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First Drive: 2013 Scion FR-S

May 15th, 2012

Enthusiasts Rejoice!

     We’d like to thank Akio Toyoda. Without him we wouldn’t be writing this review because the Scion FR-S, and for that matter the Subaru BRZ, wouldn’t exist. And having just returned from flogging the budget minded Scion-badged sports car around the track and across the desert we know better than most that enthusiasts will be lining up to shake Mr. Toyoda’s hand once the FR-S goes on sale this summer. As the story goes, about five years ago Mr. Toyoda—a driving enthusiast himself—noticed that his company no longer offered an affordable sports car in the image of the AE86 Corolla GT-S. About that time Toyota found itself with an increased equity stake in Subaru and decided to give a passionate team from both companies the goal of righting that wrong. The target was a small, affordable, lightweight sports car with rewarding handling as its defining characteristic. In the summer of 2009 the joint effort was approved and now three years later driving enthusiasts have a very compelling new reason to part with $25,000.
     Unlike most modern sports cars the defining specification of the FR-S isn’t its horsepower or torque, but its curb weight of just 2,758 pounds. In an era when most manufacturers are proud of their new model’s “light weight” if the curb weight starts with a three, to see a new model launch with six airbags and an 8-speaker sound system and undercut a Lotus Evora by 300 pounds is something to get excited about. That means engineers don’t have to overbuild the chassis to control all that weight being transferred around during enthusiastic driving. By modern sports car thinking the brakes are too small, the wheels and tires are too small and the engine is too small, but true enthusiasts know Scion is right on the money for a car whose capabilities can actually be explored on public roads—unlike, say, a Camaro ZL1. We’re also a fan of the tidy packaging. The FR-S casts a shadow just 166.7 inches long and 50.6 inches high making it almost six inches shorter in length and almost an inch shorter in height than the Porsche Cayman.
     An imposing car this isn’t, but thanks to classic long hood short deck proportions, it’s a good looking car. We particularly like the rear ¾ view where you can best appreciate the strong shoulder line over the rear wheels. That the design earns an impressive .27 Cd rating in the wind tunnel is an added bonus. The one and only 17” wheel design is also one of our favorites from recent years. Although technically a 2+2 layout the back seat is for all intents and purposes storage space only. Scion was smart in designing the back seat to easily fold down, which expands the shallow 6.9 cubic foot trunk to allow room for a set of wheels and tires. There is plenty of space up front, however, where visibility in all directions is good and all controls are perfectly placed. The deeply bolstered seats are fantastic at marrying comfort and support and are covered in a grippy suede-like material set off by red stitching. The small-diameter steering wheel is clutter free with no buttons to be found and is adjustable for tilt and telescope making the ideal driving position easy to dial-in. The manual transmission shifter falls easily to hand and the aluminum pedals are properly spaced. Dead center in the gauge cluster is a large analog tach with an inset digital speedometer that gives you all the information you need at a glance. If only all sports cars had instrumentation so concise. The whole cockpit is driver-focused and finished in nice materials with the only exceptions being a dimpled plastic interior door panel and cheap sun visors. For $25k we can easily overlook those shortcomings.
     A Subaru-supplied all-new boxer four-cylinder utilizing Toyota’s advanced port and direct fuel injection system lies deep in the engine bay and mounted as far back as possible. The little 2.0-liter engine offers compact dimensions allowing engineers to achieve a center of gravity of just 18.1”—lower even than a Porsche Cayman. In unison with a near-ideal 53 front/47 rear weight distribution the FR-S simply dances around any track—in our case Spring Mountain Motorsports Park outside of Las Vegas. Of course with only 200 horsepower and 151 lb-ft of torque you’ll never rocket out of the corners but the power between 5,000 and the 7,400 rpm redline is enough to keep the thrills flowing and the standard Torsen rear differential is appreciated. Remember this car is first and foremost a handler and you can find plenty of joy at lower speeds the same way you can in our other favorite budget chassis—the Mazda MX-5 Miata.
     The engine features a high 12.5:1 compression ratio so premium gas is required but fuel economy is strong with a combined rating of 25 mpg for the manual and 28 mpg with the automatic. Now is a good time to admit the surprise of the entire event was how good the 6-speed automatic actually is thanks in part to Dynamic Rev Management that rev matches on downshifts. We can’t recall a more responsive torque converter automatic. Simply breathe on the throttle and the transmission snaps down a few gears to prepare for harder running. Steering wheel paddles are standard but the transmission is very nicely calibrated and can easily be left to its own logic. Of course, we hope that most people who appreciate this car for what it is and find pleasure in the art of driving will order and enjoy the superb standard 6-speed manual. The shifter offers short throws and the elusive hint that something mechanical is taking place that we always look for in the great manual transmissions. Clutch take-up is smooth and gear ratios are perfect.
     The only thing better than the transmission on this car is the steering. Despite being an electric power steering system the off-center response is as good as anything out there at twice the price and the short 2.48 turns lock-to-lock mean you can handle all but the tightest hairpins without repositioning your hands. Steering effort weights up appropriately in long sweepers and while actual feedback might be its weakest link, this steering system gives us renewed hope that electric racks can be tuned to satisfy the enthusiast if the right engineers are in charge of development. The 11.6” front and 11.4” rear brakes don’t require any outrageous six piston front calipers to provide excellent stopping power on the road and competent performance on the track in limited bursts. We would like a bit more bite on initial pedal application, however.
     The bottom line is the FR-S is a terrific new offering for enthusiasts on a budget. The manual starts at $24,930 and the automatic costs $26,030 and both come with Scion’s Service Boost providing free scheduled maintenance for the first two years or 25k miles. A number of TRD official accessories will be available this year for those who crave customization and Scion expects to sell 20,000 vehicles in 2013. Who knows if they’ll be able to sustain that kind of number but after a day spent exercising Scion’s new halo car we’re positive of one thing: The line to thank Mr. Toyoda starts behind us.

Photos provided by Scion

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