The Comparable Car Conundrum

The Subaru BRZ

From Frankfurt to Tokyo to Detroit, the Subaru vs Toyota punch and counterpunch reveal of two very similar cars seems to raise more questions than it answers.

I feel a bit like I've lost the thread of a movie halfway through. Not in a good Inception-type way, but more like Vanilla Sky. Either I've missed a fact that everyone else saw, or no-one else has mentioned the plot failing, and the failing is this: why on earth are Subaru and Toyota making the same car?

I don't mean this in a small, they-look-a-bit-similar way either. The underlying platform engineered by Subaru is virtually identical for both cars, but with both cars officially announced this week after months of leaked photographs, it would appear that the cars are styled identically as well. I'm really struggling to spot any differences between the two.

Of course, manufacturers working together is not without precedent. The Ford Galaxy/VW Sharan/Seat Alhambra were all but identical bar the badging. VW platform-shared between the little-loved Phaeton and the Bentley Continental GT. In the former case, the fleet buyers and leasing companies cared not a jot which badge they had, while the changes between the latter pair (not to mention the differences in dealerships and expectations) were so significant - with an associated price hike - that the two cars were clearly differentiated.

However, I struggle to see how this will work for Toyota. The GT 86 will not be bought by fleets and insurers will probably throw a wobbly over the RWD layout, so this will be bought by private buyers who desire it. Will any subtle differences in body styling or engine be enough to draw people away from Subaru dealerships where the BRZ will nestle alongside WRX Imprezas? If Subaru do bring out hotter versions as rumoured, then could it leave Toyota with fast-depreciating, less desirable cars?

The concept sounds great on paper: small, rear wheel drive coupe with enough grunt to match the normal rear tyres. This would seem like a great real world car. When the press cars go out, the Internet and magazines will be full of photos of journos sliding them and probably claiming that the chassis could handle more power, but I fear this will miss the point. However, with both models seemingly heading towards the thirty grand mark and the competition - as well as similarly-priced Imprezas - hovering between 250-300bhp, you'd certainly feel short-changed.

How could, or should, this have played out? Small, light, rear wheel drive and modest power would be a great package if it was competitively priced. For Toyota, pricing the GT 86 at £20k or so would have seen them fly off the forecourts. They would have been a lovely drivers package and Subaru could then take the higher performance bracket where they have a current customer base.

The other option could have been to capitalise on a car that is both rare and carries a level of mystique – the Lexus LF-A. A small coupe carrying a Lexus badge with more styling cues carried over from big brother (along with a titanium key for squash club bragging rights) would seem a far more appealing option for those buying with their hearts than their head.

There are options and methods for differentiation, to form a collaboration to cover both the higher and lower ends of the market. Instead, what we appear to have is two manufacturers selling almost exactly the same car for the same money, and I just can't see how this is beneficial for either company.