While the automotive mainstream might currently be smitten with crossovers, antonymous driving tech, and ride sharing, there’s still a contingent of us who are interested in the driving experience and engaging with performance machines in a meaningful way.
But even in the realm of high performance, as both vehicle dimensions and their options sheet expand, so does the mass they carry around with them. While horsepower can make up for a lot in a straight line, there’s only so much that engineers can do to combat the laws of lateral physics.
So for track enthusiasts, it’s a rather miraculous thing that we currently have several options for vehicles that are rear-wheel drive, offer a manual gearbox, and weigh in at well under 3000 pounds. While internet bench racers might tell you otherwise, these are the fundamental ingredients for a sports car – not 400+ horsepower.
Recently we had a chance to get behind the wheel of the recently updated Subaru BRZ, here equipped with the new Performance Package, as well as the Abarth-tuned Fiat 124 Spider and put each through their paces on the big track at Willow Springs International Raceway – a fast 2.5-mile, nine-turn course with lots of elevation change and a challenging array of corner designs that showcases both the strengths and weaknesses of each car. Here we’ll take a closer look at each machine and then see how each fares out on course.
Getting To Know The Abarth-Tuned Fiat 124
On sale for about a year now, the Fiat 124 is an interesting amalgamation of Italian design and Japanese engineering. If the overall shape of Fiat’s drop-top looks oddly familiar, perhaps it’s because the 124 is built alongside the fourth generation MX-5 at Mazda’s Hiroshima assembly plant in Japan. Like the Subaru BRZ and Toyota 86 (the latter formerly known in the US as the Scion FR-S), the Mazda and Fiat share a common rear-drive platform, essentially making the Fiat 124 Spider an Italian interpretation of Miata. But unlike the BRZ and 86, the differences here run deeper than just badging, content and minor engineering tweaks.
Here in Abarth guise the 124 is most closely matched with the MX-5 in Club trim, which means there’s a host of performance hardware on hand, including a sport-tuned suspension with Bilstein dampers, a mechanical limited-slip differential, Brembo brakes up front, unique wheels wrapped in performance rubber, sport seats, and other go-fast goodies.
But perhaps the biggest difference between the 124 Abarth and the MX-5 is found under the hood, where Fiat has installed a 1.4-liter turbocharged motor that outputs 164 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. Paired up with a Mazda-sourced six-speed manual gearbox, the 2500-pound roadster can dash to 60 mph from rest in 6.7 seconds.
That puts the Fiat within striking distance of the BRZ’s straight-line speed, despite being down on power, and the 300-pound differential in curb weight versus the Subaru should be noticeable at speed out on Big Willow as well.
The Refined and Refreshed Subaru BRZ
On sale in the US since 2012 (as a 2013 model), the Subaru BRZ received an array of updates for the 2017 model year. While none of these changes were game changers on their own, the sum of these tweaks results in a substantially improved sports car.
The car’s visual aesthetic saw some attention by way of restyled front and rear fascias, a new rear spoiler, and LED lighting at both the front and rear, while the cabin gets new 4.2-inch LCD display in the gauge cluster that offers performance data like lap times and lateral G-forces on Limited trim models, and all BRZ models also get a new steering wheel that features spoke-mounted buttons for the stereo, bluetooth, and voice-command functions.
Under the hood, improvements to the intake and exhaust systems provide a modest bump in output of five horsepower and an equal amount of torque, bringing the total up to 205hp and 156lb-ft on manual transmission models (output on automatic-equipped cars remains unchanged from 2016). Manual gearbox models also benefit from final-drive ratio that has been changed from 4.10:1 to 4.30:1 for better acceleration.
On the handling front, new springs, dampers, and a larger rear sway bar on hand to provide flatter, more neutral handling while some tweaks to the structural bracing improve rigidity as well, while software tweaks to the stability control system help to make better use of the chassis improvements.
But perhaps the biggest news for the BRZ in 2017 was the availability of the new, optional Performance Package. Available on Limited trim, manual gearbox-equipped models, the Performance Package features a number of upgrades that will be of particular interest to track and autocross enthusiasts, including Brembo four-piston brakes that are paired up with 12.8-inch rotors up front, performance-tuned Sachs ZF dampers, and unique 10-spoke 17 x 7.5-inch wheels that provide an additional half-inch of tire contact patch at all four corners.
Our seat time in both vehicles occurred during the Motor Press Guild’s Track Day, annual industry event where automakers trot out their latest offerings for back to back track testing. By simple luck of the draw, our first track session of the day was in a 603 horsepower Mercedes-AMG E63 S 4Matic, followed shortly thereafter by stints in the Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat Widebody and the BMW M550i. While those cars certainly have their virtues, hopping behind the wheel of the BRZ afterward proved to be a breath of fresh air.
Sure, each of those cars have more than twice the horsepower of BRZ, but none had anything on the Subaru’s urgency when reacting to inputs, its steering communication, and the car’s overall agility. While the BRZ is by no means slow, it does exemplify the virtues of “slow car fast” in this context, as the massive output of those aforementioned cars requires a very patient use of the throttle to prevent things from going sideways in short order. By contrast, the BRZ’s naturally aspirated four cylinder mill provides totally linear power delivery and won’t get lead foots like your author into much trouble unless they specifically ask for it.
The Performance Package pays dividends out here – cornering is neutral with minimal body roll, while the Sachs ZF dampers did an excellent job of handling the high-speed bumps that are encountered at triple-digit speeds through Turn 8. The BRZ’s already-excellent steering weight and feel is retained in this package as well, and those big brakes remained fade-free throughout a day of back-to-back three-lap sessions.
If there are stones to throw the BRZ’s way, we’d aim them at the Michelin Primacy tire that this car is equipped with. This economy rubber just isn’t really suited for track duty, and it was easy to break the rear end loose trying to hustle the car up the hill between turns 3 and 4. Which leads us to the other gripe – torque – which the BRZ could use another 50 pound-feet of.
Nothing dramatic mind you, but coaxing urgent acceleration in third gear up that steep incline shows where this power plant struggles a bit. Still, the boxer engine’s linear power delivery keeps the throttle predictable – especially through Big Willow’s long, high-speed sweepers – so we’re not sure turbocharging is necessarily the best way to resolve this.
It is, however, how the Fiat 124 Abarth does it. Though it’s down on horsepower versus the Subaru it’s got the BRZ beat on torque by about 30 pound-feet, and with roughly 300 pounds less weight to contend with, it charges up that hill with plenty of haste.
The 124 plays second fiddle to the BRZ in other areas though, like the feel through its electrically-assisted steering rack. And despite the Abarth treatment, the suspension tuning is still significantly softer than the Subaru’s, leading to a lot more body roll and brake dive when transferring weight around. But it also feels significantly smaller than the Subaru (because it is), which makes it a bit easier to place into corners and to manage through technical sections.
At the end of the day, both prove to be great sports cars that are absolutely ready for track duty right out of the box, and in an era when Tesla’s stock is inexplicably worth more than Ford’s, that’s something we should cherish while we can.
Although there’s room for improvement with each machine, there’s a big aftermarket out there with solutions for both cars that can address these issues with minimal hassle and without jeopardizing overall reliability.