If you want a sporty car and aren’t into muscle-car poses and smoky burnouts, there really aren’t many no-frills rear-wheel-drive coupes. But two of the best possibilities left are ones you’ll almost certainly want to consider: the Subaru BRZ and the Toyota 86.
What’s that, you say? They’re the same car? Close. They’re really similar, but each has a slightly different personality.
Truth be told, we score them almost the same. The BRZ wins, by a hair, because it comes in more flavors and offers a package with special shocks and brakes. If you’re interested in performance—and you are if you’re reading this—you’ll understand the BRZ’s 6.5 overall versus the 86’s 6.3. (Read more about how we rate cars.)
But which one should you drive–the 86 or the BRZ?
MORE: Read our latest reviews of the 2017 Toyota 86 and 2017 Subaru BRZ
The 86 and BRZ are near-twins, developed and designed by a joint effort between Subaru and Toyota. Aside from some differences in design and equipment, they’re functionally the same car. Oh, and until last year, the 86 was known as the Scion FR-S, but that brand was dissolved and its products were assimilated into the Toyota lineup. That said, there’s more than just a name change here, as both the 86 and the BRZ received a modest update for the 2017 model year focused primarily on improving their handling.
The gap between the two has narrowed, with the BRZ taking on some of the former FR-S’ more tail-happy nature. You’ll have to drive the back-to-back on a winding road or a closed course to really tell the differences, but one place where they diverge big time for 2017 is in the loaded-up BRZ Limited with the Performance Package. That’s the spec it takes to get specially-tuned Sachs ZF shocks, Brembo brakes, wider alloy wheels, and wider tires.
Previously, we found that the Scion FR-S would demonstrate a slightly (but noticeably to those with a nose for it) greater willingness to rotate—that is, to move around its central axis. But for 2017, the gap between the two is smaller thanks to a host of delicate suspension revisions. Both are about as much fun as you can have behind the wheel of a sub-$30,000 sports car, assuming that drag racing isn’t your goal.
Aesthetically, the BRZ and 86 both convey a sense of friendly, sporty attitude. Low-slung, with curving roof lines and slightly flared fenders, you’d be forgiven for not noticing the differences straight away. Up front, the 86 and BRZ wear slightly different bumpers, the primary difference being the shape of the grille opening. Of course each also gets its brand-specific badges, but beyond that, there are essentially. Even inside their cabins, the differences are limited to upholstery and stitching.
That’s not a bad thing, however, as Subaru and Toyota have managed to pack in a lot of value for not much money—though again, here we have a difference. A minor reshuffling for 2017 means that the BRZ now starts less than the 86 (the FR-S was slightly cheaper). That’s mostly because the BRZ Premium lacks automatic climate control. Can you live with manual climate control? You’ll save $800 or so off the bat by shopping at your local Subaru dealer. But the BRZ wins more points since its Limited trim grade adds the aforementioned automatic climate plus heated seats, leather trim, and upgraded interior materials. And it’s the Limited that offers the Performance Package with its goodies, although you’re perilously close to $30,000 at that point.
Underneath, they’re essentially the same, save for some minor suspension differences. Both utilize a 2.0-liter boxer (horizontally-opposed) four-cylinder engine with combination port and direct injection. The engine is rated at 205 horsepower and 156 pound-feet of torque. That’s not a lot, but these models are less about straight-line speed or acceleration than what it does when the road bends. A 6-speed manual is standard and a 6-speed automatic optional on both, although you’ll have to get the stick if you want the base BRZ as the automatic is a Limited-only item.
Both the BRZ and FR-S are also rated at 21 mpg city, 28 highway, 24 combined with a manual transmission, and a considerably better 24/32/27 with an automatic.
Inside, both cars are surprisingly well-finished considering their performance and price. While there are no expanses of semi-aniline leather, there are pleasing matte-finish trim pieces, soft-touch plastics, and a simple, purposeful design theme that suits the spirit of the car: no-nonsense sporting fun. The rear seats are even somewhat useful; full-size adults won’t want to go cross-country in the back, but they won’t mind going across town. Both have different infotainment systems, and neither are exactly class-leading in that regard. There’s no navigation on the BRZ, but a Toyota dealer can add navigation to the 86 for $900 plus any installation fees. Or, you could just use your cell phone.
The bottom line with either the Toyota 86 or Subaru BRZ is that you can’t go wrong, whichever brand you choose, as they’re the two newest, and in our eyes, best, entrants to the (mostly) under-$30,000 sports car market. Frankly, it may come down to which dealership offers the better experience.
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