The following is a commentary by editor Myles Kornblatt
Mutually Assured Destruction, also known as MAD, is a stalemate that happens when two sides of an argument are so heavily and equally armed that no one goes to war because both sides are destined to lose. But have Scion FR-S and Subaru BRZ forgotten this military term when they planned to go to battle in the North American market?
It is not difficult to understand how these two companies got basically the same car. Scion represents Toyota’s low cost lineup, and Toyota owns a part of Subaru. But for how identical these two attractive coupes are, I can only hope that the auto executives fully understand the cannibalistic nature of these twins.
For example, if some corporate wizards have research that shows Scion can sell 40,000 FR-Ss annually over here and Subaru can sell 10,000 BRZs (not actual figures used), they hopefully realize total annual export to the North America IS NOT 50,000. They share many of the same potential customers who want a sports coupe, and in the end, they have to chose one brand. If Scion and Subaru are not financially prepared to take customers from each other, both cars could miss sales targets and destroy each other.
That is, of course, if customers are not completely annoyed that two companies are trying to sell almost exactly the same car. It is great that these cars combine Subaru sportiness with Toyota style (yes, in the world of Subaru, Toyota is the one with style.) Selling nearly identical cars is accepted in Japan, but the FR-S/BRZ mashup is the kind of inter-corporate badge engineering not seen here since General Motors in the 1980s. No one applauded when a grille became the largest distinction between an Oldsmobile and a Buick.
The Scion and the Subaru do offer some minor distinctions. The suspension is probably the largest difference. It is similar in both cars, but they are set up to give different driving characteristics. This is the kind of driving feel that journalists and enthusiasts may recognize, but honestly, the average consumer will likely have a difficult time distinguishing the differences in the two razor sharp road burners. So both cars are good, but once again, indistinguishable to many potential customers.
These cars may not even have to worry about stealing customers from each other if the FR-S and the BRZ cannot find a proper place in their brand’s lineup. Scion and Subaru are both entering new territory with these sports cars. So both coupes have great potential to help their badge, but there are also some easy pitfalls.
The FR-S is to Scion what the LF-A is to Lexus. It is a great car to put at the top of the range to hopefully have some of its style and magic trickle down to the rest of the lineup. The only problem is halo cars are often limited production, high price vehicles whose greater purpose is public relations more than sales. That is the exact opposite of the aim of the FR-S.
Toyota should have some fear about customers walking into the Scion dealership and realizing that a $26k FR-S is the most expensive car to wear that badge by 35%. As the first Scion to start above $20k, can the FR-S appeal to young professionals? Will it pass the corporate parking test?
Every ambitious corporate nubie is concerned about his/her image. So before buying a FR-S they are all going to wonder if they park next to the boss, will he respond, “Scion, eh? I think we got one of those for my son when he went off to school.”
If you don’t believe this is a problem, just talk to the folks at Subaru. The last time they offered a sports coupe in the USA was the SVX. When it debuted in 1992, its $26,250 base price was 25% higher then an option loaded Legacy, the next car down the ladder. The SVX was a critic’s darling, but Subaru stuck its financial neck out too far and only sold 12,273 SVXs here in five years.
The FR-S is a far prettier car than the SVX, but it is suffering from a larger financial gap than the Subie. This problem would not be quite so bad if those who are timid about spending that much cash on a Scion FR-S did not have the option to get basically the same car across the street at the Subaru dealership.
Since the days of the SVX, Subaru’s image has changed. The company now has a bit of a rebel image thanks to the WRX (the Outback has also helped sustain a granola image, but I’ll leave that alone for now.) Subaru has also broadened its offerings and raised their prices a bit, to where a sports coupe like the BRZ fits into the lineup as opposed to leads it. In fact, it can be purchased for about the same money as the WRX. But that doesn’t mean the BRZ fits well with Subaru either.
The BRZ will be the first Subaru sold here since 1980 that does not offer some form of all-wheel drive. Subaru even had to change its motto from “The Beauty of All Wheel Drive” to “Confidence in Motion” because of the rear-wheeled BRZ.
The BRZ will likely do a good job of attracting a new crop of people to Subaru, but because it is so different than anything else, will these new customers want anything else from Subrau? What about the Subie loyalists? How many are going to give up their beloved all-wheel drive to get a swoopy coupe?
In the end, I love both of these cars. The Scion FR-S and Subaru BRZ represent some of the best sports coupe style and substance for under $30,000. My concern comes purely from a business standpoint because neither one of these cars fit well into their lineups. This means they have the potential to be shining stars that help expand the horizons of their brands. On the other hand, they could kill each other as they have to fight for the same confused customer.