One of the biggest differences between the 2016 Subaru BRZ and the refreshed 2017 version is something you won't see, but will definitely feel if you plan to push this feisty little sports coupe. The change isn't mechanical but electronic, taking place in the vehicle's stability control system. Combined with other updates that are more tangible in nature, the 2017 Subaru BRZ is familiar but arrives with a fresh edge that stands out the more experienced you are behind the wheel.

Light-handed updates

Judging by its skin, you'd have hard time telling the 2017 Subaru BRZ from the current one. Subaru has taken a light-handed approach to modifying what is already a great looking little sports coupe. Minor changes include a more aerodynamically optimized front fascia that can be recognized by new C-shaped LED headlights and integrated daytime running lights (DRLs). Inside, the 2+2 coupe benefits from upgrades like a new 4.2-inch LCD display in the instrument cluster and the availability of steering wheel-mounted audio controls.

For our time on the track, it was the changes under the skin that make the biggest difference. Those include chassis reinforcements, updated coil springs and a larger rear stabilizer bar. Manual transmission models, which account for an astounding 75 percent take rate, receive a 5-pony boost to 205 horsepower and 5-bump torque increase to 156 lb-ft from the BRZ's 2.0-liter naturally aspirated flat-4 engine. Automatic versions of the BRZ retain their 200 horsepower/151 lb-ft of torque ratings but like the manual models benefit from reduced internal friction, new valves, camshaft and cylinder heads.

Both automatic and manual models also receive a revamp to the stability control system, with the threshold raised for when it will intervene when traction is limited.

Grin-inducing track toy

On the track, it was this last update that became immediately evident when pushing the current and forthcoming BRZs. We started the day on a smaller course within Fuji Speedway, driving right-hand-drive, Japanese domestic models. Conditions might be seen as woeful for high-speed driving, but they actually were ideal for the test. Drizzle kept the course damp, while a shroud of fog limited visibility.

It was in these conditions where the new, increased threshold of the BRZ's stability control shined. When pushing the 2017 BRZ to its traction limits, the system kicked in less abruptly and at a later stage. This enables the driver to slide the rear of the car in turns, which makes for a thrilling drive on a track.

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Compared to the current model, the differences were apparent. As good as the current BRZ is, it was easily noticeable that its stability intervention system is more abrupt and not as progressive when testing the models back to back. In one instance in the current car, the tail spun around completely and I stalled. In the new BRZ, though, the system always kicked in at what seemed the perfect time, enabling slides that can make an amateur look like a pro. For those with even more skill, the BRZ's system can be switched to "Track" mode, which further decreases intervention. And for real pros, the system can be completely defeated.

In addition to the revised software, the new BRZ feels sharper thanks to the new hardware. The chassis improvements make the 2017 Subaru BRZ more responsive in turns and more buttoned up in general, while the slightly smaller steering wheel in upgraded leather provides excellent feedback thanks to an updated electric power-steering system.

Lastly, some white-knuckle laps

For our last round in the BRZ, Subaru let us loose on the main Fuji Speedway, a 2.8-mile track that is home to F1 races. By afternoon, conditions at the track had worsened substantially due to stubborn mist and a thickening blanket of fog. Forget seeing Mount Fuji in the distance; we couldn't see a hundred feet in front of us.

The less-than-ideal conditions dissuaded high-speed antics, but the BRZ still proved remarkably fun. And that, in fact, lines up exactly with the BRZ's purpose. Though quick, it isn't meant to be the fastest thing on a track. Yet its balance, poise, agility and rear-wheel-drive layout make the Subaru BRZ one of the most fun cars you can buy. It has an athleticism that belies its mid-$20,000 price, and stylish design that makes it pop on any road. With the enhancements coming for 2017, the latest Subaru only builds on a fantastic formula that deserves more notice. 


 

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