When I was a newbie here at The Garage, I was inspired to launch a series called ‘Forgotten Sporty Cars’, celebrating inexpensive, but fun cars readily available from a plethora of manufacturers from the 1970’s, 80’s, and 90’s. The buyer’s of those cars grew up, had families, and with Generation Y facing bleak employment opportunities and an overall weak economy, the fun, affordable and economical sporty car became extinct. It turns out those cars were not exactly forgotten, as that series proved one of our most popular reads at the time, and has brought together people who share stories of memories of once owning, and still owning these cars.
Naturally, it was with great interest when news came about that Toyota and Subaru would be collaborating to build an affordable rear wheel drive sports coupe. Depending on where you are in the world, the result is the Subaru BRZ, Toyota 86, Toyota GT86, and here in North America, the Scion FR-S. The inspiration for the FR-S comes from the 1980’s Corolla GT-S, or as the aficionado know as the AE86. And the recipe is the same-four cylinders, four seater, rear wheel drive. But the FR-S is a different animal. While the AE86 offered an airy cabin with hatchback practicality, the FR-S is a small, hunkered down sport coupe with a close coupled cockpit and a miniscule trunk.
While the FR-S is certainly pleasant to look at, the appearance seems to suggest that this is what a sporty 2+2 might look like in 2013. In other words, it is a tad generic. In my week with the Scion FR-S, it did not turn heads. No one ever approached me asking questions about the car. When I have a sports car at my disposal, that is practically unheard of. Toyota mentions a low hood as an homage to its 1960’s supercar, the 2000GT, but the truth is, Toyota has been out of the sports car game for so long, it’s re-entry really needed a distinctive look, and I am just not feeling it. Yes, it’s a pretty car, it just doesn’t get my heart thumping.
The cockpit of the FR-S is simple, no-nonsense and very business-like. If you want to be coddled or dazzled with the latest high-tech fads, get out of the car. Why is this? Two reasons. One, Scion wanted to keep the costs low. Two, the buyer Scion is reaching out to hopes they will take their FR-S to autocrosses, drifting competitions, and track days. In this application, a simple, straightforward interior is an asset to the driver. A race car driver refers to the cockpit as his office, and as such, wants as little distraction as possible. And the FR-S delivers, with simple controls, a large tachometer front and center, meaty steering wheel, well placed pedals and firm, supportive front bucket seats.
In the real world, every day is not track day, not even a day blasting down our favorite back roads. In the grind of daily life, the FR-S is not for everyone. As a 40 year old standing 6’1″, climbing in and out of the low slung Scion became tiresome, especially when loading my seven year old into the FR-S’ joke of a back seat. Once in, headroom was not a problem. The seats offered loads of lateral support and do an excellent job of holding you in place, but I wondered how I would feel after driving long distances. The tiny trunk might be a challenge for a weekend get away for two. But I am not who Scion is looking for. Single guy, 25 years old, apartment, that’s who they want, and that guy is more than happy to live with the FR-S’ practical shortcomings. After all, a duffel bag and room for a case of beer is all you need for a road trip to see your college buddies.
But, the point of the FR-S is to have fun, right? the heart of the FR-S is its 2.0L DOHC 16V four rated at 200hp. Yes, the sound of a boxer four in a Scion is a little strange, but it gives the car character, and more than anything shows Subaru’s influence. A flat four exhibits a sort of nervous/aggressive persona no other engine configuration can replicate. It’s a gem of an engine, yet there are so many who seem to be, well, disappointed in the output. We live in an age, currently, that mirrors that of the height of the muscle car era. Going back to my ‘Forgotten Sporty Cars’ series, many of those beloved cars barely cracked 100hp. And people loved caning them. If 200hp is not enough, you are missing the point. The point of the Scion FR-S is to be a skilled driver who can harness the power available to the greatest effect. Smallness, lightness coupled with incredible steering and handling are the tools that will help you keep pace with a Camaro ZL1 when the road gets really twisty.
The Scion FR-S is available with either a six-speed manual, or six-speed automatic transmission. I held out, and was promised a manual, but Scion recalled that car, and what ended up at my door step was an automatic FR-S. I nearly wept. Driving the car, the superlative steering feel and quickness rivals that of BMW in their finest hour. Yes, it is that good. Handling is super tight, but the car does not punish you on average roads. But man, that automatic was the ultimate buzz kill. Most publications say a manual FR-S can hit 0-60 in the mid-six second range, while an automatic is nearly eight seconds. Yes, there are shift paddles, but during my week with the FR-S, all I could think was that I was not fully experiencing this car as its creators intended. I needed, and craved, the interaction of shifting for myself, and without that, the FR-S left me cold. I am certain I would feel different if I had a manual.
The Scion FR-S is available in one trim level only. Standard equipment on our test car included the six-speed automatic with paddle shifters, 17″ alloy wheels, chrome exhaust finishers, Torsen limited slip differential, LED taillights, eight speaker Pioneer audio with HD Radio, Bluetooth and aluminum pedals. With only a couple minor accessories, our test car rings in at $$26,166USD.
That isn’t a bad price, and compares favorably to other sporty cars, albeit much larger and heavier ones like the Hyundai Genesis Coupe, and V-6 versions of the Chevy Camaro and Ford Mustang. But none of those cars can even come close to what the FR-S is capable of. It’s easy to stuff a load of horsepower into a heavy car and make it go fast. But it takes finesse to take a smaller , lesser powered car and make it go just as fast, and therein lies the reward. It’s true, the Accord, Taurus or Camry you drive day to day will out drag a Ferrari 308, but with that in mind, surely you had a Dad, Grandpa, Uncle, neighbor, friend who had an MG, Alfa Romeo or Triumph that epitomized the philosophy that ‘less is more’. the Scion FR-S is a refreshing blast from the past, reliving the values of what made those forgotten sporty cars so good, yet is not at all retro in execution. But Scion, I beg you, next time, bring me a manual.