At long last, Toyota returns to its roots
ST. EUSTACHE, Quebec - The winds of change are blowin' through Toyota headquarters - or maybe it's something in the water. Either way, let's hope nothing disturbs the current momentum. Recently, we've experienced the unlikely reality of a Lexus sedan boasting credible performance skills, the redesigned 2013 GS, and now from Scion comes the FR-S: a genuine, rear-wheel-drive sports car.
Once upon a time, Toyota excelled at producing joyful, lightweight performance cars like the MR2, Celica and Supra. Even the Corolla, that bumbling beige nemesis of impatient drivers everywhere, has the mighty AE86 in its pedigree.
But somewhere along the way, the focus shifted towards bland reliability. There's a place for safe and economical - many of our dear old mums and retired favourite teachers have been well-served by their Camrys. But no one will argue that the passion had long since deserted the Toyota banner.
No one was more aware of this than CEO Akio Toyoda, a racer himself, who vowed to re-ignite that passion.
And perhaps no other car has yet to embody the phrase "Waku Doki" (which means "exciting adrenaline rush" in Japanese, but sounds disturbingly like "wacky-dorky") the way the 2013 Scion FR-S has. Billions of clicks have been generated on performance message boards around the globe, as enthusiasts awaited its release.
The FR-S marks a return to Toyota's roots in that it's a simple, relatively inexpensive car with a focus on performance. Marketed in North America by Scion, the company's youth-oriented brand, the FR-S is known as the Toyota GT-86 in the rest of the world.
Twins, but not identical
It's a joint venture between Toyota and Subaru, who supplied the engine and most of the mechanical bits. Together, they created what are being affectionately referred to as the "twins" - a pair of nearly identical cars, one for each label. But where the 2013 Subaru BRZ markets an array of models starting at $27,295, Scion's FR-S is available in one trim: $25,990 for the 6-speed manual and $27,170 for the automatic.
In keeping with Scion's philosophy of marketing base models as a canvas upon which the owner can then add his own personalized customization, the FR-S is available in one mono-spec trim.
Externally, the FR-S is a classic sports car design: long of nose, short of deck, with a wide lowered stance.
The interior is plain and simple: black only with deeply bolstered, racing-style seats upholstered in faux suede. Although the emphasis is on pure performance, the FR-S makes a concession of practicality in its 2+2 configuration. The two rear seats are ridiculously small, but when folded down, create a cargo space big enough to hold a set of track tires, tools and a couple of helmets. Because everyone knows that towing your tires to the track just isn't cool.
Rewards smooth inputs with joyful performance
We set out from downtown Montreal - and its testament to the ease of familiarity of the FR-S that most of our focus was on the snarling traffic and incipient student unrest rather than the car. Once out of the urban chaos, we began to appreciate how well the car's suspension was set up, especially once some winding and deserted rural pavement presented itself.
Its extremely low centre of gravity and ground clearance of only 460 mm (less than 5") give the FR-S wonderful road hugging ability. For this leg of the trip, we've been assigned a six-speed automatic equipped vehicle - and honestly, given the traffic hell we've just come through, I've no complaints. Left to its own devices, it can loaf as comfortably as any daily driver; with 200 hp and 151 lb-ft of torque, the FR-S is no heavyweight in the horsepower department.
Use the paddle shifters to put the high-revving boxer engine in its powerband and the FR-S comes alive. The 2.0L flat-4 develops a raspy burble once it approaches its 7,300-rpm redline, the wail piped into the cabin via engine ductwork.
Trading in the auto, I found the six-speed stick to be notchy with closely-placed throws, although the shifter itself was rather an upright swizzle stick. Drilled pedals are placed closely, for ease of heel n' toe footwork.
There's a tiny little steering wheel, and a large centre-mounted tach that's easily readable.
It's a very balanced car with a 53:47 front-to-rear weight ratio, but can turn on the uninitiated. As Akio Toyoda said, "it's a car that rewards good driving," but it's also one that reveals bad driving habits, as a few hapless souls during the track session discovered after finding themselves backwards. Manhandle it, lift when you shouldn't... and the tail will swing out. But it's joyfully sharp and responsive, rewarding smooth inputs with nimble athleticism.
This sense of neutrality makes the FR-S a natural with the drift crowd.
And to illustrate just how suitable, on hand was Canadian Drift Champion Pat Cyr, who managed to make what I always considered a rather pointless sport into an exercise in brilliant car control, sliding around the turns in a beautiful display of balance on the edge.
Sure to please the tuner and enthusiast crowd, the 2013 Scion FR-S embodies the essence of pure, simple sports car - and a return to Toyota's roots.