Scion’s new FR-S is a back-to-basics sports car with delightful handling and an inexpensive price — but you have to be willing to compromise.
By Aaron Gold
The Big Picture
I am not a beer drinker, so when my friends start talking about micro-brews, the conversation is lost on me. I have no doubt that they can appreciate the different combinations of hops and barley — whatever those are — but to me, it’s all just beer.
The Scion FR-S is the automotive equivalent of a micro-brew. Anyone with a driver’s license will enjoy its good looks, great handling, and low price, but you have to be a true sports car aficionado to appreciate the fine details that set the FR-S apart from its competitors… and to put up with the compromises it imposes on its owners.
The Scion FR-S is a joint project between Toyota (Scion’s parent company) and Subaru. It’s a small, rear-wheel-drive sports coupe patterned after a 1980s-era Toyota called the AE86 Corolla, a lightweight, low-powered sportster that remains a cult favorite. The FR-S harkens to the days when sports cars offered a simple, raw driving experience, without airbags or electronic safety aids — you know, back when you could kill yourself through good ol’ fashioned stupidity.
I am a sports-car geek, so I love the FR-S, and I can name a long list of women I know who would enjoy it — my wife, who spent her twenties driving a slick and sporty little Honda CRX, and our own editor Tara, who tears around our fair city in a Porsche Cayman S. But my friends who prefer style or luxury over sport would probably find the FR-S incredibly annoying.
An Inside Job
Although the 2013 Scion FR-S was inspired by Toyota, Subaru did most of the engineering. That shows in the interior, which is done up in drab, industrial-strength black plastic. Sports car lovers will delight in the simple layout of the controls and instrument panel; the tachometer is in the center while the speedometer is shuffled off to one side. There’s also a small digital speed readout, which is good, because the analog speedo has tiny numbers that are hard to read at a glance.
The air conditioning controls feel cheap, although the standard-fit Pioneer stereo is loud enough to quality as a weapon of mass destruction. Scion has tried to dress the cabin up with a bit of patterned plastic here and there, but it’s an uphill battle. If you’re contemplating suicide, you might want to drive something else.
That said, visibility is pretty good for such a low-slung sports car, and the front seats, which are shaped like racing buckets and are designed to keep your body in place at insane cornering speeds, are comfortable and offer a lot of support. But the back seat is difficult to access and offers virtually no legroom, and the pocket-sized trunk has a minuscule opening that makes packing difficult.
The FR-S comes with six standard airbags, but since this is a car that focuses on the raw driving experience, there are few high-tech driver aids available. The Scion FR-S does have an electronic stability control system with a driver-selectable Sport mode, which allows you to drive the FR-S harder and even slide it around a bit before it steps in to take corrective action.
This is where the 2013 Scion FR-S comes into its own. The FR-S uses a four-cylinder “boxer” engine, the type favored by Subaru, Porsche, and the original Volkswagen Beetle. Most engines have their four cylinders standing in a row; the boxer lays them out flat, two on each side of the engine, which helps lower the car’s center of gravity. Output is 200 horsepower and 150 lb-ft of torque, which is not a lot by sports car standards. But the FR-S tips the scales at a flyweight 2,800 lbs, so it isn’t a complete slug, though it’s hardly in speedy Nissan 370Z territory.
Every self-respecting sports carmaker offers a stick-shift, and the 2013 Scion FR-S has an excellent 6-speed gearbox with short, tight throws. But the automatic is just as good: It’s a 6-speed unit that you can shift manually using paddles on the steering column. When I drove it, I used the “sport” mode, which causes the transmission to pick gears for power, not fuel economy. Even on a racetrack — yep, that’s where Scion took us try out the FR-S — the transmission always knew the best gear to pick for the car’s speed.
But it’s the handling that really sets the Scion FR-S apart. The electrically-assisted steering is heavy — it mimics classic sports cars that don’t have power steering — but delightfully responsive, and the chassis has what we geeks refer to as a neutral balance. The FR-S grips the pavement tenaciously, but a skilled driver can take it around a corner fast enough to reach the tires’ limits of traction, then slide the back end of the car out and drift sideways through the turn, just like in the movies. In fact, if you know the basics, the FR-S makes antics like this easy. Probably not the best quality for a mom car, but sure fun if kids aren’t an issue.
What good is this in the real world? Not much if you’re driving to work — unless you’re champion racing driver Danica Patrick — but the FR-S is designed for weekend racers and autocrossers who can put the FR-S’s neutral balance to good use. For everyone else, the FR-S offers a tolerable (if noisy) ride and a tight, direct feel that makes it fun to zip through gaps in traffic.
If you live where it rains or snows, the FR-S’s combination of lightweight and rear-wheel-drive could make it a handful and tough to control when the weather turns bad.
Gizmos and Tech
The 2013 Scion FR-S is all about the driving experience, but that hasn’t stopped Scion from offering their new BeSpoke audio system, which allows connectivity with web apps like Facebook and Twitter; it’s compatible with the Apple iPhone, but not Android.
If you're a sports car fanatic, and you don't need frivolities like a back seat or a useful trunk, then I strongly suggest you visit your Scion dealer, smile your way through the pack of hormone-addled twentysomething (and still-think-they're-twentysomething) men who will be lined up to buy one, and take a test drive. If you're not the micro-brew type, you might want to consider competing sports cars like the Hyundai Genesis Coupe or the Ford Mustang, which have more power and more interior room. And if style is more important than sport, I suggest a front-wheel-drive coupe like the Honda Civic or Scion tC. Leave the barley-and-hop arguments to the beer geeks, and just enjoy a nice cold soda.
Razor-sharp handling that’s so easy to drive you’ll feel like a superhero
Low price, no-haggle shopping policy
Drab interior, tiny trunk, unusable back seat