Due to the unique circumstances of my living situation (by way of which I'm living in England part-time for nine months), I spent almost a year shopping for cars, culminating with the decision about a month ago to buy my new BRZ. But the first time I drove that car, my impressions were actually pretty heavily colored by disappointment.
I'm going to reflect a little bit on how I came around from my initial...well, almost hatred of the 86, all the way to a place where I actually decided to buy one.
Fortunately for me in my capacity as a retrospective automotive navel-gazer, I wrote a detailed review of my first impressions when I drove the car in July of 2013. Here are some excerpts from my test notes—the bits that I found most troubling at the time (N.B., I had nice things to say about the car, too, and you can check out the full review for those, but these were my complaints at the time):
"...you could be forgiven for looking at it and coming away unimpressed, or even disappointed. I especially dislike those fake vents between the front wheels and the A-pillar; they cheapen the entire exterior of the car, and they really diminish the curb appeal."
"This, I'm afraid, is where things start to go badly wrong for the BRZ."
"I was not a fan of the cheap-feeling stereo in this car. It felt like an aftermarket head unit, and it seemed perilous to try and operate the thing at highway speeds. The gear knob is also a letdown, to be sure. It looks and feels cheap, and at idle, it vibrates around quite noticeably."
"An enormous, critical omission is that of a center armrest. [...] I'm sure you can buy an armrest as a dealer-installed accessory [Ed.: No, actually, you can't.] but…really? Should you have to? This is something that would annoy me every day. But I would almost hate to lose the storage space represented by the cupholders in the center console–mostly because there's so little storage space in the cabin.
"I was hoping the interior would feel snug, like a glove, but really it just felt claustrophobic to me. I am hoping that future versions of the car incorporate a marked re-thinking of the materials and the space of this interior. [...] I couldn't help but wonder: what would this car be like with the GTI's interior? I'll go ahead and answer my own question: it would be almost flawless."
"Also, based on prior experience with this kind of thing, I am 90% sure that in the first 10,000 miles of the life of a BRZ, all of the air vents and the other pieces of plastic trim are going to shake themselves loose and start rattling and/or buzzing in a really annoying way whenever you rev the engine or go over a bump."
"If this is your only car, and if you live somewhere where you'll need to drive on even slightly imperfect roads, then the ride in the BRZ borders on unacceptable."
"A C5 Corvette has an excellent, sporty, connected-yet-comfortable ride quality; the BRZ (much like my old Mazdaspeed3) does not."
"The clutch is not as good, I'm afraid. It's on the lighter side (which is good for everyday driving), but I honestly couldn't feel the friction point at all. I just kind of had to guess where it was, and hope that it was there"
"Maybe you're someone who likes the sound this car makes. I can't imagine what sort of person that is, but maybe they're out there. Anyway, I hate it."
"First of all, it's loud, and I mean loud. I'm all for shedding sound-deadening material to save weight, but this engine makes a terrible racket, and a bit of sound insulation wouldn't hurt this car."
"It's drony and clattery, and it sounds like it's fueled by rusty scrap metal. This is especially painful because it's such a hoot to rev the engine."
"...the one area in which it does purport to deliver toys (i.e., its audio head unit) is unforgivably bad. It's confusing and low-rent, and you would do much better to replace it with an aftermarket unit. The thing is, you shouldn't have to. I don't care that it doesn't have radar-guided cruise control or night vision, but the stereo is a basic thing, and doing it right doesn't add much extra cost or weight, so Subaru doesn't have much of an excuse on this one."
"For the right person, this car is a 10/10 value, but for the wrong person (count me in that category), it just doesn't make any kind of sense to buy a BRZ. So I'm going to split the difference, giving it a score of 5/10 for value. If you get in this car and decide that you can deal with the depressing interior and the god-awful racket its engine produces and the way it crashes around over bumps, then I wholeheartedly recommend that you buy it. But I cannot recommend it without that caveat."
Two months later...
So what possessed me to buy this car that I apparently hated? Well, two months after I drove the BRZ, I was still thinking about it—still trying to reconcile the car I wanted it to be with the car it was. And I couldn't do it without more data; I needed to drive it again. But I didn't want to bother the good people at the Subaru dealership a second time, so I headed over to the local Toyota dealer and hopped in an FR-S. Man, was I in for a surprise.
I took test notes on this car, too, and I kept thinking to myself how much more honest the FR-S felt than the BRZ. It wasn't putting on airs by claiming to have "luxury" features like partial-leather seats or a (god-awful) navigation unit. No, the FR-S is a car with cloth seats and a stereo that has actual physical buttons; it's a Japanese Bruce Springsteen. It isn't lying to you.
I won't bore you by going through every single positive thing I felt or noticed about the FR-S, but somewhere in the two months between these two drives, my mind really opened to the 86 twins. I interpreted this as a preference for the FR-S at the time, but now I understand that I had come to "get" the Toyobaru writ large. Here are just a couple thoughts I had on the experience:
"In this, among other ways, the FR-S is a bit like using stock Android after having tried a really cumbersome corporate skin (like something from LG, or HTC Sense). You realize that all of the so-called "features" that the skin offered were really just getting in the way of using the device."
"In the FR-S, there were moments when I lost myself in the car; the car itself seemed to disappear as I drove along. This is a profoundly strange feeling, and maybe some of you know what I'm talking about from experience, but essentially my brain stopped distinguishing the steering wheel and my hands as separate entities; in these moments, the urge to change gear felt as natural as the urge to inhale or exhale. It felt like the distinction between myself and the car was blurred. If this has never happened to you, then it must sound unspeakably stupid. But to me, these moments where I get lost in the machine are blissful. Moments like these are a big part of the reason I love cars. I've only experienced them a handful of times before; this car put me in a position to have that experience on a test drive."
"I stepped out of the FR-S today and immediately felt a pang of intense desire: I wanted badly to make this car mine, to drive it to work every day, to wash it by hand, to take it on road trips and to explore its limits on Flagstaff Road. I haven't wanted a car this much in a long time."
After that test-drive, I started re-thinking my whole judgment against the twins. Had the BRZ really been that bad? What if the leather and Alacantara seats were really great? Would I really care about the awful infotainment system if I could just plug in my iPhone?
I hemmed and hawed and watched hours of YouTube footage of BRZ drives—Motor Trend's Head2Head comparisons, Winding Road's POVs, and even subaruwrxfan's weekly updates. And then I left for the first leg of my extended stay in England.
Six Months Later...
Fast-forward another six months to March 2014, and I have been spending every waking moment of my free time looking at cars on the internet. That doesn't actually distinguish those six months from any other period of time in my life, but I was seriously shopping for a car to purchase on my return to the U.S.. I went home for a few weeks in March and test-drove some more cars: a 2007 Cayman. A Focus ST. A V6 Mustang.
One day, I stopped at a Subaru dealership on a whim. They had a beautiful WR Blue BRZ Limited on display in the very front of their lot, and I thought I'd take a look, and maybe convince them to let me drive it.
I dealt with a great salesman (who actually didn't know too much about the BRZ, but he was low-pressure and didn't pretend to know more than he really did). This time, when I fired up the engine, something just clicked in my head: of course it was as good as the FR-S. It was better. The seats? Lovely. The Subaru Forester Gump-grade nav system? Who cares. No armrest? Go down to the sheriff's station and take it up with Sergeant Like-I-Give-A-Damn. This is a special car.
That's the thing that you have to get about the BRZ—the thing that took me almost nine months to grasp: it is special in a very intangible way. It's a car worth making some sacrifices for. I have some complaints about NVH, and I'm almost certain that the head unit will try to kill me at some point, but let me put it this way: I am not a morning person, but this is a car that I regularly wake up at dawn to just drive. What a car. What a masterpiece.