Greenformance: Scion FR-S, Greenformance Measuring Stick
By Tom Martin
May 24, 2012
I encourage you to read my review of the new Scion FR-S. That car, and in all likelihood its Subaru BRZ cousin, is a brilliant piece of work. Somewhat counter-intuitively for a car upon which I heap praise, I briefly discuss in the review the reasons why many FR-S shoppers may not be happy with the car. I want to expand on that thinking here, because cars like the FR-S are particularly relevant for greenformance buyers, yet they require us to forget much of the assumed wisdom of car enthusiasts.
The basic reason that many enthusiasts will have trouble with the FR-S and BRZ is that many sports car buyers still accept the logic of “faster is better” and the related meme “more power is faster.” I propose here that these flawed ideas will be less of a sticking point for greenformance buyers, and therefore that the FR-S and BRZ might be the car(s) you’ve been waiting for. If not those cars, there are others that fit a similar model of driving pleasure.
The basic reasoning here is simple. Greenformance buyers generally start with a shopping list of cars that is shortened to models whose fuel economy is above a certain level. We’ve suggested that 27 miles per gallon combined is a good estimate of what that cutoff is, but of course it will vary for each consumer. Given that greenformance buyers are confined to a subset of all cars, and that generally the cars eliminated from contention are the highest-powered, highest-acceleration vehicles, it seems pretty obvious that these consumers will be more tolerant of the low-power formula. (To recap for the Scion, that formula is: 200 horsepower, 150 pound-feet of torque, 2758-pound curb weight, with 25-mpg combined for the manual trans and 28 mpg for the auto.)
Greenformance buyers just can’t have many higher power-to-weight ratio cars on their lists. As hybrid and EV powertrains in the performance class become more common this may change, though likely not for a while at the under $25K price of the FR-S or BRZ.
Of course, not being able to have something isn’t the same as not wanting it. But I think there are reasons that this new reference to lower-powered-formula cars will create more connoisseurs of those cars. That is, greenformance buyers will come to enjoy and appreciate that lower power is often more fun on the street than is higher power. The essential thing here is that buyers and drivers can learn to appreciate different kinds of driving involvement, but that it may take some study. Low-powered cars are an acquired taste.
One of the first things in acquiring that taste is to understand your real options for driving pleasure. If you assume, like so many enthusiasts assume, that the racing car is the ideal, you’ll go down one path. You’ll want a power level in the 400-horsepower-plus range, or even a power-to-weight ratio of more than 1 horsepower for every 10 pounds (less than 10 pounds for every horsepower). With that as a spec, you’ll automatically write off most greenformance cars. For example, the Nissan GT-R has 1.4 horsepower for every 10 pounds, while the Mini Cooper S has 0.65 horsepower per 10 pounds. If big power is necessary for driving pleasure, then the GT-R probably has it and the Mini probably doesn’t.
If you understand, however, that driving involvement is the broad basis of driving pleasure, you begin to see that faster isn’t automatically better. Or, to be more precise, that high power as a means to going faster on the street isn’t automatically better. The reason for this odd (in the context of “everyone knows more power is better”) finding is that pace on the street is limited by considerations like safety, laws, traffic, and road conditions.
As many in the racing community have pointed out, it is simply irresponsible to run at the limit on the street. When you couple these practical and moral constraints with the idea of driving involvement, high-powered cars often run into a problem. The problem is that in high power-to-weight cars it is very easy to go pretty fast. When “pretty fast” only requires you to run at a “very easy” pace then it tends to be not very involving. (It might be scary, but scary and involving aren’t the same thing.)
So, when we see that high-powered cars are not very involving to drive too fast, we see that you might be able to scare yourself and endanger people--thrilling, if unwise, on occasion--but for many people not the unique or even best basis of consistent fun.
Lower-powered cars change this around. You have to exercise their controls, drivetrains and chassis to get them up to a quick but reasonable pace on the street. They allow you to explore more of their involvement envelope within a safe velocity envelope.
Note that this is not the same as saying something like, “The lower the power the better.” Power can be too low to allow interaction with the chassis. Pace can be generally too low to be entertaining. It can, as we said, also be too high. The key is to have the pace that results from real effort be usable much of the time.
Our argument is also not the same as saying, “All low- or mid-powered cars are better.” Cars still need to have engaging controls, responsive chassis and interesting power curves. And they need to sound good. All too often green cars and other low-powered vehicles are aimed by OEMs at a market that wants to avoid involvement. That means they often lack the necessary points of engagement to light the involvement fire.
With the right cars, I also think that greenformance buyers are more likely to be open to this concept simply because they are more willing to be experiential. A lot of the orientation of the enthusiast car market is toward the car itself--the tech and the specs. The greenformance market, whether for reasons of iconoclasm or realism, seems more willing to think of driving as an activity or an experience. Good is therefore good based on what the car does and less on what the car is. It could be that the world has enough mediation, symbolism, and attitude, and that it is high time some people focused on living in three-dimensional space in real time with real people. Greenformance people seem more focused on this latter approach to life.
Philosophical musings aside, the Scion FR-S is an interesting greenformance reference car. Whether or not it quite makes the cut for EPA mpg, it shows what a light, small car can do and it shows that power isn’t crucial.
Other reference cars include the Mazda MX-5, the Porsche Boxster, the Smart Fortwo, the Mini Cooper S, the BMW 128i, and the Honda CR-Z. All these, and others, are lowish in power and have been rejected in one way or another by the traditional enthusiast set. Each of these has some significant charm that requires you to forget the racecar model and adopt an involvement model of driving. That change in mindset makes it clear that greenformance isn’t necessarily the compromise it seems to be.