The Kids Are All Right

By Joe Gearin
Jul 30, 2012 | Scion | Posted in Buyer's Guides | From the Aug. 2012 issue | Never miss an article

The grassroots motorsports world owes a debt of gratitude to younger gearheads, including—gasp!—the drift scene. Without these much-maligned enthusiasts, the fantastic new Scion FR-S and its fraternal twin, the Subaru BRZ, may have never seen the light of day.
By the new millennium, the flingable, affordable cars that were so common in the 1980s had all but disappeared. Even the spunky little AE86 Corolla GT-S had faded from the enthusiast scene.
That all changed with the popularization of “Initial D,” a Japanese anime series about a high-school kid who hones his drifting skills while making deliveries for his father’s tofu shop. His trusty car is a white-and-black 86—the number is pronounced “hachi roku” in Japanese—and the kids went crazy for it.
Scion and Subaru both took notice of the “Initial D”-generated enthusiasm for the car. They also saw a void in each of their product lines. The two companies decided to collaborate on a lightweight, rear-wheel-drive sports car that anyone could afford—including the “Initial D” fans who inspired it. The 86 project was born, and each company would release the resulting car under a different name: the Scion FR-S and the Subaru BRZ.
Next time you see a flat-brimmed youth at an automotive event, you may want to shake his hand and offer to buy him an energy drink.

Power Up

The factories set a base price just shy of $25,000 for the new 86 cars, so opulence and scorching performance were never guaranteed. Instead, the focus was driver involvement, and these odd bedfellows actually delivered. Both Subaru and Scion insist that the collaboration yielded a car that neither company could have made alone: Scion designed the body and interior, while Subaru provided the 2.0-liter flat four.
The engine, made specifically for the new 86 cars, uses a 12:5:1 compression ratio to produce 200 horsepower and 150 lb.-ft. of torque. While the flat-four engine configuration may be familiar to Subaru owners, the Toyota-designed D-4S direct-injection system is not. One injector squirts fuel directly into the combustion chamber, and a second injector in the intake tract fires when called upon. The system helps the 86 yield 100 horsepower per liter and deliver respectable fuel economy—25 mpg combined for the six-speed manual car, 28 mpg for the six-speed automatic with shift paddles.
The manual transmission is a treat to use, with short, light, accurate throws. The paddle-shifted automatic is adequate and well behaved, but nowhere as direct as a modern dual-clutch setup; it does incorporate a rev-matching feature that blips the throttle slightly when downshifting, but the transmission’s action is too slow to be considered a truly sporting unit. We suspect an overwhelming majority of 86 buyers will opt to shift for themselves.
Typical of a Subaru powerplant, the horizontally opposed engine emits a growl at low revs that becomes a baritone warbling as the rpm rises. Fearing the car wasn’t loud or visceral enough, engineers developed a “sound creator” system that plumbs engine noise into the cabin; the tone is noticeable without being overbearing.
The Subaru flat four is adequate, but it doesn’t measure up to the legacy of the original Corolla’s 4AGE. Fortunately, the aftermarket is poised to embrace the 86. The car’s chief engineer, Tetsuya Tada, says his team considered the aftermarket’s role from the start of the program.
While the BRZ and FR-S share a MacPherson strut front suspension and double-wishbone rear suspension layout, each company used its own approach for the tuning. Scion wouldn’t comment on the differences between the BRZ and FR-S, but they did insist that each car has unique characteristics.
We got a chance to sample the Scion FR-S on the desert roads leading from Las Vegas to the state-of-the-art Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch in Pahrump, Nevada. The choice of venue was a bit surprising, though, as the Spring Mountain complex’s 2600-foot elevation sapped the car of about 16 horsepower compared to sea level.
The car is by no means a slug—Scion claims sub-7-second zero-to-60 times—but at high altitude, we found ourselves flat-footing the accelerator frequently. When we asked about the prospect of a forced-induction model, Scion engineers coyly said, “Not yet.”

Destined for the Track

Some cars are the product of parts-bin raiding or half-baked efforts to capture a narrow market segment. The FR-S is a clean-sheet design. “Built by passion, not by committee” is Scion’s tag line for the car, and unlike most marketing slogans, this one rings true. True motorsports enthusiasts were the target demo from day one. The design team even parked an original Toyota 2000GT inside their studio to inspire them as they penned the car.
Their thoughtfulness is evident in the pagoda-style roof, which aids aerodynamic stability at speed. The centerline indicator at the base of the windshield is clearly a nod to track-day participants. From the piston ring-inspired vent surrounds to the horizontal “86” logo on the body’s flanks, special touches make it clear that this car is no appliance. It manages to look aggressive without being tacky—muscular without slipping into beefcake territory.
Once set loose on Spring Mountain’s circuit, the FR-S was pure magic. This car offers a smooth, communicative steering feel and eager turn-in, even on the less-than-aggressive 215/45-R17 Michelin Primacy HP rubber. In low-traction situations, a Torsen-type limited-slip differential puts those 200 ponies to good use.
The FR-S’s light weight helps the ventilated disc brakes—11.65-inch units front, 11.46-inchers rear—feel strong. Fade was imperceptible during our day of testing. Scion’s VSC stability system, meanwhile, allows an impressive amount of rotation and slip angle before stepping in. This car is nearly foolproof with the nanny turned on; turn it off, and you’ve got a fantastic dancing partner. Overcook a corner? It’s easy to regain control.
We left the track enthused, but also curious about how much better the FR-S could be with stickier rubber and another 20 or 30 horsepower. Fortunately, we shouldn’t have to wait long for the aftermarket to pull through. Plus, Scion is already offering a list of “performance” add-ons for the car: springs, rotors, intakes and exhaust pieces directly from the Toyota Racing Development catalog. There’s also the Five: AD body kit, which will be available at Scion dealerships; it gives the car a much more aggressive look without setting off the rice-meter.
We’re excited to see where this car and its Subaru sibling will be classed in road racing and autocross competition. As with the Miata and E30 M3, track enthusiasts will embrace the new 86 cars. That’s especially impressive when you consider its polite street manners.
Hopefully, the younger generation of car nuts will put their money where their mouths are and make the new 86 twins as much of a financial success as they are a design and engineering success. These kids are the future of our sport, and the executives in their ivory towers are listening to them. With any luck, these cars will be the first shots fired in a new affordable-sports-car war between automakers. The competition will have their work cut out for them, though, as the FR-S has already hit the bull’s-eye.

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