Critics’ Notebook: 2016 Subaru BRZ

It's a great car. So why isn't anyone buying it?

Subaru BRZ

Neighbors poured from their doorways the day the 2016 Subaru BRZ appeared in my driveway. “Handsome!” they said. “What is it?!” And most often: “How much does that cost?” When I mentioned the starting price of just $25,395 the reaction was: “Those must sell like hot cakes!”

Not exactly. In a record sales month for Subaru in January the company moved 361 BRZs. (Compare that to its best-seller, the Forester, with 11,904 sold.) Kids in my neighborhood are making more money selling Girl Scout cookies. And it's not just a recent drop-off; the car’s sales figures have never been great. Which begs the question: Is this Subie simply not that good? Or is the American car-buying public a bunch of morons? Better take a closer look.

It’s been three years since the BRZ first hit our streets, with the name standing for Boxer engine, Rear-wheel drive, Zenith. It was a duel launch with Toyota, which sold its own RWD two-seater, the FR-S, under the Scion brand. (The two are basically identical. We'll come back to that in a moment.) At launch, you could see the market begging for this car. It had all the assets that has made Nissan’s Z a road staple for over 40 years: classic sports car styling, a cheap price tag, a 2+2 layout, easy-to-maintain Japanese mechanics, and a high street cred-to-dollar ratio.

Driving the thing feels like the old Zs did, only with traction control. The 2.0-liter boxer engine could use more hair on its chest, but it’s adequate. With 200 horsepower and 151 lb-ft of torque, the car doesn’t have massive pickup, but it's plenty enough to call it a sporty ride. My specific test-driver had HyperBlue paint, black alloy wheels, and leather trim interior. And the tag was still just $28,485.

I got to thinking why no one is buying it. Sure, it's not practical—it's a sports car. But a rear-wheel-drive two-seater was something the enthusiast market was screaming for when this thing came out, and still, nada. Times have changed since the 1970s, when the affordable Z took America by storm. Today’s car buyer is bombarded with choices. A lot of people who would buy a small 2+2 sports car back in the day are buying Priuses and hybrid Fusions. Or maybe pickups, SUVs, or crossovers, because they think they need big cars and they want to fit in with the other soccer moms and dads. The MX-5 is also in the same price range. Most importantly, the BRZ was born with a higher-achieving twin brother: the Scion FR-S.

How many Americans are going to choose a Subaru over a Toyota when it's the exact same car, and since Toyota is now considered as American as sliced bread? We actually have an answer to this question: 361 people in the month of January.

Even loyal Subaru fans question the logic of the BRZ. For very little more, you can get into a Subaru WRX, which has more interior room, all-wheel drive, and a whole extra herd of thoroughbreds under the hood.

I guess the BRZ’s sales numbers make more sense that I thought. But, consider this: a BRZ STI is coming to America, with more performance to match that handsome body, for niche Subaru lovers who want to shred pavement in a properly-powered sports car that will also boast the cool factor of an STI badge. It won’t sell like hot cakes, but it will enhance Subaru’s image and make Subie fans like me very happy. That’s an automobile that makes more sense.

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2016 SUBARU BRZ
Price (as Tested): $28,485
MPG: 22 city/30 highway/25 combined
Powertrain: 2-liter boxer four; 200 hp; 151 lb-ft
Stay Tuned: the BRZ STI is coming