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2013 Scion FR-S Drive and Preview by Carey Russ

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)
2013 Scion FR-S at Speed; Author Carey Russ Pilot, Photo © Anne Proffit


2013 Scion FR-S

The best-handling, most perfectly-balanced new car I've driven in over a decade is this Toyota product.

No, I'm not insane or on the take. The car in question is the new Scion FR-S, and it's everything an affordable sports car should be. It was recently introduced to the press and should be available soon.

Toyota has a good reputation for building solid, stolid transportation appliances. There's nothing wrong with that, just ask the man with three Italian motorcycles and a British sports car (yeah, that would be me). Reliability is a fine attribute, but vehicles designed by focus group and committee lack something important...Passion.

Toyota, build cars that people get passionate about? Surely I jest! Not at all -- the late Supra, Celica, and MR-2 may be the most familiar to non-fanatic Americans, but they were preceded by an interesting trio of sports cars. From 1965 through 1969, the Toyota Sports 800 filled the sports niche for the company. Very interestingly, with an 800cc, 45-hp horizontally-opposed twin-cylinder engine driving the rear wheels. Shortly thereafter, from 1967-70, a collaboration with Yamaha resulted in the 2000GT, with Toyota's first dual overhead cam inline six, 2.0 liters displacement and 150hp. You may have seen an example in the James Bond movie "You Only Live Twice". You are unlikely to have seen one driven on the road as only around 350 were made and those that survive are highly-valued collectibles today. At the time, Toyota was regarded as the most conservative of Japanese automakers (sound familiar?) and the 2000GT was a bold statement to the contrary.

Another important car in Toyota history was the last rear-wheel drive Corolla, code-named AE86. In sporty coupe form, with (in the US market) a 1.6-liter, 112-hp DOHC engine -- in a day when that was exotic technology -- it was popular, but nothing like in Japan, where it quickly became and continues to be a cult classic. It was affordable fun, and economical to own and drive.

So when Toyota President and CEO Akio Toyoda recently asked "Where is the passion in our lineup?" and answered that with "I want to build a sports car," there were precedents. And rather than take the easy way out and build a mostly-unobtainable exotic (which already exists over at the Lexus branch as the LF-A and how many of those have you seen if you don't live in Los Angeles?) the car was to be affordable, useful, and fun in the manner of the AE86.

Parallel to this, Toyota had acquired the chunk of Subaru once owned by General Motors. Could and should the two very different companies collaborate, and if so, on what sort of vehicle? Most appropriate would be something affordable and fun‚€¶¬ so boxer engine (from Subaru, for a low center of gravity to ensure excellence in handling) plus direct-and-port fuel injection (from Toyota, for smooth, efficient power with low emissions) in a front-mid engine chassis with fully-independent suspension and 2+2 seating to allow greater flexibility of use than a two-seat roadster or coupe was the answer.

It might be called Return Of The Son Of AE86 if it was a Japanese monster movie; as a car its called Scion FR-S in North America, Toyota 86 or GT-86 elsewhere (since Scion is a North American brand only) and BRZ at Subaru. Styling comes from Toyota, with more than a hint of 2000GT, but there are changes to the front and rear bumper fascias and hoods between the Scion/Toyota and Subaru versions and some minor suspension tuning variations. Subaru is placing the BRZ slightly upscale of the FR-S, so there are standard and optional equipment differences. But they all share the same soul.

Like the 2000GT, the engine is 2.0 liters in displacement and features dual overhead cams. But the FR-S's fuel injection and dual VVT-i variable cam timing systems didn't exist back in those days, and the FR-S's 200hp (@7000 rpm) bests the 2000GT's 150 (@6600), with significantly lower emissions levels. Amusingly, the boxer four's bore and stroke are both 86mm. Transmissions are both six-speed, with the automatic boasting multiple shift modes. More on that in a bit.

One might expect, given Subaru's all-wheel drive heritage, that the chassis would be eventually available so-equipped. One would be wrong. Because of the minimalist design, there is no space for the additional weight and complexity. And it's not needed, anyway. Ditto for turbocharging -- it was mentioned in the morning briefing that there are no official turbo plans. Given the engine's high 12.5:1 compression ratio (thank you, direct injection!) any forced induction will likely be problematic without major (read: expen$ive) internal changes‚€¶

A quick look at styling and interior layout: when the body was first being carved out in clay early in the design process (yes, old-fashioned, hands-on, tactile clay, not virtually via computers) a 2000GT was placed in the studio for inspiration. It was not copied, exactly, but its presence is readily apparent in the roofline of the FR-S when viewed from the side slightly behind the center of the car. The fenders are also so-influenced, as is the aerodynamic cut in the center of the FR-S's roof.

The interior was designed for function first, meaning to aid driving. Care was given to seating, steering wheel, shift lever, and instrument position, with form always following function. There's even a mark in the center of the instrument panel to denote the center of the car, as an aid to the driver for positioning the car for corners. The front seats are appropriately well-bolstered, but not difficult to get in or out of. There is no reason to replace them with aftermarket seats. Instrumentation is well-designed, with a digital speedometer set into the analog tach much more useful than the analog speedometer to the left of the tach. The rear seat is of the "+2" variety, meaning two small people for a short time. I'm 5-5 and fit, barely. There is a regular trunk, no fastback hatch. Greater structural rigidity that way, all the better for handling.

Yes, all of the expected connectivity, communications, and infotainment distractions are available. Did I say "distractions"? Hey, if you're driving seriously, navigation, music, phone, streaming audio, etc yadda most certainly qualify as distractions. Figure out where you're going beforehand or have a navigator in the car. This is a car for driving, not mere operation.

To see that firsthand, we drove from the event base on the west side of Las Vegas NV to Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch, near Pahrump, NV. My driving partner and I got a stick-shift car for the trip out. The days of no speed limit on Nevada highways are long gone, but we were going to the track, so no need to get silly. The car is composed and comfortable on the road, with an appropriately firm but supple ride. It does not beat you up at all, and interior noise levels are very reasonable. Engine flexibility means shifting is not often a necessity, and when it is needed the shift action is quick and direct. The cars we drove were all pre-production and had been through several waves of journalistic use, so clutch engagement points and action varied wildly. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch is, in the manner of several other similar facilities around the country, a country club for wealthy automotive enthusiasts. Instead of bringing golf clubs to the links, members bring sports or race cars to a variably-configurable race track and/or large asphalt area for a skid pad or autocross course. There are driving schools based there, and the facility is regularly rented out for events like press introductions. The track was designed by racers for racers, for maximum difficulty and trickiness in minimal acreage. If you like off-camber corners and late apexes, you'll love it. If you want to wring out a car and see how it handles at speeds that would be inappropriate and/or insane on the street, here's a good place. Top speed is irrelevant here, as is Top Fuel acceleration. Brakes and cornering, on the other hand and the FR-S passed with flying colors. I found the manual gearbox much better-suited than the automatic. In "D" in normal mode with the auto, forget it. Manually-shifting, via the paddles behind the steering wheel, much better. In Sport mode, shifting is quicker, manually or automatically. In either case, revs are matched when downshifting. In commute mode the automatic will be better; on the track, or an uncrowded mountain road, go with the stick.

Handling? Wonderfully balanced, with basic understeer that could, with warm tires, be offset with a little happy tail-sliding. (kids, don't try this at home! or on public roads.) There's more chassis than engine, and that's a Good Thing. Yeah, a turbo could work, but isn't really necessary. The last car I drove that felt this good was the original Honda S2000, and the FR-S/BRZ, with linear power and good torque, is much easier to drive quickly than the peaky 2.0-liter S2000.

On the autocross track¶ Early on, two automatic cars were assigned to the autocross. (If you're not familiar with that term, an autocross course is marked out with rubber cones in a parking lot or other large expanse of asphalt or concrete. The course is much tighter than a race track or public road, so speeds are generally slow, first and second gear mostly, shifting rarely if at all. It's a good test of car and driver reflexes and quick direction-changing abilities.) Participants were allowed multiple runs, highlighting the various traction- and stability-control (VSC) modes. First try: everything on. It's not overly intrusive, and if you're driving on the street, leave the traction control and VSC on. Still, here, where you want to hang the rear out and slide the tires (singing tires are happy tires!) it's not idea. Next, VSC Sport mode: traction control off, VSC set to be less restrictive. Much better. Then all off. That's the ticket for competition. And no cones were damaged. I usually kill a few, so I'll give credit to the car. It's even better at low speeds than the higher (35-75 mph) track speeds.

In the morning briefing, it was mentioned that one of the advantages of the 2+2 design was cargo capacity. With the rear seat folded, said the Scion rep, an FR-S can easily hold an extra set of wheels with tires mounted, plus a helmet and tool kit. Now why would someone want to do that? See above - save the sticky tires for the autocross, not the street. But even with street tires the car is a natural-born autocrosser. That can then get you and a few friends around and even haul groceries.

If you're wondering what relevance this has to the real world, the answer is plenty. If something unexpected happens and you, the driver, can maneuver out of it, there's an accident that didn't happen.

We drove back in an automatic. I still prefer the stick, but if I was planning to use the car as a commuter not much is lost with the automatic. One of the cars had a slight off on the track. I saw a cloud of dust, but whoever overdid it continued with no damage. It was only when we got back to the hotel and got some good-natured ribbing from the Scion people along the lines of "what did you do to our car?" that I realized which car we were in. Telltale dust on the right front sidewall and a few rock chips on that door said this was the one that did a little off-roading. Alignment and suspension was fine. Incidentally, electric power steering assist is used and steering feel is wonderful. Other EPS systems impart a vague, video-game controller feeling. Not this one!

The Scion FR-S goes on sale soon, with a base price of $24,930 for the manual and $26,030 for the automatic, including destination charge. Since this is a Scion, there is just one specification, with dealer-added accessories available for personalization.