The cars we loved.
Nostalgia can be a strong emotional force. In the car world, it’s been used to strike a chord with older buyers for the last decade or so. The PT Cruiser, Thunderbird and New Beatle all connected with people who romanticized cars from the 50’s and 60’s. That retro wave was design inspired and seems to have dissipated.
For slightly younger people, the surfs up. The nostalgia wave may just be starting to crest for those of us who were raised on Atari, cassette boomboxes and came of age around the same time the Japanese car did. For those people, rides like the Toyota AE86 (Corolla GT-S) hold a special place in their hearts. The AE86 was one of the few fun to drive, inexpensive rear wheel drive cars on the market at the time. It was also one of the few tunable ones that managed to be reliable also (sorry Fiero and X1/9 fans). The semingly unrefined pony cars from Ford, Chevy and Pontaic were a larger and less sophisticated alternatives.
The spirit of the AE86 never seemed to die, even after it’s discontinuation in 1987. Thanks to drifting and the wildly successful Initial D Japanese animated series, a renewed interest in the AE86 kept the memory of the lovable hatchback alive. Toyota who had become known for churning out ecologically correct Camrys and Prius had long-lost any street cred with the tuner community. The Supra and Celica were gone and the Lexus division’s LFA was a pipe dream to all but the rich. Scion was supposed to fix that, but failed to resonate with real motor heads. It seemed that Toyota just sat back and watched as the AE86 legacy was plundered by a less than exciting model line. Potential buyers who were not impressed with any of Scion’s “performance” offerings moved on to Lancers and WRX for their kicks.
Then Toyota got nostalgic with a plan to create a car in the spirit of the old AE86. It was about time. The Scion brand really need something other than cute urban vehicles to keep young buyers interested. After all the weird quirky box-like designs from Scion might have been popular in Japan, but in America, they were nothing more than fashion accessories to be leased or a slightly more exciting alternative to a Corolla. Toyota knew it needed to redeem the brand by giving it it’s own cut rate Supra flagship car.
The project known simply as “Toyota 86” would be a joint project with Subaru, a company known for AWD pocket rockets. Toyota seemed to have found a perfect partner in building a fun car that would be targeted to the same type of audience as the original AE86 was. Besides, Subaru has been glowing in the press and would lend some performance legitimacy to a car that would fill voids in both companies product lines.
A concept shown in 2009 only heightened the excitement and expectations. The project, seen as a 50/50 joint venture would have Toyota primarily designing the exterior and interior bits with Subaru being responsible for the engine and drivetrain components. The concept car closely resembled the production model which did not resemble any products from the either company. Low slung and sleek-looking the car looked like it was moving even when still. Keeping the weight low (2,700 lb) would go a long way to making a driver’s car that captured the spirit of the AE86 in a modern and stylish package. Handling and road feel were valued over sheer power or straight-line performance. Anticipating the enthusiasts’ lust for more power, Toyota and Subaru have already started working with the tuner community to enhance performance. Motor Trend magazine was able to get a respectable 6.2 second 0 to 60 time from a six-speed manual equipped stock Scion FR-S.
Where the original AE86 had a 112 hp 1.6L engine, this collaboration features a 2.0 L Boxter 4-cylinder with 200 hp. The Subaru engine is similar to those found in the Impreza. The engine differs from the typical Impreza’s in that it features a Toyota designed intake for more power. Subaru felt so strongly about the engine that its version of the car was called “Boxer Rear Drive Zenith” or BZR (FT86 in Japan). Toyota’s version of the car the “Front Engined Rear-wheel drive Sports” (FR-S) is sold as a Scion in the US, Toyota’s youthful sporty brand. It’s nearly identical to the BZR save for small tim differences, wheels and front end lower air dam. Both cars have Toyota and Subaru’s name on the engine cover.
Choosing a BRZ or FRS was designed to be easy thanks to limited options and trim lines. Transmission choices were simple too, either a 6-speed paddle shift automatic or manual. Each brand basically sells two versions of the car, all with the same direct and ported fuel injected engine. Although not an economy car, the pair can achieve a respectable 34 mpg on the highway using premium unleaded gas. Differences in wheel size, seating trim and other options separate the two brands; otherwise they may be difficult to tell them apart. Scion’s trim levels center around the type of transmission, with options added to either. Subaru offers more variety in standard features in either Premium or Limited trim. Prices start at $25,000 for the manual Scion up to $28,000+ for the automatic BRZ Limited. Both cars have well appointed interiors with contrasting surface textures and tasteful chrome embellishments. The look is performance oriented without looking like game consoles, an unfortunate tendency in this segment. The Subaru will be the better optioned of the pair and its starting price will reflect it.
The coupe’s real claim to fame is its handling. Part of the secrete to the cars nimbleness is the engines low placement in the chassis, resulting in a low center of gravity. The independent front strut and rear double wishbone suspension also plays a role and is becoming increasingly rare on so-called inexpensive sporty cars today. Four wheel disc brakes behind 17in wheels complete the package. Initial tests have placed the pair high if not on the top of comparison tests where similar cars were compared. Both cars sport what has been called a well-balanced chassis with good driver feedback. There are small differences in some handling aspects between the Scion and Subaru, otherwise they are very similar.
With so few inexpensive rear wheel drive cars left on the market, the BRZ/FRS is more likely to be pitted against bigger more expensive rides like the 370Z or Mustang V6. The Mazda Miata is mechanically the closest size wise, but the BRZ/FRS pair pretend to have a rear seat for insurance purposes. The attention to cost and insurance constraints will hopefully equate to sales to match the big legacy that these cars follow. For now the market for a rear wheel drive performance car under $25,000 is a very lonely one.
The last wave of nostalgia resulted in bloated cars that had the look if not the performance of what inspired them. Subaru and Scion may have started a new kind of performance revival at the lower end of the market, much like the Miata did for small roadsters. It’s possible that other companies like Chevrolet may be getting the message if the odd-looking 130R concept car is any indication. Mazda and Alfa Romero are said to be in talks for a new coupe also. Here’s to hoping that the next wave will result in cars as fun and affordable as the BZR and FR-S.