Subaru BRZ vs TVR T350: £30,000 performance coupes face off

These things don’t often end well.

We once pitched a new 266bhp Peugeot RCZ R against a used 503bhp Jaguar XKR – both worth about £30,000 at the time – and the Peugeot came away with a very bloody nose. It was a good car, but simply not good enough against Jaguar’s bristling super-coupé. Goliath flattened David and his little sling.

This time, our plucky underdog is the Subaru BRZ – the modestly powered but endlessly exploitable compact coupé. Its opponent streaks in from left field in a cloud of combustive noise: it’s one of Peter-Wheeler-era TVR’s finest, the Tamora-derived T350t (the wee ‘t’ denoting a targa-style top, as opposed to the T350c coupé). Fewer than 500 T350s were built, but there are a few in the classifieds, mostly priced at around the same £26,495 being asked for a new BRZ.

This article was originally published on 26 August 2017. We’re revisiting some of Autocar’s most popular features to provide engaging content in these challenging times.

The privately owned T350 we’ve generously been lent is worth a little more – about £32,500 – because it carries both Red Rose and Lightweight specification. Red Rose means its six hot Lancashire pots have been stroked, raising engine capacity from 3.6 to 4.0 litres and power from 350bhp to 380bhp, plus heftier brakes, a big-bore exhaust and a viscous limited-slip rear differential. The Lightweight spec means vinylester bodywork rather than the standard GRP, saving about 30kg. That leaves the 197bhp, 1242kg Subaru 142kg heavier yet half as powerful. In starker terms, it’s 159bhp per tonne versus 345bhp per tonne.

The BRZ is 266mm longer, too – mainly because it has two small rear seats – but both cars still look little and lithe, the Subaru’s à-la-mode lumps, bumps and angles contrasting with the TVR’s smooth yet aggressive, Kamm-tailed form.

Their interiors give the biggest clue to their original RRPs: the TVR cost twice as much new. What isn’t high-quality leather is Alcantara – there’s even hide on the standard-fit roll cage – and surprise and delight are both delivered by the mostly unlabelled aluminium switchgear. Push this, turn that, watch the multi-coloured LEDs light up. It’s a joy. The seats have been reupholstered, but the sterling condition of the entire cabin belies the odometer’s 58,000 miles.

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Most of the TVR’s shortcomings would be irrelevant on track, and it’s the car I’d rather drive out of the pit lane. But the Subaru has superior road-going dynamics, which is what matters most here. So, true to Biblical convention, David takes the win, but Goliath survives, wins the respect of the crowd for his flair on the field of combat and is welcome back in the Valley of Elah any time he likes.

Subaru BRZ 2.0i SE Lux

Rating 4.5/5, Price new £26,495, Price now £26,495, Engine layout 4cyls, 1998cc, petrol, Power 197bhp at 7000rpm, Torque 151lb ft at 6400-6600rpm, Gearbox 6-spd manual, Kerb weight 1242kg, 0-62mph 7.6sec, Top speed 140mph, Economy 36.2mpg, CO2/tax band 180g/km, 35%.

TVR T350t Red Rose Lightweight (2004)

Rating 4/5, Price new £54,000, Price now £32,500, Engine layout 6cyls, 3996cc, petrol, Power 380bhp at 7200rpm, Torque 325lb ft at 5500rpm, Gearbox 5-spd manual, Kerb weight 1100kg, 0-62mph 3.9sec, Top speed 175mph-plus, Economy N/Ampg, CO2 N/Ag/km.

TVR T350 buying tips

Jason Clegg built engines at TVR and now runs specialist Str8six in Lewknor, Oxfordshire. Of the T350, he says: “Due diligence is key. Most important is a good history, with plenty of work done on top of servicing, otherwise it’s likely to be storing gremlins.” Engines improved on later cars, but the valvetrain can be an issue — “£6000 if it’s not right” — and Clegg also recommends scouring the paintwork to spot poor body repairs beneath. Intervals are 6000 miles or annual, alternating between £390 and £790 at Str8six, although low-milers sometimes get away with a £216 oil service. At £156, Str8six’s pre-sale inspection seems cracking value.

Other choices

2008 Porsche 911 3.6 Carrera

The Cayman is a more obvious BRZ rival, but if you want 2+2 seating, you’ll need to upsize to a 997-series 911. The newest you’ll find under £30,000 with moderate mileage is a pre-facelift 321bhp Carrera 3.6.

2013 Audi TT RS

The 8J-generation TT RS revived Audi’s four-wheel-drive, turbo fivepot configuration of yesteryear with some success. It’s short on handling delicacy but has a tractable engine and huge grip.

2015 Nissan 370Z Nismo

Bigger and heavier than both our protagonists, this most potent of 370Zs was tweaked for improved quality and usability in 2015. It needs smooth, sweeping roads to thrive but is characterful, well equipped and enjoyably muscular.