2013 Scion FR-S Road Test

It's the most anticipated sports car for the past 4 years, and perhaps one of the most controversial.

Who It's For
Budget-minded driving enthusiasts who will have a hard time justifying its slim practicality to their spouses, or themselves.
Best Thing
One of the most brilliant sports cars available now or anytime in the near future.
Worst Thing
Uncooperative clutch, nonexistent visibility, and premium gas defies its cheap n' cheerful image.
Snap Judgment
Buy the FR-S with your heart, not your brain.

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"The idea of waiting for something," said Andy Warhol, "makes it more exciting." And certainly no car has been more anticipated, and possibly more exciting, than the Scion FR-S and Subaru BRZ twins. Hard to imagine that it's been four long years since the concept was first shot across our figurative bow, sending car enthusiasts into the sort of frenzy normally reserved for African bees. Four years. Four long years of teasing from two major Japanese automakers, Toyota and Subaru, in the sort of time duration it took for some of our staff to graduate from college. In the automotive world, that's enough time for automotive trends to change and enthusiasts to lose their attention spans. By this Warholian standard, the FR-S should be more exciting than building a replica Star Trek Enterprise from your Powerball winnings.

So what do we get for our patience? We get the Scion FR-S, sold elsewhere as a mild-mannered Toyota but here with a Skrillex CD and a backwards cap. We get a car that sneak previewers have told us to believe the hype; that it really could possibly drive as well as we want it to. Really? Can any sports car, in this day and age, be really as focused and entertaining and ultimately as much as we wish it could? Well yes, as we found out -- and that's not always a good thing.

What We Drove

The Scion FR-S starts at a handsome $24,930. Given Scion's straightforward pricing, the FR-S comes with a generous amount of standard features: Bluetooth; a tilting and telescoping steering wheel: red stitching across the interior: a Pioneer eight-speaker audio system; and for the enthusiast crowd, dual exhausts and a Torsen limited-slip differential. No options are mentioned. If you want your sports car experience to be more premium, the Subaru BRZ comes with a Premium package that includes such niceties as a navigation system, leather-trimmed seats, and free issues of Drive, the official magazine about Subaru.

On the safety front, all Scion FR-Ss come with seat-mounted and side curtain airbags for the front and the rear, LATCH points for child seats in back, a tire pressure monitoring system, and a traction control and stability system with Sport Mode which -- mercifully, for hardcore drivers -- can be turned completely off.

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The Commute

Pressing the FR-S into commuting duty is certainly not the Sisyphean task as, say, a Dodge Viper. Some of us even found it rather comfortable in traffic. Its seats are amazingly grippy and aggressively bolstered, but the lower cushion is a little too flat. Front visibility is excellent, and controls fall readily to hand.

The shifter sets itself into place with a reassuring guh-THUNK -- an example of mechanical fortitude that's rare in today's cars. It's not the smoothest or most gratifying, but the transmission has pretty good feel, with short throws and a comfortable shift knob on top. We only wish we could say the same thing about the clutch, which has a bizarre feel that's hard to get used to -- it's a jerky combination in daily traffic, and not the most forgiving.

The suspension was controversial. While a delight on twisty roads (more on that later) some of us thought it was too rough on the washboard freeways of Southern California; others -- your humble chronicler included -- felt that it was just fine, without any painful jarring. Your best bet: drive it on the worst road near the dealership, and let your butt decide.

The FR-S's 2.0-liter engine produces 200 horsepower, and certainly makes you hear every last one of them. That growl, however, does get grating after a while. Even with the lightest touch of the throttle, that flat-four engine shrieks and screams into your Bluetooth audio like a yowling cat; at low-rpm, it almost sounds like it has an exhaust leak. Like a novelty ringtone, it's fun for the first few minutes, but gets old quick. Road noise is an issue, as well as vibrations that shudder throughout the cabin. This is familiar for Subaru fans, and arguably part of the car's character. But those expecting a silky-smooth Toyota engine will be in for a surprise.

The Scion's interior is low-rent, but honestly so. Most of the dashboard is soft-touch, and it feels more substantial and well-bolted than most other Scions. Perhaps the best thing you can say about the Scion's head unit is that it can be easily ripped out and replaced with something that doesn't look like it came from the 1990s. But unlike its Subaru BRZ twin and its standard navigation unit, the Scion FR-S's radio is easy to use with intuitive Bluetooth and great audio quality from its Pioneer speakers. Steering wheel controls might be anathema to the car's simplistic mission but a welcome boon for convenience. Still, it's one of those radios that you can use without having to stare at it first, figuring out its myriad controls, and isn't there something beautiful in such rare intuitiveness?

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The Grocery Run

Despite its sporty shape, the FR-S has a standard trunk, not a hatchback. And contrary to the belief and characteristic of most sports cars, the Scion FR-S's trunk can be considered usable. It's no Chevrolet Suburban, but it can fit more than a briefcase and a Snickers bar. For what it's worth, it's almost twice the size of the Mazda Miata's.

The FR-S's great downfall, however, is that that same sporty shape does absolutely wonders for cutting down on visibility. There's almost nothing to be seen from behind the headrests; even the aforementioned Chevrolet Suburban manages to disappear from its blind spots.

Move the front seats back and the FR-S's legroom is more than enough. So perhaps the best thing about those vestigial rear seats is that they come with LATCH points, giving enthusiasts some justification of the FR-S as a practical family car. (Though with the ballooning of today's child seats, even those LATCH points are for decoration only.) Yes, we at Automotive.com fit two fully-grown humans in the back. For scientific purposes, you see; it's not recommended for anything longer than a late-night Arby's run. But if you're of the enthusiastic type, take comfort in knowing that with the rear seats folded -- by pulling two flimsy cords on both sides -- one can conceivably fit three tires in the back, and one in the trunk. That's definitely a hidden feature the Scion's engineers sought fit to implement.

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The Weekend Fun

This is where the hype comes into play. Perhaps the closest competitor for the FR-S, in terms of cheap, simple, low-powered thrills, is the Mazda Miata, the perennial low-buck roadster, the one car that has enjoyed its segment to itself for so long. After all, nothing has sparked such interest in small, cheap and fun cars since the original Miata's debut in 1989. And the FR-S is possibly the most formidable opponent since the last truly sporty Toyota product, the MR2.

Since the Scion FR-S is unabashedly aimed at enthusiast drivers, forgive the enthusiast-speak for the next paragraph or so. For starters, the FR-S has a more planted suspension than the Miata, which carries more body roll even with its optional Bilstein shocks as part of the Sport package. The Miata also rotates a lot more willingly than the FR-S. When you turn a corner in the Miata, it seems to turn from somewhere behind the driver's shoulder blades, possibly from the trunk. The FR-S doesn't offer this sort of telepathic foreshadowing. The FR-S does, however, have razor-sharp steering to make up for it, the sort that makes you change lanes with aplomb, that makes you want to cut off traffic for the thrill of it. Very unbecoming behavior, which of course we don't condone, being polite motorists and all.

If you've read anything that automotive journalism has trotted out in the past 2 years, you'll know that the FR-S is a perfect car for drifting. The odious "sport" is a tricky one, one that requires years of training and dedication and precise car measurements that your humble scribe doesn't have the attention span to grasp. But while drifting is the FR-S's supposed forte, its 215-series tires offer enough grip to drive the car as, an actual sports car. The brakes are, in a word, perfect. The suspension is a compliant, willing partner when the corners become vomit-inducing for your passenger. Traction control can be turned completely off by holding down the button for a few seconds, but even with it on, it gives the drivers plenty of leeway for tire-sliding shenanigans. And that odious clutch, so finicky in traffic jams, becomes buttery-soft and a delight to upshift with, through a shifter that does exactly what's asked of it.

And isn't that what the best sports cars do for their drivers: Exactly what they want, and nothing more?

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Our FR-S certainly got plenty of attention. Associate editor Jacob Brown had an attractive female in a Corvette ask him blushingly about when it was going on sale, to which he responded with aplomb. Two college guys in a BMW 3 Series mistook Trevor Dorchies for hirsute Top Gear USA host Rutledge Wood. And Matt Askari met a homeless guy named "Bear" who said a lot of things, some about the FR-S: "I ended up giving him a dollar while I was at the gas station," said Matt, "and he said this thing was a chick magnet. He sort of whistled. He's 60 but he also won two championships at Venice High. I'm unsure of the sport."

I'm not sure either. But the Scion FR-S is nothing if not a divining rod for those in the know. To the unwashed masses it's a cute, aggressive little runabout, with vaguely Porsche-like haunches and indiscriminately aggressive styling that's purely Japanese. But for a certain breed of young enthusiasts, the kind Scion is hoping to re-attract into its languishing showrooms, the car is more than worth its weight in gold. Despite its many flaws it marks the return of the inexpensive sports car, a market emptier than 10-Cent Beer Night at the Church of Latter-Day Saints.

"The most exciting attractions," said Warhol, "are between two opposites that never meet." So we get a car that's brilliant to drive, and a car that's fundamentally compromised, and a whole lot of Campbell's soup cans in between, just like any sports car (minus the soup). We'd like to believe that the FR-S and its thinly-veiled stablemate, the Subaru BRZ, will spark a sports car renaissance, much like the mid-90s spoiled us with a glut of powerful, mid-priced Japanese sports cars, like the Toyota Supra and Mazda RX-7. But then again, we'd also like world peace and Scarlett Johansson's cell phone number. In the end, we're just glad the FR-S is far more attainable than both of those things.

Spec Box

Fuel Economy
EPA City: 22 mpg
EPA Highway: 30 mpg
EPA Combined: 25 mpg
EPA Estimated Range: 330 miles
Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Not yet rated

Notebook Quotes

"Talk about misjudging someone. I'm not usually one for long-slung two-seat roadsters but this car is awesome; the drive-feel, steering, acceleration, lateral movement, rear outward visibility. braking, it's all there. The FR-S is what Scion meant to be when it was created by Toyota." -- Trevor Dorchies, Associate Editor
"I think the FR-S (and, by extension, its Subaru BRZ doppelganger) is getting a little oversold. While it was a lot of fun up in the mountains, it wasn't the OMG life-altering experience I had been lead to believe it would be. Don't get me wrong. It was more fun than I've had in a while. But let's dial the praise back a bit." -- Keith Buglewicz, News Director
"I felt like Porsche owners were condescendingly smirking, but I could just be imagining this. Except for this woman in a Cayman who refused to look over no matter how much I mentally willed her to." -- Matt Askari, Associate Editor
"A girl in a Corvette at a stoplight -- holy crap! An attractive girl driving a Corvette! -- asked me if it was out yet. Of course, it's not, but the thing gets looks and attention. And it's a relatively entry-level car. Score. You don't have to be driving an Aston or Ferrari to get noticed in Manhattan Beach, apparently." -- Jacob Brown, Associate Editor


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