Wednesday, April 25, 2012

We Finally Sample Scion's Irresistible Lightweight At Home

Five months ago, we flew nearly 11 hours to spend a fleeting afternoon with the highly anticipated Scion FR-S at Japan's Sodegaura Forest Raceway, a track located just outside of Tokyo. Last week, we were in the air for less than an hour en route to Las Vegas to spend a much longer day with the sports coupe on our own turf.

The FR-S impressed us during our first drive in Japan, but the weather turned lousy and we didn't have a chance to drive it on public roads at legal speeds. This time, Scion scheduled plenty of seat time on public roads and on a racing circuit, while Mother Nature provided us with excellent weather.

Driving the coupe again in proper U.S. spec on home roads (and under much more favorable conditions) gave us better insight into the naturally aspirated four-seater. Not only did we learn a lot more about the engine, chassis and its driving dynamics, but we were able to finally interact with the FR-S as a daily driver.

It was, in effect, an interesting and informative second date.

Regular readers are unquestionably familiar with the Scion FR-S and its near-twin, the Subaru BRZ. The two sports coupes are the product of a joint program between Toyota Motor Corporation (owner of the Scion brand) and Fuji Heavy Industries (owner of the Subaru brand). The ball started rolling back in 2007 when Toyota was on a quest to pump some excitement into its product line. The automaker wanted to build a car that did not rely on wide sticky tires or all-wheel drive to improve handling. Subaru, a name synonymous with all-wheel drive, wasn't ready to toss its hat into the ring. Toyota pushed ahead anyway, building a lightweight FR (front-engine rear-wheel drive) proof-of-concept prototype that knocked Subaru's socks off. The two soon inked a deal.

Without getting too deeply into specifics, Toyota was tasked with program planning and styling, while Fuji was assigned development and manufacturing in Japan. As far as nomenclature goes, the coupe would be sold as the Toyota GT 86 in Asia and Europe, while the North American marketplace would brand it as the Scion FR-S and Subaru BRZ.

Nearly identical mechanically, except for some suspension tuning, each automaker tweaked the exterior fascias and configured the cabin for its own clientele. Subaru added automatic climate control and push-button start while Toyota, trying to keep focused on the performance mission, chose manual climate controls and a conventional keyed ignition for its FR-S. From 100 yards, most would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between the two. (We've written thousands of words about the technical aspects of each car. For an in-depth look at the machinery under the sheetmetal, read our man Ramsey's first drive of the Subaru BRZ.)

Red Rock Resort isn't on the famed Las Vegas Strip, it's several miles west at the base of the Spring Mountains. Scion chose to use the casino as our home base and the launching point for our trek to Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch, located due west on the outskirts of Pahrump. Leaving our gambling money back in the room, we grabbed the keys to an FR-S with a six-speed manual transmission.

As it turns out, crows don't even fly directly to Pahrump, as the Spring Mountains are the home of Charleston Peak. At 11,916 feet, it is a big snow-covered obstacle that forced us south on Nevada State Route 159 through spectacular Red Rock Canyon before we picked up State Route 160 to Pahrump. (What this all meant to the Scion FR-S was that its naturally aspirated 2.0-liter flat-four had to lug us up and over Mountain Springs Summit, elevation 5,502 feet, before dumping us back down at the track on the other side.)

Subaru's boxer engine, fitted with Toyota's direct-injection fuel system, idled smoothly upon start. Leaving the hotel grounds, we left it in first gear just to hear the engine spin around the tachometer and take in the note coming from the exhaust. A mechanical sound tube, commonplace these days, has been engineered to pipe "good vibrations" into the cabin above 4,000 rpm. It worked alright, but most of the noise still emanated from the injectors and other unpleasant machinery under the hood. We wanted more exhaust note, but it simply wasn't there (Scion has already announced that it will offer an aftermarket TRD silencer shortly after the FR-S is launched).

Around town, the FR-S was fun and enjoyable to drive. Its short-shift manual was a delight to row, with three well-placed pedals and nearly perfect clutch operation. Gearing was good at low speeds and the Scion would chirp its way into second gear if driven with aggression. Shooting in and out of traffic was effortlessly brisk, but we'd never call it particularly quick. The suspension was firm, bouncing almost rigidly over tall speed bumps, but still very tolerable and not inappropriate for a sports coupe, after all.

On the highway, we found that the FR-S cruised effortlessly at 75 mph. There was moderate wind noise permeating the cabin at these velocities, yet almost no tire noise. Conversation with our fellow passenger was easy and at normal levels.

But things soon changed as we climbed slowly towards the mile-high summit through the mountain pass. As slower traffic blocked our way and we pushed harder on the accelerator to move around them, we noted that the Scion was starting to struggle to hold its speed. Passing other vehicles was soon out of the question, as acceleration was just too lethargic to take the risk. With a power rating of 200 horsepower and just 151 pound-feet of torque, what was fun around town had become unresponsive and sluggish when speed and altitude were added to the mix. (A basic rule is that a naturally aspirated engine loses about three percent of its power for every thousand feet of elevation climbed, so the flat-four was down about 30 crucial horsepower at the summit.)

About a half-hour later, we arrived at the track to find that Scion had set up three different "stations" for us to test its FR-S. The largest was a 1.5-mile loop on the west end of the main circuit. There was also a wet skidpad for drifting and an autocross-type course market with tightly spaced cones. We would try all three, as each would let us dig a bit further into the dynamics of the new sports coupe.

Recalling our remarkable experience outside Tokyo, when the FR-S effortlessly devoured the asphalt, we headed to the high-speed track first. And, as expected, the Scion FR-S took to the challenging racing circuit like a teenage boy to Call of Duty.

Our first stint was in an FR-S with the automatic transmission, an impressive six-speed gearbox that shares internals with the eight-speed in the Lexus IS F. With the transmission and VSC set in Sport mode, the powertrain blips the throttle on downshifts and holds the gears through the corners. Forget the hip paddle shifters, as its electronic brain proved better than ours. We tossed the Scion 6AT from corner to corner quite happily and smiled with delight as the intuitive transmission ran through its gears very effectively. Everything was perfectly fine until we tried to follow another talented driver in a 6MT.

The automatic transmission has taller gears than the manual, a trick to deliver better fuel economy (the 6AT is rated 25 city/34 highway and 28 combined, while the 6MT is rated 22 city/30 highway and 25 combined). However, the efficient gearing of the 6AT meant it didn't pull as strongly in third or fourth gear – a difference that was very noticeable when trying to follow a 6MT out of a fast corner, or when we jumped behind the wheel of a more spirited 6MT minutes later. In Japan, we theorized that the automatic gearbox may be quicker around a track than a standard gearbox. The new evidence, as observed in Pahrump, proves that we were wrong.

While the manual transmission was slightly quicker around the track, we found both models perfectly balanced and very easy to rotate. The engineers consider the 2,758-pound coupe's 53/47 percent weight distribution as perfect, and we would have to agree. The chassis is fabulously well balanced and very rigid. We lifted off the throttle gently mid-corner and the FR-S predictably rotated (oversteer) around its axis. The movement was stopped almost effortlessly with light throttle and some steering input. Only in the tightest corners, when we dove in far too hot, did understeer surface. As a near-perfect track car, this little coupe would make an excellent trainer at a racing school.

We found Scion's professional drifter Ken Gushi over at the skidpad. While his hot new FR-S (insanely modified to 600 horsepower for Formula Drift competition) wasn't in attendance after his impressive top-eight showing in Long Beach a couple weeks ago, he was there to instruct us on the art of drifting. After painlessly showing us how it is done, we climbed behind the wheel. With a wet skidpad beneath our wheels and the Scion running in first gear, we slowly negotiated a large figure-eight before yanking the parking brake to break the rear wheels loose. The next step, performed nearly instantaneously, involved jumping on the throttle to start the drift. After several failed attempts, each slightly more embarrassing than the one before it, we finally caught on and made a few lame drifting circles around the cones. Yet as pleased as we were with ourselves, our newbie talents pose no threat to Gushi – his job is safe.

Next we ventured over to the faux autocross, a short and very tight path between orange cones that took just over 30 seconds to run in its entirety. Both of the FR-S models were fitted with the automatic transmission, so the exercise was a focus on low to moderate speed handling, not shifting skill. Again, the coupe exhibited excellent balance and poise as long as we were smooth with both throttle and braking inputs. However, if we asked too much of the narrow front tires (e.g., turning the steering wheel while under hard braking) there was severe understeer, tire scrubbing and cones would end up under the front bumper. The solution, of course, was to always remain mindful of the weight transfer and brake in a straight line.

The trip to Las Vegas was well worth our time, as our lengthier follow-up meeting with the Scion FR-S was very educational. It reinforced many of our earlier good impressions from Japan, while flushing out some new (formerly unnoticed) minor weaknesses.

We remained stupefied by the coupe's excellent handling, perfect balance and tossable driving dynamics. Despite its rather narrow tires (215/45-17 on all four corners), lateral grip is strong and the stock brakes never exhibited fade. The driving position and bucket seats were comfortable for our six-foot, two-inch frame during our day-long journey and its sleek styling continued to turn heads.

Of course, there were a few nagging annoyances. First of all, the standard Pioneer audio system with a three-line OLED display is frustrating to use and the sound quality is only average (step up to the optional BeSpoke Premium Audio with a 5.8-inch TFT touchscreen display and save some headaches). Second, there are no grab handles anywhere above the beltline within the cabin, so your passengers will be clawing at the headliner while your dry cleaning sits on the floor. Third, the back seats are only fit for children – not only is legroom cramped, footroom under the seat is nearly nonexistent. Lastly, there is the power deficit at higher speeds. Proper gearing masks the issue up to about 65 mph, but then the naturally aspirated four-cylinder simply runs out of breath (a much-rumored upcoming turbocharger would make the FR-S just about perfect).

But overall, this was a very promising second date. While there are plenty of options out there, lightweight, well-balanced sports coupes priced at just $24,930 are the rare exception, not the rule in today's automotive environment. Add in excellent manners, physical attractiveness and a playful personality and we become more enamored with the new coupe each time we meet. There is no shame in saying that as far as relationships go, the 2013 Scion FR-S is very worthy of a long-term commitment.

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