Project BRZ: The First 18 Months

It’s been 18 months since I purchased my Subaru BRZ. It’s been as fun a car as I expected, plus I’ve had some unexpected adventures with it, both good and bad. Here’s a review of my progress so far.

In The Beginning

Due to expensive inspection issues with my ex-cop Ford Crown Victoria, I was forced to replace it sooner than I’d planned. I managed to snag the last World Rally Blue 2014 Subaru BRZ in New England in March 2014. The car had 54 miles on it, most of them from the transfer from another dealer. I’ve run car #54 in autocross for years (long before the ex-cop car became Car 54, Where Are You), so I took this as a very good sign.

With a brand new car and a warranty to preserve, I planned to leave it stock for as long as I could. It’s a great car for the enthusiast right off the showroom floor. I took it to a Cumberland Motor Club autocross at the old Brunswick (Maine) Naval Air Station, hoping to co-drive it with a friend on his autocross tires. Sadly, my wheel studs weren’t long enough to bolt his wheels on safely, so we ran on my stock Michelin Primacy HP “Prius tires” instead. These tires are the only parts of the car in showroom condition that have disappointed me. With all of the electronic nannies turned off I could tell that the BRZ was an excellent handling car, but the tires seriously held it back from reaching its full capabilities. The fact that another driver in a stock class Scion FR-S on good tires beat me by several seconds also drove this home. But I couldn’t justify changing tires just yet when these still had most of their life left to them.

The Game Has Changed

Smashed BRZ

One morning on my way to work last August, a pickup truck ran a stop sign in front of me. I braked hard and managed to miss it. The BMW X5 behind me also braked hard and swerved, but hit the right rear corner of my car. No one was hurt, but both cars had to get towed away. It was touch and go between the insurance company and the body shop as to whether they would total or repair the BRZ, just six months after I bought it. In the end they decided to repair it. After a bit over a month I got the car back, as good as new.

I had intended to keep the car factory original for as long as possible, but at this point it would never be factory original again thanks to the accident. This didn’t exactly open the floodgates, as I still have no wish to make any warranty voiding modifications, but it did certainly start at least a bit of a trickle. I swapped out the Prius tires for snow tires before winter, which I had already planned on doing. But I also decided to Plastidip my wheels gold, to complete the Subaru rally look with the World Rally Blue paint. It’s an innocent enough mod and completely reversible, and the dip would actually protect the factory finish through the winter. At least, that’s how I justified it, beyond just looking cool. I also installed a ham radio in the car, both so I could talk with other hams during my daily commute, and for communications work at stage rallies. It did pain me to ruin the car’s clean lines by adding an extra antenna to the trunk lid, but that’s the price of communications.

BRZ on the lake

But once you start making simple changes, it’s a slippery slope. In the middle of winter, a guy on the 86 Owners of New England Facebook group posted a set of OZ Racing Ultraleggera wheels for sale – gold, of course. I knew for a fact they’d fit my car because the seller also had them on a BRZ. I knew it was easier to swap wheels between winter and summer than to get tires swapped back and forth on the same set of wheels. It was an excellent deal and I had the money, so I went for it. The wheels came with some worn out Dunlops that had clearly seen hard autocross use, which I replaced with Michelin Pilot Super Sports an inch wider than the stock tires. When spring finally came to New England and I put them on the car, the transformation was amazing. The car finally felt like a sure footed sports car rather than Ryan Tuerck’s FR-S drift machine that’s always sideways. It’s so good that the TPMS light being on constantly doesn’t bother me, because I’m too cheap to get more tire pressure sensors.

Track Night Bro

BRZ at Thompson Speedway

Earlier this year I began reading about the SCCA’s new Track Night In America program. I did a lot of track events 10-15 years ago, but they’d gone out of my price range for the most part, especially when adding in the cost of a hotel the night before when the closest tracks are two hours away from home. But now, Thompson Speedway just over the Connecticut border is barely more than an hour from home, and the new Palmer Motorsports Park is about the same distance as well. Thompson was on the list of tracks where Track Night would be running, and their prices were what I paid way back when for a bit of track time. Since I could easily drive there and back the day of the event, it was more affordable to me than ever. My car is basically the Little Tykes My First Track Car, so I signed up and figured I’d see what it could do, and how rusty I was at driving on a track.

I was quite sure that my new Pilot Super Sports were up for the task. The other generally weak area is the brakes. This goes for all cars, not just mine. There’s nothing actually bad about stock brakes. They’re good and safe for street driving, after all. But street driving doesn’t, or at least shouldn’t, involve frequent hard stops from triple digit speeds. An average track session involves a great deal of this, and stock brakes on all but the highest performance cars aren’t designed to handle it. So well before its scheduled service interval I changed out the original brake fluid for ATE Type 200, which I’ve used for years (along with the dearly departed Super Blue, which would have matched my car better).

I also researched FT86Club’s track forum and found that stock brake pads do not hold up well to track temperatures. After consulting with forum vendor CounterSpace Garage, I bought a set of Winmax W5 pads for the front and rear. Their braking power is only slightly better than stock, which is a compliment for the stock pads and not a criticism of the Winmax pads. But they’re made to work at high temperatures while still providing decent braking when cold. They squeak and dust like crazy, so I switch back to stock pads when I’m not going to the track for a while. But if you’re willing to put up with the noise and dust they’re perfectly streetable. I’ll generally put them on the weekend before a Track Night, and switch back to stock the weekend after.

I figured I’d do a Track Night or two out of the four that were originally scheduled for Thompson Speedway. But then Chin Motorsports was kind enough to invite me to their first event at Palmer Motorsports Park so I could write about this new track, which is already making top ten lists because of its awesomeness. Fortunately, the car was already set up to handle this. Two consecutive long days of hard lapping on a track with 190′ of elevation change is much more strenuous than three shorter sessions at Thompson. Though my brake pedal was a little bit squishy by the end of the weekend, the brakes themselves held up fine, and I am amazed that the Winmax pads still have most of their life ahead of them. At over $200 per set they were far more expensive than the EBC Greenstuff pads I used on my Miata back in the day, but I’m going to get my money’s worth out of them with as many track days as I’ll get out of them. A quick bleed got my brake fluid back up to snuff afterward, so I don’t quite need a big brake kit yet.

Other Mods

I never really cared for the sound the BRZ makes. Starting up, it sounds like my ex-wife’s 1996 Impreza L. But thanks to its equal length headers, it doesn’t make that distinctive Subaru burble, which to me is the sound a rally car should make (yes, I realize there are rally cars other than Subarus). The stock exhaust is very quiet, which is good for an economy car but not for a sports car. I like being able to hear the engine tone and judge my shifting based on it, rather than looking at the tachometer. I was lucky enough to snag a Nameless Performance axleback exhaust from an 86ONE member who just traded in his FR-S. I installed it in my parking lot under the cover of darkness so my nosy neighbor wouldn’t rat me out for wrenching on my car again. Even under those difficult conditions, it was a simple bolt-on install. All of the welds are high quality and holding up well after a year or two under the previous owner’s care. It makes a nice sporty tone, but quieter than I expected. This isn’t a bad thing at all. I like to hear my exhaust, not go deaf from it. The tips also fill up the oversized openings in the back bumper much better than the stock ones. I haven’t dynoed my car, but being at the exit point of an otherwise stock exhaust, I expect absolutely no performance gains whatsoever. I got it for the sound, not for power.

Yet another 86ONE member sold me a TapTurn flasher module. This replaces the stock flasher relay and adds a few functions, namely the ability to simply tap the signal stalk once and have it automatically flash 3, 4, or 5 times. This lets you signal a lane change without keeping your fingers off the steering wheel, holding the lever the whole time. It also lets you reduce your hazard flash to half speed, and have alternating flashers, wig-wag style (I figured this might be neat if the BRZ ever sees rally course car duty). My particular module is too old to offer arrival and departure lighting or directional park lights, but that’s OK. The one-touch lane change signal has already been very convenient on long highway trips.

BRZ and STi

I’ve never been a fan of “Altezza” style tail lights. They were all the rage a while back, and practically every modified Japanese car (and even some German and American ones) had red lenses surrounded by chrome and clear plastic. More cars started coming with this styling from the factory, including my BRZ. I considered buying some aftermarket LED units, but rather than spend hundreds of dollars on them, I spend $10 on a can of VHT Nite-Shades Red. Back in the day, the “import tuners” would use different colors of this paint to tint their lights so dark that almost no light would shine through. I couldn’t believe that now I was using this paint to change my tail lights back to red. But I did, and I’m satisfied with the result. It does fade after months of exposure in the sun, so be prepared to touch it up from time to time, especially on top where the sun beats down. A light enough coat will still allow your turn signal to appear amber when illuminated, if, like me, you like a different color signal for clarity. Otherwise, a few more coats will make it shine red regardless of what color the bulb is.

The one and only warranty repair I’ve needed so far was when one of my two horn tones stopped working. The BRZ’s stock horn is OK but kind of weak, so I took it upon myself to upgrade to a pair of Hella Supertone horns. Only then did I see that the warranty repair job was nothing more than the horn wire wrapped, not even crimped, to a loose fitting spade connector that didn’t fit the factory horn very well. No wonder it was still intermittent. But no big deal – I replaced the wiring, doing a better job than the dealer technician did, and the horns, and now they sound great and get more attention when someone wanders into my lane while I’m already there.

I also added a Ram Mount ball ball to my dashboard. I’ve been using this mounting system on my motorcycles for years, as well as for small video cameras to get interesting angles at autocrosses. Normally I use this with an X-Grip for my phone so I can use Waze while I’m driving, but I can also use it with my GoPro or any other accessory I’ve added a Ram Mount ball to.

BRZ backup camera
Speaking of cameras, I also went in on an FT86Club group buy and added a BeatSonic backup camera and wiring harness. This kit supplies a small camera that replaces one of your rear license plate bolts, plus a wiring harness and instructions for wiring it into a Subaru BRZ or Scion FR-S. The BRZ has the upper hand here because its factory head unit is already equipped to handle a backup camera, despite one not being available on the BRZ from the factory. Rear visibility, especially when backing up, isn’t the greatest in this car, but now I can back into my parking space and never hit my motorcycle that usually shares it.

Future Plans

I’m happy with the car the way it is now, but I can never resist tinkering. I’m still within my warranty period (hopefully Subaru hasn’t revoked it after reading this), and I still don’t intend to make any changes that would void it. That said, a tune is at the top of the list once that expires. The BRZ/FR-S has an infamous torque dip between 3,000-4,000 RPM, which you can feel as a dead spot as you accelerate through the middle of the rev range. There are various tuning options out there, from the OpenFlashTablet to a custom tune from a reputable technician. I’m not sure which option I’ll go with yet, but considering the mileage left in my warranty I have some time to decide.

Unlike the stock module, the TapTurn flasher is compatible with LED bulbs, which means I can now plug some in anytime I want. I find their instant on/off nature more eye catching than incandescent bulbs, so I’ll switch over to LEDs at some point when I get around to it. It’s also a classy touch that more upscale cars than mine have.

Last winter, my other half bumped an ice bank at a Boston Chapter BMW CCA IceCross event, which cracked part of my front bumper and damaged my fender liner. She alternated between feeling guilty about the damage, and proud that she drove hard enough to cause it, not to mention that the spin happened after crossing the finish line and turning in a good time. It’s not too visible from the outside. Various adhesives (none of which have been a permanent fix) and painter’s tape have held it together well enough this year, but eventually she wants to replace the broken parts. I may take the opportunity to eliminate the stock front license plate holder, and get a removable aftermarket one instead.

As I said, I miss the Subaru burble from the stock equal length headers. I’m pondering eventually adding some unequal length headers to bring it back. These are fairly expensive, so I may or may not follow through on this.

The BRZ has enough power, but that doesn’t mean that more would be unwelcome. Turbo and supercharger options are available, and I think a supercharger is more in line with my everyday needs. Though you can get more boost and more power out of a turbo, there’s no lag with a supercharger. It’s like having a bigger motor under the hood instead of a boosted one. These are fairly expensive, so this may be a pipe dream for me, but I can dream, right?

Of course, the ultimate plan, once the car has been well used on the street, depreciated, and been replaced as my daily driver, is to turn it into a dedicated fun car. One plan is to continue down the path I’ve started, and optimize it for the track. This would mean tire and suspension upgrades to remove the compromises currently made for street driving, adding power, and probably bigger brakes, too.

The other plan would be to turn it into a rally car. It wouldn’t be as gonzo as the Nameless Performance BRZ that Chris Duplessis drives, but a well balanced rear wheel drive rally car can be a ton of fun, as my friends at Brakim Racing have shown with their BMW E36 M3. I love driving sideways in the dirt, and though my experience behind the wheel of course opening and sweep vehicles isn’t practice for competition, I’ve had the experience of stage rallies at a reduced yet still quick speed down the stages. My other half and I make a great driver/co-driver team, and we have enough friends in the rally community to help us make it happen. Best of all, it’s already World Rally Blue, which is the correct color for a Subaru rally car.

Whatever I end up doing, you can read all about it here.