We Drive Mississippi State University’s Subaru BRZ Hybrid

Mississippi State University turns out a sports car shocker—and The Drive is the first to drive it.

Subaru BRZ Hybrid

The car of the future shouldn’t be hiding in a place like Starkville, Mississippi. It should come from the top-secret basement levels of a massive Detroit research facility, or the spotless space-age facility of some bleeding-edge supercar maker, or the garage of an ambitious Silicon Valley start-up with a supervillain-ish CEO. Not in a sleepy Southern town where you could cut the Sunday morning quiet with a knife, and people pass down prime outfield viewing spots at the college baseball stadium from generation to generation.

Yet here it is, a heavily modified Subaru BRZ parked outside Mississippi State University’s Center for Advanced Vehicle Studies: The Car of the Future.

That’s what CAVS calls it, at least. It’s written on the sides of the car in white lettering, along with the full name of the alumnus who handed MSU a fat check to build the car: James Bagley. Yes, like many technological innovations, the Car of the Future began with an impatient rich guy.

“He was dissatisfied with the progress of the automotive industry,” Matthew Doude, powertrain engineering business development officer for CAVS and project lead for the Car of the Future, says. “He said, ‘I think we can build a better car. And I think you can do it here.’”

Initially, the team set out to convert the rear-wheel-drive Subaru to all-wheel-drive, but that proved exceedingly tough. “Subaru made it as hard as possible for it to ever be AWD,” Doude said, citing the front suspension’s location, among several other issues. The only way to do it was with wheel motors, which brought problems of their own: they add unsprung weight, and building ones that can handle the 50-plus g’s of vertical motion from a pothole impact adds complexity.

Instead, the team set out to build a BRZ that stayed RWD, but powered those wheels using electricity. While the project’s roots date back more than two years, CAVS only took delivery of the BRZ last July; transforming it into a series hybrid took around nine months. The resulting vehicle was worth the wait. According to the team, the Car of the Future achieves a combined adjusted fuel economy of 104 mpge, while still zipping from 0 to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds.

From the outside, the finished product looks like any other BRZ, but beneath the hood and stretching to the rear wheels lies a powertrain unlike any vehicle in the Subaru lineup. The former location of the driveshaft and much of the engine bay is taken up by the massive battery pack, designed entirely in-house by CAVS: a 13 kWh setup consisting of 315 cells from A123 Systems packed into seven modules. It’s enough juice to send the sports car 60 miles, yet can charge in around two hours using a wall-mounted 220-volt AC power. Hook it up to a DC fast charger, and it can top off in 15 minutes, Doude says.

When the battery pack runs dry, a naturally-aspirated Textron 850cc two-cylinder engine jammed at the front of the engine bay kicks on, whipping up roughly 40 kW of power to send to the electric powertrain. Mechanically speaking, the gas engine and the drive wheels might as well be on different planets.

The CAVS team hasn’t pushed the car all the way to empty yet, but with a 12-gallon gas tank feeding the two-cylinder, they say the hybrid BRZ can go well over 500 miles before it needs to be refueled. “Its range is longer than mine, put it that way,” Doude says. And incredibly, the conversion to plug-in hybrid power hasn’t affected the car’s interior room; both cabin and trunk are as roomy as the stock version. (Which isn’t saying much, but still.)

“We wanted to make it look as stock as possible, apart from the paint job,” mechanical engineer Joe Gaddis says. “If you pulled up next to it at a traffic light, you’d never know it was a hybrid.”

That paint job, though, more than makes up for the otherwise stock appearance of the hybrid BRZ. Applied by a nearby body shop, the thick, crimson kandy coat and white racing stripes proved a point of contention amongst the Car of Tomorrow team. Not because of the colors—that’s MSU pride through and through—but because some of the team though a Japanese car shouldn’t have Ford-style racing stripes. But Bagley, the backer, wanted them, so on they went.

The twin motors sit low in the back, dangling down near the rear axle line like a pair of electric testes hanging low in the Mississippi heat. According to Doude, each makes 240 newton-meters of torque, for a combined output of 354 lb–ft. That doesn’t seem like much in the Era of Hellcat, but it’s more than twice as much torque as the stock vehicle. To put it another way: Since this BRZ weighs in at 2,904 pounds, it packs almost exactly as much torque per pound as the Camaro SS, all of which is available at zero rpm. Oh, and there’s no traction control.

“Lot of torque and little tires,” Doude cautions. "It can be a little scary to drive."

I suppose there's only one way to find out if he's telling the truth.

Inside, MSU’s Car of the Future looks almost exactly like the BRZ of Today. The only obvious change to the interior lies where your hand falls; the gear lever has been replaced with a simple rotary dial. Even the instrument panel goes basically unmodified, with the tachometer appropriated to show the battery’s state of charge; 3,000 rpm is full; 1,000 rpm is drained. It sits steadily at 2,800 as I climb behind the wheel and rotate the “shifter” from P to R to D.

The hybrid BRZ moves off with a science fiction hum, like Captain Kirk’s golf cart. I point it down the empty road looping around the quiet industrial park, halt at a stop sign, check for traffic. Empty as the day is humid.

So I mash the throttle.

Not to the floorboards—halfway through its travel, maybe a bit more. But it’s more than enough to send the tires into a screaming fit, the rear end shimmying back and forth as the car starts to make its way forwards. At which point I start laughing.

It takes a bit to learn how to dial in the BRZ’s power. There’s muscle car-level torque on tap, but unlike a Mustang or Camaro, it’s there rightnow. No revving, no waiting, no quasi-orgasmic sense of power building—just instant gratification, that same jump-to-warp acceleration that makes those Tesla Ludicrous Mode reaction videos so entertaining.

It’s not nearly as ludicrous as a Tesla, mind you; the zero-to-sixty time is estimated to be in the mid-fives. But that, Doude says, has as much to do with the stock tires as anything else. But the proletarian rubber comes as part of the bargain, considering the car’s dual nature.

In terms of accelerative character, MSU’s BRZ is almost the opposite of a regular Toyobaru. The gas-powered car doesn’t have much torque, and you have to rev it hard to work it up to speed. The hybrid one, though, punches hard, fast, and fluidly. Interestingly, with all that torque, no traction control, and the skinny, not-particularly-performance-oriented tires, driving this electric Japanese sports coupe feels a little like driving an old American muscle car. The back end loses traction easily, and there’s no electronic safety net to save you.

While the acceleration is the party trick, the torque vectoring system is quietly back there doing yeoman’s work to push the car around. It’s an active torque vectoring system, tied into the steering wheel—the more you turn the rudder, the more it pushes power to the outside wheel. The resulting maneuverability is startling. Flicking between lanes at highway speed, it moves with immediacy—the sort of reaction, speed, and grip you find in super sports cars. The inherent Toyobaru proportions and balance help, but there’s no doubt the torque vectoring plays a major role in giving this car its preternatural agility. It’s aggressive, sure—throw the car around at full throttle, and the system pushes enough power that you can feel it start to edge towards computer-induced oversteer—but once you’re used to it, it adds a new level of fun to the drive.

With plenty of charge in the battery, the gas engine never kicks in while I’m driving, but Doude tells me it sounds a little like a Harley mixed with a snow machine when it finally comes on. My only concern would be that it might grow monotonous—a two-cylinder engine droning on would probably grow annoying after a while. Then again, the engine in the regular Toyobaru gets irritating after a few hours on the highway, grinding along at 3000 rpm.

The car is set up for one-pedal driving, with the regenerative brakes kicking in when your foot comes off the accelerator. But it’s not instantaneous; the car coasts for about half a second, then decelerates with clear intent. Modulation is tough, and by the end of the drive the constant yo-yo effect left me feeling a little dizzy. Doude says there was a lot of back-and-forth amongst the team on the feature; he, for one, wanted even more regen. As much as I like the idea behind it, I’d say it needs less, or at least smoother activation.

The BRZ never had much in the way of sonic insulation, and it shows in the prototype. It sounds like the project car it is, producing odd squeaks and rattles every so often. Honestly, it makes a lot fewer weird noises than it should, considering the entire powertrain has been replaced. But the untouched condition of the body and the barely-modified interior make it seem like the car should be flawless.

And that’s the thing: It feels so normal, it didn’t even sink in while I was driving that the entire powertrain had been replaced with a homemade electric one. It's not that it was perfect, but it definitely lacked the cobbled-together feel of a project car. It drives like a manufacturer’s test mule, a rough draft of a real car. Sure, everything about the car feels a little raw, a little rough, a little undercooked. But some of that boils down to the basic BRZ, which feels a little rough around the edges by nature, and much of the rest is due to the experimental heart transplant. But in an era of quiet, predictable cars, it's entertainingly refreshing.

As we wind back to the parking lot, I ask Doude if a manufacturer could replicate what the CAVS team has done for a production car. “It would not be hard,” he says. “Subaru could build this car.” His team developed a lot of unique technology and solutions for the car, he says, but nothing a carmaker couldn’t handle. And said carmaker could probably sell it for somewhere in the $35,000–$45,000 range, he claims.

Sports car agility, near-muscle car power, and plug-in hybrid efficiency—all at a price tag that wouldn’t look out of place on a family car. To hell with all the portents about autonomous electric shuttles coming to take the roads away from us. The future doesn't look so bad, after all.