2018 Subaru BRZ Performance Pack Tested on Track!
Has the GT86’s ante finally been upped with the new Performance Pack?
2018 is quickly approaching, that means we are now five years into the life-cycle of the GT86. It certainly has gone through a lot of changes in that period of time. Though, mostly in name only. You can call it the GT86, FT86, Subaru BRZ, or Toyota 86, also formerly known as the Scion FR-S. If that isn’t JDM enough for you, you can call it by the ZN6 chassis code is has been bestowed. Actually, since this is a Subaru BRZ, it’s actually a ZC6. They sure aren’t making this easy on us.
The names, chassis codes and forum fan allegiances these cars carry are all similar, but with small deviations, changes that show progress, or simply the passing of time. The rest of the 86, beyond the badge on the trunk, has seen similar small deviations, and changes over its five year run. Toyota and Subaru jointly promise that each year the 86 is gently improved upon in some small way. The Japanese have a term for this, and it’s called kaizen (改善). It’s a term to describe to continuous change, or continual small improvements, and is a common philosophy in Japanese engineering.
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Since its inception in 2013, the engineers behind the Toyobaru have followed the philosophy of kaizen. Each year, we would be told that small changes to the shocks, springs, or sway bars were made to improve the car. Simply put, most consumers’ butt dynos were not well-calibrated enough to notice the small year-by-year changes. Sales trended downward after the initial 2013 hype. American consumers are sold on horsepower, and 0-60 times. The Subaru-sourced FA20 boxer engine that powers the 86, with it’s 200 horsepower and 151 lb-ft of torque, simply was not a stoplight drag racing hero. With that figure not changing, consumers began to look elsewhere for sports car fun.
However, 2017 brought about the biggest leap in kaizen for the 86
Subaru and Toyota heard their customers pleas for more power and better acceleration, and they responded! Of course, they responded with a five (5) horsepower bump. Yes, a whole five horsepower, and five lb-ft of torque increase. The 86 was never going to explode on the market, driven by some sort of kamikaze (divine wind) of horsepower. Remember, kaizen.
However, that’s not all that got upgraded. While the FA20 may still be a softie with 205 horsepower and 156 lb-ft of twisting force, the acceleration should improve thanks to the jump from a 4.1:1 final drive unit to a 4.3 rear end gear. That makes all six gears in the 6-speed manual transmission just a bit shorter overall, improving acceleration.
All manual transmission-equipped Toyota 86 and Subaru BRZ models get the modest power bump and differential upgrade for 2017. The big news is the also-new-for-2017 Performance Package option that you can get with the Subaru BRZ. This is important, so listen up: a $1195 option, the performance pack adds track-tuned Sachs dampers, wider 17×7.5″ wheels and, crucially, Brembo big brake upgrades, front and rear. That’s a lot of bang for not much buck, but is it any good?
Does the Performance Pack make the Subaru BRZ a legitimate track day hero?
For clarification, the car I test drove was a 2018 Subaru BRZ Series.Yellow. Basically, it’s a Limited trim with the Performance Package and fancy paint. For the record, at present, an equivalent of the Performance Pack cannot be spec’d on a Toyota 86. Additionally, the Performance Pack can only be added to the top of the line Limited trim level, for…reasons?
I drove the BRZ at Willow Springs International Raceway, aka Big Willow. For the uninitiated, Big Willow is a track that favors powerful cars and brave drivers. The quickest, ballsiest Miata driver may be able to keep up with a rookie driving a Corvette here, but only just, and they would have to really be on it. So, not the ideal track for the BRZ and its modest power output, but track testing will be telling, none the less.
My initial impressions of the BRZ were mixed. Interior materials are nicer than the 2013 FR-S’ I last drove, credit that to the nicer BRZ and its “Limited” trim level. The digital display that toggles between water temperature, oil temperature and other useful-to-know-when-tracking stats is excellent, as that information is critical when pushing a car hard on track.
However, the FA20 engine is still gruff on start-up and then off-puttingly quiet at idle, barring the whirring, ticking direct-fuel injectors. A louder exhaust note would go a long way here.
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The Aisin-sourced RA62 6-speed manual transmission is still a “miss” for me, as well. The clutch communicates digitally, when I wish it were analog. If there was feedback in the clutch pedal, I couldn’t interpret what it was trying to tell me. Additionally, the shifter feels very similar to the current Subaru WRX transmission, which is to say, gravelly and unnaturally stiff in it’s action. The lack of fluidity in how the transmission operates and feels is noticeable. I never missed a gear change with the BRZ, and I doubt you would either, but it certainly isn’t as rewarding to row through the gears as a Mazda Miata.
Okay, so the engine still isn’t great. What about the Performance Pack?
Well, I’m glad you asked: the Subaru BRZ with the Performance Package is an absolute joy to drive, and is one of the best out-of-the-box track day cars I have ever driven. I love the 86 platform as much as I hate it, yet, I didn’t want to get out of the humble little BRZ at Willow Springs. They nailed it with the chassis setup on this car.
The Sachs dampers are an excellent compromise for the road car. The absorb mid-corner bumps and broken pavement with ease. At the same time, the suspension is firm enough for the car to remain relatively flat in the corners and be predictable and easy to drive quickly. Willow Springs pavement is much older than you or I, and is far from perfect after baking in the California desert sun for 64 years. The BRZ’s feathers remain unruffled.
Some of this can also be attributed to the slightly wider wheels that the Performance Package nets. Measuring 17″ in diameter and 7.5″ wide (up from 7″ on the standard car), the little extra bit of stability doesn’t go unnoticed. Lest you think I’m losing my mind, that’s a 7% increase in wheel width and footprint. Do the math if you don’t believe me.
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The overall handling balance is best described as “confidence-inspiring.” With no warm up, I was able to hop in the BRZ and run lap times at Big Willow in line with what racers in the 86 Cup “stock” class are doing. The car is friendly at the limits of adhesion, willing to understeer or oversteer depending on what inputs you give it. Turn in too early? No problem. Nipping and tucking the car’s trajectory is as simple as modulating the throttle. The overall handling balance is 100% neutral. It doesn’t oversteer, unless you want it to, and it doesn’t understeer, unless you ask it to. It’s perfect.
Brembo? More like mindblo(wn)
Stomach-churning puns aside, we have to talk about the Brembo stoppers on this BRZ Performance Pack. Four-piston front calipers and two-piston rear calipers are paired with larger rotors. The result is a car that is basically impregnable to brake fade. Despite being hotlapped all day by journalists of wildly varying skill level, the Brembos were unbothered. Several other cars in attendance had to be gently escorted away due to boiled brake fluid and crumbling brake pads.
If you are a track day enthusiast, the $1195 entry fee for the Performance Pack is the best money you will ever spend on the BRZ. The brakes alone make it worth ticking that option box. Buy the racing brake pad and brake fluid of your choosing, and you will have a car that will consistently out-brake just about anything else at the track day. As someone who is an absolute brake killer, the Performance Pack Brembos blew me away. If you bought an 86 before the Performance Pack was available, I hope for your sake these brakes are cheap on the secondhand market. So worth it, as both a safety, and performance upgrade.
All of this leaves me at a crossroads
It’s time to wrap up this track day review of the 2018 Subaru BRZ Performance Pack. Like I said at the beginning, this car does a lot of things right, while simultaneously doing a lot of things wrong. That leaves me in a tough spot with this car.
Slow cars can be fun, look at the Mazda Miata, if you ever doubted this. However, the FA20 boxer engine never comes alive on the track. It’s as devoid of character and charisma is it is devoid of mid-range torque. It’s never eager to zing to it’s 7,400 RPM redline, or willingly pull out of low speed corners. Prodding the accelerator on corner exit feels like prodding a sleeping zoo animal and demanding it to entertain you and your family, it’s just not right. If that 205 horsepower came from a Yamaha-tuned Toyota engine, like, for example, the rabid 2ZZ engine from the old Celica GT-S/Corolla XRS, you could forgive the lack of mid-range oomph, because of the frenetic top end power delivery.
On the flip side, this is easily one of the best handling new cars under the $50,000 mark. It’s equally willing to be a dance partner or track day instructor. I cannot stress how fun to drive the BRZ is at the limit. The chassis is waiting for the powertrain to catch up to it’s capabilities, but I’m afraid it never will. That’s a shame, because I left Willow Springs trying to rationalize buying one of these cars as a track car.
To hell with it, life is too short to live with regrets. Buy yourself a Subaru BRZ. Get the Performance Package. Do a track day. Do a hundred track days. When the FA20 engine finally lets go, swap in a more suitable power plant and keep the fun times keep rolling.