Scion FR-S (Photo: Danny Chin)
Chris Harris gave the Toyota GT86 a glowing review after a session around Madrid's Jarama Circuit. Consumer Reports let their hair down when the testers had the opportunity to drift both the Subaru BRZ and Scion FR-S around their own private proving ground. Even Everyday Driver couldn't stop describing how fun the FR-S feels when driven along the Pacific Coast Highway. Some of you might have seen all three of these reviews already. In fact, a good number of you know all there is to know about the FR-S anyway.
The single most talked about car of 2012, I had to see the Scion FR-S for myself. Of course, as an auto journalist, one can never be too rigorous when it comes to testing sports cars.
Having received the tester Scion FR-S Wednesday afternoon, I turned out from the parking garage one street away from iMotor's office at Hanover Square to begin my trek home back in Queens. As I pulled up to a stoplight, I noticed a young couple walking along Wall St., taking in the sights and sounds of our beautiful city. Apparently, the couple noticed me too. The cute blond whipped out her point-and-shoot and snapped a picture.
Whoa, what's with this attention? I'm in a sports car so I better get used to it. Just as I flashed a grin and gave a thumbs up, the lights turn green and I proceeded to gingerly lift the clutch, depress the throttle... and I stall.
That singular exchange pretty much summed up my Day-1 impression of the Hot Lava 2013 Scion FR-S. It had been a year since I last drove manual and while I would have loved to acclimate in the beautiful ribbons of B-road in Wales or at a stunning stretch of California's Pacific Coast Highway, I'm stuck here behind a taxi cab with another taxi cab riding my ass.
I thought I timed my departure from Manhattan island carefully -- it's best to beat the rush hour traffic. However, for reasons beyond my control, a journey that would usually take less than 40 minutes took almost 3 hours of bumper-to-bumper traffic anyway. I'm not sure what sort of game the Long Island Expressway is playing, but apparently I'm not supposed to win.
Driving well below the FR-S's potential, I couldn't experience the responsive boxer-4 engine, the sharp handling, nor the low center of gravity just yet. However, I did get to spend a lot of time in the car and really take in its interior and explore the cabin amenities.
Right off the bat, I really like its seats and I seriously love the steering wheel. The Scion FR-S is extremely low to the ground with a height only a fraction over 50-inches tall. However, thanks to a seat bolted very low to the floor and supportive bolsters that hug my torso, I was encouraged to settle into an upright seating position with headroom to spare. Likewise, the telescopic steering column brought the compact 14.4-inch diameter wheel closer to my body. What's more, the grip and thickness of the steering wheel felt very natural as well.
Beyond the driver's seating position, the interior of the Scion FR-S isn't anything to write home about. Textured plastics dominate the interior surfaces and although this is obviously Toyota's attempt to make the dash more interesting, I certainly feel that plastics without a fake carbon fiber weave would serve to better represent a purposeful cabin. Toyota has also omitted a center cubby hole and the glove box is more shallow than I'd like.
Surprisingly, the stereo inside the FR-S isn't bad. Even though the oddly placed buttons on the system make it look a bit like an aftermarket unit sold at Radio Shack, the 8-speaker Pioneer offers 300W AM/FM/CD/HD Radio. An Aux/USB port allows for iPod docking and Bluetooth Wireless is also available for a mobile phone.
After finally making it home from the excruciating drive, I needed a quick power nap more than anything else. Before I closed my eyes, having never owned a car with a manual myself, the question that bothered me most was why anybody would bother with the physical and mental demands that come with owning a car with a manual transmission in New York City?
Actually, that's not true. The question that bothered me most was how was I supposed to put together my review?
Later that night, I had an irresistible urge to hop back into the FR-S for an evening drive. It was only moments ago when all that clutch work wore me out but I'm already itching to get back in.
Cruising with the windows down to enjoy the evening breeze, a light bulb went off and things started to make sense. The upright seating position that I liked so much was the FR-S's way of telling me to pay attention -- driving well requires concentration. Although the commute home was no fun at all, I rationalized that what I experienced was an extremely effective "character building" exercise. Not only did I begin to feel confident and happier that night, I also decided to make it a point to improve my abilities in the days ahead.
The powerplant in the Scion FR-S is a 2.0 liter boxer-4 engine with D-4S direct and port injection producing 200-hp and 151 lb.-ft. of torque. Letting the boxer unwind, the engine note is spirited but I'm convinced that the FR-S could use some extra oomph. Other reviews have given the boxer engine similar remarks but I never understood why until now. On paper, the Volkswagen GTI makes an identical horsepower figure as the Scion FR-S but at just 2,650 lbs., the FR-S is significantly lighter and technically stands to be quicker off the line. However, the Scion's Achilles' heel is its low torque figure -- the Vee Dub feels faster thanks to more than 50 lb.-ft. of torque over the FR-S.
Even though the Scion FR-S feels best beyond 4,500 RPM, and even though high revs are freaking awesome on desolate mountain switchbacks, there are clear disadvantages when it comes to day-to-day driving. Sometimes, moving into the fast lane to make a pass requires the FR-S to drop two gears to find the necessary grunt. Starting from a standstill also requires more throttle since the FR-S lacks the bit of torque necessary for the engine to bite. Thankfully, rev-matching an FR-S is easy as pie and the clutch has a very progressive feel.
Handling wise, the sport tuned independent MacPherson struts in the front, double wishbones at the rear, and the torsen limited slip differential do a phenomenal job working with the low curb weight and low center of gravity. The Scion FR-S is beyond eager to change directions and extremely fun to toss around.
Attacking an apex in more powerful sports cars require a "slow-in, fast-out" technique but the FR-S carries its momentum well and allows the driver to go around a corner quickly the entire time. Enthusiasts have criticized Toyota's decision of fitting the GT86 with the same 215/45-R17 Michelin Primacy tires as the Prius Hybrid but the rubber actually works better than I thought. The Michelins let out a playful chirp during more aggressive launches and lateral grip is predictable yet lively -- the latter is likely a product of the FR-S's lightness as well.
The Scion and I got off on a bad start but now I can't keep my mitts off it!
Unlike the pair of Kias (Optima and Soul) or the Audi I've previously tested, my friends were definitely more keen to have a look at the FR-S. In particular, Danny Chin, a pro photographer and an old college friend of mine, would visit New York for the weekend. The timing couldn't be better and we quickly began to discuss ideas for a photo shoot for the FR-S.
By Friday night, we brought the Scion FR-S to DUMBO (Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass) to show off the car and the city at its best. Gentrified Brooklyn has been given a bad rep for being the single largest spawn pool of Pabst drinking, skinny jeans and ironic tees wearing hipsters. Looking past the hilarious subculture, however, and DUMBO is simply an old town that had become the choice habitat of trendy 20-30 year olds.
In a sense, that's what the Scion FR-S is too -- classic compact front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, Japanese sports cars were insanely popular among 20-30 year olds during the early 90's before Japan's economic bust caused automakers to shift its attention to profit leading family sedans. For decades, Toyota had been more guilty than most for its dreadfully boring model range. In fact, Toyota had become so dull and conservative that car guys soon identified Toyotas with the color beige.
Naturally, driving enthusiasts grew extremely skeptical when rumors of the Toyota FT-86 concept first went viral. Skeptical, but hopeful, foolishly optimistic, and still heartsick over the loss of the original Toyota AE86 after all this time. After the first concept was unveiled at the 2009 Tokyo Motor Show, Subaru and Toyota eventually took nearly 4 additional years before the production Toyota GT86 / Scion FR-S / Subaru BRZ finally entered into the market.
It was a long wait but I'm glad the production cars stayed so close to the concept both in design and philosophy.
Somewhat generic looking in press photos, the lines on the FR-S are better represented in person. Styling wise, some enthusiasts prefer the mature and refined trapezoidal grille on the twin Subaru BRZ over the more "bottom-feeder" fish appearance of the FR-S. I might be a part of the minority here but I do prefer the integrated canard blades on the FR-S, which start from the bottom edge of the grille and work its way up to the outer edges of the headlights. That detail alone makes the FR-S look like it wants to have more fun!
Thanks to how low the boxer-engine is mounted, the FR-S possesses a unique design characteristic where the fender flares are higher than the hood line, making the FR-S look extremely sharp and wedgy from the outside. From the inside, visual references of the sharp fender creases allows the driver to better point the tires to clip an apex. Glancing the side mirrors, the FR-S's sporting intentions carry over to the rear as the wide rear fender flares fill in the inner corners of the mirror glass.
Let's get to the price: The 2013 Scion FR-S starts at an MSRP of $24,200 and our Hot Lava tester cost $25,066, including destination charges, rear bumper applique, and wheel locks.
Considering the FR-S's contenders, let's go a little crazy. Offering more interior refinement, the Subaru BRZ starts at $25,495. Competitively priced, the larger and more powerful Hyundai Genesis Coupe starts at $24,250. The 263-hp Mazdaspeed3, AKA the hottest hatch in the market, starts at $24,000. Hell, a 305-hp Mustang V6 starts at $22,200, and a 5.0 V8 Mustang GT with more than twice the horsepower figure as the FR-S would only cost two grand more than the Scion fully spec'd.
Is there an argument to be made for choosing a Scion FR-S over any of the other candidates? Absolutely. After a week of driving, the Scion FR-S is arguably a better tool than any for a young, first-time sports car owner. Unlike a Mustang, which might trick a person into believing they are a better and faster driver than they actually are, the Scion FR-S promises honest driving pleasure from the moment you adjust your seating position. The FR-S has the ability to hand out big rewards to the novice driver that stays humble and puts in the hours for the small improvements. In essence, the FR-S grows and evolves as the driver does the same.
When Chris Harris of DRIVE reviewed the GT86, he made an interesting remark: the Toyota GT86 comes alive at 10/10ths while the more powerful Nissan 370Z tends to feel just a bit sloppy when it gets pushed to the limit.
Unfortunately, this causes a debate against the Scion FR-S and Toyota GT86 as well; how often do you get to drive at 10/10ths? During day-to-day commutes, isn't it more likely that I'll be driving at 7/10ths, or 8/10ths at most? All driving enthusiasts often dream about that deserted stretch of windy road but, realistically, urban driving is more accommodating to nothing more than short bursts of acceleration. In that respect, the Scion FR-S simply lacks the torque necessary for that to be any fun.
Posing two sides of the coin, the final question is whether I recommend the Scion FR-S enough to go ahead and buy one myself. Truthfully, I'm seriously considering the prospect and if I still love the Scion FR-S by the time I've saved enough money, I'll take care of the torque deficit with a little bit of low-end boost from a small turbo and I'll keep the car with me for as long as I can. That said, I predict that the success of the Subaru BRZ and Scion FR-S will ultimately depend on its impact on tuner culture. Don't take my word for it; just take a look at the iconic Nissan 240SX instead. More than a decade since its discontinuation, the Silvia has become the original compact Japanese sports car turned tuner car poster child, and it's every bit as desirable as ever. If the FR-S evolves as it should, we're witnessing the birth of a classic.
Enjoy the awesome photos of our tester Scion FR-S below!