Drive Car Of The Year

Best Sports Coupe 2023

Best Sports Coupe

Sports coupés are back in vogue after three new arrivals: Nissan Z, Toyota GR86 and Subaru BRZ.

As fashion statements on four wheels, sports coupes come in and out of vogue quickly. In addition to looking the part, they need to be athletic and deliver fun-to-drive dynamics.

We’re in luck this year, with three new sports coupes arriving in showrooms: the reborn Nissan Z now with twin-turbo V6 power, and the second generation of the groundbreaking Toyota GR86 and Subaru BRZ twins.

Last year’s winner of this category – and the top-seller nationally – the Ford Mustang, didn’t get a start because the old model had sold out ahead of a new version due in the second half of 2023. And if consumers can't buy it, we can't judge it.

With that in mind, we gathered the Nissan Z and put it up against the Toyota and Subaru twins.

We selected the automatic transmission derivatives of each model because, as hard as this may be for enthusiasts to stomach, they are the better of the two options. The six-speed manuals are fun for driver engagement, but if you want to get the most performance out of these cars, the automatic is the way to go.

We should note from the outset, there is an almost $28,000 price gap across this trio.

At the time of our testing, the Nissan Z was priced from $73,300 plus on-road costs. The Toyota GR86 GTS was listed at $45,390 and the Subaru BRZ S was $45,390.

But remember: this is not a typical comparison. Each car is up against Drive's Car of the Year criteria, not each other. We're seeking to discover which vehicle delivers best on its inherent promise, and which provides the best value for its price.

That said, it was a closer battle than judges had anticipated. When it came to the crunch, the question facing the panelists: to favour handling or power?

Winner: Nissan Z Coupe


Nissan Z

Nissan Z

3 variants available

$ 73,300* MRLP

What we love

  • -Epic acceleration
  • -Sharp styling
  • -More usable cabin

What we don't

  • -On-the-limit handling requires attention. Noisy tyres
  • -Exhaust sounds is muted given the performance
  • -Lacks embedded navigation and wireless charging 

The new Nissan Z Coupe is the 2023 Drive Car of the Year Best Sports Coupé.

Now with a twin-turbo V6, it is the most powerful Nissan Zed car to date – and a fitting send-off for what will likely be the last petrol version before a switch to an electric model next decade.

Although the new Nissan Z shares the same platform as its predecessor – but with a new body and interior – the designers and engineers sweated the details on making seemingly minor but worthwhile improvements.

The cabin is more user-friendly and now has most mod-cons. The revised styling – with a nod to Nissan Zeds of the past – has the makings of a future classic.

The big news, though, is under the bonnet. The twin-turbo 3.0-litre V6 petrol engine paired with a nine-speed automatic transmission transforms the Nissan Z into a missile. The powerful combination has presented a new challenge: grip.

In normal mode, the Nissan Z did the 0 to 100km/h dash in 5.1 seconds. After mastering the rather complicated launch control setting, we dipped to a run of repeatable 4.9-second times after leaving some subtle tyre marks and developing a bit of a wriggle on take-off.

The brakes are the largest among this year’s contenders, though oddly the Nissan Z took longer to stop in our emergency braking test from 100km/h than did the Toyota and Subaru twins (38.3 metres for the Nissan and an impressive 35.9-metre stop for the Toyota GR86).

We repeated the brake test on the Nissan Z days apart to make sure there wasn’t an error with our technical equipment.

The Nissan Z delights the senses with its sharp reflexes in corners, though it must be said it feels twitchy after the Toyota and Subaru twins which, in this company, felt more secure.

And that’s why this was one of the toughest categories this year. It came down to a choice of handling prowess versus power. In the end, the Nissan Z won by a whisker.

Who said fun is dead? The new Nissan Z celebrates an exhilarating era of pure driving through a steadfastly modern experience.

Truth be told, there is much to like about all three cars. The Nissan Z is a worthy winner, while the Toyota and Subaru twins have price and poise on their side.

Runner-up: Toyota GR86


Toyota GR86

Toyota GR86

4 variants available

$ 43,240 - $ 45,390* MRLP

What we love

  • -Finally has enough power to warrant the sports-car tag
  • -Razor-sharp handling, superb brake pedal feel
  • -More practical cabin than before

What we don't

  • -Engine lacks character
  • -Base variants more expensive than Subaru twin
  • -Tyre noise

The Toyota GR86 has gone to finishing school. While the original was praised by many, it still had plenty of room for improvement. Namely power and handling.

Those two concerns have finally been addressed. The Toyota GR86 feels like this is how it was meant to be all along.

The 2.4-litre non-turbo four-cylinder engine is not going to win any grands prix (it did 0 to 100km/h in 7.2 seconds on our precision timing equipment), but it now has enough oomph to justify the sports-car label.

The cabin has also come in for a major overhaul and is more user-friendly than before (as much as sports cars can be, that is).

Judges praised the composure of the Toyota GR86 over a mix of roads and noticed the suspension was ever so slightly more forgiving than the jointly developed Subaru BRZ, which is made on the same production line and shared engineering teams.

The ride and handling really hit the sweet spot, and this car was a favourite among some judges in this category.

The brakes and steering have the precision of surgical instruments. That sounds a bit far-fetched, but after driving the Toyota GR86 you soon become at one with that car.

Downsides? The Toyota GR86’s slightly higher entry-level purchase price weighed against it compared to the Subaru BRZ.

And, Subaru wisely offers a full-size spare wheel and tyre with the BRZ but Toyota only offers a tyre repair kit for the GR86, a stunning oversight for the mass-market brand.

Nevertheless, the Toyota GR86 is a genuinely fun car to drive – and live with day-to-day if need be – and worthy of making your shortlist if in the market for a sports coupe.

Finalist: Subaru BRZ


Subaru BRZ

Subaru BRZ

4 variants available

$ 40,290 - $ 45,390* MRLP

What we love

  • -Finally has enough power to warrant the sports-car tag
  • -Razor-sharp handling, superb brake pedal feel
  • -More practical cabin than before

What we don't

  • -Engine lacks character
  • -Busier over bumps than the Toyota GR86. Noisy tyres
  • -Test car was, oddly, slower than the Toyota GR86 despite repeated tests

The Subaru BRZ has a head-start in the sales race with its twin Toyota GR86.

However, over time the Toyota is expected to claw back lost ground thanks to its larger dealer network and bigger allocations out of the factory.

For now, though, the Subaru BRZ is off to a great start. Many buyers see it as the more authentic option of the twins given it is made in a Subaru factory in Japan and based on a Subaru platform.

The reality, however, is neither car would be here without help from both Subaru and Toyota. Sports cars cost a lot to develop but they sell in smaller numbers than mainstream cars, and are quickly out of fashion. Which is why Toyota and Subaru teamed up: to share and save costs.

The same highlights for the Toyota GR86 apply to the Subaru BRZ, though there were some subtle differences.

The two cars now have a slightly different suspension tune. While many drivers would be hard-pressed to pick it in a Pepsi challenge, after switching between cars back-to-back the Subaru BRZ was a touch busier over bumps. It is by no means a deal-breaker. It’s the cost of sports-car ownership, so few hardcore owners would mind. We are merely noting the subtle difference.

Another anomaly: the Subaru BRZ was two-tenths of a second slower from 0 to 100km/h – and had a 0.8-metre longer braking distance – than the otherwise identical Toyota GR86.

The Toyota and Subaru were on the same tyres, and the Subaru had twice as many kilometres on the odometer, so it was in theory run-in better. The anomaly had us scratching our heads. We tested the Subaru BRZ days apart to make sure there was not an error in our technical equipment and got the same results each time.

Of course, none of the above is a deal-breaker. We just wanted to share our findings. We would happily live with either the Toyota GR86 or Subaru BRZ, though it must be said the option of a full-size spare wheel and tyre (and slightly lower RRP) adds to the Subaru’s appeal.

You can read about all the other 2023 Drive Car of the Year categories and winners here:
Drive Car of the Year categories and winners

Note: All vehicle specifications pertain to variants tested as part of DCOTY assessment program.

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