Slide behind the wheel of the first-ever rear-wheel-drive Scion and settle into the Recaro-style seats. Severely sculpted, with black fabric, red stitching, and prominent bolsters, they immediately telegraph the performance intentions of this 2+2-seat coupe. Drop your left leg onto the clutch pedal. The travel is short but fluid, with a discernible engagement point just short of the floor. The gearshift has short throws and positive action. The steering wheel is all business, exactly the right thickness and with minimal padding. So far, everything feels just right to the soles of your feet and the palms of your hands, and the car isn't even moving yet.
We're at Sodegaura Forest Raceway, a 1.5-mile road course tucked into a forest in Chiba Prefecture, across Tokyo Bay from Tokyo. This is our first drive of Toyota's version of the all-new, front-engine rear-wheel-drive coupe it co-developed with Subaru. We drove the Subaru BRZ last week, and the Scion FR-S (Front engine, Rear-wheel drive, Sport) is virtually the same car, with some minor tuning and trim differences. Toyota will sell the FR-S as the Toyota 86 in Japan and as the Toyota GT86 in Europe, but only as the Scion FR-S in North America.
More on the Subaru connection shortly. Turn the key (other markets get push-button start) and the 200-hp, 2.0-liter Subaru flat-four engine, code-named 4U-GSE for those who care about such things, sparks immediately to life and settles into a quiet hum. Engage the clutch, select first gear, and we are off with a chirp of the rear tires, heading quickly into the tight right-hander that is Turn One at Sodegaura. Oh, wow, does this car turn in. The steering is super precise, and you have a good sense of the front of the car, even if there's not the sort of steering feel you get in a Lotus Elise or Porsche Cayman. The FR-S feels flat, balanced, neutral, natural.
"Natural" is the operative word with the FR-S, as every action and reaction feels like you expect it to. The car's chief virtue is its simplicity. It's a small, short-wheelbase, relatively light (curb weight is still unknown) car that does without turbocharging, large-displacement engines, all-wheel drive, trick transaxles, or big rubber. In fact, the Michelin Primacy HP tires are only 215/45R17's, in an era when 20-inch tires are commonplace. Yet the FR-S is a better and more rewarding car to drive -- at least on a handling course; we haven't driven it or the BRZ on public roads yet -- than many cars that have turbos, large-displacement engines, transaxles, big rubber, or all-wheel drive. Funny how that works.
The FR-S works very well indeed. A key technical achievement is the low center of gravity afforded by the compact horizontally opposed four-cylinder, which nestles deep down in the engine bay. Like the Subaru BRZ, the FR-S is offered either with a six-speed manual or a six-speed automatic that locks up its torque converter with the goal, says chief engineer Tetsuya Tada, of "exceeding DSG gearboxes" in shift times. Although there is a manual shift gate for the automatic, plus shift paddles, we found it worked best on the track when it's simply left in drive; try to use the paddles and you'll likely have downshifts denied even when there seems to be plenty of space left on the tach. That complaint aside, this appears to be a very nice automatic, but why would you want one in this pure sports car?
Back to the track. The FR-S moves fluidly among Sodegaura's fourteen corners, and it's very forgiving if you misread a line and dive abruptly toward the apex. Oversteer is easily achieved and easily controlled, and if you don't have the nerve or skill to turn off the stability control entirely, the "VSC Sport" button gives you a lot of rear-end-out fun before the stability cuts in. On a wet track, this was a swell, giggle-inducing experience. The engine, which is fitted with Toyota's D4-S combined port injection and direct injection, isn't raspy like most Subaru fours nor a high-RPM screamer like, say, the Honda S2000's four. Yet it heads readily to its 7400-RPM redline and never seems short of breath. The redline itself is pretty forgiving, but the window between 7000 RPM and redline is exceedingly short, and an upshift-alert light blinks furiously if you're not efficient with your upshifting.
Furious track activity is clearly what the FR-S is for, as evidenced by a series of hot laps conducted at Sodegaura by Scion Formula Drift star Ken Gushi, who drove the car for the first time today just like us. "Drove" is perhaps the wrong verb, because Gushi launched, hammered, battered, finessed, coaxed, directed, and manipulated the Scion around the rain-swept road course in a nearly nonstop drift that was an equally violent and controlled maneuver, a dramatic display of this car's potential. Okay, so he did a complete spinout in one corner, prompting him to observe wryly, "It's a little snappy when you're driving it stock." Indeed. "And how will the drift FR-S differ from the production version?" we asked. "Well, of course we will put on huge rubber, and 200 hp isn't nearly enough for competition, so we'll have to turbocharge it," the California Drifter replied.
"Where will you wedge in the turbocharger?"
"That's the problem," came Gushi's grinning reply. "We don't know yet!" Rest assured, the Scion Formula Drift shop, among myriad other tuners, will be figuring this out soon.
Even with a far, far less talented driver behind the wheel, the FR-S dives into corners with enthusiasm and a minimum of understeer. We haven't had the same editor in both the Subaru and the Scion, but comparing notes, it appears that the Scion is less susceptible to understeer than the BRZ. Chief engineer Tada-San says that his goal in tuning the FR-S was agility, whereas Subaru focused more on stability, so this makes sense. "We have softer springs and stiffer dampers in front than Subaru does," Tada-San tells us. "At the rear, I chose the same spring rates as Subaru but different valves in the dampers."
Which brings us to the whole notion of this Subaru/Toyota partnership. How did this happen? Well, it's difficult to get the entire story from either side, but this is what we've managed to piece together:
By the middle of last decade, Fuji Heavy Industries, Subaru's parent company, was no longer associated with General Motors. (You remember that association; it produced the Subaru WRX-based Saab 9-2. So you can see why the association ended.) Through some combination of national pride, Japanese government prodding, and goodwill, Toyota Motor Corporation (TMC) began a relationship with Fuji Heavy Industries (FHI) after Fuji's divorce from GM. At about the same time, Toyoda family patriarch Akio Toyoda, who is now president, asked, "where is the passion in our lineup? I want to build a sports car." TMC established a sports car planning division, which quickly decided on a brief for the new car. Its styling would be inspired by the Toyota 2000GT supercar of the 1960s, its engine would follow in the footsteps of the flat-two-cylinder engine in the diminutive Toyota 800 (a.k.a. Yotahachi), and it would be conceived in the spirit of the famous mid-1980s Toyota Corolla GT-S, known to aficionadoes by its internal Toyota code name, AE86. (In Toyota nomenclature, the A referred to the 4AGEV engine, the E to the Corolla model line, and the 86 was a sequential number. "86," or "Hachi-Roku" in Japanese, has taken on legendary status among Toyota fans; hence the use of the two digits in non-USA models and even on a little fender badge on the FR-S.)
The project progressed for about a year, but Subaru rejected the first proposal. Here's where things get murky, but it's fairly apparent that Subaru was having a hard time stomaching the thought of a rear-wheel-drive car, since their entire brand identity is predicated on all-wheel drive. Subaru walked away from the table and the entire project was in limbo for about half a year. Subaru finally decided to make a prototype car with a very low center of gravity, which eliminated the possibility of all-wheel drive. That prototype both surprised and amazed Toyota, which enthusiastically supported its development. The joint project proceeded in late 2007 and now, four years later, we see the fruits of the two companies' work. Styling is by Toyota, development and manufacturing are by FHI, and each company, obviously, will be in charge of marketing and sales for their respective products.
At this juncture, it seems like Toyota might have gotten the better end of the deal. After all, the FR-S falls neatly into a historic lineup of rear-wheel-drive Toyota sports cars and should give the Scion brand a huge dosage of street cred. Subaru, for its part, has staked its entire brand on the concept of all-wheel drive, so it's not clear how the BRZ fits into the Subaru lineup. That said, these cars just feel right to us and are destined to shake up the world of affordable sports cars in a big way.
2013 Scion FR-S On sale: spring Base price (estimated): $24,500 Engine: 2.0L DOHC H-4; 200 hp @ 7000 rpm, 150 lb-ft @ 6400-6600 rpm Transmissions: 6-speed manual, 6-speed automatic