The only way you can tell the difference between the 2015 Scion FR-S and last year's model is to go to a racetrack and push them to the limits. There, you'll discover what we did: while the 2014 is more playful, the 2015 FR-S is faster.
Now, that's just a seat-of-the-pants measurement, but there's no doubt that I felt far more confident behind the wheel of the 2015 Scion FR-S compared to the previous model. And it all comes down to suspension tweaks made to reduce the tendency of the Scion FR-S to oversteer, and make it more neutral in corners.
Handling Jargon 101
Here's a quick primer on handling jargon: A car's handling can be described in three basic ways: understeer, oversteer, and neutral. Understeer is when the front wheels slide first, oversteer is when the rear wheels lose grip first, and neutral is when they lose grip at about the same time. Most cars understeer, because it responds in the most predictable manner by slowing and continuing straight when people instinctively jump off the gas when they realize they're losing traction. However, enthusiasts hate understeer because it's not very fun. Oversteer is when the rear tires begin to lose traction first and the rear end steps out. Enthusiasts love it for the theatrics of sliding a car sideways, known as drifting. However, it's intimidating to drive a car that's set up that way, plus it's really not the fastest way around a track.
The 2014 Scion FR-S loved oversteer, but the new model feels much more stable in corners, allowing the driver to get into the power earlier. Don't worry: A good driver can still make the car's rear end slide out, but it's the driver making the decision, not the car, and that's a huge difference.
Hot, Hot Laps
Scion brought its 2015 FR-S to the Streets of Willow complex at Willow Springs in Rosamond, Calif., along with equivalent 2014 models for comparison. The Streets is the perfect environment because the track's tight design keeps speeds low while still letting you test the car's limits.
While Scion brought out manual and automatic transmission models for us to sample, the two most comparable had automatics. On the track, the 2014 model felt "loose," with the rear end stepping sideways as I tried to apply power coming out of corners. It wasn't dangerous, but it was definitely slower if for no other reason than the stability control's constant intervention. When I switched to the 2015 though, the car felt much more neutral. I put the power down, and the rear end simply dug in harder. The new car can be made to drift, a maneuver that takes a more talented hand, one that will likely appreciate the newfound balance the FR-S offers.
TRD Level 1
Part of the appeal of the Scion FR-S is that the same car can be driven to a track, raced, then driven home again with nary a tire swap. To drive that point home -- literally in our case, since we drove it away from the track -- Scion brought a 2015 FR-S augmented with a variety of performance parts from Toyota Racing Development, the brand's performance division. The parts included 18-inch wheels with Michelin Pilot Sport tires, stiffer springs, and intake and exhaust upgrades. It also had thicker anti-roll bars, a quick shift kit, and TRD brake pads.
On the track, the TRD FR-S definitely had higher limits than its unenhanced sibling. I could enter a corner harder thanks to the better brakes, and hold a higher speed through the apex and on exit. The same held true during a brisk drive through the local mountains, where the TRD-tuned FR-S was easily capable, and fun, through the passes.
Around town though, the loud exhaust, stiff suspension, and the short shift kit made the car downright irritating to drive, unless you're maybe 25 years old. The stiffer suspension we could probably live with, but the short shift kit was criticized by some for the combination of increased effort and vagueness; it was all too easy to accidentally put the car in third gear at a stoplight instead of first. However, we loved the brake upgrade, and recommend it beyond any of the other parts.
TRD Expert Level
As a special treat, Scion also brought a highly modified 2014 Scion FR-S equipped with a 400-horsepower turbocharged engine, upgraded suspension, roll cage, fire suppression, and along with handing us the keys, Scion also brought Formula Drift champion Ken Gushi to drive it.
Obviously, the turbo FR-S was faster and more powerful, but what we really appreciated was the improvement at the lower end of the engines rev range. The turbo adds lots of low end torque, a traditionally weak spot for the FR-S, and made us hope that there's something to the persistent rumors of a turbocharged FR-S.
So what was it like to ride with drifting champion Ken Gushi behind the wheel? Well, we're keeping our day jobs for sure.
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