Sideways thoughts: the Subaru Winter Experience [Op-Ed]
Byron goes north and falls in love with the Subaru BRZ all over again.
There are few things that bring more joy to the heart of the car enthusiast than simply spinning around in circles in a space free of dangerous obstructions. If heaven is a skidpad, a rear-wheel-drive car and an unlimited supply of tires, that may be enough to get me to re-evaluate some of my life choices. I don't need pearly gates and fluffy, white clouds. Give me an expanse of asphalt and dark, acrid smoke.
So when Subaru invited us to return to its Winter Experience in Eagle River, Wisconsin, the question wasn't whether we'd go, but whose turn it was.
Yes, we've done this before, and there seems to be little sense in rehashing something that Drew covered comprehensively just a year ago. Check out his video. I did the exact same thing, just with more snowfall (and, consequently, far less visibility).
Instead, I'm going to talk about the Subaru BRZ--the only Subaru that seems out-of-place in a winter driving scenario.
And that's what made it the best.
I've never tried to hide my fondness for the Subaru BRZ and Toyota 86. Even the over-priced, limited-edition tS (which you can still find on lots a year later) stole my heart. It's not the one you want to buy, but if you find one locally, you can probably get it for a song.
Driving the BRZ back-to-back with the WRX and STI illustrates just how different these cars are. Some dismissed the Toyobaru twins from the outset as Imprezas missing a front differential--an assessment with no basis in reality.
The little things mean a lot when it comes to fun cars, and the BRZ gets the little things right. The notion of being "one with the car" may sound like marketing gibberish, but think about the way you feel sitting high up in an SUV or truck compared to the way you feel in a small coupe or convertible.
The BRZ's seating position forces you to elongate your body, putting your feet and your back closer to the front and rear wheels, respectively. The lower hip point puts your core closer to the BRZ's center of mass. You feel more as if you're "inside" the BRZ than you do in its sedan-based stablemates.
Subaru's (and Toyota's, to be fair) engineers went to great lengths to reinforce this sensation wherever possible in the BRZ. The steering feels immediate and responsive. The throttle feels linear, predictable.
These things make it easy to drive the BRZ out there on the ice. Sure, it would be useless without studded tires, but plenty of cars would be useless even with them. Driving a BRZ is so intuitive that there's essentially no learning curve. Even with the traction control completely defeated, the BRZ remains perfectly manageable.
When we (I refer to the enthusiast media in this case) talk about "driver's cars," this is what we mean. What makes a car good or bad doesn't show up on a dyno plot or even the results of a performance test. The WRX and STI may be far more capable in these conditions, but they don't impart the same satisfaction.
Forget the ice and snow and the limited context of driving the BRZ only in the company of other Subarus. Forget "more" or "less" and anything else with the whiff of relativism. In a vacuum, the BRZ is still immensely satisfying to drive.
So, why do the twins remain so controversial? Why do many enthusiasts still look down upon two of the best enthusiast cars currently on the market? Simple. They wish they were something else. And that's sad.
Hating a car for what it could have been (itself an arbitrary notion often wildly disconnected from reality) is no way to approach this hobby. The hypothetical, 350-horsepower, $35,000 BRZ STI you claim to covet is a completely ridiculous notion doomed to exist only in your fantasies.
Why? Because that car exists. It's called the Nissan 370Z. Didn't buy one, did you?
The brown, diesel-powered, all-wheel-drive wagon with a manual transmission has been a meme in automotive discussion forums for more than a decade now (yes, you're that old). It's a tired joke, but neither its age nor its prevalence are its greatest crimes.
No, what makes it so sinister is that it obscures a darker, far more insidious set of criteria which form the foundation for what I'm going to refer to as the "Mustang Fallacy."
It's a nuanced and multi-faceted concept, but it basically boils down to this: Enthusiasts want cars that are faster, lighter and more refined than the most-affordable, V8-powered American pony car so long as they cost the same or less.
Of course it's not universal. There are many enthusiasts who don't want this hypothetical not-Mustang, just as there are many who have no interest in the hypothetical baby-vomit-colored practi-wagon, but it's so startlingly pervasive an attitude in the community that you've certainly encountered it, even if you didn't realize it at the time.
Think about every argument you've had about performance numbers. At one point (or more), I'd bet good money you've seen (or heard) the phrase "For that money, you might as well get a Mustang GT."
When you say "if only it had another 100 horsepower" or some other such nonsense about the Subaru BRZs, Toyota 86s and Mazda Miatas of the world, you're kicking it into that mid-30-thousand-dollar abyss where enthusiast fantasies go to die.
Because the thing is, you don't want them to build it so that you can actually buy it. You want them to build it simply to validate your world-view. Former The Truth About Cars Editor-in-Chief Derek Kreindler said it best: "[...] OEMs are in the business of selling cars, not manufacturing widgets for people who like cars." (emphasis mine).
The simple fact of the matter is that one of the surest routes to fiscal catastrophe is listening to car guys.
Think we're wrong? Name one example of an automaker who has realized commercial success by catering to the unrealistic expectations of the enthusiast collective. And while you're trying to find that exception, here are some recent examples of what I mean:
The Hyundai Genesis 3.8 R-Spec was a minimally equipped, fun-to-drive 2+2 with plenty of power, a limited-slip differential and big brakes. Nobody bought it. The aforementioned Nissan 370Z has languished without a redesign for a full decade because nobody's buying it.
This theory translates to higher price points, too. The Chevrolet Camaro Z/28 revival was a critical darling and a sales disaster. Nobody bought them.
Insert any Cadillac V model here. Nobody's buying them.
Yes, even American cars fall victim to the Mustang Fallacy. In order for an American car to be considered good, it must also be priced like a Blue Light Special, because American cars are supposed to be cheap. It's not good enough that an American car be a world-class performer; it has to do it for what any product planner would consider an offensively absurd discount.
Meanwhile, FCA keeps building overweight cars on outdated chassis and stuffing them with iron-block engines that might as well be fueled by puréed Brachiosaurus. They are everything the enthusiast echo-chamber considers antithetical to the ideal formula for a fun car. They're slower, heavier, less refined and more expensive than a V8-powered Mustang.
Guess what? They're selling like hotcakes. It's the exception that proves the rule.
The BRZ is not a perfect car. There is no universally perfect car. If there was, we wouldn't need the others, now would we?
But this one will certainly do.