How to get started modifying an FR-S, BRZ or 86

By Alan Cesar
Mar 11, 2022 | FR-S, BRZ, 86 | Posted in Features | From the Dec. 2012 issue | Never miss an article

Photography by Alan Cesar

[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the December 2012 issue of Grassroots Motorsports.]

Tuners and race shops alike are flocking to the new Scion FR-S and Subaru BRZ twins. There’s no doubt this chassis is popular. Shops are scrambling to develop show-and-go parts, but it’s early in the game. No one yet knows the driveline’s weak points or the potential fitment issues that’ll crop up once upgrades start coming along. Since Subaru had a strong hand in the design of the underpinnings, there’s plenty of speculation as to what WRX and STI parts may swap.

Phil Grabow and his Element Tuning shop are braving this new world. We know some of Element Tuning’s projects pretty well: We’ve seen their extreme 2006 Subaru WRX STI at our Ultimate Track Car Challenge. That’s a 600-plus-horsepower tool capable of slotting in the top three with Phil at the wheel—and it would have done it, too, were it not for a transponder problem. 

With his STI, Phil has been twice each a NASA Mid-Atlantic TTU champion, a Subiefest Pro Class champion and a Formula X Time Attack champion. He also holds the Summit Point lap record in TTU of 1:13.7. Phil’s experience has led to the creation of the Element Tuning competition-grade short- and long-block boxer engines, their brand of Hydra engine management, and a dry-sump oiling system.

For 2012, though, he brought a new toy, fresh from the dealer lot. Phil didn’t mind that it wasn’t wearing his usual Pleiades logo. “I was looking for the next exciting car, and I’ve been following this concept since 2008,” Phil said. “I thought, ‘Let’s get it, do some R&D and develop it. This is the next tuner car.’” Then he got to work.

Begin With What You Know

Phil started the way we’d expect, considering his access to STI parts: He went looking for what would swap over. It wasn’t much. “It’s a unique setup, and it uses few Subaru suspension parts,” he said of the Scion. “The rear lower spring perches are close enough to the STI part to work, but they’re not identical.”

His shop fitted a set of BC coil-overs with custom valving all around, and a pair of camber plates up front. The only other change so far has been to remove the rear anti-roll bar; the car handles better without it. 

Matching those suspenders is a temporary set of Hoosier tires; the OEM all-season meat, naturally, just wouldn’t work on a track car. Element Tuning’s FR-S came to the Grassroots Motorsports Ultimate Track Car Challenge wearing a square setup: 285/645R18 tires all around, borrowed from his 2006 STI. Those R80-compound Hoosiers are seated on 18x10-inch Rota DPT wheels. 

It won’t stay that way, though: With a goal of 500 horsepower to the wheels, Phil is scoping out sizes used on Corvettes to get an idea of the rubber his FR-S will get. The rears will almost certainly be bigger. “We have room for even more tire back there,” Phil said.

Its current wheel-and-tire package actually fits under the car’s original fenders with just a bit of pulling. Those carbon-fiber flares on the rear wheels are ornamental for now. Phil set the ride height he wanted, then covered the wheel gap with flares made for an R33 Skyline. The inner fender will eventually get cut up when he fits really big rubber.

Even if some monster meats and big wings can’t keep the rear tires planted, there’s a trick up Element Tuning’s sleeve: Their Hydra EMS is capable of handling traction control duties, too.

Those big brakes up front? They’re also from the 2006 STI, plumbed using the Scion’s rubber brake hoses. All you need for this swap are the calipers, brackets and rotors. The rotors have to be from a 2004 STI, though, due to the 5x100mm wheel bolt pattern. The only trick to the job is to swap the left- and right-side calipers: They mount behind the axle on the STI, but in front on the FR-S.

While performance pads are readily available for the STI’s Brembos, they don’t yet exist for the FR-S sliding single-piston rear calipers. Phil ordered a set of OEM Scion brake pads and sent them to the crew at Carbotech, who removed the original wear material and replaced it with their own XP12 compound.

Where’s the Power Now?

A simple turndown after the catalytic converters replaced the stock exhaust system; horsepower is essentially unchanged. The rest of the powertrain is as delivered. Engine tuning and development is a big target for this car.

Element Tuning knows boxer engines well, but this car’s fuel delivery system is in another dimension. The flat four-cylinder engine has both port and direct injection. That fuel delivery system is one of Toyota’s major contributions to the project: Direct-injected boxer engines didn’t exist before the FRZ. (Or is it BR-S? We’re still not decided.) 

The shop’s preferred Hydra engine management is capable of driving a direct injection system. Initial tuning is tricky, though; timing has to be much more precise in direct injection than with traditional port injection. “We used a high-resolution PC oscilloscope that can take up to 32 million samples per trace, making it possible to capture complex automotive waveforms, including CAN Bus and FlexRay signals,” Phil said. 

Its horsepower output is still stock, which is a far cry from the goal of 500. Element Tuning is going to build up to that incrementally in an effort to suit multiple levels of tuners. “Let’s face it, there’s a lot of guys who won’t do much more than tuning—who won’t turbo it,” Phil said. “We’ll do the E85 tuning and hopefully get 35 horsepower out of it. This car would do really well to gain 30 horsepower.”

E85 has a higher octane rating than pump gas, and is both cheaper and more readily available than race fuel. Finding it across the country can make road trips a bit of a hassle, but that’s a solvable problem. Their ECU has support for the General Motors flex fuel sensor, which monitors the amount of ethanol you put in the tank. This way, you can still use pump gas when E85 is hard to find.

Then boost is on the way. Element Tuning hopes to offer a better motorsports-developed and unique turbocharger kit solution. “We want to get in on the ground floor with the engine building, the engine management system, the turbo kits,” Phil explained. “That’s why we’re pushing to get the R&D done. Bigger manufacturers are probably a little hesitant [to develop turbo kits] because it’s not a factory turbo car.”

To make up for some of that off-the-lot power deficit, Element Tuning removed the back seats and everything in the trunk. The car still has air conditioning and, forward of the B-pillars, looks entirely stock inside. We saw Phil with his windows rolled up at the UTCC grid, enjoying the cool comfort inside while others sweated profusely.

The front seats, despite weighing about 40 pounds apiece, stayed in, too—at least for now. “These seats are fabulous. They really keep your body in place,” he said.

Aero Work

Phil almost brought the car wearing major aerodynamic changes. In the shop, ready to bolt up a rear diffuser, he changed his mind. His Scion will eventually become an unlimited Time Attack car with a lot of aero work, but not until it has power to counteract the drag. “I was afraid it would just slow the car down too much. I needed a baseline,” Phil said.

When that time comes, Scion and Subaru will have done a lot of the work for him already. “The bottom of this car is really flat. It’s all paneled up and everything. They do a good job,” he explained. “There’s not a whole lot we have to do underneath, other than a nice front splitter. A diffuser on the back will be just to clean up the air. The bumper and the original exhaust system create a lot of drag.”

Phil was surprised when he started mocking up some pieces, though. “When you look at the car and you buy it, it doesn’t look like a wide car. But this thing is frickin’ wide,” he exclaimed, gesturing with his hands. “I have that fulcrum aero wing on my STI that’s 72 inches, and it doesn’t stick out past the fenders [on the FR-S]. It basically flushes up with the edge of the body.”

Just the Beginning

This car stands as an example of how excellent the FR-S is in stock form, even though it’s underpowered. Soon enough, it’ll have all the goods Element Tuning can strap to it and be as bonkers as you’d expect. We hope to see a transformed version at next year’s Ultimate Track Car Challenge.

Does this mean the shop’s mad-as-a-hatter STI is getting shelved or sold? Fat chance. “At this point, we don’t know if this will be faster than our STI, so we’re not planning on replacing it,” Phil said. We’re eager to see the result.

Phil Grabow would like to thank Hydra EMS America for developing the computer with Element Tuning, and BC Racing for building custom suspensions to their specifications.

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GameboyRMH GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
3/11/22 12:46 p.m.

The first things this car needs are basically survivability mods to address the factory weak points, these are:

- Aftermarket high-flow oil pickup: The stock pickup is restrictive and causes cavitation at high RPMs which is about half the reason these engines have made a reputation for spontaneously lunching themselves. Killer B makes a high-flow pickup. The AVCS synchronization between the two heads will also improve with this mod.

- Oil pan baffle: It's a boxer engine with a plain-jane oil pan so oil has easy access to places it shouldn't go, goes there very easily, and can stay there for a while, this is the other big cause of these engines destroying themselves. An oil pan baffle will fix that. Plenty of options are out there, I went with one from Cosworth.

- Oil cooler: Now that your engine has a good reliable supply of oil, the next issue is that it's going to get that oil roasting hot in anything more than autocross use, even while coolant temps stay nice and stable. You might also want to bump viscosity to 5W30 and of course switch to a synthetic street-performance oil.

- Trans & diff fluid: The factory fluid is not good and needs to be changed quickly, Motul 300 is a good option.

- Temperature-proofing the left inner CV: The exhaust runs right next to this CV, cooking the factory grease until it separates into a runny liquid and some crusty residue. This is what has given these axles a reputation for poor reliability when lowered - it's the decrease in underbody airflow causing the problem rather than the axle angles as some have suspected. Add some insulation/heat shielding to the exhaust where it passes by this joint, and repack the joint with Redline CV-2 high-temp grease. Cusco also makes a heat shield that bolts to the diff here.

- Fixing the fuel starvation issue: The Toyobaru tank can fuel-starve very easily in left-hand turns and increasing fuel flow will only make it worse. Verus makes a drop-in trapdoor for the fuel pump basket that will keep fuel from leaving the basket so quickly. For further improvement you may want to add a second pump to the non-pump side of the tank that will force more fuel into the fuel basket at all times - Phil has done this with his FRS but hasn't given any details, I've been thinking about emailing him to see if he'd spill the beans on this in just the last few days actually.

- High temp brake setup: Standard track-use stuff, you will need high-temp fluid and pads of course, the car doesn't come with them...

Regarding the sway bar issue, this car can definitely use more front anti-roll bias than stock but you may want to consider switching to a much stiffer front bar rather than disconnecting the rear to achieve this, especially if you're on stock-ish suspension (which isn't bad with a lot of front negative camber added).

A performance exhaust and tune fixes the infamous power dip, when you're re-tuning the ECU you should look into altering the radiator fan control tables to get them to switch on at lower temperatures, in stock form the fans are used very conservatively and the engine can even get too toasty in the pits/traffic because of this.

BoxheadTim GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
3/11/22 1:25 p.m.

Heh, the list of engine mods reads mostly like the mod list we put on the replacement engine on my BRZ.

One slight correction - the torque dip "fix" is a header plus a tune. Changing out the rest of the exhaust doesn't make much if any difference to the torque dip.

z31maniac MegaDork
3/11/22 1:51 p.m.

This article is 10 years old and there is a lot more knowledge of the platform at this point.

Appleseed MegaDork
3/11/22 2:13 p.m.

In reply to z31maniac :

Any suggestions on more current info? Forums can be filled with bad info that gets repeated.

Colin Wood
Colin Wood Associate Editor
3/11/22 2:14 p.m.

In reply to GameboyRMH :

Thank you for the additional information. I'm sure it will help out quite a few people.

z31maniac MegaDork
3/11/22 2:45 p.m.
Appleseed said:

In reply to z31maniac :

Any suggestions on more current info? Forums can be filled with bad info that gets repeated.

Oil cooler, quality fluids in all of the drivetrain. 

All the "starvation" issues mentioned by Gameboy don't really happen until until you're very fast, on R-comps and have at least some aero. Not and/or, all 3. 

Slippery GRM+ Memberand UberDork
3/11/22 3:13 p.m.
z31maniac said:
Appleseed said:

In reply to z31maniac :

Any suggestions on more current info? Forums can be filled with bad info that gets repeated.

Oil cooler, quality fluids in all of the drivetrain. 

All the "starvation" issues mentioned by Gameboy don't really happen until until you're very fast, on R-comps and have at least some aero. Not and/or, all 3. 

I was going to point him here:

Freddy McShreddy

Probably the best mod.

QuikMcshifterson New Reader
3/11/22 4:44 p.m.

In reply to GameboyRMH :

Excellent advice.

VolvoHeretic GRM+ Memberand Reader
3/11/22 11:34 p.m.

I ran into the Pizza Hut delivery driver climbing out of the older version of that Subaru and told him that his little sports car was pretty hot. First time I had ever seen one up close and I asked him about the engine. He said it was nothing special and I asked him why it didn't come with a turbo WRX 4 banger or a 6 cylinder? Same question for this new one.??

z31maniac MegaDork
3/11/22 11:42 p.m.

In reply to VolvoHeretic :

Because it would dramatically increase cost and weight.

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