Mountain Wheels: Subaru BRZ, a true winter sports car? |

Mountain Wheels: Subaru BRZ, a true winter sports car?

2015 Subaru BRZ Series.Blue

MSRP: $27,695; As tested, $30,285

Powertrain: 200-HP 2.0-liter four-cylinder, six-speed manual transmission

EPA figures: 25 combined MPG (22 city, 30 highway)

So I’ve been spending a few weeks up in Calgary, Alberta — home of the ’88 Olympics, the Flames and indie rockers Tegan and Sara — and one thing immediately struck me, besides the fact that imported Coors Banquet beer is $60 for a 24-pack (yes, I know, free healthcare, blah blah blah).

No, the thing that was really interesting was seeing an abundance of Subaru BRZ and Scion FR-S sports cars in a place that, unlike Denver, really does get to be pretty seriously wintery for more than just a couple of weeks at a time.

The conjoined BRZ/FR-S cars, a joint project between Subaru and Toyota, have not exactly lit the American car-buying scene on fire, with the exception of some dedicated sports enthusiasts looking for a cool-looking, less-expensive alternative to the alternatives.

As a rear-wheel-drive-only, 200-horsepower, non-turbocharged automobile, the BRZ is probably not one of the first things to come to mind when you think about competent winter motoring — especially in the occasionally terrifying winter conditions you experience in Summit County.

Well, Calgary’s about as wintery as you get, as well, and folks here have opted to mix the BRZ’s comfortable size and sporty character with some good snow tires, resulting in a vehicle that’s oddly reliable and adaptable in the bulk of winter conditions.

Obviously, a three-foot dump of snow is going to impair the BRZ’s progress, but it’s probably also going to bog down a Forester or any other vehicle of less-than-snowplow-sized status. And yes, there are very few 10,000-foot freeway passes here in Southern Alberta. But many of the other conditions are identical.

For regular, year-round usage, I now have verifiable proof that the BRZ can adapt to conditions — with a little more practicality than a 460-horsepower Corvette or any of the other insanely powerful halo vehicles I’ve written about recently.

My last experience with a BRZ was in late summer in the Front Range, where I got to have a high-altitude testing session with the special-edition Series.Blue model.

For 2016, you’ll be able to find just 500 of the new HyperBlue edition, starting at $27,690, even cheaper than the previous special edition.

That will a litany of sharp aerodynamic treatments that make the already stylish BRZ look a little more like an undersized Corvette Z06 — including some impossibly huge exhaust tips, red brake calipers, very sharp black wheels and the wing on the trunk.

You might get the impression that Subaru also went crazy and crammed a 300-plus HP engine from the WRX STI rally car under the hood.

Sadly, no dice, though there are a couple of slightly misleading STI emblems and a big red start/stop button added for confusing effect. Power remains exactly the same, a 2.0-liter four-cylinder Boxer engine that maintains that Subaru heritage but is not entirely tire-melting — but is also totally in keeping with the car’s size and character. More suited to drifting on a race track than blowing off competitors at the traffic light.

Changes are mostly aesthetic though the Series.Blue gets updated suspension damping for a slightly crisper ride, though you’re already so low to the ground and well-connected in the standard BRZ that it’s not like it’s suddenly been turned into a totally dedicated race car. The optional six-speed manual does give you a little more flexibility on your use of the power you have.

In Colorado, I drove my BRZ straight up to Estes Park on a busy weekend and used it to cruise to the very top of Trail Ridge Road, enjoying the occasional drift (though I am referring to swinging the rear end out on dry roads for hilarious effect, versus plowing through chest-deep snow).

BRZs of any flavor are absolutely wicked when given the chance to let loose in a race track setting, with their rear-wheel-drive setup, their fantastically responsive steering and their concise braking all happily accentuated by that lack of sheer, hellacious output. You have to goose the Boxer engine a lot to make things happen (even more so at 12,000 feet), red-lining it to points you’d never consider in a larger-displacement engine, but it can still generate the speed you need, and is fantastically nimble in all settings.

As I noted earlier this year, driving the BRZ is like telemarking. You have to earn those turns, you have to put a little more effort into it, and you have to be patient, just like a tele skier’s knees — treat it right, and all of its qualities make it a hoot to drive. Though the cabin is not enormous, the inside of the roof is also scalloped to allow you to drive with a helmet on the track. Why not?

Long and lean, BRZ is one low-set, low center of gravity GT machine. It’s also a bit like getting into an undersized sleeping bag and looking at your toes — the long, wide, flat hood and the large arches over the front wheels are about all you can see out of the front. Many drivers just simply won’t enjoy trying to get into the very sporty, even shoulder-bolstered seats; the tiny rear seat is a nice addition, but is not particularly welcoming to adult passengers.

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