If you’re in the market for a small sports car, you don’t actually have as much choice as you might think.
Yes, you could have a Mazda MX-5 or its Fiat 124-badged cousin, and you could go for an Audi TT. The tail-happy, enthusiast-focused Toyota GT86 looks like an option, too, but that’s about your lot.
Apart from this: the Subaru BRZ. It shares pretty much everything but a name with the GT86 - they’re even built on the very same production line - but I think it’s got the edge not just over its sibling, but over just about everything on sale. Here’s why.
For some, cars like this will never be more than toys. Used only on high days and holidays, they’ll never have to do something as mundane as carrying suitcases or going to the recycling centre. After all, that’s what the Range Rover is for, isn’t it?
Most of us, though, won’t have that luxury, so practicality matters. The MX-5 and 124 both do without rear seats and have hilariously small boots. And when I say hilarious, I mean it. The official 127-litre volume doesn’t sound too terrible, but I ran an MX-5 RF for a few months in a previous life and it was absolutely useless. A couple of shopping bags are about all it can take. Certainly, anything larger than airline hand luggage was out of the question.
It also crippled me. At 6’2” I’m tall without being huge, and my head was hitting the MX-5’s roof every time I went over a bump. There was no room for my left leg, either, and I couldn’t turn the wheel without punching myself in the knee.
In a BRZ, though, there’s a bit more space. They’ve squeezed rear seats in behind the heavily-bolstered front seats, and though you wouldn’t dream of inflicting such torture on an adult, you could put kids in there. There are even Isofix child seat mountings there for the purpose.
The boot, too, is much more capacious. There’s a whole 243 litres of space - enough for a weekend away or a set of golf clubs, although fitting both might be something of a tight fit.
The BRZ/GT86 clones were designed not to set lap records, but to exude fun. The 2.0-litre boxer engine up front might not produce much power (just 197bhp), but it has a low centre of gravity and it sends all its might to the rear wheels via a snappy six-speed manual gearbox and a Torsen limited-slip differential. Add in weight-saving cabin materials and a design brief to bring the driver as close as possible to the car’s inner workings and you’ve got yourself an enthusiast’s dream.
You have to work the naturally aspirated engine hard - there’s no turbocharging to provide dollops of power at the bottom of the rev range - and it’s never that quick, but it makes a rorty noise that actively encourages the onset of hooliganism. And if you do start behaving like an overgrown child, it rewards you by the bucketload.
It’s got a livelier tail than an excitable Labrador, but it’s so docile when it does step out that it’s fun, rather than threatening - and anyway, it’s difficult to get too scared when you’re only doing 20mph. Turn the traction control off, though, and it’s a little more hairy-chested. There are two settings; one of which is labelled ‘Track’ and is essentially a ‘hero’ mode that allows fairly exciting drift angles without leaving you completely on your own. The ‘Off’ setting, however, turns the electronic aids completely off and dunks you in at the deep end.
Yes, it’s subjective, but the Subaru really does look the part. Choose the right colour (may we humbly suggest the metallic blue?) and it’ll turn more heads than a TT or an MX-5. The thrusting bonnet and purposeful hind quarters give it a bit of muscle, but its tiny dimensions make it feel daintier than your average muscle car.
If you’re after something that draws the eye, there’s little this side of a Ferrari that can compete. Wallflowers should probably avoid stopping at town-centre traffic lights in one of these things.
It’s good attention, though. Sure, some kids in souped-up Astras will want to race you and it probably won’t be especially well appreciated on the back streets of Moss Side, in Manchester, but most people seem to really like it. It’s the sort of car that gets admiring comments in petrol stations - even from people who don’t really like cars.
A 2.0-litre F-Type will set you back about £51,000, while a basic, 1.8-litre Audi TT is going to cost you £28,500. A bog-standard 1.5-litre Mazda MX-5, meanwhile, costs just under £19,000 and the 1.4-litre 124 Spider comes in at a smidgen over £21,000.
With a starting price of around £26,500, then, the BRZ (and its GT86 sibling) don’t look especially cheap. But that’s before we get to the question of value. You see, the BRZ/GT86 twins don’t have ‘base’ models - the standard car comes with pretty much everything you’d ever want. Touchscreen infotainment, leather trim, air conditioning, a 197bhp 2.0-litre engine… They’re all included.
If, however, you wanted a similarly equipped 2.0-litre MX-5 in its folding hard-top RF guise, you’d be looking at a £26,000 car. And though that would come with satellite navigation and the option of removing the roof, you’d still have a less powerful engine, less space and no limited-slip rear differential.
While the BRZ may have notable advantages over the majority of its rivals, it is matched in every measure by its twin, the GT86. Except one. You see, when Toyota and Subaru clubbed together to build their new sports cars, a deal was struck. The cars would be built at Subaru’s Ota plant, in central Japan, but the majority of cars that rolled off the production line would have to wear Toyota badges. As a result, the GT86 is far more common. According to HowManyLeft.co.uk, there are around 5,800 GT86s on British roads, but only about 700 BRZs. So if you don’t want to follow the herd, the Subaru really is in a class of one.
Do you agree the Subaru BRZ is the best small car you can buy in 2018? Let us know in the comments.