The fact that Toyota (Scion) has reintroduced an affordable FR-Sports car (front engine, rear wheel drive) back into its product lineup is so exciting! Everyone has been talking about it, dreaming about it, and hypothesizing about it for quite some time now… but last week, I actually had the opportunity to get behind the wheel of the new 2013 Scion FR-S.
As a member of the automotive media and an AE86 owner, it’s no secret that I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to see the new FR-S up close on a couple different occasions, but this would be the very first time that I had any quality seat time with the car.
This being said, once I received the gracious email invite from Scion, I cleared my schedule and eagerly jumped on a plane to Las Vegas to find out what it would be like to drive the highly anticipated FR-S on a winding road, open highway, autocross course, wet skidpad, and perhaps the most enjoyable – a high speed handling test at one of Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch‘s racetracks.
I admit that my opinions of the Scion FR-S may sound a bit biased to some, so I’ll give a full disclosure. Coming from a family full of Toyota owners ever since I was young, I learned how to drive in a Toyota (1989 Camry). Just out of high school, my very first car was a Toyota (1986 Celica), and once I got involved with SCCA autocross, I scraped together $1300 to buy my very first AE86, a 1985 Corolla GT-S with a factory limited slip differential and became a member of the AE86 community. Since then, I’ve owned more than ten AE86s – a mixture of street cars, restored show cars and a few race cars, and have been passionately Living The 86 Life since 1996.
With that in mind, some might think at first that I’m just a Toyota fanboy that would automatically give the Scion FR-S a favorable review, but it’s actually the exact opposite. See, I was an FR-S hater at first – much to the surprise of my friends. I’m what some people refer to as a Toyota purist. I can’t stand it when people hack up clean AE86 and TE27 Corollas to drop Nissan SR20DETs or Mazda rotary engines into them. I throw up a little bit in my mouth when I see indifferent people lazily shoehorning Chevy V8s into vintage Toyota FJ40 Land Cruisers and even worse… rare Toyota Crowns (Horrible!).
I was NOT a fan of the Subaru/Toyota joint venture when I first heard the news that they would be collaborating to produce the FT86 (Toyota GT86/Scion FR-S/Subaru BR-Z). I was skeptical about having a Subaru boxer engine in a Toyota body. Admittedly closed-minded at first, I publicly expressed dislike for the way Subaru engines sound when they have an aftermarket (non-equal length) exhaust installed. The pulsating exhaust note reminded me of how blown motors sound. I even had voiced some ‘smart comments’ during some round table forum discussions that the manufacturer invited me to.
So what was my ideal vision of a car hailed as the second coming of the legendary cult classic hachiroku? I wanted it to be a nimble FR sports coupe powered by a Yamaha-designed high revving Toyota twincam “G head” engine; it would ideally continue the spirit and the lineage of the 2TG, 4AG, 3SG, and 2JZGTE engines that made Toyota great in the first place. However, spending time behind the wheel of the new Scion FR-S has changed my mind.
Toyota’s main goal in choosing a powerplant for their new FR-Sports car was obtaining efficient, reliable performance. The development concept of the FR-S was to build a sports car built around the driver and making the car fun to drive took more of a priority than pursuing pure speed.
Everyone knows that the Toyota GT86/Scion FR-S isn’t the most powerful car out on the market, so the horsepower figures will sound rather unimpressive to many. However, according to the engineers, it was far more important for the car to feel responsive and have linear power delivery all the way up to redline speeds.
Led by Toyota GT86/Scion FR-S Chief Engineer Tetsuya Tada (above), the joint Toyota and Subaru engineering team code named “Team 86″ certainly lived up to its goals. Working together, they developed the Subaru FA20 2.0 liter 4-cylinder boxer engine, marking the first time that Toyota’s D-4S direct injection technology had ever been incorporated into a boxer motor.
This engine was designated 4UGSE on the Toyota/Scion side, which provides U-series continuity in the Toyota engine lineup, as the Toyota Sports 800 (chassis code UP15) was powered by a 790cc 2U engine, which produced a startling 45bhp at 5400rpm!
The result of Team 86′s hard work was a light weight, 200hp naturally aspirated DOHC 16 valve engine with dual VVTi (variable valve timing). The 4UGSE engine redlines at 7400rpm (not too far off from the AE86 4AG’s 7600rpm), and responds quickly to accelerator inputs, with easy powerband control.
Usage of the 4UGSE boxer engine gives the Scion FR-S the benefit of amazing handling, due to a low center of gravity. This was something that they just could not achieve if they used one of the traditional Yamaha G heads, much to my dismay. The Scion FR-S has a lower center of gravity than the Porsche Cayman, Nissan R35 GTR, Subaru Impreza STi, and Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution. In fact, its ‘C of G’ nearly matches that of the Lexus LF-A and the Porsche 911 GT3! Insane.
It’s hard not to notice the 86 Boxer emblem on the car’s upper fender. The logo shows pistons on opposing sides of the 86, to signify that it’s a boxer engine under the hood.
The number 86 is symbolic of the 4UGSE engine’s square 86x86mm bore and stroke ratio. I’m pretty sure that most Toyota aficionados don’t even know this, but this square stroke ratio keeps the 4UGSE engine faithful to some of the other engines in Toyota’s 2.0 liter sport engine history – the high revving Yamaha designed four-cylinder 3SG engine (Celica and MR2) had a square bore/stroke of 86x86mm, and the classic 3M six-cylinder engine in the 2000GT had a square bore/stroke of 75x75mm.
Taking a closer look at the peculiar 86 font design on the fender emblem, I was told by one of the engineers that the logo was also meant to resemble the contact patch of four wheels drifting. These guys apparently put a lot of thought into this logo – they even made the inner diameter of the car’s exhaust tip 86mm! This 86 thing is getting a little out of control…
I paired off with a friend of mine, Justin Kaehler, to try out the Scion FR-S on the open road. Since we were staying at the Red Rock Resort just outside of Las Vegas, we took turns driving our cars through the winding roads of Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, just fifteen miles west of Las Vegas. Apparently, Red Rock Canyon is home to about 200 different mammals, which include burros, wild horses, coyotes, bighorn sheep, golden eagles, mountain lions, and yes… even tortoises.
Sitting inside the FR-S, it’s impossible not to notice the sporty seats and steering wheel. The seats feel like a mild version of a Recaro SRD adjustable sports seat – they are comfortable, but substantial side bolstering helps keep drivers in place on a spirited drive. I think these seats would do just fine for daily driving and occasional track use, especially if used with some aftermarket 3-inch racing harnesses. More aggressive drivers will likely opt to replace the factory seats with full fiberglass or carbon fiber bucket seats, like those sold by Recaro, Sparco, or Bride. A full racing bucket would definitely work well on the track, but it wouldn’t be ideal for a long drive. I think the OEM Scion FR-S seats would be more than enough for the needs of most people, especially when paired with some wide racing seatbelts.
The Scion FR-S comes from the factory with the smallest steering wheel in the Toyota lineup, a leather wrapped 3-spoke wheel, 14.4 inches in diameter for quick steering changes. Like most anatomic steering wheels, it has grooved thumbrests on the inner circumference, which allow for thumb stability on long drives. The outer rim of the steering wheel is thick and sporty – it feels similar in size to the M-Tech steering wheel in an BMW E46 M3 or E39 M5.
The car I drove in the above photo (those are Justin’s hairy arms pictured, though) had the new Scion X Pioneer collabo head unit, the BeSpoke Premium Audio System. Since I had limited time in the car, I decided to focus my attention to driving it, but I heard the BeSpoke Audio System has a lot of awesome features; things like an LCD touchscreen display, a 340 watt powered head unit with external amplifier, back-up camera capability, Bluetooth, integrated Pandora Internet Radio, and get this… integrated FACEBOOK WALL and Twitter Feeds! Whaaaaaaat!!!
Now I can keep up to date on the @MOTORMAVENS Twitter feed while I’m driving?! I can’t wait.
The AC, fan and heater controls in the FR-S are very easy to use dials instead of more complicated pushbutton units found in other cars. I like that.
However, what I like even more is the fact that there’s a little pocket underneath the AC controls, with just enough room for an iPhone and/or iPod. Even better than that is the small rubber lip that sits at the edge of the pocket, which prevents your iPhone from sliding out onto the floor in the middle of a spirited driving session. AWESOME.
That’s why I have so much respect for Japanese-designed engineering and ergonomics. They think of everything! There’s even a USB port and auxiliary audio port right next to the accessory pocket, so you can charge your phone while listening to the music contained on it. PERFECT.
What good is a sporty FR car with limited slip differential if you don’t take it to the track? Scion graciously allowed us to take the FR-S through its paces at Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch. One of the best exercises for testing a car’s chassis rigidity and steering is definitely slalom/autocross! During this exercise, we tested FR-S models equipped with the A960E 6-Speed Automatic Transmission.
Even though I’m not normally a fan of automatic transmissions in sporty cars, the automatic FR-S shocked me with its highly responsive gear changes! In the manual mode (M position), the A960E transmission controls engine braking in accordance with the shift position selected. I even overheard some engineers saying that in the M position, the 6-speed automatic trans changes gears more quickly and smoothly than most drivers could if using the 6-speed manual. Automatic FR-S models have two options for gear changes – upward or downward movements of the center console-mounted stick, or paddle shifters behind the steering wheel.
On the autocross course, I found it easier to shift using the console-mounted shift lever, as I kept losing track of the paddle shifters when the steering wheel was fully rotated. I’m sure the paddle shifters would be more convenient to use on the highway, however, as it’s much easier to pull back on a paddle when you need to downshift and pass a car.
As the engineers promised, the automatic tranny shifted quickly and smoothly between First, Second and Third gears on the autocross course. First and Second gear had a surprising amount of torque all the way from low to high rpm. Since the FR-S comes stock with a torsen LSD, it was not difficult to kick the tail out in First and Second gear even with an automatic transmission! (With both Traction Control and VSC off, obviously.) I unconsciously found myself giggling like a schoolgirl as I drove the FR-S more and more aggressively through the pylons, hanging the tail end out through the turns with the steering wheel crossed up ever so slightly. This was definitely a fun car to drive!
Since all the cars in the autocross area were automatic, the staff told us we should concentrate on the steering response and overall feel of the car. After driving it through the entire course several times, I truly felt as if the nimble handling, steering and transmission response on the FR-S is exactly what made the new car embody the spirit of the original AE86.
I think I may have a different viewpoint than many automotive journalists out there – especially those that typically review a car by poring over stats and figures. To be honest, some of these people might not like the new Scion FR-S.
However, as a person who daily drove an almost-stock engined 1986 AE86 for seven years, I’m confident in saying that I understand what the spirit of an 86 is supposed to be. Whether it was a Corolla GT-S, Sprinter Trueno, or Corolla Levin, the original AE86 has never astounded anyone with the amount of power or torque it put down. Anyone who complains that the Scion FR-S doesn’t have enough power simply does not get it. Like its AE86 ancestors, the Scion FR-S is a sports minded driver’s car.
What the FR-S lacks in power and torque, it makes up for in driving feel – responsive steering and braking, nimble handling, an engine that loves to rev, and a sporty transmission. Speaking to this, the FR-S is easy to maneuver due to its column-assisted electric power steering, which has a high level of rigidity, directness, and responsiveness. It utilizes a low 13:1 steering gear ratio, which allows the driver to turn the wheel lock-to-lock in 2.48 turns.
It was clear that certain invited Scion guests took the opportunity to drive the FR-S harder than others. While some of us took the opportunity to pitch the car sideways on the dry autocross course, we were all invited to have some Figure 8 fun on the wet skidpad as well, with Scion Formula D driver Ken Gushi giving us tips on how to negotiate the course.
While driving the FR-S was incredibly fun on the autocross course, it was even MORE fun on the wet skidpad. Pressing down the center console-mounted TRAC button for three seconds will turn off both Traction Control and VSC. When driving a Scion FR-S, this is where all the fun lies!
Following Gushi’s example, I accelerated towards one of the center cones in Second gear, turned in while briefly yanking up the e-brake lever to break the rear traction, and had a ton of fun negotiating the Figure 8 course with a ridiculous grin on my face the entire time. To drive the car through the wet skidpad exercises successfully, we had to perform a balancing act of throttle modulation and quick countersteering in the transitions, with occasional clutch kicks to keep the tail end of the FR-S loose when going over a dry patch on the pavement.
Even though he’s a professional drifter with a high horsepower Scion FR-S competition car, Gushi admitted that even driving a bone stock FR-S is so much fun that he could strap into the car and do Figure 8s all day. Even after eight years as a professional drifter, the simple joys of driving an LSD-equipped rear wheel drive car, like doing donuts and Figure 8s, still makes him giggle.
The Scion FR-S is perfect for a driver like this; a person seeking a fun, sporty driving experience every time they strap into a car.
No test of a sporty car would be complete without spending time with it on a race track. With our wet skidpad and autocross exercises complete, the Scion staff invited us to test the high speed handling of the FR-S after lunch, so we headed over to one of Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch’s road courses for a little road racing fun.
I was given the opportunity to try out both A960E 6-speed Automatic and RA62 6-speed Manual versions of the FR-S with several track sessions, so I also tried driving the course a few times with TRAC & VSC ON and also with TRAC & VSC OFF. Let’s just say that the car felt a lot more FUN with Traction Control and Vehicle Stability Control OFF, but these features are probably a good thing for normal people driving to work every day.
The 200hp of the Scion FR-S was more than enough for the tight road course we were driving at Spring Mountain; the car maneuvered decreasing radius turns with ease and agility, but it also felt stable at high speed – even when it was slightly unweighted going over the course’s sweeping crest.
I felt as if the car understeered a bit in the tighter turns with TRAC & VSC ON, but switched off, the FR-S put more power to the ground, and got me through the turns more easily. In a racetrack environment, it’s really easy to get hooked on LSD. The FR-S is definitely fun with the factory OEM torsen (gear-type) differential, but I can only imagine how much more fun the car might be with a more aggressive aftermarket clutch-type 2-way LSD. I can’t wait to find out!
I love just about everything about the front end of the FR-S, but I’m not entirely sure about the 12-element LED taillights. Some people say that they look a cross between the Toyota Altezza (Lexus IS300) and BMW Z4.
Either way, it wouldn’t deter me from buying an FR-S once it becomes available at North American dealerships in June. It’s time to fill the piggy bank with $24,200…
Mounted on the rear bumper’s raised air diffuser, right in between the 86mm inner diameter oval exhaust tips are the FR-S reverse lights.
A close inspection of the roof line will show the car’s pagoda roof design. The middle of the FR-S roof has a relief that widens toward the rear of the car. A centralized air stream starts from the relief (indentation) in the lower front bumper cover and the hood, and travels up to the roof. This pagoda design lowers the roof’s center and helps to enhance handling stability at speed.
Having a lower roof line, one might think that headroom in the car might be a bit tight. However, I’m just over 6 feet tall, and I had no problems fitting into the car, even with an XL sized racing helmet on. The low seats must compensate for the roof, because I was perfectly comfortable inside the FR-S. (And I’m a big boy. haha)
Looking at the rear of the car as we drove off from the racetrack and headed back to the hotel, I remembered that my friend Jeff Huang, an AE86 owner from Art Center College of Design, pointed out to me that the rear end of the FR-S is trapezoid-shaped, just like the AE86 hatchback. I didn’t even notice this at first (I guess expensive automotive design schools help you notice this kind of stuff), but he was absolutely right. The center area near the license plate does have a trapezoidal design, just like the AE86 hatchback. The logoed trimpiece above the centrally mounted license plate is also reminiscent of the original AE86.
On some of the long, straight highway roads leading back to the hotel, my driving partner Justin and I noticed that the FR-S doesn’t have the highway torque of other sporty rear while drive cars, like the 370Z or the BMW 3 series, but those cars aren’t real competitors to the FR-S anyway.
Where the Scion FR-S really shines is in the twisty backroads, and that is what really counts (to me).
As we arrived back at the Red Rock Resort for dinner, we just happened to drive right past a sushi restaurant that was very aptly named “Hachi: Modern Japanese.” What a perfect ending to a fun day of driving the Scion FR-S, a modern Japanese take on the legendary Toyota hachiroku. Thanks to the collaboration between Toyota, Subaru and Scion, new drivers can now Live The 86 Life without having to hunt down and restore a 27-year old classic Toyota.
This is the NEW cult car… the Scion FR-S has arrived.
:: Antonio Alvendia
More Scion FRS on MotorMavens
Watch Team86 Chief Engineer Tetsuya Tada’s informative interview explaining the characteristics of the Scion FR-S (Produced by GT Channel)
FT-86 Club Responses to MotorMavens FR-S Review