I must admit I came away from my first experience with Scion’s FR-S somewhat disappointed. It had nothing to do with the car and everything to do with the timing of the loan. After all, what does one do when given a sports car for a week in the early days of the Mid-Atlantic winter? Drive it to the office, mostly.
As spring broke and I started arranging my press schedule for 2013, I figured it was worth a shot at getting one of the Toyobaru twins back for a more appropriate evaluation of its capabilities. Naturally, I tried Subaru first, only to be informed that the local media fleet’s BRZ was due for retirement. But my local rep suggested I contact Toyota and see if perhaps they’d loan me the FR-S again. It would be unusual if they said yes to somebody like me, but not entirely unheard of. Why not? So I shot off an email and promptly and the inquiry vanished from my immediate attention as I worked out the rest of my plans. A few days later, I got a call from Toyota’s northeast PR team.
“So, I understand you’d like another crack at the FR-S.”
“That’s right. Think we can swing that?”
“Well, that depends. Are you planning to take it to the track?”
Allow me to interrupt this story for a moment for a little context. SSL is not a large outlet. Our readership is loyal, but modest. We’re not the sort of publication that rates a great deal of attention from manufacturers. Many of them won’t let us take performance cars for hot laps on the strict basis that we’re simply not worth a total loss. The glossies can get away with a write-off or two every decade because they have clout. We can’t, because we really don’t.
Naturally, then, my immediate reaction to the above query was one of dread. “Great,” I thought. “This one’s over before it has even begun…”
But if there’s anything worse than writing off a press loaner, it’s writing off a press loaner that you borrowed under false pretenses. So, let’s resume.
“Yes, I actually do have the opportunity to get it on track.”
“Perfect, then. I think we can make that happen. Email me the dates again and I’ll see what we can transfer down from New York.”
Well, how about that?
A few weeks later, I had the shiny orange-ish coupe in the driveway and a one-day registration with TrackDaze at the Shenandoah Circuit. Over the years, I’ve tested the Mazdaspeed3, Lexus IS F, Porsche 991 S and more than one personal vehicle on this somewhat hazardous and extremely technical West Virginia race track. On paper, the Scion should be the most at-home of any of these—a nimble handler with enough power to carry momentum from corner to corner. Though I fully expected the FR-S to fall short of the 911 and IS F in sheer pace, I had hopes that it would redeem itself with its playful chassis.
It was not to be. Well, not exactly anyway.
Let’s start with the raw numbers. When I drove the Mazdaspeed3 at Shenandoah in 2009, I had no data-logging tools at my disposal, so I have no recorded lap times to compare. However, reliable sources tell me that a stock hot hatch on stock tires should lap the circuit in just a bit more than a minute and fifty seconds. Starting with the IS F, I have some harder data. I got a 1:44.9 from the Lexus on a very green track and a 1:44 dead from the overheating Porsche.
I didn’t expect anything approaching those times from the Scion, but I was surprised by how much trouble I had in my first couple of sessions. Even with the tires at the suggested 36 PSI all around, I couldn’t get into a rhythm with the FR-S. I managed a 1:54 and change in a sea of 1:55s. The track was still fairly green and I’d yet to find my groove, but the early times were disappointing, to say the least.
To try and get a better feel for the car before my next track session, I decided to put in a few laps on Summit Point’s skidpad. The results there were surprising. Where I could get the IS F to step out gracefully and predictably, the FR-S was snappy and much more difficult to place accurately on the wet surface. It wasn’t the willing dance partner I was expecting.
With limited time left to fine-tune the car, I decided to just focus on driving around the Scion’s limitations. This meant banging it off the limiter in second gear going into the Trigger and coming out of the Corkscrew into Little Bend. Upshifting to third in both cases left me in the wrong gear for corner exit, which is far more important than getting another three-tenths of a mile per hour before the braking zone.
As the third session of the day went on, I started to find time. Chase Adams, previous contributor (and the source of my info re: hot hatch lap times) rode along and offered some pointers for getting the Scion around his home track a little more quickly. I ended the session with a 1:53.1 on the books, but not before going four-off when I discovered that repeated hot laps demanded significantly larger braking zones than I had anticipated. That’s three major weaknesses on the Scion’s part when it comes to this track—brakes, power and gearing.
So, I was as quick as a Grand-am driver in a rented Toyota Camry. Needless to say, I wanted some more time.
The last session of the day is the most dangerous for any driver. If one is not careful, fatigue can displace any lessons learned in previous sessions, turning what should be the most productive and coherent laps of the day into a fat mess. On a race track, fat messes tend to result in dented fenders (not to mention, dented egos).
I saw signs of this in the drivers around me early in the session. Traffic was thick. Between slow drivers not pointing others by and faster drivers not ducking into pit lane to wait for space, trains started forming. I took my warm-up lap and a couple of “anchoring” laps, pointing by a few 911s and GTIs to give myself more attention to devote to my line rather than my mirrors. With clear track ahead and behind, I dove in, finally finding my rhythm. Five or six laps in, I was catching the pack ahead. Another lap and I was just a few lengths back, popping off shifts perfectly, riding the limiter only as long as necessary, the rear tires dancing over the peak of the slip angle curve on each corner entry and exit.
And as soon as I caught the pack, it was over. I went for the three-two downshift for the corkscrew and grabbed fourth gear instead. My hands were already back at 9:00 and 3:00 by the time the flywheel and clutch had agreed on a rotational velocity. The 911 in front of me bolted out of the corkscrew and into Little Bend like it had been shot out of a canon. I reached down and blipped back to third gear, settling in for a leisurely lap and a half of cool-down. I’d made a mistake. It wasn’t the kind of mistake that ruins an engine or a body panel, but it was the kind that portends such an error.
After my cool-down laps, I made my way back to my paddock space and put the car back together. It was only after I’d finished putting the floor mats back in that I remembered to pull my phone from the cubby and check my lap times in TrackMaster.
Before I get to that, allow me an observation: Many believe that the FR-S’s greatest factory failing is its tires. They’re wrong. I was wrong. Until this outing, I believed it too. The truth is, the factory Michelins convey enough grip that, as I experienced above, the FR-S can overwhelm its factory braking system after far fewer laps than I anticipated—a condition I did not experience in either Mazda’s 2010 Speed3 loaner or my own 2008 in similar weather conditions, for what that may be worth. FR-S owners: if you plan on getting serious about track days, upgrade your brakes with your tires, and keep in mind that fluid alone may not be enough.
So, what did it do? In the lap before my missed shift, I nailed down a 1:51.3. That’s as quick as any stock GTI, and in fact, as quick as a competently-driven Spec Miata. Whether that’s quick enough, well, that’s entirely up to you.
Toyota provided the Scion FR-S for the express purpose of this track outing. Thanks, as always, to the good folks at TrackDaze for putting on a clean, safe, educational event. Sorry about the ruts.