In today’s competitive market, it’s rare for automakers to co-create vehicles. That’s a shame, because melding two corporate cultures can yield products which raise the bar for everyone. The new Scion FR-S and Subaru BRZ, cars jointly developed by engineers from both companies, are a perfect example.
Scion wanted to make a mid-ship engine, rear-wheel drive sports car in the tradition of the AE86 Corolla, and more recently the Toyota MR2. That brand, with its edgy, youth-oriented culture, was the perfect match for Subaru: one of the industry’s most successful niche brands. The FR-S is the new halo for Scion, completing a diverse line-up which now also includes the subcompact iQ.
After project approval in 2009, the team got to work on an all-new boxer engine and two transmissions to go with it: a six-speed automatic and six-speed close-ratio manual.
The Scion FR-S which rolls into dealerships at the beginning of June is certain to turn the car industry on its ears. With a base sticker price of $24,200 for the manual transmission model, Scion has opened the gates at the track for thousands of serious car enthusiasts who previously couldn’t afford the price of admission.
Focus on balance and agility
Opposing pistons give the boxer engine a unique balance lacking in other four-cylinder blocks. The engine’s mid-ship position contributes to the FR-S’ exceptional front-to-rear weight balance: 53/47 according to the manufacturer.
By eliminating extraneous weight throughout the chassis, engineers pared the car down to 2758 pounds for the manual transmission model, creating a positive power-to-weight ratio for the 200 horsepower engine. Seventeen-inch aluminum wheels weigh a scant 22 pounds apiece, minimizing unsprung weight. Engineers reinforced critical areas of the chassis with high-strength steel, and added a strut tower brace over the engine compartment.
Boxer engine designed for efficiency and throttle response
The D-4S engine uses both direct and port fuel injectors to maximize throttle response and fuel economy. Both direct and port injectors fire for launch off the line and high speeds, while direct injectors fire alone for middle speeds.
The engine has an extremely high compression ratio, 12.5:1, but engineers feel comfortable that it can withstand the rigors of heat and hard use without the possibility of detonation. The car does, however, require premium fuel. Fortunately, fuel economy is excellent, averaging 25 mpg for the manual transmission model and 28 for the automatic. Both versions get at least 30 mpg on the highway.
The close ratio manual gearbox is clearly designed for the track, as is the car’s short-throw shift lever. Formula-style paddle shifters on the automatic transmission model enable to driver to select gears manually, and hold onto them up to redline. A throttle blip feature smoothes out shifts during aggressive driving.
Compact suspension allows for a spacious interior
A four-wheel independent suspension consists of MacPherson struts in front and a compact wishbone design in the rear, to maximize interior space. Despite its small footprint, the FR-S has a functional trunk. With the rear seats folded flat, it can hold a reasonable amount of cargo.
The driver and passengers sit low in the frame, contributing to the car’s low center of gravity. Despite the car’s fifteen-inch ride height, access and egress to the front seats at least, is surprisingly good.
Test drive in Las Vegas
At a recent media program, I had the chance to drive the FR-S with the manual transmission on roads between Las Vegas and the town of Pahrump to the west, as well as take some laps at the track. The FR-S fills all of the squares Scion promises it will, and then some.
Around town, it’s a very civilized car, with a light enough clutch to live in traffic, excellent throttle, steering and braking response. Visibility around the perimeter is better than average for an aggressively styled two-plus-two. On automatic models, a snow mode provides the equivalent of second gear start-ups to prevent the wheels from losing traction on slippery roads.
The driver can enjoy a robust exhaust note at speed, or one of two available audio systems. The premium audio system comes with a new feature called BeSpoke: a free app which is initially available for Apple products and will expand to the Android market next year. The driver’s smart phone pairs with a head unit in the dashboard, enabling the driver to send text messages using Twitter, do Facebook updates, access Scion’s proprietary radio stations and internet radio. The driver can also download directions to points of interest, and get Yelp reviews for those points of interest on the go.
But the best part of the FR-S is not being connected to the internet but to the car itself, especially on a winding rural road or at the track. The FR-S eats up corners, thanks to the exceptionally-balanced chassis.
The high-revving engine performs best at speeds of 4000 rpm and above, and can do so all day if the driver so chooses. Engineers did an exceptional job of tuning the power electric steering system for a pleasantly heavy feel at all speeds, with positive on-center feel. The turning circle is about 35 feet, permitting U-turns on wider roads.
Four-wheel vented disc brakes stop the FR-S on a dime, in any kind of weather. The discs are very large, 11.6 inches up front and 11.4 in the back, eliminating any possibility of brake fade from hard use.
The FR-S interior is clearly designed for sport, with heavily bolstered front seats, a small diameter steering wheel, aluminum pedals and short throw shift lever. Door handles are positioned so that they will not interfere with a roll bar, if the owner decides to install one.
Bolstered seats can be uncomfortable during long road trips but these are not. I felt quite comfortable on our test drive of about two hours. Six-way manual adjustments on the driver’s seat are easy to use and allow for plenty of lower lumbar support. The front passenger seat has four-way manual adjustments. Rear seats are small but serviceable for short trips around town.
Designers kept the instrument panel simple to minimize driver distraction at critical times. A digital speedometer includes an information center, with a programmable rev limiter. The BeSpoke optional infotainment system locks out any functions which require more than two clicks while the car is moving.
Front passengers have ample access to cup and bottle holders, a 12-volt power point for recharging cell phones, USB and auxiliary ports. Storage areas in the passenger cabin are pretty good considering the car’s small size, with a reasonably large glovebox.
The Scion FR-S comes with front, side and side curtain airbags, four-channel antilock braking, traction and stability control. Scion Service Boost which comes standard on all models includes two years of complimentary scheduled maintenance, up to 25,000 miles, and 24-hour roadside assistance.
Likes: A true sports car with an affordable price tag, excellent fuel economy, and comfort and convenience features which makes it suitable as its owner’s only car.
Base price: $24,200
As tested: N/A
Horsepower: 200 Hp @ 7000 rpm
Torque: 151 lbs.-ft. @ 6400 rom
Zero-to-sixty: Low six-second range
Antilock brakes: Standard
Side curtain airbags: Standard
First aid kit: Standard
Bicycle friendly: No
Fuel economy: 22/30 mpg city highway (manual transmission); 25/34 mpg city/highway (automatic transmission)