“The car just comes alive with a nice set of tires.” Those are the words of Toyota VP Bob Carter, which were ringing in my ear after a chat I had with him at the Detroit Auto Show in January.
Eager to test his theory I sourced a set of wheels and tires for my FR-S, and after a long winter, swapped out the winter setup. Those basic looking steel wheels, and the Vredestein winter tires that turned my little Scion into a mountain goat during the cold season are now safely in hibernation for the rest of the year.
The stock wheels aren’t particularly ugly, but they aren’t nearly as modern or aggressive as the car itself. Solving that are a set of AXIS Xplode rollers we picked up, which are available exclusively through Tire Rack. You can see AXIS’ great selection of wheels right here.
To be honest, I loved the design and black color but worried the blue spoke detailing would clash with my Ultramarine paint. Those fears subsided when the rims arrived at the office. And once mounted on my car, the color combo came together perfectly.
As for the factory Michelin Primacy HP rubber, it’s not particularly impressive at all. The tires slip and slide in spectacular fashion, but when it comes to serious driving, they’re missing the all important element of grip.
Fortunately, I’m rectifying this problem with a set of ultra-high-performance summer tires from Cooper: the Zeon RS3-S.
True, Cooper might not carry the big-brand cachet of Pirelli, Michelin or Bridgestone, but that doesn’t mean they won’t stick. Cooper still has plenty of motorsport experience to look back on, including providing tires for a few Formula D drifting teams.
To see how big a difference just a set of tires can make we brought both the stock Michelin Primacy HP summers and the Cooper Zeon RS3-S UHP tires to the track. Looking to keep the variables consistent, they’re both sized 215/45R17. I even sourced a professional driver to add some lap times to my impressions.
At our usual AutoGuide test track I met touring car and time attack driver Dave Pratte. Dave showed me his method around the track, which is best described as buttery smooth and fast. His wizardry on the stock tires is certainly impressive, though after a long winter the “green” track with little in the way of laid-down rubber showed times that were about two seconds off past experiences with other FR-S and BRZ models, with a best time of 1:28.627.
Sure enough, they were sticky, in just the right way too. Every sense of the FR-S was heightened. Braking was noticeably better, acceleration out of corners was better with more front-end grip to point me in the direction I wanted and more rear-end grip to put the power down sooner. Steering response was also sharper than ever before.
My first few laps painted me impressed. An obvious improvement, I wanted to know how much.
I found Dave in the paddock and told him my thoughts on the new rubber. A few moments later, I was in the passenger seat again with Dave rocketing towards the first corner of the track. With a steely focus, he turned the car right into the apex, and sure enough, the car held on. This happened a few more times, and Dave seconded my thoughts of an improved car.
Under his smooth direction, we made up two solid seconds around the track with a best time of 1.26.607, though Dave indicated a faster lap would be possible with a bit more time.
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
Last year when we track tested the Scion FR-S and Hyundai Genesis Coupe 2.0T R-Spec, the Hyundai came out on top with the faster lap time by just over a second. We credited the tires for the result and indicated that for the price difference between the two cars a set of UHP tires could likely be fitted to the Scion to reverse the results. Now that appears to be exactly true, with a two second improvement putting the FR-S in the lead.
For the skeptical few, Dave fortunately had an AiM Solo data acquisition system which provided the information in handy graphs and charts. The chart showed that there was a noticeable improvement in grip through a tricky part of esses on the track, as well on the highest speed corner on the track, where the new tires allowed him to go flat out with confidence. In comparison, doing so on the stock tires would result in a drift and slide the off the racing line.
The data also proved that the tires helped in the braking zones before a few of the turns on the track, and that we were also able to accelerate sooner in the turns. Dave was also able to more effectively trail brake going into the corners, an advanced racing technique which helps get a faster time around the track.
BUT DOES IT STILL HANDLE LIKE AN FR-S?
For those worried that new sticky tires would diminish the tail-happy nature of the FR-S, have no fear. These Cooper Zeon RS3-S tires seemed perfectly at home on the Scion. There is still plenty of opportunity for tail out action, and the tires provide the same, if not more feedback to the driver as the stock Michelin Primacy HP tires. They screech at the limit, and break free progressively, allowing for easy recovery when the going gets hairy. It’s now my decision if I want to go fast, or go sideways.
Complaints? They’re few. My neck was stiff for two days from the g-forces. The stiff sidewall of the tires, making for sturdier cornering, also results in a rougher ride around town.
As for the wheels, the compliments keep pouring in, with the only critics claiming they’re too “glossy.” Or at least that’s what they did say before a track day’s worth of brake dust. On the track, spectators even commented that they glow blue a little bit.
Without a doubt, the VP of Toyota was dead on. The track proved him right, although I would have appreciated a little warning about the sore neck.