You already know what references the 86 badges on the fenders of the Scion FR-S make not only to its JDM counterpart, the Toyota 86, but ultimately to its ancestor, the iconic AE86 Toyota Corolla that has drifted into motorsports, anime DVDs, and the hearts and minds of import car enthusiasts nearly 30 years after the fact.
You're aware that Toyota petitioned Fuji Heavy Industries, the parent company of Subaru (about 17% of which Toyota owns anyway), to build them a small, lightweight, and nimble rear-wheel-drive sports car with a short wheelbase and low center of gravity in hopes of rekindling the fire that the AE86 Corolla first ignited. Subaru said "Yes, but only if we get our own version." That explains not only the existence of the nearly identical Subaru BRZ, but also the Subaru stampings on the fenders and on the underside of the trunk lid of the FR-S.
You're also well-versed on the FA20 engine under the hood of the FR-S. It's also from Subaru, with horizontally-opposed cylinders of square dimensions: 86mm bore and 86mm stroke (nudge, nudge). That equates to 2.0L of displacement, and 200hp and 151 ft-lbs of torque. You've also studied Toyota's D-4S fuel injection system, with four port injectors in the intake runners for everyday, low RPM situations, and four direct injectors in the cylinder heads that come to life when you feel like taking it up to the 7400rpm redline.
You know all that because you, like me, have been following this car ever since the rumors began surfacing about it years ago. You, too, have lamented the overcomplicated and disconnected modern automobile, and you've dreamed about getting behind the wheel of a car like the FR-S, grabbing 1st gear, dropping the clutch pedal, and taking off for the nearest winding road to remind yourself of the continued existence of what is nowadays an ever more elusive phenomenon: the simple joy of driving.
So, then, your gut reaction would probably be the same as mine when I heard the characteristic "tink-tink-thunk" of an automatic transmission being put into Park as the press fleet driver delivered a Raven Black Scion FR-S to me.
"My test drive is ruined," I fumed. Here, sitting right in front of me, was a car that I believed was going to be one of the most fun and engaging cars I would ever drive, and the part that was the most fun and engaging of all wasn't there.
I had been given a barrel of monkeys with no monkeys in it.
Thus, I decided to punish this FR-S for its torque-converting ways by assigning to it a week of the most arduous labor with which a sports car can ever be assigned: basic, mundane transportation. It did nothing but run me on errands, slog through rush hour traffic, and pick up groceries.
Further fueled by the injustice that had been done, I also began nitpicking all the imperfections of the car that I didn't like. I griped about the small trunk and how it should have been designed as a hatchback. I laughed at the sheer pointlessness of the back seat. I scratched my head at the redundancy of the gauge cluster, which has both a needle speedometer to the left and a digital speedometer in the tachometer, and I became increasingly agitated with the oversensitive weight sensor that would sound the seat belt chime if I so much as put my phone in the passenger seat.
However, as the weekend approached and my initial knee-jerk reaction had taken its course, I began to realize my prejudice against this car simply because of the type of transmission it had. Along my daily commute, I decided to pull on the downshift paddle a couple of times, and as soon as I did, I was in 2nd gear at 5500rpm, and the engine noise that gets directed into the cabin via a tube off the intake grew a lot louder, as if the car was saying "About time!"
Impressed by the responsiveness of the downshifts, I found myself wanting to make up for the time lost improperly testing the car. So I scheduled myself a weekend of exploring some of the more rural roads in Florida to give this automatic FR-S a chance to show me what it could really do.
That Sunday afternoon, I found myself on a road full of long, fast sweepers. I pushed the VSC button to deactivate the traction control and switch the stability control to Sport mode (this also quickens the throttle response) and I shoved the shifter to the left to put the transmission in Manual mode. I downshifted into 3rd and, this time, I consciously took in how fast the gearchanges actually happened. In less than a second, the transmission downshifted two gears, the engine revved up in perfect correspondence with the newly selected gear, and the torque converter fully locked back up, ready for me to get back into the throttle... and it happened without any jerking or unintended engine braking. The transmission is an Aisin unit from a Lexus IS250, and it's been specially tuned for the FR-S for quick response and efficient power delivery. The manual mode is also really manual mode: the engine will just bounce off of the rev limiter until you tell the transmission to upshift.
Now, a lot of Internet commenters will tell you the FT86 triplets are slow, that they should have had 100 more horsepower, that they should have had a turbo, yada, yada, yada. But if you keep the FA20 above 5000rpm and keep your foot in the throttle, you'll be surprised how fast you'll be able to get yourself going. There is a midrange lull between 3500rpm and the magical 5000rpm as a result of the transition between port injection and direct injection, and straight-line acceleration isn't much to brag about on paper: my test car needed 7.3 seconds to get to 60mph, and 15.6 seconds and 90mph to complete the quarter mile. But on a twisting two-lane back road, and with a bit of skill in maintaining momentum, the FR-S has more than enough power for a very exhilarating driving experience.
Speaking of exhilarating, the FR-S's most notable difference from the BRZ is its greater tendency to oversteer. The spring rate is slightly softer on the FR-S, and therefore it requires a bit more alertness if you're pushing it to the limit, especially if you've held the VSC button down until all electronic driver assistance is completely turned off. Further accentuating the FR-S's squirminess are the Michelin Primacy tires, which can also be found on a Prius. They were deliberately chosen to allow the car to move around a bit rather than to be epoxied to the road, and that's the reason behind the 0.89g lateral acceleration figure; that's not bad, but the FR-S's chassis is definitely capable of more. At the same time, however, it's stable and forgiving. It will certainly reward the skilled driver very graciously, but it will also teach the ropes to the new kid on the block as well.
In fact, I'm convinced that the engine and suspension R&D departments reached the horsepower figure in congruence, because the FR-S has just enough power to keep you moving through the corner at the right speed, not so much that you'll pay dearly for just a slight miscalculation.
But my favorite part of the FR-S by far was the steering. It's electrically assisted, but only enough to be civilized and no more. It's nearly overloaded with feedback, and the 13:1 ratio in the steering rack, combined with the small and meaty steering wheel, is so capable of anticipating your next move, you'll swear it was developed by the NSA.
What's more, as my weekend adventure and my spirited test drive with an automatic FR-S came to a close, I began noticing other things I liked about the car as well. The driver's seating position, for example, is absolutely perfect. In cars as small as the FR-S, I usually find myself with a decent amount of headroom, but very little legroom. In a sports car, I'd rather have the opposite, and that is precisely what the FR-S gave me. There wasn't a surplus of headroom for me, but I had surprising amounts of room for my legs. That made me more comfortable, and in a car that focuses on the driving experience, that kind of comfort is imperative. I also appreciated the simplicity of the dash, with nothing other that the stereo (which was excellent; after all, this is a Scion) and simple mechanical knobs for the HVAC system.
So, as the press fleet driver put the FR-S into Drive when he picked it up after the test drive was over, I realized I was not only impressed, but I was surprised. I was surprised because I was impressed with an automatic sports car. My gut reaction was unfounded, and even with a torque converter, the FR-S is unequivocally worthy of being called a spiritual successor to the AE86 Corolla.
There were monkeys in the barrel after all. They weren't the breed I was expecting, but they were there, and they were just as fun.
Price as tested: $26,930
0-60mph: 7.3 sec
1/4-mile time: 15.6 seconds at 90mph
Lateral skidpad acceleration: 0.89g
60-0 braking distance: 117ft
Torque: 151 ft-lbs
Weight: 2,806 lbs
Fuel economy: 25.2 mpg
Test vehicle provided by Toyota Motor Sales USA.
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