March 29, 2012

Confession #42: If others' first impressions are anything to go on, some things are still worth the wait

2013 Subaru BRZ (AutoViva photo)
I swear, I'm not turning into some hyper-critic of automotive journalists. I may have just railed on Consumer Reports and their apparent lack of any understanding of impulse buying in their reviews, but I will largely save media criticism for my other blog.

This isn't so much criticism as an observation. Perhaps the most drawn-out coverage among auto journalists in recent memory is the Toyota-Subaru sports coupe collaboration, just now bearing fruit as the Subaru BRZ, Scion FR-S and its Toyota-branded equivalent. A lot of acronyms, but really one rear-wheel drive, compact sports coupe with a boxer four-pot and aimed at sports car purists who value great handling characteristics over modern electronic driver intervention and a heavily boosted engine. What's more, this speaks to the core of an auto journalist's heart. These are cars that just aren't as common on auto show stands, things with four cylinders, three pedals and a price that begins with a 2. I'm starting to picture hoards of drivers slobbering like Labradors at the press launch. 

And I'm probably right, based on the First Drive reviews that flowed down Twitter late last week. It's been seemingly universal praise for the Subaru coupe, the first since the wild XT and SVX coupes of the '80s and '90s – cars that were cool when I was six and still are today. But the BRZ has everyone, from the hoons over at Motor Trend to the guy who writes car reviews for Vanity Fair (and probably maintains Subarus are driven almost exclusively by lesbians). 

One must remember Subaru, as a car manufacturer, has split personalities. Ask a group of people in a Whole Foods parking lot what comes to mind when they think of the company, and they'll probably say words like "Outback," "Vermont," and "Birkenstocks." But approach someone getting out of a car with a big wing on the back and a tailpipe a toddler could get lost in, and they'll say words like "turbo," "rally" and "hella." Probably. The BRZ represents the personality of Subaru that doesn't include people lugging muddy dogs around. 

Toyota Supra GA70 Twin Turbo (Flickr/FotoSleuth)
For Subaru, and Toyota for that matter, these coupes are a reminder that there's still life in these companies beyond seeking out the mainstream. For every time an engineer has to produce an over-inflated Outback and bland Impreza or Corolla, there's pent-up anger building and yearning for the days when Subaru made the awesome-because-it's-bizarre XTs or Toyota had stuff like the Supra or Celica All-Trac. Those were great cars that, while imperfect in the Subaru's case and a little derivative in the Toyota's, were technically impressive and generally cool machines.

The new Toybarus remind me of what the Miata did for Mazda in 1989. That car was so good that one car reviewer, who drove it at the press launch back then, swears to this day a street corner full of people applauded when he drove by. We all know now it was a rip-off of a Lotus Elan, but that was no bad starting point. It's such a slick, impressive machine that gets by without a shedload of power because its chassis is so well-engineered. It's a driver's car, and doesn't care if it shares a showroom with a dull Mazda 2 or Lorax-supported CX-5.

A driver doesn't care a BRZ or FR-S or FT-86 shares knobs with your sister's Toyota Matrix, or the switches from a WRX STI. A true gearhead only cares that these companies made this car because it's a damn good product – it's a sports car that puts driving finesse over fiddly comfort and convenience features. You get behind the wheel and you know exactly what to do in order to have the most possible fun.

And for all the auto journalists out there, isn't it nice that someone takes what you write to heart and just does a good job?