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Catching air in the Subaru BRZ on the Isle of Man

June 12, 2012
Subaru BRZ
Subaru BRZ

Centered in the Irish Sea lies the Isle of Man, a land of tranquil green hills, charming small towns and narrow country roads. One would think such a locale would be the perfect escape to find peace and serenity, only you'd be wrong. Dead wrong.

Each spring the island transforms to host what may well be the world's deadliest and most thrilling motorcycle race, the Tourist Trophy, featuring 38 miles of those bumpy, undulating roads lined with ancient stone walls, mature trees and more blind corners than any racer could memorize. Thrilling because any tourist can ride the course themselves as fast as they can -- and many don't live to tell the tale. To date, 237 racers have met their end here, and perhaps ten times as many tourists have. The exact number is hard to pin as the severely injured are airlifted to Britain, their eventual death only tallied as an accident on the island. Police mark the scenes of these extreme accidents with bright yellow paint for future riders to take note, and take caution.

Earlier this month, Subaru invited a few journalists to drive the course in the Subaru BRZ -- a rare opportunity to run the closed TT course, without limits. The only instruction came from Mark Higgins, Isle of Man native, multiple rally champion, and current holder of the four wheel TT course record.

Higgins had just returned from Tokyo where he was stunt driving for the upcoming James Bond film. Soon he would depart again to drive for the next "Fast & Furious" installment. Talking us through a low speed drive of the course the night before, Higgins explained the unique challenges of each section, as if we could remember these 38 miles, including when and how unlucky racers lost their lives at nearly every major turn. Avoiding terms like "accident" or "death," Higgins would gently say someone had "a moment" here and "took down a telephone pole, whose wires then got the next rider by the neck."

Sensing our growing anxiety about our lives, his next warning came as "Miss this next turn here and at least you'll land in the pub."

Before putting your foot down on the TT course, you might think Subaru would give each driver some time to get accustomed to the BRZ. None was offered. When my time arrived, I climbed behind the wheel at the starting line, jacked on adrenaline, and let it rip, hoping for no special "moments."

Speeds quickly topped 100 mph on roads typically driven at 35 mph; while snaking through curves and blowing by hundreds of spectators, I began to understand Subaru's confidence in our cold run. This car handles brilliantly, its tight chassis and low center of gravity provide go-kart like cornering. Control placement and shifting are utterly intuitive. The four-cylinder boxer engine's already deep growl has been enhanced in the BRZ through an intake amplifier. Pass 4,000 rpms and it catches your attention, building to a near scream of excitement at the 7,500-rpm redline, but with a steady outpouring of torque.

All these elements conspired to keep me off the stone walls as I pushed my limits to keep up with Mark Higgins in lead. Each corner yielded a new surprise, such as Ballaugh Bridge and its sharp ramp that sent our BRZs airborne. My anxiety of the course was validated by Tiff Needell, former Formula 1 racer and current host of England's "Fifth Gear," who exclaimed upon finishing his lap, "That makes Nurburgring look like a picnic!"

Euphoric from a first lap and wanting more, I asked to ride shotgun with Higgins behind the wheel for a second lap. Luck was on my side as another motorcycle accident provided a break in racing and a window for our run. Mark's BRZ was equipped with a roll cage and racing seats, but a bone stock engine. Surely this would show me the limits of 200 hp on 2,700 lbs. — but instead it showed me what Higgins was capable of.

Defying the laws of physics and any sense of self-preservation, he hammered the car around the course. Entering turns at speeds my brain interpreted as sure death, Higgins would kick the back end out at the last instant and send us into tire squealing sideways drifts, recovering mere feet away from the invariable stone wall and faded yellow paint splotch. During a rare straightaway, under full acceleration, Mark produced his iPhone and checked a text message, as if to taunt me — then he had the phone away and the car sideways by the next corner. This lap erased any doubts that 200 hp might not be enough for the BRZ — its clever design allows drivers to push their limits and leave none of its potential to waste.

The Isle of Man is also famous for its rally race held each fall. On a drizzling day two, we headed to the mountainous center of the island where rough, single lane roads cling to the hillsides. Here again, Higgins gave us a taste of high speed runs in the BRZ, which took a pounding and emerged unscathed.

What Subaru has built here drives very similar to the Porsche Cayman but at half the price. Despite its compact size, I found the cabin had room to spare for my 6'2" frame, and folding rear seats make it a practical daily driver. The performance numbers alone don't do this car justice, but take one spirited ride behind the wheel, and you'll understand what I'm talking about. You won't even have to call up Mark Higgins to show you how.

Subaru provided transportation, lodging and loaned the author a helmet for this article.