November 21, 2012

News & Features

Auto review: Subaru BRZ, Scion FR-S are fun, sporty twins

New York Times News Service

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The 2013 Subaru BRZ (above) and the Scion FR-S were codeveloped by Subaru and Toyota. (Subaru)

It's a word that nowadays seems to appear only in reviews of Broadway shows followed by four to eight exclamation points. It's the sort of word that, if you hear it spoken at all, is often uttered with resigned sarcasm. Maybe it's hokey and a bit archaic, but the word terrific perfectly describes the Subaru BRZ and Scion FR-S, twin sports cars only recently delivered and then sent to live with separate families.

The exclamation points follow.

The BRZ and FR-S are essentially the same small, rear-drive, almost affordable sports car. Sure the badges are different, and there are slight variances in the noses and the taillights, but everything that matters — and most of what doesn't — is identical.

The cars were codeveloped by Subaru and Toyota and are built by Subaru's parent, Fuji Heavy Industries, at a plant in Ota, Japan. To further confuse things, the BRZ/FR-S is also sold in Japan as the Toyota 86 and in Europe as the Toyota GT86.

If you like, you can mash the American-market names together and call it the Febreze.

Subaru offers the BRZ in two trim levels: a well-equipped Premium at $26,265 that includes a navigation system, and the more lavish Limited at $28,265. The BRZ Limited that I tested had leather upholstery, a dual-zone climate control, a voice-activated navigation system and the only available option, a 6-speed automatic transmission for $1,100 more.

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The 2013 Scion FR-S starts at $24,955. (Toyota)

Scion sells the FR-S in only one trim level, which is slightly less luxe than either BRZ — with cloth upholstery, a simpler ventilation system and a Pioneer audio system. It is $24,955 with a 6-speed manual transmission. A full $15 of the price difference between the FR-S and BRZ reflects the fact that the Scion carries a $755 delivery charge while Subaru's fee for the same extortion is $770.

If Ferdinand Porsche were alive and had access to the Subaru parts bin, he'd come up with something like these cars. The 2-liter 200-horsepower engine is a new, more compact version of Subaru's venerable flat 4. As in an old air-cooled Volkswagen, the cylinders are arranged in two banks opposite each other across a horizontal plane. That effectively spreads out the engine's mass and keeps it low in the engine compartment.

Flat engines are inherently well balanced, but the BRZ/FR-S power plant has advantages beyond that. Though it is neither turbocharged nor supercharged, it has direct fuel injection as well as supplementary fuel injectors in the intake manifold. This facilitates a sky-high 12.5-to-1 compression ratio in the combustion chambers. Throw in equal 86-millimeter bore and stroke dimensions for the pistons, as well as variable valve timing, and you get a smooth-running engine that eagerly leaps to its 7,400 redline — the upper limit of safe operation.

Exploiting the engine's low-slung weight-distribution advantages guided the cars' design. The lower a car carries its weight, the less body roll there is on the corners, keeping the tires more securely planted on the pavement. Since these cars have no all-wheel-drive system (unlike other Subarus) the engine is placed farther back and lower in the engine bay. The front suspension's struts are relatively short, and that further helps to lower the hood line. Stand next to a BRZ/FR-S and the base of the windshield is at your hip.

This is a startling contrast to most cars, even Hondas and Porsches, whose cowls have steadily inched upward. At the end of the short 101.2-inch wheelbase there's a double-wishbone rear suspension system that is also designed to keep weight low in the chassis.

Subaru says the BRZ's center of gravity is a low 18.1 inches, which is fully 6.6 inches below the top of the 215/45R17 Michelin tires worn by both of the sporty twins. And according to the scales at InsideLine.com, the BRZ Limited with the automatic gearbox carries 56 percent of its 2,800 pounds on its nose.

You lower yourself into the BRZ/FR-S as if it were a loafer and your body were a big foot. The seat feels as if it snap-fits to your body like a toy model-car part. Your legs stretch forward to find the drilled aluminum pedals, and your hands grip a small-diameter, thick-rimmed, leather-covered steering wheel. And except for the horn button, there are no switches or controls on that wheel to distract you from doing anything but steering.

The hooded instrument panel is a no-nonsense presentation of a centered tachometer, a speedometer to its left and fuel and temperature gauges on the right, all reporting with orange needles. In the BRZ, the tachometer has white numerals on a black background, while the FR-S has black numerals against white (which reverses when lighted at night). In both cars, the analog speedometer is vestigial, given that there's a digital speedo embedded in the tachometer.

The shifter in the BRZ and FR-S is short and direct whether it's stirring the manual or automatic transmissions. With the manual, the shifts are quick and positive. The automatic can be manually controlled by using either the shift lever or paddles behind the steering wheel.

These are sports cars, not GT versions of a commuter-grade front-drive hatchback. Except for two cup holders in the center console and bottle holders molded into the door panels, there are few concessions to practicality. The back seat is more like an ironic comment on sitting than an actual place to sit, and you may have to take your golf clubs out of the bag to fit them into the small trunk.

There isn't a lot of power, but that means the driver can mash the throttle like Brad Keselowski coming out of the pits, and without going so fast as to attract a missile strike from a highway patrol drone. The engine makes a distinct noise that's one part old VW to three parts rowdy raccoon. In testing by InsideLine.com, the FR-S with a manual transmission skipped to 60 mph in a modest 7 seconds and the BRZ Limited with an automatic did the deed in 7.6 seconds.

Drag racing isn't what these cars are about. Corners are what they're into.

Dive into a decreasing radius, off-camber bend and the BRZ/FR-S produce instantaneous glee. The electric power rack-and-pinion steering is perfectly weighted, and the modestly sized tires are absolutely communicative. There's a bite to the steering response that's intoxicating, and there's hardly any perceptible body roll. Add enough throttle in the corner and the rear end gently breaks free in a controllable power slide.

These cars aren't tail happy in the "Hardcastle and McCormick" tradition, but they're precise and tossable in a Mario Andretti and Fred Astaire sort of way. They're 80 percent as entertaining as a Porsche 911 for about 20 percent of the price.

It's easier to get the most out of the BRZ/FR-S using the manual transmission, but the automatic is satisfying too. Quick paddle shifts are particularly surprising because the transmission is a conventional automatic and not some sort of exotic dual-clutch automated manual. And the automatic's fuel economy ratings, 25 mpg in the city and 34 on the highway, beat the manual's 22/30.

The BRZ/FR-S falls in the sweet spot that was filled in the 1960s and '70s by cars like the BMW 2002 and Alfa Romeo GTV — small, rear-drive two-doors powered by 4-cylinder engines of about 2 liters that, thanks to well-tuned suspensions, nearly perfect steering and unpretentious designs, were more rewarding to drive than most cars with double or triple the horsepower. It's a sweet spot that BMW abandoned and that Alfa couldn't sustain.

The most trenchant criticism aimed at these impractical little cars concerns what they don't have: much torque, the pulling power that you feel in your gut when you mash the accelerator. The puny 151 pound-feet of peak torque at a screaming 6,400 rpm keeps the cars from being forgiving when driven hard or easygoing when driven around town. But such complaints miss the point.

It boils down to a lesson I was taught by my little sister, Cady Huffman, who played Ulla in "The Producers" on Broadway. In 2001, after I first saw the show in previews, I said to her that the romance between her character and Leo Bloom, the accountant played by Matthew Broderick, seemed arbitrary and underwritten.

"Yeah," she explained to me, "but no one cares about what isn't there. Because what's there is terrific."

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