If it looks like a Toyota and sounds like a Toyota ... it may be Subaru's new BRZ sports coupe

At the risk of repeating ourselves, the Subaru BRZ and Toyota 86 sports coupe project was a joint effort between the two Japanese companies.

Toyota New Zealand came, launched and conquered earlier this year with a comprehensive 86 range. This month, the car also oversteered away with the AA and Motoring Writers Guild's top car award, and Driven's Performance Car of the Year.

The Subaru BRZ launches in New Zealand this month. You might ask what's left to make it special.

I can think of at least two things. One is exclusivity. Subaru is an all-wheel drive make here and the rear-drive BRZ is more "niche curiosity" than a new direction for the brand. Subaru NZ delivered a special run of 12 cars on 12/12/12; another 17 land in March and 40-50 more for the rest of 2013. Seeing a BRZ on the road will be a rare event.


The second thing that makes Subaru special is an acronym with a lick of pink paint: STI. Subaru Tecnica International is the maker's legendary motorsports division, also responsible for the brand's most exciting road cars of the past 22 years.

It's well known there will be an official BRZ STI from the factory. When and exactly what it will be, is not known. So Subaru NZ reckons there's some mileage in making its own: from the STI accessories list, it's constructed a package of parts that it may offer to customers next year.

The pseudo-STI car we drove comprised goodies such as lowered springs, cross-member support kit, a tower brace under the bonnet, upgraded brake pads, sports exhaust, special 17-inch alloys, competition oil filter (in pink!), body kit and a host of interior detail upgrades, including an STI-branded start button and special dash-trim insert.

This is all stuff you can buy off the shelf, of course, although it would cost more than the $69,990 price Subaru proposes for the car.

"We've tried to build a car to a price," says Subaru NZ managing director Wallis Dumper. "Because of the secrecy that surrounds the Subaru-Toyota relationship, we don't know when the genuine STI car will come. There will definitely be one, it's just a matter of when. But what we're saying to people is that you can have one right now."

Whichever bits you choose to bolt on, it's a certainty that with the BRZ you're getting one of the most entertaining sports cars available at any price. Beyond the different front bumpers (the BRZ has Subaru's signature hexagonal grille shape, if you look closely) and badging, the BRZ and 86 are painfully close and inescapably brilliant.

Subaru doesn't offer a bargain-price entry-level model like Toyota: the BRZ opens at $48,990 for the six-speed manual, with a $1000 premium for the automatic. Under the bonnet is the same 2-litre boxer-four, with 147kW and a modest 205Nm of torque.

Regardless of the badge on the front, this little car is light, communicative and responsive. It feels truly entertaining at any speed, which is a rare trick for any sports car to pull off.

The specification of the standard BRZ is pretty close to the Toyota GT86. Same cabin architecture, similar equipment - the only disappointment being the fitment of an aftermarket-style Bluetooth unit. To step up to a more integrated model you have to spend $3600 on an audio/navigation upgrade.

Trying to detect dynamic differences between the BRZ and 86 is a dark art when you don't have the two cars together. Or possibly even then; they really are that close. Apparently, the BRZ has slightly stiffer suspension in base form - but even Subaru NZ says it can't get confirmation of that from the factory.

The petrol-head comparison is the BRZ-with-STI-bits versus the Toyota Racing Development (TRD) version of the 86. Again, I wouldn't venture an answer without back-to-back on-road research. But a colleague who's familiar with the 86 in all its forms reckons the BRZ with the STI sports spring package still has a more supple ride than the TRD and a better-sounding sports exhaust. But the TRD's Brembo brakes remain a standout feature.

It'll be a different story when the real STI gets here, of course. That will be a full factory redevelopment of the BRZ: more power, performance chassis - the full package. But we have to wait for that.

Overall, Dumper doesn't feel short-changed by the BRZ's later entry into the market. "That's the way it is all over the world. We don't want too many. If we can sell 50 next year, that would be amazing. But I'm happy to sell 17, if that's what happens.

"The BRZ does mean that we're getting the development on the cars that will sell in larger numbers, like the new Forester [due for launch in February 2013]. Why is that happening? To be honest, because Toyota owns that share in Subaru."

Toyota has a 16.1 per cent stake in Fuji Heavy Industries. It purchased G Ms' share of Subaru in 2005 and increased its holding in 2008 when the BRZ/86 project was announced.

Enthusiasts will no doubt have a third reason why the BRZ is more worthy than its 86 sibling: authenticity. Joint project it may be, but both cars are built on a Subaru platform, powered by a Subaru engine - and built by Subaru at its Gunma plant, near Tokyo.

I'm sure the husband and wife who bought BRZs (blue manual for him, white automatic for her) would never have considered darkening the door of a Toyota showroom ...