Scion FR-S: Smile

Gary S. Vasilash

Nowadays, there aren’t a whole lot of chief engineers who get to do a sports car. Tetsuya Tada is one of the lucky ones, as he led the team on the Scion FR-S.

 The observation made by Tetsuya Tada isn’t particularly surprising. And it expresses a sentiment that goes well beyond the engineering community at Toyota Motor Corporation. The man who has worked as a lead engineer on such projects as the first-generation Scion xB and the Japan domestic market Wish minivan says, “Almost all Toyota chief engineers want to do a sports car during their career.”

There have been plenty of chief engineers who haven’t had the opportunity to do a sports car at Toyota. (Arguably, there are plenty of chief engineers who haven’t had the opportunity to do a sports car anywhere.) Over on the Toyota side of the house, there’s what?—the SE trim levels of the Camry and Sienna. Lexus has the LFA, which certainly counts, and the GS and IS F, which qualify. Scion has the tC, but that’s more of a sporty car than a sports car.
Toyota had had sports cars in its not-so-distant past. Its first was the Toyota Sports 800, which had a run from 1965 to 1969. This rear-drive car was equipped with a 790-cc (0.79-liter) two-cylinder, boxer-style engine that produced 45 bhp @ 5,400 rpm. The car is small and light, measuring 46.3-in. high, 57.7-in. wide, and 140.9-in. long; the curb weight is just 1,279 lb.; it was based on an existing production vehicle, the Publica, which is not a sports car.
Then there was the 2000GT, which ran from 1967 to 1970. This car was actually a collaboration between Toyota and Yamaha, with Yamaha’s prowess in powertrain coming to the fore, as Yamaha engineers tuned the engine parts provided by Toyota (the engine was based on that used in the Toyota Crown, a Japan domestic market car) and were responsible for assembly of the engine. It was the first Toyota with a six-cylinder, twin-cam engine. This 2.0-liter inline six produced 150 bhp @ 6,600 rpm. It was also the first Japanese car with power-assisted disc brakes on all wheels.
Finally, the Toyota AE86, which was produced from 1983 to 1987. This was a car that was more widely available, mainstream in the sports car category. The AE86 had a compact, light body (52.6-in. high, 64.0-in. wide, 165.5-in. long, with a curb weight ranging from 2,200 to 2,400 lb.); the models in North America had a 1.6-liter four-cylinder twin-cam engine that, in GT-S trim, produced 112 hp @ 6,600 rpm.
Following those cars were things like the Supra, Celica, and MR-2. The last-named was the last sports car; it went out of production in 2007.
Toyota concentrated its efforts on things like the Camry. Let’s face it: sports cars are a niche market, and if you have limited engineering resources, you put them where there is better return on the effort.
Although it wasn’t until June 2009, that Akio Toyoda, then age 53, was named president and CEO of Toyota Motor Corp., in 2000 he was appointed to the company’s board of directors and in 2005 was named an executive vice president. And he is a direct descendant of the man who started Toyota, so he probably had a little more authority than your typical EVP. Among his interests is racing. He’s pulled on the Nomex suit, put on the helmet, and gone full-on on tracks around the world.
In 2007 he asked, “Where is the passion in our lineup?” and knowing the answer, went on to say, “I want to build a sports car.”
And Tetsuya Tada became the chief engineer of the Sports Vehicle Management Div. at Toyota Motor Corp. He pulled together a small group of people, a team charged with developing what was code-named “86” (harkening back to the AE86, and then began benchmarking sports cars the world over. “We studied performance cars from around the world and talked to the enthusiasts. If it sounds like a dream job, it is.”
They came to a realization, which is that by and large, says Tada, “Other companies were building high-powered cars—but not pure performance models within the price range of most people.” These aren’t cars that would likely be driven to jobs during the week and thrown around on circuits during the weekend. These aren’t cars that can be readily afforded by those who don’t have a well-padded 401-K account.
There were some parameters that were established early on. One was that it would be a front-engine, rear-drive car. Another was that Toyota would be working with Subaru on the project, sharing engineering tasks and responsibilities.
When Tada was doing his research, he looked closely at the Sports 800 powertrain setup and came to the conclusion that the horizontally opposed engine was a good approach. And given that there would be the work along with Subaru, which is well known for its boxer engines, it was a solid connection.           
And so at the heart of what was to become the FR-S (and the Subaru version, the BRZ) is a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder, DOHC engine that produces 200 hp @ 7,000 rpm and 151 lb-ft of torque at from 6,400 to 6,600 rpm. Because it has a comparatively flat design, there is a low center of gravity, which helps contribute to the stability and control of the car when driving. Toyota didn’t leave powertrain development entirely up to its colleagues from Subaru (Tada says that during the program, engineering teams from both companies met in Tokyo on a weekly basis), because the engine uses Toyota’s D-4S direct injection system on the engine. And in order to develop the engine that could produce 100 hp per liter, it turns out—perhaps not entirely coincidentally—that there is an 86-mm bore and an 86-mm stroke.
Another challenge the companies faced in the development was the transmission. Certainly, for a sports car a manual gearbox is de rigueur. But given that this was a small, front-engine, rear-drive car, getting a six-speed transmission that would not only fit, but provide the sort of shift-feel that the developers expected was a real challenge that brought to bear the know-how of engineers from Toyota, Subaru, and supplier Aisin. In addition to which, they wanted not only to provide the 86 with a manual, but a six-speed automatic, as well, so there was an additional team created to develop that transmission.
An interesting aspect of the design program for the FR-S is that the Toyota Design Div. in Japan, which ordinarily takes advanced designs and transforms them for commercialization, was involved early on. So because, for example, a goal was to have a low, compact package, the designers saw that having the radiator positioned vertically, as it was originally oriented, wouldn’t work, so they had the orientation changed so that it was angled back thereby making a low hood line possible. Of course, it wasn’t all about show and not go—this was a matter of both. Indeed, the design philosophy, both inside and out, for the FR-S is “Neo Functionalism.”
While there is certainly harkening back to the heritage products in the design of the FR-S—in fact, a 2000GT was in the studio where the clays were developed for the car—this is in no way a “retro” design; the car is low, taut and crisp. It is fresh, not retro-faux.
Another challenge—realize that this was a car that is almost entirely new, not something based on an existing platform: Tada says that 91% of the parts are new—was to make a car that was not only fun and quick, but affordable, as well. “We wanted to make sure it was a car that many people can enjoy,” he says, which meant that price was a consideration. Given that the starting MSRP for the FR-S with a six-speed manual is $24,200, it is evident that the engineering team delivered.
As Tada sits alongside a track where several FR-Ss are being driven with the zeal of amateurs, he notes, “After driving, everyone has a smile.”
And he knows that he and his Toyota and Subaru colleagues have accomplished their task.