2013 Scion FR-S

2013 Scion FR-S 2013 Scion FR-S
First Drive Review

The U.S.-market sister ship to the Subaru BRZ, the Scion FR-S, will go on sale this spring. It is an unusual car for parent company Toyota, or at least the Toyota of late. Before the creation of the FR-S, Akio Toyoda (president of Toyota and grandson of the company’s founder) asked himself, “Where is the passion in our lineup? I want to build a sports car.”

The Scion FR-S is that sports car. (It also will be sold across the globe as the Toyota GT 86 or simply 86.) Much has been made about the collaboration with Subaru. Toyota claims credit for the car’s existence and the idea itself, which is in direct opposition to what Subaru told us. Fight! Fight! Toyota says chief engineer Tetsuya Tada’s original concept called for a front-engined sports car with rear-wheel drive. Inspired by the rear-drive Corolla of the ’80s that became the darling of drifters, the new sports car would be light, agile, and affordable. After some internal resistance within Toyota and Subaru, a prototype was built in late 2007 using a Subaru flat-four and rear-wheel drive. The prototype changed minds; by early 2008, a sports-car program was born.

Toyota readily admits the lion’s share of the development was done by Subaru. However, according to Toyota, plans and objectives came from its engineers and were merely executed by Subaru’s team. (There’s that contradiction again.) For example, the all-new platform and chassis are from Subaru. Toyota made contributions along the way, such as adding its eight-injector direct and port fuel injection to Subaru’s 2.0-liter flat-four. Making the car attractive fell to Toyota. The greenhouse is a homage to the Toyota 2000GT of the 1960s; the nose hints at the Lexus LFA supercar. Squint a little while eyeing the FR-S, and cars like the Supra and Celica come to mind, too. Assembly of the FR-S and BRZ is Subaru’s responsibility. A peek under the Scion’s hood reveals the “Subaru” name atop the intake manifold alongside Toyota’s.

Comparing Apples and Softer Apples

When asked how the two cars differ, the Scion folks tell us the BRZ is about stability and the FR-S is about agility. The word “understeer” has surfaced in initial reports on the Subaru BRZ. The Scion doesn’t understeer. Its cornering balance is neutral—bravely neutral for a car that will be sold to young buyers. Scion claims the only changes to its chassis are slightly softer springs and stiffer dampers.

Scion has certainly succeeded in making the FR-S agile. From the quick steering to the alert chassis, the FR-S responds to driver input in a way that reminds us of the Honda S2000. Holding the stability control button for three seconds removes the safety net. Although the chassis is neutral, it will slide should you turn the wheel abruptly or stomp on the gas mid-turn. Lift in the middle of a corner, and the rear end will step right out on you. It doesn’t do so in an “I’m going to ruin your life” sort of way; it seems more to say, “Hey, you sure you know what you’re doing?” In low-speed corners, power oversteer is easy to achieve. The tail swings predictably and delicately. The low weight—we estimate about 2800 pounds—means the FR-S regains its composure without any drama. Akio Toyoda says of the FR-S, “[It] responds to good driving skills.” If you don’t have them, you might want to get some training—or leave the stability control on. Young drivers whom Scion courts should know the FR-S is nothing like the front-drive, nearly error-proof tC. If you don’t know what you’re doing behind the wheel, the FR-S will make you look dumb.

Compared with modern sports cars, the FR-S’s 215/45-17 tires are skinny. There isn’t a huge amount of grip, but what’s there breaks away gradually. We asked Tada about the tires, and he told us, “They are Prius tires.” You might think he’s joking, but he’s not. The Michelin Primacy HP tires are identical to those in the Prius’s optional Plus Performance package, right down to the compound and construction. Although they don’t provide the stickiness we’ve come to expect from modern sport machinery, the relative slipperiness gives the FR-S a lively, playful feel. So, although it might not have incredibly high limits, its lower threshold is accessible and exploitable. If you want more grip, though, it’s easy to attain by swapping for more aggressive footwear.

Flat Engine, Low Center of Gravity

Scion makes it a point to brag about the FR-S’s low center of gravity, and a lot of the car’s liveliness is indeed likely due to the location of much of its mass. The flat-four sits low in the engine compartment, and even though Subaru stresses how far back the engine is compared with those in other Subies, it’s still surprisingly far forward. The transmission, a six-speed automatic or a six-speed manual, is right behind the engine, preventing it from being mounted farther back. A transaxle would allow for the engine to be placed more to the rear and would better balance weight distribution, but transaxles cost a lot of money, especially ones made specifically for one car. The transmissions in the FR-S are Aisin gearboxes that are similar to the six-speed units found in the Lexus IS. The manual shifts with a solid, no-nonsense feel. This is a great gearbox, one that should rally the “Save the Manuals” faithful. Although the manual suits the character of the FR-S better, the optional automatic with paddle shifters is a responsive and quick-shifting ally. On the track, the automatic proved clever enough to perform downshifts before entering a corner.

Subaru’s flat-four engine still gives off a bit of the characteristic boxer thrum at lower rpm. Above 6000 rpm and to the 7400-rpm redline, though, the four begins its chain-saw impersonation. It’s a bit uncouth, but it feels and sounds like a machine with purpose. On paper, and in the face of the ever-escalating pony-car horsepower war, the FR-S’s 200 hp might seem inadequate. It’s not. We’re guessing at a 0-to-60 time just a shade over six seconds. Clearly, this isn’t a car that should pull up to stoplights with much ambition. This is a car for playing on back roads, for track work; engaged in those pursuits, the engine feels perfectly strong and nicely matched to the chassis.

Every part in the FR-S works harmoniously. Sure, we might switch to a grippier tire, but the lower-grip rubber allows for accessible explorations of the FR-S’s behavior at the limit. That is the sort of exploration that makes driving fun. Just remember to bring some skill.