What It Is/ Who It's For
The 2013 Scion FR-S is the everyman's sports coupe.
Unbeatable fun-per-dollar quotient of any new car on the market.
The back seat exists in name only, although few of the 10,000 people who buy a Scion FR-S this year will care.
The Scion FR-S is the passion that has been missing from your life.
Most people don't know that the cellular telephone is actually the most popular camera in the history of photography, outselling even the tens upon tens of millions of Kodak Brownies and Kodak Instamatics and the Kodak disposables of the pre-digital age. The "point and shoot" mantra for those relatively low-tech cameras enabled the novice to skillfully preserve any would-be forgotten memory as forever-to-enjoy captured moments in time. To a similar degree, the Scion FR-S is as simple as point and drive, a bare-knuckled sports coupe enabling the driver of any skill to experience the unadulterated pleasure of "pure passion" on the road.
This is the culmination of Toyota and Subaru's "Team86" collaboration that has been bandied about on internet chat forums and enthusiast car magazines for seven years. But is it the beginning of the sports car revolution that both have unofficially promised? The early return is overwhelmingly positive, and one that begets far more critical observations: 1) how did the automotive industry get away from such products in the first place? 2) Can a 200-hp four4-cylinder really satisfy our lust for thrust? 3) Is it really a Toyota?
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It's not likely that this $25,000 sports coupe will sell tens of millions of vehicles in its lifetime, but it does represent a niche in the automotive market, and one that is priced and placed favorably against a myriad of over-eager pleasers and teasers and burners and compromises costing as much as three times the FR-S' base price. Which is precisely why this everyman's approach has got so many people excited: Competitive racers, disposable-income types, video game-playing kids, and women of all shapes, ages, and backgrounds are raising their hands for this car. In fact, Scion expects to sell only 10,000 for the remainder of this year, despite the 27,000 that have already expressed purchasing interest.
I'd consider that a fervor, and one with which I wanted in on. For purely self-satisfying reasons masked by professional curiosity, of course.
I imagine there may be some people who do not understand why the Scion FR-S is one of the most hyped cars on the market. Or why its anticipated introduction is to many enthusiasts a sports car revival of sorts. After all, the FR-S has four wheels, two doors, and four seats, like many other sports cars before it. And its modest four-cylinder gasoline engine only gets 22 mpg in the city. To many, that just isn't practical.
But the FR-S is not for people who think like that.
The Scion FR-S is for the purists, the stodgy old timers, and the aspiring newcomers who want a stripped-down, unpretentious, and affordable sports coupe, with a host of hard-to-measure intangibles and a rich motoring heritage. These are the kinds of drivers who will appreciate the FR-S's long, low hood, like in Toyota's first sports car, the 1965 Sports 800, or the front and rear fender lines copied from the iconic 1967 2000GT, which has the distinction of being a Bond car. But more than these, the FR-S is the spiritual successor to an early-80's budget compact, the Toyota Corolla GT-S, affectionately known by its internal chassis code: AE86. The resurgent popularity of "Hachi-Roku" at various racetracks in the past decade led current president and CEO of Toyota, Akio Toyoda, to declare, "Where is the passion in Toyota's lineup?"
There are design remnants of each in the Scion FR-S, and though I have been monitoring progress of the Toyobaru for several years—in spied test mule and concept form, and even on the auto show circuit—none of that felt real until it was in front of me with the keys in my hand. And that totally made it look cooler and lower and smaller and faster than in my fantasies. Which is precisely the point: HERE is the passion. You can feel it just by looking at it.
I must have been somewhere south of Pahrump, Nevada, on a lengthy stretch of open highway when it dawned on me just how functionally simplistic and minimalist the designers arranged the FR-S' interior. Aside from the stereo, there are only three clearly-marked climate control knobs in the center stack and even the steering wheel was devoid of small, cluttered function buttons found on nearly every other new car in the industry. I say this thankfully because the FR-S is an unabashed sports coupe not bogged down by a glut of the latest babble of technogizmos and distractions, and is best enjoyed when the driver's focus is on the road.
Speaking of the road, the heavily-bolstered seats felt fantastic on my back and neck. Unlike the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution MR that we tested recently, whose leather-adorned Recaros were too stiff and uncomfortable for even a quick trip to the grocery store, the FR-S' thin seatback felt nearly as soft and plush as those found in a Toyota Camry. However, they have the appropriate shoulder and thigh support, such that at the racetrack, the seats provided superb suppression of wobbly-knees and sliding-butt under hard braking. Score one point each for function and comfort.
Elsewhere around the driver-centered cabin is an assortment of solidly-constructed soft touches: on the dash; at the elbows and neck; and even at the driver's knees. The leather-wrapped and telescoping steering wheel is of small diameter, which of course means that it is sporty and fun. Score another point for the product developers, and the mostly fantastic six-speed manual transmission with an accurate leather-wrapped, short-throw shifter (or a leather-wrapped shift knob for the less discerning but positively rewarding six-speed automatic transmission).
This is not your mother's Camry, though. There is technically a backseat in the FR-S, and I did once see an adult willingly subject himself to its confined space. It is thus possible to transport four adults (or, as Scion will point out, four spare tires for the racetrack), and despite the coupe's sexy rear slope, the giants of men who may find themselves in that precarious position will not be complaining of headroom but rather of its toe-wiggle limitation. And good news for the golfers; it appears that a set of clubs may fit in the trunk, though I have not confirmed this.
I hadn't consumed enough coffee when I walked out of the lobby to a Hot Lava flavored FR-S parked under the Red Rock Resort and Casino porte cochere, but I didn't need it. I had been looking forward to this moment for several years and was ready to get on the road. When my navigator connected his iPhone, I clutched in and clicked the ignition, my right hand hovering on neutral while listening to the FR-S' Subaru-derived flat-4 purring contentedly at idle. It's a quiet and unfamiliar Subaru burble, and one that at speed with the windows down becomes more audible when a valve in the intake tract opens to amplify a lazy engine note.
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The windows let in a beautiful early-morning spring soundtrack as we meandered through Red Rock Canyon's low-speed curves, past tourists riding three-wheeled EV's and gazing at the rusted belt of rock jutting into the sky. For the easy-going, the FR-S was tame, and I never felt that beyond the stop signs and speed traps there lurked a monster waiting to flex its brawn. Instead, it just moved with the rhythm and pace of the road, around and down and beyond, more sinewy and agile than a rubber-laying burnout machine. "It's not about numbers, but about passion," said Tetsuya Tada, Toyota's chief engineer for the FR-S. Instead, he said the FR-S wasToyota's response to the expensive, tech-heavy cars from Nissan and Mitsubishi and Subaru.
Upon encountering slow-moving traffic on the two-lane highway leading out of Red Rock Canyon toward the Spring Mountain Motor Resort, a quick double-clutch downshift to tap into the four-cylinder's power band seemed to betray confidence in passing, until I realized how swiftly and unconsciously I gained 30 mph. At one point, when the navigator and I switched places, we had been cruising with the windows down and were shocked to discover that at 90 mph, the music was crisp and clean and the FR-S' interior so absent of road and wind noise that we could carry on a conversation without yelling. It speaks to how well the car was engineered, inside and out, that the sensation of speed is so deceiving.
As gentle and subdued the FR-S was on public motorways, it again surprised on the racetrack. So, if that's your fancy, yeah, it does that, too. There, without any driver input, the supple suspension draws tight, the brakes seem to grip just a bit better than before and the lazy engine note gargles to life. Best of all, the timidity disappears with the push of a button (traction control OFF), such that in a controlled environment, even a racetrack rookie like myself can find the confidence to mash the gas through fourth gear without lifting into the home stretch. Oh, and the automatic transmission equipped FR-S, with and without paddle shifting, is going to be the bread and butter offering. It, too, is fantastic on and off the track.
After eight hours of roading and tracking the Scion FR-S, I felt like I had experienced more than I thought I ever would. As an automobile, it has four wheels and two doors and four cylinders and six gears, and when you put it like that, it hardly seems special. When reduced to such simplicity, you begin to realize that there have been many cars just like it. But at the moment, and aside from its Subaru cousin, there aren't any other cars like it and there probably won't be any cars like it for a few more years.
At some point, the initial excitement has to wear off, which brings me to two conclusions: Either the FR-S is truly great, or it's great in context. I'm inclined to side with the latter. Yes, the extremely low center of gravity is something insanely special on a racetrack, and though that could be a very realistic purpose for many of these cars and its drivers, for many more it is an unnecessary and unlikely affair. Thus, outside of the racetrack, the FR-S is both an overly-engineered but supremely simple 30-34 mpg highway sports coupe for the people who—ironically, like me—aren't ready for the sedentary stability of a family sedan, or aren't interested in joining the cause of forward-thinking cautionaries fearing peak oil.
I get the impression that Toyota is OK with this. Scion exists for the young market, and those kids eventually move on to new careers with expanding families, and let's face it, there'll be no shortage of Camry Hybrids and Siennas for those drivers to move into. And so what you're left with is a car that demonstrates that this segment is still viable, that megatons of power aren't always useful or necessary or even desirable, and that the bean counters don't always win. More importantly, the Scion FR-S shows that at least one sleeping giant still has it.
Your move, Honda and Nissan.
2.0-liter flat-4, six-speed manual transmission, front-engine/rear-wheel drive, 200-hp, $24,930, 22 mpg city/30 mpg highway
2.0-liter flat-4, six-speed automatic transmission, front-engine/rear-wheel drive, 200-hp, $26,030, 25 mpg city/34 mpg highway