Thursday, April 26, 2012

First Impressions - Scion FR-S/Subaru BRZ

2013 Scion FR-S

All hail the return of the affordable RWD sports car! (From Subaru!?)

 Birthed from a collaboration between Toyota and Fuji Heavy Industries (Subaru's parent company and partly owned by Toyota), the FR-S/BRZ was developed to inject some excitement back into the Toyota vehicle lineup while providing Subaru with a brand new line, distinct from their AWD vehicles. Let's face it, other than (maybe) the Scion tC and (perhaps, kinda-sorta) the off-road FJ Cruiser, Toyota really has nothing affordable and sporty to entice the performance oriented crowd (and no, the Corolla/Camry SE is NOT sporty). The Lexus IS-F sport sedan and LFa super car are at the opposite end of the spectrum: pricey and uber-pricey respectively. The Celica was the last affordable sporty product that Toyota produced before it was dropped from the lineup in 2006. Since then Toyota has stood on the sidelines while other automakers claimed the shrinking pool of 2 door sports cars: Nissan continued developing its Z cars, leading up to today's 370Z and, unlikely as it sounds, Hyundai stepped in replacing its Tiburon with the Genesis Coupe. Realizing that Scion was barely appealing to its youth oriented market (the xA and xB were not sporty and the tC oriented more towards comfort than sport) Toyota decided to test the waters, unveiling the FT-86 concept at the Tokyo Motor Show in October 2009. Built on a modified Subaru Impreza platform, sporting sleek styling and powered by a new Toyota-Subaru D-4S 2.0 liter boxer engine, this concept heralded the things that were to come from this collaboration.

2009 Toyota FT-86 Concept

Three long years later, here we have the Scion FR-S (Toyota FT86 in Japan) and the Subaru BRZ.

2013 Subaru BRZ
Let's focus on the Toyota version, as most of what makes this highly anticipated car translates more or less directly to the Subaru BRZ.

2013 Scion FR-S

Some of the engineering goals set for the FR-S (which stands for Front-engined, Rear wheel drive, Sport) included it being lightweight, balanced and (according to Toyota CEO Akido Toyoda) fun to drive. The FR-S weighs a scant 2700lbs, some 300-500lbs lighter than a Hyundai Genesis Coupe and shorter by almost a foot. Within its short wheelbase the FR-S boasts a lower center of gravity than a Porsche Cayman, greatly aiding in the coupe's cornering ability. Front/rear weight balance percentage is set at 53/47, intentional says the program engineers in order to take advantage of the car's lighweight rear wheel drive chassis, which is suspended by MacPherson struts up front (with a standard Torsen limited slip differential) and a multi-link arrangement at the rear. A newly developed 2.0 liter direct injected, naturally aspirated boxer 4 cylinder provides motivation with 200hp and 151lb-ft of torque through either a 6 speed manual or a 6 speed automatic. A new design differing from Subaru's standard Impreza engine, a flat 4 cylinder boasts a lower center of gravity, allowing engineers to practically bury the engine as low to the ground and as far back in the engine bay as possible. Now 200hp may not sound like much, but given the FR-S' low weight it moves the car with adequate, if not stirring, gumption. Standard wheels are17 inches with 215/45-17 Michelin Primacy tires. Interesting fact: these are the same tires Toyota uses as optional equipment on the Prius hybrid. Why not more focused tires given the purpose of the FR-S? Toyota imagines the car to be a blank canvas for racers. Of course there will be numerous factory optional equipment (as well as immense aftermarket support) to make the FR-S a great track car, but the inherent goodness is already baked into the platform.

FR-S Interior

Inside, the FR-S is not luxurious, but presents an atmosphere that lets the driver get down to the business of driving. The surfaces aren't Lexus-like but of high quality given the car's base price of just over USD24,000. The FR-S is a 2+2 seating arrangement but, like other 2 door coupes, not much room exists behind the front seats for normal sized passengers (a good way to punish unruly kids though). The rear seats do fold flat to accommodate items larger than the smallish trunk will allow. Toyota expects this car to be used as a track day vehicle and thus ensured that 4 mounted tires would fit in the space behind the driver with the rear seats folded (helpful aren't they?)

2013 Scion FR-S
The FR-S (and by extension the BRZ) is a major turning point for Toyota. Anyone who remembers the legendary Corolla AE86 will be thrilled at this car's arrival. While not fast in a straight line, the AE86 proved that an underpowered (or adequately powered) RWD car can be entertaining on a track if the chassis is engineered with the right balance of stiffness, low weight, power and dynamics. Sure the tires will give up grip way before the chassis even reaches its limits, and yeah sure there's 'only' 200hp to play around with, but that emphasizes Toyota's mission for the FR-S: affordable and fun-to-drive.

 I must admit, I had my doubts about the FR-S. Would Toyota even build it? Would do its job of injecting excitement into Toyota's honestly NOT-FUN product portfolio? If initial orders are to be believed, Toyota has really created something special. The FR-S should be in showroom as of this writing and Scion is expecting sales of 20,000 annually (Subaru however has significantly lower expectations of around 6,000). Auto-journalists who have taken both for drives are raving about the coupe's fantastic track abilities (see first tests here and here). Only a matter of time before I get a crack at it.

 Stay tuned!

Monday, April 23, 2012

First Impressions - Lamborghini Urus Concept

2013 Lamboghini Urus Concept

Say what? Lamborghini is doing what?

Indeed they are. And come on, it's not like they haven't done it before. If you were a child of the 70s/80s, then you would remember the LM002, the V12-powered Italian Hummer of SUVs that Lamborghini produced between 1986 and 1993. While that monster was more about brute force and less about luxury, it was brash and exotic in that traditional Lamborghini in-your-face logic. But Lamborghini isn't a traditional builder of SUVs. They build sports cars: exotic, wild, fast and brash super cars. So what are they doing unveiling a new concept that forms the basis for a third vehicle line after the Aventador and Gallardo? Let's not forget that Porsche was also seen as a maker of pure sports cars and what began with the 911 Carrera, branched out into the Boxter/Cayman line with the occasional GT and super exotic (Carrera GT). But like every business,automakers are sensitive to the ups and downs of a world economy and it impacts exotic sports car makers particularly hard since their annual sales rarely top 5000 units. When demand drops, small outfits such as these don't have the leverage of multiple vehicle lines to cut or fall back on like larger full line automakers. Porsche recognized this in the late 90s and thus forged an agreement with Volkswagen to jointly develop an SUV that would serve both automakers purposes. Thus was born the Cayenne (and VW Touareg), the polar opposite of Porsche's sports cars. Of course the Porsche faithful cried fouled and decried Porsche for even thinking of developing a near 5000lb monstrosity that would possibly dilute and sully the Porsche name. The fact is, Porsche had little choice. If it was to survive, Porsche needed to be flexible and enter markets that would have previously been considered unthinkable. A decade later, the Cayenne has been an instrumental success for Porsche, providing the capital to bolster Porsche and fund further development of their sports cars. Porsche has thus gone further, since becoming part of Volkswagen's vast empire, developing a 4 door Panamera super sedan which is currently rivaling the Cayenne as Porsche's most profitable vehicle line.
2008 Lamborghini Estoque Concept

And now we have Lamborghini. They first hinted at adding a third vehicle line when they unveiled the Estoque concept car in 2008 at the Paris Motor Show. It was quite possible (despite being surprising) for Lamborghini to head in this direction as a platform (underpinning the Panamera) was readily available. However, to take advantage of the current crossover craze, Lamborghini decided against doing a 4 door sports car (although the idea isn't entirely dead) and against doing a direct descendant of the LM002 in favor of a more conventional (in every loose sense of the word) 4 door, 4 seat design take on the BMW X6 M. Based on a next generation Porsche Cayenne/Audi Q7 platform, the Urus (named from a breed of Spanish bulls renowned for their strength) is billed to be the quickest and best handling soft-roader ever built; a tall order when its competition includes the aforementioned X6 M, Mercedes ML63 and the Urus' own kissing cousin, the Cayenne Turbo.

However, with the performance of the Aventador and Gallardo already kicking ass and taking names, anything less for the Urus just would not do for Lamborghini. Looking at the Urus concept, it could not be mistaken for anything else but a Lambo. Initially there was skepticism that the edgy design of the Aventador would not translate well to a tall, high riding crossover. By lowering the roof, designing a raked, uprising beltline and aggressively flaring the wheel arches, the design team succeeded in producing a look that is very much a Lamborghini, albeit one that weighs over 4500lbs. The sharply sloped nose and massive air intakes hint at the power that may lie beneath the hood. Lamborghini has yet to officially say what may power the Urus but looking at the sloping hoodline, coupled with Lamborghini's desire to make the Urus as efficient as possible, any chance of a V12 engine has been ruled out. A version of the Gallardo's V10 was initially suggested and, even with forced induction, that seems skeptical and at odds with making the Urus efficient. Besides, there doesn't seem to be enough space to house more than eight cylinders. Fortunately, Lamborghini does have an enormous parts bin to rummage through and one good possibility would be a version of Audi's just introduced twin-turbo 4.0 V8, already seeing service in the Bentley Continental and various top rung Audi sedans. The design of the chassis however, means that the engine will sit uncomfortably far ahead of the front axle.

2013 Lamborghini Urus Concept (quite dashing no?)

Managing weight will be a key factor in Lamborghini's quest to make he Urus the best handling crossover and as such, the concept previews the use of as much lightweight, composite material as possible throughout the chassis and interior. The aim is to shave at least 250lbs from the entire vehicle while opting for as close to a 50-50 front-rear weight balance as possible. Mounted on monster 23 inch wheels fitted with Pirelli Scorpion Zero 305/35 ZR23 tires, the Urus also has an adjustable suspension and active aerodynamics and a rear-biased AWD system to counteract whatever nose-heavy physics that may come into play. Despite all this technology, Lamborghini promises the Urus will be extremely user friendly as carting around families will be one of its mission goals. Well, families that have around USD230,000 dollars just lying around (and perhaps a Gallardo occupying garage space).

2013 Lamborghini Urus Concept

Production of the Urus has yet to be green-lighted as of this writing, but it is clear that Lamborghini has set a course for continued profitability, following the path that Porsche had taken a decade earlier. Would the Estoque have been a better vehicle to produce? Perhaps, but given the success of the growing crossover market with entries from seemingly every automaker (and the unforeseen success of BMW's X6), Lamborghini has hedged its bets on doing the unexpected and as it sees, the best alternative for staying in business. If the Urus gets production approval, we won't expect to see a production model until 2015 at the earliest.

 So there you have it, Lamborghini is getting into the SUV/crossover business. Hey, at least it looks a heck of a lot better than Bentley's take on a crossover, the EXP-9F. Which do you think looks better? Have at it in the comments.

2013 Bentley EXP-9F Concept