weaker points, as well as being somewhat noisy in the process.
There really are few differences between the Toyota GT86 and the Subaru BRZ, but one of them is the suspension settings; the Subaru has slightly firmer springs. The stiffer ride did seem to give the BRZ an edge during progressive driving over twisting moorland roads, however under normal driving conditions the GT86 is more comfortable.
So what about the main focus of this review – the automatic v manual transmission debate? The automatic transmission in our GT86 press car was good, and the steering-wheel mounted paddles provided the ability to change manually if desired. And the car was capable of impressive economy.
However… the BRZ with manual transmission seemed like a completely different car. It felt faster, it sounded more raw, and it provided the extra interaction between car and driver that the automatic GT86 lacked. Although the auto was acceptable in isolation, in comparison with the manual it really felt as though it was sapping power and getting in the way of the direct connection between driver and road. So having tried both manual and automatic transmission options, the manual version definitely gets our vote.
As previously highlighted, the automatic transmission is more economical than the manual; the auto has an official figure of 39.8mpg compared to the 36.2mpg of the manual – in other words a differential of almost 4mpg.
In real-life driving we achieved 50mpg in the GT86 between Milton Keynes and York. Driving from Manchester into North Wales we achieved exactly 40.0mpg in the manual Subaru. This suggests – perhaps surprisingly – that there’s even more of a gap between the manual and diesel economy in real-life driving.
With its 181g/km CO2 emissions, the manual BRZ has a 27% company car tax liability – or 23% with the automatic transmission.
The BRZ costs £24,995 in SE guise, or £26,495 in SE Lux form (which mainly adds a leather interior), and is available with manual or automatic transmission. It’s an extra £1500 for the more economical automatic. There’s also the virtually identical Toyota GT86. Bearing in mind the rewarding driving experience, we’d say this car offers very good value for money.
The car also has good levels of equipment and safety kit, and being a Toyota-Subaru cross, the GT86 should be reliable and durable. Be aware that Toyota offers a five-year warranty but Subaru only offers one for three years. Another issue to note is that Toyota has a greater allocation of the GT86 in the UK than Subaru has of the BRZ.
So the choice is this: if you want the best economy, buy the automatic version of the BRZ or GT86. However there’s a £1,500 price premium for the automatic transmission – so unless this is a company car purchase and benefit in kind rates are a major factor in the decision, we’d suggest saving the £1,500, buying the manual, and spending it on any extra fuel that you use. That way you’ll get the BRZ with the most pure and rewarding driving experience. And en route to your favourite roads, you should still be able to manage 40mpg if you drive carefully, which is good for a car that delivers such high levels of driving enjoyment.
So, as we believe that the manual gearbox more than makes up for the reduced economy, the manual Subaru BRZ still gets a Green-Car-Guide rating of 10 out of 10; it really is a game-changer, and other manufacturers should take note and develop lighter and therefore more efficient and more responsive driver’s cars.