Defined by its chassis balance and agility, the Scion FR-S has rediscovered driving fun we presumed long lost in the rubble of emissions control and health-and-safety chassis settings. This generic-looking two--two coupé was devised as a result of a Toyota board meeting a decade ago, which had the single agenda of restoring the appeal of cars to young people. This old-school, rear-drive sports car, nicknamed 'Hachiroku', was the result and the rumor machine is predicting a drophead version before too long.
Turbo or Not?
The FR-S is produced in collaboration with Subaru (its model is called the BRZ, Toyota's model is the GT86). Priced at $25,000, the FR-S uses Subaru's 2.0-liter, flat-four-cylinder engine to lower the center of gravity, but with Toyota's most advanced D-4S direct-fuel-injection system to up the power and torque to 197 bhp/151 lbs.-ft. Performance is modest, top speed is 140 mph, 0-60 mph in 7.6 sec, but in handling terms, this car matches and arguably surpasses models such as Porsche's Cayman at twice the price.
And they can't build them quick enough. Tetsuya Tada, the car's chief engineer admits that some countries have a ten-year waiting list, even the Australian customers are going to have to cool their heels for three years. "It's a ridiculous situation," he says.
It's not the only thing requiring his attention. "One of the most common calls I have had", he says "is for a turbo, but I have been hesitant about increasing power and torque."
He's right to hesitate. The sells itself on low-cost thrills and extra power would start an upward spiral of weight and price. What's more over the next two years, Toyota wants to introduce a couple more sports cars, which will bracket the FR-S in price and power. Increasing the engine power too much would bring FR-S into contention with what Tada-san admits will be a new Supra model.
In fact, a turbo would be difficult to engineer for the Subaru flat-four-cylinder engine without seriously raising the center of gravity and Tada-san's team is investigating other options. These include a supercharger, boring the engine beyond its 2.0-liter capacity and a hybrid system completely redesigned from the Prius THS system, which could also be used by Toyota's brand. A test model FR-S is running in Japan with such a system, which uses the high-torque electric motor output to boost the engine in a similar way to Formula-One kinetic energy recovery systems. Tada-san also wants to reduce the weight of the FR-S by at least 220 lbs., although he says that greater weight savings than that will require the use of exotic and expensive materials.
Testing the Performance Enhancements
While performance enhancements are on test, we were recently given access to some of the chassis developments, which Tada-san is keen to introduce next year. These include 18 inch BBS aluminum wheels with Michelin 215/40/ZR 18 tires, an inch larger in diameter and five percent lower profile than the standard Prius tires that the FR-S normally runs on. There's a body and rear wing aerodynamic kit, which mirrors the one supplied by TRD. The limited-slip differential is changed from a Torsen B of the standard car to a mechanical plate type and there's a 4.3:1 differential as opposed to the standard car's longer 4.1:1 diff.
Tucked discreetly into each B pillar are new door catches and B-post stiffeners, which have a more positive closing on a panel strengthened with either aluminum, carbon fiber or plastic. The effect is to turn the doors into part of the stressed structure. Toyota is also working on adjustable Sachs damper units, which weren't fitted to the test car and Bridgestone and Dunlop are developing a unique set of tires for the FR-S. "We made no requests of them," says Tada-san, "we just said give us something good."
You'd be blind to miss that rear wing, which looks fresh off the set of Too Fast Too Furious. It's part of a series of aero improvements that reduce drag and increase downforce although Tada-san says the FR-S aerodynamics are more complicated than that. He points to a complex series of tiny fins over the body which creates a wall of turbulence "that softly embraces the car". He says this `wall' effect contributes as much to the FR-S's handling as the suspension or tires, and can be felt from speeds as low as 25 mph.
After criticism that the standard model sounds like a washing machine, the new free-flow exhaust is pretty fruity, but it's a droning buzz and it won't take long to tire of it. There's not much changed in the cabin except for a natty set of TRD ancillary instruments, which take the place of the standard sat nav.
The Cost of Higher Speeds
Get out on the Spanish race circuit and you quickly feel the differences in the car's behavior; the tires being most noticeable. They point into the turns more sharply than the standard covers and it feels as though the car is turning around your backbone, which is a classy combination. But there's a cost and that's because you always drive to the apparent grip. So while this development model holds on better than the standard car, you have to drive it with greater precision. At high speeds the back end tries to get away from you quite suddenly and while the new limited slip differential gives better control, you can't help thinking that the standard car is more fun.
The other cost of the higher speeds is that the unmodified swinging-calliper disc brakes in the development car start to creak under the strain of repeated fast laps. The TRD performance upgrade package includes the option of larger vented disc rotors and monobloc callipers, which are well balanced and fade free.
The development car felt stiffer and rode better than the standard FR-S and Tada-san suggested this might be to do with the remarkable door stabilizers, which he eventually sees as being part of an individualization program, where customers can tell their dealers about their driving style and the door stiffeners are tweaked to suit.
The Bottom Line
You might wonder what on earth is up to, messing with the FR-S winning formula less than a year after its launch. Fact is, however, sports coupés are fashion items and fickle buyers don't keep them on top for very long. The pot has to be kept boiling to attract new and repeat purchasers and that's what Toyota is doing here. The tires are a mixed blessing (tell us something new here), the door stiffeners are interesting and the exhaust still needs work to sound more sporty and interesting. But in the end, the standard FR-S is such a remarkable car that it's difficult to better.
Just when you're thinking that, however, Tada-san points out that customers are already demanding chassis upgrades and more power and while the TRD after market upgrades are available, they are very expensive. The modifications on the TRD performance car we drove, would cost well in excess of $20,000, yet the development car, complete with uprated Sachs dampers would retail for about $26,000. That's compelling argument enough in itself.