The Subaru BRZ is made for carving up corners, not covering hundreds of miles of straight highway. Nor is it made for hauling a large amount of cargo to a one to two week long medieval re-enactment event 600 miles away from home. Yet through a strange series of events, this is exactly what I recently did. How did it handle a task for which it was never designed nor intended? Given its limitations, it distinctly failed to suck.
Why, Oh Why?
We’d originally planned to take my other half’s 2002 Ford Focus LX. Though underpowered and without cruise control, it has a fair amount of space, despite being a sedan. She also put roof racks on it, which further expand its carrying capacity. It’s comfortable, and once it finally does get up to speed it has no problem maintaining it. Still, it is not a large vehicle, so we sent several large items ahead on a truck our group had rented. The rest would easily fit inside or on top of the Focus.
Then, the week before leaving, my other half went to the emergency room three times, including the night we were supposed to be packing and loading the car. For a while we gave up on making the trip at all. But then her stubborn streak kicked in. She began to recover, and we started discussing how we might be able to go anyway, later than planned, yet still keep her safe and healthy. Given the current hot and humid weather, air conditioning became a requirement for the trip out there due her health, as well as comfort. This immediately ruled out her Focus, as I had found a huge hole in one of the AC lines when I tried a DIY recharge this past spring. It would cool off significantly for the rest of the week, eliminating this concern, but it would still be hot and humid for the journey there.
So we considered my BRZ, whose climate control, along with everything else, works perfectly. I hadn’t been planning to take it on a long trip, but I’ve been maintaining it for the track, which is an even more rigorous standard. I had no doubt that it could perform the task – I just didn’t know how well. Though highway driving isn’t its specialty, it can do it all right – it’s just not as fun as a twisty back road or track. I would have to do all the driving myself, but that was more due to her condition than her lack of experience with a manual transmission. The elephant in the room was that it is not exactly a large car – quite the opposite, in fact. Fortunately, a local friend agreed to take the last items that we had planned to strap to the roof rack, which left us free to pack light and fill up the BRZ with only the essentials (the industrial strength hair dryer stayed home).
It was tight. Our archery equipment, which usually sits flat on the floor of the trunk and folded down back seat, stretched nearly from the back window to the windshield, on top of our other gear so it wouldn’t get damaged. The bows went directly between the front seats, separating the two of us. But everything we absolutely needed did, indeed, fit. We were go for launch.
Westbound And Down
Originally we had planned to stay in a hotel overnight Friday with friends at the halfway point, but we were still dealing with medical issues at the time, so that didn’t happen. We resolved to Cannonball the entire 10 hour drive in one shot, with only brief stops to refuel the car and its occupants, to make up much of the time we had already lost. Though the fastest calculated route is typically I-80 across Pennsylvania, I knew from past experience that it takes much longer in real life, due to dense traffic and frequent 20 mile lane closures so that one PennDOT worker can stand on the side of the road sipping coffee, so we planned to take I-90 all the way across New York instead.
While spending a few years as a courier and box truck driver, I had a revelation about long distance driving. The key is not to achieve the highest speed. The key is to make the best progress. How many times have you been cruising in the left lane at a slightly higher speed than the right lane, and watched “that guy” fly past you on the right only to catch slower traffic, fade back, and end up several cars behind where he started? That’s what happens when you try to achieve the highest speed. In traffic that dense, you simply can’t maintain it. The better strategy is to hold your position and just make the best progress you can consistently, and only make such a pass if you can make it stick. It’s quite similar to the different strategies of endurance and sprint racing. In a short race there’s nothing stopping you from going all out, but in a race lasting several hours you have to keep the big picture in mind as well.
We departed at 6AM on Sunday. The highways were empty enough for me to actually use cruise control. Since I don’t have adaptive cruise, I can almost never use it due to the density and unpredictability of traffic in the suburbs of Boston, even when we’re moving at a good speed.
We soon cleared the major cities and entered the hills of the Berkshires, including I-90’s highest elevation east of South Dakota. Revs were lower than my Miatas on the highway, thanks to the BRZ’s top gear being higher. Yet no matter how steep the climb or descent, cruise control held our speed steady, with no need to shift out of sixth gear, despite engine RPMs sitting squarely in the middle of the BRZ’s infamous torque dip between 3-4000. All I had to do was point the car where I wanted it to go.
People were awake and on the road once we entered New York, the longest leg of the trip at 386 miles. I would soon discover the typical New York State Thruway routine of a 65mph speed limit, traffic in the right lane going 60mph, and traffic in the left lane all stuck behind one person going 60.0000001mph. The cruise control gets turned off, and it’s all right foot down from the border of Massachusetts to Pennsylvania. Occasionally there is enough of a break to whip around the left lane hog on the right. Surprisingly, the BRZ felt no different to me fully loaded in these maneuvers than it felt empty on a track. In a Miata I can feel a difference in handling just from having a passenger on board during an autocross run. I credit the BRZ’s low center of gravity for the negligible effect on handling when fully loaded.
Once in a while, during a rare break, you might be able to join a line of cars going “an excessively high rate of speed” for a little while before getting stuck behind the next left lane hog. Once again the BRZ is rock solid at this pace, which I already knew from track driving at even higher speeds. You may need to drop down a gear or two to accelerate past the lane blocker quickly, but rowing gears is part of the fun in this car, and though it isn’t fast, it isn’t slow either. If someone else gets the same idea and cuts you off, fear not – the brakes are more than capable enough in stock form. That’s why I switch back to the original pads when I’m not at the track.
My other half slept some of the time, but the rest of the ride we talked a lot and kept each other entertained, as we usually do. I gave in and bought an audio cable at a rest stop so that she could plug her phone into my infotainment system while I already had mine connected through the USB port. I relied exclusively on Waze for navigation, ignoring the BRZ’s built-in system, which allowed it to be used for entertainment instead. Each of us took turns playing DJ, or letting Pandora spin the virtual discs. Despite most of the 10 speakers being covered with crud, the music still sounded great, and Waze’s warnings of “Police reported ahead” were clear.
Since our canvas tent and poles were already there and I had warned my camp of our wacky plan, they had kindly set up our tent for us so that we may more easily unload and set up when we arrived. In retrospect, aside from the large items we sent on ahead, it was actually easier to haphazardly chuck some stuff in the car and go than to carefully plan what to bring and how to load the Focus. The BRZ required a minimalist approach to our packing, so only the essentials made it. However, I don’t recommend this technique! We also regained a day of vacation that we thought we’d lost by driving straight through, which was easy enough to do in air conditioned comfort.
Is a BRZ a good car for hauling a lot of cargo comfortably over a long highway cruise? Absolutely not. I would never recommend it. Pretty much any ordinary car, truck, or SUV would be a better choice, as well as many fun-to-drive sport sedans or wagons that would let you have it all. But within its obvious limitations, did my BRZ do the job well? Absolutely yes, it did. We arrived in relative comfort with everything we needed, and that was what mattered.
Vehicles that schlep stuff to the Pennsic War are commonly known as War Wagons. But the “War Wagon” title didn’t quite seem appropriate for my BRZ. So I made up an alternative, and wrote it on the back window for the voyage home.
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