Thumbs Up: The first new and affordable RWD sports car in decades.
Thumbs Down: Could use more power, unchecked dealer price gouging.
Buy This Car If: You can find one at list price and enjoy driving with a grin on your face.
Lightweight rear-wheel-drive sports cars used to populate the automotive landscape like tie-dyed t-shirts at a Furthur concert. Then, seemingly one by one, they began the great die-off. First to go were the roadsters, like the Lotus Elan, the Triumph Spitfire, the MG MGB and the Fiat and Alfa Romeo Spiders.
Then came the coupes, with the Nissan Z getting more bloated and luxurious with each passing generation until it resembled a cartoon parody of itself (before the fourth generation car, that is), like Elvis before he died on the toilet. Eventually, it was Toyota’s turn, with the enthusiast-beloved Celica morphing into a front-drive econobox in 1985 and the Corolla AE86 driving into the sunset in 1987.
Sure, there were pockets of resistance. The rotary-engined Mazda RX-7 soldiered on until 2002, and the Mazda Miata gave enthusiasts hope that at least one manufacturer still built lightweight and attainable sports cars. Even the Toyota MR2 and MR Spyder were brief glimpses of hope, before the lights all but went out for driving enthusiasts. By 2012, the only lightweight RWD sports car for drivers on a budget was the Mazda MX-5 Miata. Yes, we know that Nissan is still building the 370Z, but that’s neither inexpensive nor lightweight in our book.
After years of rumors, Toyota showed a concept it called the FT-86 at the 2009 Tokyo Motor show, and enthusiasts the world over immediately grabbed their check books (or debit cards) to place an order for one. Production was announced, and the countdown to availability of the first new rear-drive Toyota (or, more accurately, the first ever Toyota-Subaru joint project) began.
The Scion FR-S began hitting U.S. dealerships in May of 2012, and the biggest problem experienced by Toyota since launch seems to be building enough to satisfy global demand. The FR-S gives buyers a lot to like, including edgy styling, superb handling and enough practicality to justify it to your significant other as a daily driver, all at a price that makes it seem more economy car than aspirational sports car.
We mean edgy styling quite literally, too. Up front, the lower valence caries lines that sweep from the curve of the front fender down to the very bottom of the fascia. Combined with the rounded contours of the hood, which taper to a point in front, the FR-S has as much of a serpentine appearance as the new Dodge Viper. It’s aggressive, to be sure, but stops short of being over-the-top the way some of the FR-S concepts were.
In profile, (as well as in the swell of the front fenders and the double-bubble roof) there’s a bit of the iconic Toyota 2000GT to be seen, but we’d call it more of an influence than a copy. We’re fans of the front fender vents (even though they’re just simulated) and we also like the opposing-piston “86” logo. The asymmetrical curve of the door breaks up the otherwise-plain profile view, as does the upward curve of the rocker panel. As is usually the case with sport coupes, the FR-S carries a steeply-raked windshield, a narrow daylight opening and a high beltline. Proportionally, we’d call the car just about ideal.
Out back, tail lights echo the shape of the headlights, and a large plastic fascia is the most readily apparent styling element. Dual exhausts remind you that this is a car with sporting intentions, and we commend Toyota for not sticking on a giant rear wing or overdone spoiler. There will be plenty of aftermarket companies offering bolt-on aero bits, should owners feel the need to go in this direction.
Inside, “no frills” is the best way to describe the cockpit, but that isn’t criticism. Sports cars shouldn’t be laden with farkles to distract the driver; instead, they need to deliver easily acquired data and controls that fall to hand, and the FR-S does both well. That’s not to say that sports car interiors should be bland, either, and the Scion does a good job of keeping things interesting. We don’t mind the black faux-carbon-fiber dash trim that some others have panned, and we like the red contrast stitching on steering wheel and seats. Unlike other Scions we’ve driven in the past, the FR-S emits neither a squeak nor a rattle from the dash, and we get the sense that the FR-S is built to a bit higher a standard than the rest of the Scion lineup.
Instruments are intelligently laid out for spirited driving. The primary gauge, a large tachometer with a white face and bold black numbers, sits front and center in the instrument cluster. The tach also includes a simple driver information display, as well as a (much needed) digital speedometer display. There’s a shift light on the gauge face, too, meaning that all you need for track driving is right in front of your eyes. Flanking the tach is a small analog speedometer, which can be difficult to read with sunglasses on, and a combination fuel and temperature gauge.
Front seats were designed with plenty of bolstering for spirited driving, although we didn’t find them too intrusive for daily use. They’re thin, to save weight, and lack any kind of lumbar support, but we’ll let that slide since the FR-S is a sports car and not a GT car. We like the sueded fabric used to cover the seats, as it further helps to hold driver and passenger in place when the road (or track) throws you a curve. For the car’s mission and price point, we give the front seats two thumbs up.
Rear seats, on the other hand, are for insurance purposes only. No adult human is going to fit back there (at least comfortably) for any length of time unless driver and passenger both have a 24-inch inseam. Consider the space as additional cargo room and you won’t be disappointed.
Under the hood lurks a 2.0-liter boxer four-cylinder engine, developed jointly between Toyota and Subaru. Output is rated at 200 horsepower and 151 pound-feet of torque, which should be plenty to power a car that weighs in at around 2,800 pounds. We say “should be,” because the FR-S never feels like it’s accelerating with enthusiasm. The numbers are reasonable, with 0-60 coming up in around 6.7 seconds, but somehow the car feels slower than this. We suspect that tuners will sell boatloads of exhausts, intakes and forced-induction kits for the FR-S, since it would be perfect with another 35 to 50 horsepower and a comparable boost in torque. Fuel economy is decent, with the EPA rating the FR-S at 22 mpg city and 30 mpg highway, although we suppose that depends upon how often you visit the upper end of the tachometer.
Climb behind the wheel, and you’ll immediately notice how light the effort of the clutch pedal is, making the car easy to drive for those not entirely comfortable with rowing their own gears. Shift throws are short and precise, and we can say without a doubt this is the best-shifting Scion we’ve ever driven. Feed out the clutch and get on the gas, and the car accelerates smoothly, building momentum once you’re above 3,000 RPM. Going fast in the FR-S is all about preserving momentum, so in that regard the car reminds us of a first-generation Miata. Get on the binders, and the first thing you’ll notice is a relatively hard brake pedal. You quickly get used to this, but if you’re coming from an economy or luxury car, it will feel a bit odd at first. In corners, there is a surprising amount of grip considering the non-sporting rubber supplied from the factory, and feedback from both ends of the car is exemplary. The FR-S lets you know what’s going on at all times, as long as you’re paying attention to it.
Push too hard in a corner, and the front tires will give you a gentle reminder that you’re testing their limits just before the rear wiggles a bit. Get ham-fisted mid-corner and lift off abruptly, and the electronic stability control (which can be turned off for track driving) reins things in before lift-throttle-oversteer rears its ugly head. Those with prior racing or track day experience will feel instantly at home behind the wheel, and our experience is that the Scion FR-S is a very easy and forgiving car to drive fast if you’re used to rear-wheel drive sports cars.
As good as the FR-S is out of the box, handling would be improved immensely by a set of stickier (and perhaps wider) tires and a drop in ride height. These changes aren’t really necessary for street driving (as the car’s limits are high enough already), but they will definitely help the on-track or autocross performance of the car, so budget accordingly. If we owned one, we’d upgrade the tires and springs before we even thought about adding more horsepower.
As the first new and affordable rear-drive sports car in decades, the Scion FR-S is already an out-of-the-park home run. If you’re willing to deal with a stiff (but not harsh) ride, lack of rear-seat room and power output that’s merely adequate in stock form, the FR-S will reward you with precise handling and a fun-to-drive factor that can’t be measured. Since it’s new to the market, expect to pay a premium from dealers in the form of “ADM,” or additional dealer markup, or exorbitantly-priced add-ons like paint protection, interior stain protection and window etching, all of which do nothing but pad the dealership’s bottom line. At $25,000, the car is a solid bargain; at $32,000 (the asking price at several local dealerships here), there are other cars to consider.
Scion supplied the 2013 FR-S for our evaluation, which came with no dealer-installed options and a sticker price of $24,985, including a delivery charge of $785. For comparison, a similarly equipped vinyl-topped Mazda MX-5 Miata Sport would sticker for $27,000, while a comparable (but front-wheel-drive) Fiat 500 Abarth would list for $22,700.