When it comes to wringing out a performance car, nothing beats track time. Public roads are crowded, chock full of regulations and policed. Race circuits are lawless expanses of curvy asphalt with just one golden rule: Keep it on the pavement.
Under invitation from Scion, we loaded into a widebody 777 for the long trek across the Pacific Ocean to Japan. Our objective was to drive the automaker's highly anticipated, all-new FR-S sports car. Upon arrival, we were pleased to learn that Scion had rented Sodegaura Forest Raceway for our full day behind the wheel.
After dozens of laps at unrestricted speed – few have been offered as much track time – we answered many of our own nagging questions. Does Scion's new rear-wheel-drive coupe deliver all that it promises? How is the power delivery from the naturally aspirated flat-four engine, and is it sufficient? Is the handling balanced and the chassis up to the task? Most importantly, why would someone choose the Scion FR-S over its clone, the Subaru BRZ?
The story of the FR-S actually started back in 2007, when Toyota Motor Corporation (owner of the Scion brand) called up Fuji Heavy Industries (owner of the Subaru brand) and suggested that the two make a sports car – Toyota owns nearly 17 percent of Fuji, so the request wasn't out of line. Toyota's plan was to design a FR (front-engine rear-wheel drive) coupe with a naturally aspirated powerplant that did not rely on wide sticky tires for handling prowess. Subaru, well-known purveyor of all-wheel-drive cars, rejected it. Undeterred, Toyota pushed forward and built a proof-of-concept vehicle. Subaru was impressed by the prototype after observing its performance, and a joint program was pushed into motion.
According to the master agreement, Toyota was in charge of all program planning. Fuji would take the lead role on development while Toyota would be in charge of styling. The manufacturing would be a joint effort by both Japanese automakers. When the project was complete, Toyota (Scion) and Fuji (Subaru) would both have a new lightweight FR sports car in their showrooms – each slightly tweaked for its specific market and target customer. Asians/Europeans would get the Toyota GT 86, while the North American market would receive the Scion FR-S and Subaru BRZ.
Fast-forward several years, and through a mountain of details and headaches, and we find ourselves at Sodegaura Forest Raceway, located about 20 miles southeast of Tokyo, Japan. Parked in the paddock are four working prototypes: one blue, two silver and the last swathed in eye-catching camouflage decals.
The vibrantly swirled coupe is an early European specification, left-hand-drive Toyota GT 86 development car, with a six-speed manual transmission (it has reportedly spent development time on Germany's famed Nürburgring circuit). The dark blue coupe is a Japanese Domestic Market (JDM) Toyota GT 86, right-hand drive, with a six-speed manual transmission. One of the silver cars is a JDM Toyota GT 86 with a six-speed automatic transmission, while the other silver two-door is the subject of this review – a North American specification Scion FR-S with a six-speed manual gearbox.
This isn't the first time we have put the GT 86/BRZ/FR-S through its paces. Our own Jonathan Ramsey drove the Subaru BRZ at the automaker's Test and Development Center in Tochigi prefecture just the other day. Since his report is more detailed than the Woodward and Bernstein Watergate Papers, we won't bore you with rehashing all his details – instead, we will refresh your memory with the CliffsNotes version.
The platform is a two-plus-two coupe, with rear seats that fold flat to accommodate larger items loaded through the rear trunk. Overall height is 51.2 inches, length is 166.7 inches, width is 69.9 inches and the wheelbase is 101.2 inches. Not only is the package more than a foot shorter than the Hyundai Genesis Coupe (the first FR two-door that comes to our mind) the Scion FR-S is smaller than a Honda Civic Coupe in every dimension.
The Scion FR-S is smaller than a Honda Civic Coupe in every dimension.
A low center of gravity, crucial to optimize handling, was a priority. With that in mind, the obvious powerplant choice was one of Subaru's flat-four engines. A newly developed all-aluminum 2.0-liter, fitted with Toyota's D-4S direct injection, was selected – it is said to be the world's first application of a boxer engine in a FR configuration platform. Preliminary specifications rate it at 200 horsepower at 7,000 rpm and 151 pound-feet of torque at 6,600 rpm while burning premium unleaded fuel.
The FR-S is offered with a choice of six-speed transmissions, both built by Aisin. The manual gearbox is a short-throw unit with Reverse to the left of first gear, accessed only after lifting a collar on the shift lever. The automatic transmission is a modified version of the eight-speed gearbox used on the Lexus IS F, minus two cogs. It is a traditional wet torque converter design, but its software has been engineered to mimic the response of a dual-clutch gearbox. Its three electronic modes (Normal, Sport and Snow) are controlled via a switch on the center console. For improved manual control, there are also F1-patterned paddles mounted on the steering wheel, while a limited-slip differential is standard on the rear-wheel drive coupe, regardless of transmission choice.
In the front of the coupe is a MacPherson strut suspension, while a double-wishbone is utilized in the rear. Brakes are all ventilated discs, with two-piston sliding calipers up front and single-piston sliding calipers on the drive axle. The standard wheel package includes 17-inch alloys wrapped in 215/45R-17 tires (our test cars were wearing Michelin Primacy HP tires, treadwear rating 240 A A, with a speed rating of 168 mph).
Sodegaura Forest Raceway is a rather small track. The circuit is club-oriented, only 2.4 kilometers long (just under 1.5 miles) with 10 corners and a 400-meter front straight (slightly longer than a quarter-mile in length). Despite the track's diminutive footprint, its challenging late apex and decreasing radius corners afforded an excellent venue to wring out the 2013 Scion FR-S. Plus, as an unexpected additional bonus, Mother Nature had provided its own obstacles – we had some rain.
The cabin of the FR-S isn't opulent, but it is a comfortable fit. The Recaro lookalike bucket seats are mounted low, and they offer plenty of torso-friendly bolstering and support. The cloth seats are manually adjustable for height, seatback rake and distance from the wheel, so we didn't have any problem getting comfortable. The no-nonsense steering wheel is a meaty three-spoke unit (we'd swear its shape was copied from a Porsche 911) adorned with one of the few Scion badges within the cockpit. A white-faced analog tachometer, with a 7,500 rpm redline, takes center stage in the primary instrument cluster. There is a 160-mph analog speedometer to its left and a coolant temperature and fuel level gauge to the right. All are easy to read. Mounted directly aside the shifter is a traditional lever-actuated parking brake, which yanks on a cable to seize the rear rotors – it is good to see, as these old-school handbrakes are rapidly going extinct.
To keep costs down, the Scion FR-S has manual heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) controls and a traditional key-based ignition slot on the right side of the steering column (the slightly more upscale Subaru BRZ has automatic climate control and push-button start/stop). None of our Toyota prototypes were fitted with an audio system.
We jumped into the silver Scion first and turned the key. The flat-four idled quietly, without an aggressive exhaust note. Only a slight vibration would alert anyone inside the cabin that it was even running. We blipped the throttle and the engine response was instantaneous. Running through the gears, the manual transmission had a mechanical throw making it feel very connected to the gearbox. We pressed the "VSC Sport" button on the center console, waited for the starter's green flag, then floored it.
Acceleration on to the racing circuit was brisk but not breathtaking – we estimate the FR-S will punch through the 60 mph benchmark in less than seven seconds – and abusively chirping the tires between the first few gears wasn't difficult. The pit entrance, located towards the end of the front straight, was followed by a near-perfect 90 degree right turn. We drifted left to position ourselves for entry, and then applied the brakes firmly. The pads bit hard and speed bled off effortlessly (the brakes were so good that we eventually questioned whether or not the calipers were loaded with street compound pads). With gentle inputs on the steering wheel, we tossed the Scion into the first corner. It held the line, perfectly balanced, with ease.
The next nine corners were much the same story. We'd line up our entry, glide across the apex and then predictably drift out the other side. Buried in the nose, the flat-four provided us with sufficient power to pull resolutely out of the corners and transfer weight on the chassis at will. Being perfectly candid, we didn't yearn for more horsepower or more torque. Thanks to a very low curb weight (estimated at about 2,700 pounds), a well-balanced chassis (53/47 percent front/rear) and a low center of gravity (besting the Porsche Cayman), the Scion was as obedient as a well-trained Border Collie.
We increased our speed, got overly aggressive with control inputs, sawed at the steering wheel, braked late and turned-in early. Despite every novice trick in the book, the Scion FR-S made us look like good drivers. We circled Sodegaura lap after lap, enjoying the coupe more and more each revolution.
The Scion FR-S is one of the easiest and most forgiving vehicles we have ever driven on the track.
After lunch, the cloudy gray skies opened up and rain started to fall. Within minutes, the track was a wet and slippery mess. We rolled up our windows, turned on the wipers and drove at eight-tenths. Again, in defiance of the greasy circuit, the Scion soldiered forth confidently. We drifted through the corners with ease (the stability control allows generous slip angles in Sport mode), splashing up rooster tails in our wake. With only the slightest bit of understeer, calmly erased with some throttle input, the Scion FR-S is one of the easiest and most forgiving vehicles we have ever driven on the track.
We probed the Scion engineers, as it was our intention to elicit a confession about the mechanical differences between the Suburu BRZ and the FR-S. With carefully chosen words, they pointed out the aforementioned equipment premiums in the Subaru (of course, it is expected to be slightly more expensive). In addition, they hinted that the Scion was tuned more for sport, while the Subaru was tuned more for ride compliance. Does that mean the BRZ is slightly softer? We will have to drive both back-to-back to evaluate.
Later in the afternoon, we took the FR-S with the automatic transmission out for a dozen laps. Hardly ever pleased with the eight-speed automatic gearbox in the Lexus IS F – it hunts for its gears far too often – this new six-speed variant intrigued us. With the transmission and stability control in "Sport" mode, we again hit the track. Unlike a dual-clutch gearbox, ripping off lightning-fast shifts, the wet torque converter six speed automatic is a bit more lethargic moving between its gears, with or without the manual paddles. It felt slightly slower than the manual transmission in comparison (it also held the gears until near the 7,500 rpm redline, while we'd shift the manual gearbox at 6,500 rpm when the power dropped off).
Yet that was the automatic transmission's only compromise, as its shift logic on the track was phenomenal. It automatically downshifted several gears under braking, blipping the throttle each time, and it held the gears through the corners as to not unsettle the chassis. We honestly couldn't find its flaw when it was being flogged. And, by the end of the day, we were partly convinced that it may actually be quicker on the track than the manual transmission.
The Scion FR-S is very good, but we immediately found room for improvement. We applaud the square tire setup (all four are the identical size), but the stock fitment of 215/45R-17 tires is simply too narrow. We would like a bit wider rubber under each corner, as it was a loss of grip between the tires and the pavement – not the suspension tuning or chassis balance – that prevented us from going more quickly. In addition, the exhaust note needs to be more threatening to passer-bys and more audible from inside the cabin. The most prevalent sound right now is from the engine's throaty intake, as heard through the firewall.
Our day on the Japanese race circuit convinced us that the 2013 Scion FR-S will be an aggressively priced gift to North American automotive enthusiasts when it arrives in late spring 2012 (pricing has yet to be announced, but expect a $25,000 ballpark). The 200-horsepower coupe is obviously far from the fastest or quickest car we have ever driven, and we still haven't discovered how it will handle a daily commute on public roads, but what we do know is that it is more engaging to drive than the Volkswagen GTI, Honda Civic Si and Hyundai Genesis Coupe.
The allure of Scion's rear-wheel-drive coupe isn't power or speed, but balance. The compact and lightweight two-door is a well-composed harmony of horsepower, gearbox, chassis balance, steering and suspension. Is the FR-S one of next year's enthusiast bargains? Absolutely, and that is a conclusion we consider irrefutable.