Knocked out by a boxer

Charles Ran­ge­ley-wil­son loves the way Subaru’s up­dated BRZ coupé’s Boxer en­gine makes it sound so good

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Charles Ran­ge­ley-wil­son

AN up­date was all the excuse I needed to try (on your be­half, dear reader) this back-to-ba­sics sportscar from my favourite sur­re­al­ist car maker, Subaru. Its pleas­ingly geeky BRZ nomen­cla­ture stands for Boxer, Rear-wheel-drive, Zenith. Fair enough. The B and the R are fac­tual and the Z is a claim that, af­ter spend­ing a week with the car on the back roads of Dorset, I couldn’t dis­agree with, not even for a minute. BRZ could also stand for the noise it makes as you zip the boxer en­gine to­wards its high al­ti­tude red­line at 7,000rpm. Br­rzzzzzzzz!

I love boxer en­gines and I’ll try to ex­plain why you should too. The most ubiq­ui­tous en­gine lay­out is a ‘straight-four’—four up­right cylin­ders in a row. Easy to build and easy to build around—cross­wise, head on, front or back— straight fours power most of the cars on the road. How­ever, straight fours are dull. They ooze com­pe­tence, yet lack the ec­cen­tric­ity that gives a car char­ac­ter. With a boxer en­gine, the cylin­der bank is split and folded flat, so the pis­tons punch back and forth.

Box­ers are tech­ni­cally more fid­dly—trick­ier to lu­bri­cate, feed air to or take ex­haust from, they’re harder to de­sign a car around, too. That’s why hardly any of the cars on the road are pow­ered by boxer en­gines. In the past, there were Al­fas and the orig­i­nal VW Bee­tle combi, but, nowa­days, only Porsches and Subarus.

They’re all mo­tors that ooze char­ac­ter out of ev­ery bolt hole and rivet, be­cause, in spite of the com­plex­ity, the boxer en­gine has an in­trigu­ing mix of per­fect bal­ance and a zonky off­beat bur­ble. A boxer fizzes up through the revs and sounds way more sexy than al­most any other en­gine lay­out, ex­cept a V-twin Du­cati. The boxer is the Tom Jones of the en­gine world—tom Jones gar­gling swigs from a bot­tle of Blanc de Noirs.

So funky is the boxer en­gine, I’ve long dreamt of shoe-horn­ing one into a Lo­tus Elise. Then, I read about the BRZ and re­alised I might not have to bother.

The idea was hatched in the brain of the for­mer Toy­ota boss, Kat­suaki Watan­abe, but, with the com­pany’s fac­to­ries work­ing flat out, he passed it over to a Subaru devel­op­ment team lead by Yoshio Hi­rakawa and zany magic was guar­an­teed. With a com­pe­tent Toy­ota power plant, Watan­abe’s brain­child might have been just another ac­ces­si­ble Ja­panese sportscar: good, al­most cer­tainly; great, quite pos­si­bly. With the Scooby-doo boxer on-board, how­ever, the BRZ has man­aged to touch the sublime.

The boxer en­gine has been set (be­cause it has to be) be­hind the front axle and (be­cause it can be) lower than a limbo cham­pion’s pole: with a base­ment-level cen­tre of grav­ity, the BRZ has the be­nign han­dling traits of a front-en­gined car, the bal­ance of a mid-en­gined car and the side-to-side in­er­tia of a go-kart.

Aes­thet­i­cally, Toy­ota’s nailed it, too—al­though, with the winglet and try­ing-too-hard lines around the tail lights, my test car looked like a ju­nior Fer­rari. It drew ad­mir­ing looks and even a ‘nice car, mate’ bel­lowed across a play­ing field.

In­side, the BRZ is as spar­tan as a no-frills sports coupé should

be, but it’s high-end spar­tan. Per­fect dash lay­out, comfy but cos­set­ing sports seats, gear stick in just the right place. Even a classy sound sys­tem for those times you’re not teas­ing the red line. My only gripe was the de­ci­sion to have a boot rather than a hatch, ren­der­ing the tiny rear seats al­most as use­less for stor­age as they are for seat­ing.

Never mind that. The Boxer Rear-wheel-drive Zenith isn’t about prac­ti­cal­ity. Nor is it ac­tu­ally about raw speed—any one of a dozen oven-ready hot hatches would do for it in a drag race. The BRZ is all about a de­li­cious com­bi­na­tion of pli­ant, pre­dictable, al­most zero in­er­tia han­dling and a fizzy, char­ac­ter­ful en­gine that’s all lolling tongue and rolling eyes, tire­lessly hun­gry for the hori­zon. It’s a front-en­gined sportscar that sounds and han­dles like noth­ing else on the road.

‘They’re all mo­tors that ooze char­ac­ter out of ev­ery bolt hole

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