Driven: 2013 Scion FR-S

By Tom Martin

April 24, 2012

—Las Vegas, Nevada
Cars like the Scion FR-S don’t come along every year. Sure, almost every modern car is competent; in fact, impressively so, if you have as a reference the 1970s or 1980s. But few cars make experienced drivers repeatedly shake their heads, utter phrases like “damn, that’s good,” and struggle to explain the smiles they’re wearing. The Scion FR-S is one of these latter cars. And we should add that—after experiencing a bevy of canyon, track and highway miles—we’re pretty confident the Scion FR-S is not for every sports car buyer, despite its excellence. If you’re seriously interested in this car, you’ll want to stay tuned and understand why.
The FR-S is the logical child of some serious dating by Toyota and Subaru. There are probably many ways the story of this relationship has been told, and much of what we’ve heard involved translation from Japanese to English, which never maximizes accuracy, so we’ll summarize the big picture rather than the details. Basically, back in 2007, Toyota wanted to do front-engine, rear-drive small sports car as a kind of halo car. But Toyota doesn’t have an ideal small, FR drivetrain, while Subaru was closer. And even Toyota can’t assure that it’ll sell the volumes needed to make the project financially sane, so Subaru was recruited to add to these volumes with its different branding and distribution network.
The two companies formed a joint team to create the Scion FR-S and the companion Subaru BRZ. We think it is fair to say that the design and chassis are Toyota-driven and the engine is Subaru-driven. More importantly, the resulting two cars differ slightly in styling details, option packages (the Scion is mono-spec, the Subaru has two grades), and suspension tuning (the Subaru has, for example, slightly softer springs and bushings in the rear).
[Click here to read our comparison test with the Mazdaspeed3 vs. Mazda MX-5 Miata vs. Mazda RX-8.]
We think the car looks very good, taking advantage of the freedom the designers have when the shapes are specific to a sports car. We were relieved to see that the interior is as nicely done as the exterior, with decent materials, supportive seats and an overall look that is distinctive without being overstyled.
The rear compartment is surprisingly usable, with rear seats that can actually hold adults (though it helps if they are a bit less than six-feet tall) for short drives. The rear seats fold flat, creating a medium-size load area from trunk to front seats, though you will want to know that the FR-S is not a hatchback (for weight and rigidity reasons). As one measure of that load floor, Scion has designed the rear compartment to hold four tires and wheels should you want to bring your track/autocross rubber along without needing a trailer or companion.
The basic idea of the FR-S is simple. The big move is that the FR-S is the rare under $25K car ($24,200 with manual transmission, including delivery) that is purpose-built as a sports car. That is, the FR-S isn’t based on a sedan or a platform designed for twelve other uses from minivans to crossovers to grand touring cars.
The result of this strategy begins to explain why some people will fall all over themselves to get this car, while others will be unimpressed. The concept is to do a light, low-powered, efficient car with excellent dynamics. The FR-S weighs 2758 pounds, has a center of gravity in between that of the Porsche Cayman and Ferrari 360, and a very stiff chassis. The boxer 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine is set in a front/mid position and makes 200 horsepower and 151 pound-feet of torque. It was probably obvious from the first photo, but the FR-S is not a direct conceptual competitor with, say, the Mustang GT (3675 pounds, 420 horsepower) or the Camaro SS (3849 and 426).
Dynamically, the FR-S does an impressive number of things well. Heading out from Las Vegas toward the surrounding red rock canyons, we were surprised by how nicely the FR-S tracks at high speeds. We often don’t expect small cars to have such good directional stability, but the FR-S is a car you could wisely choose for long-distance cruising.
That sense is reinforced because the interior sound levels are more than quiet enough for conversation, with excellent management of tire and wind noise. There just enough drivetrain sound to be enjoyable without being intrusive, perhaps because Scion, like Porsche in the new 911, has created a mechanical conduit for engine bay sound into the cabin, an approach that allows the sound to be managed in both character and volume. Some drivers will want both more and richer drivetrain sound, and may opt for the dealer-installed TRD exhaust (or an aftermarket option—Scion, for those unfamiliar with the brand, is a champion of both branded accessories and aftermarket options).
Las Vegas, like much of the Southwest, has mostly smooth road surfaces, so it is difficult to get a full understanding of ride quality. Nonetheless, we hit a few pavement breaks that had us gritting our teeth in preparation for a jolt, only to find that the Scion soaked up the bump with aplomb. “BMW-like damping” kept crossing our minds, because the Scion doesn’t absorb these bumps by being soft, because the suspension is on the firm side, but rather by superior tuning and damper design.
Once in the canyonlands, we paid more attention to the steering of the FR-S. Like most new cars, the Scion uses electric power steering, and we liked what we felt. The ratio is on the pleasantly quick end of the spectrum, without being nervous. On-center the action is direct, which is important in real life, and overall the weight is on the heavy side, which we prefer. We didn’t notice a lot of feedback, so the steering won’t go down in history as one of the all-time greats, but it is quite usable and enjoyable. We appreciated that Scion provides both tilt and telescope settings on the wheel, though we might have opted for a little more telescoping range.
The manual shifter falls in that same “very good” category. The action is mechanically solid, not vague, and the throws are relatively short. The gate spacing is sensible, and the lever is placed well front-to-rear. Again, there have been a few great shifters (e.g. NSX, Ferrari 550) that improve on this one, but it is certainly well above average.
Running through the twisties in the canyons, we were impressed by how responsive and controllable the FR-S is. The car is small enough, the fender bulges obvious enough, and the sightlines clear enough that you have a good sense of where the car is running. Not only that, but steering 2758 pounds reminds us that weight is public enemy number one. The lightness of the FR-S makes it seem much more willing to dance than even a 3300-pound car does. When you compare it to typical 3800- and 4200-pound sports sedans, you appreciate how little the FR-S fights you and how sloppy or inert most of those cars feel.
From there, we hit the track at Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch. Our track time there showed off a few things that you suspect on the road, but—not wishing to endanger lives—you don’t fully explore. First, the FR-S feels very balanced in both tight corners and high-speed sweepers. For example, using the 1.5-mile layout at Spring Mountain, turn two is a high speed (~80 miles per hour) right that you can take flat out if your car inspires confidence. We’ve done this turn in other cars and found it took a lot longer to suck it up and keep it pinned than we did in the FR-S. After a few circuits in the FR-S we were happily blasting through turn two on the edge of the Michelins’ adhesion and seeing what top speed we could record before the braking zone for turn three. The FR-S simply felt great, with no sense that the car wanted to plow or to snap on us.
The other lovely element of the FR-S is the way it transitions. By our count, turns five and six at Spring Mountain create a right/left combination that leads into a hairpin that in turn leads to a long acceleration run. In other street cars, we’ve found it harder to nail five and six so that we were set up correctly for the hairpin. But in the FR-S, we were clean just about every time, because the car is so controllable. Hardcore autocrossers or track-day people will want to stiffen up the suspension, but occasional devotees will find the stock set-up quite usable.
We’re amassing a pretty long list of positives here, but we want to call your attention to the comments on ride quality and ask you to connect them to our comments on track dynamics. It is the rare car that gets comments like these in both areas.
Perhaps at this point in our story you might feel sufficiently informed about our enthusiasm for the FR-S. We certainly have provided an ample enumeration of the ways in which the car’s designers have done a brilliant job. And yet, we think you’ll want to know that we’d wager that at least half of you might admire the FR-S but won’t find it to your taste. We think the other proportion, smaller than half, will find the FR-S to be a complete package that competes with cars at twice the price. This split decision comes down to how you evaluate an essential element of the FR-S: its low-power formula.
This is not an argument about how the FR-S drivetrain feels. We’d have a hard time imagining any sane observer saying that the FR-S feels powerful. Really, the engine, and particularly the torque curve on the street, is rather mild. Various tests and our experience suggest that the FR-S is roughly a 7-second 0-60 car. But we’d also remind you that 0-60 mph is a lousy indicator of what you feel on the street, and especially so for low torque cars like the FR-S.
So, timing-wise the FR-S is a little slower than a Mini Cooper S and feels it. It’s a second or more slower than a late-model Honda S2000, which seems about appropriate. Again, it is also more than a second slower than a Subaru WRX, and feels at least that different. Compared with turbo cars (in our examples, the WRX and Cooper S) you really notice the difference in part-throttle street-driving, where the turbo gives you a nice kick, and small, normally aspirated engines (S2000 and FR-S) don’t.
So the possibly strange-sounding part of this story is that some fraction of you are going to understand that the lower power of the FR-S is actually part of what makes it compelling. Low-ish power is good.
Say what?
Yes, the lower power level of the FR-S is part of the charm in the right hands. That’s because of two scenarios. One occurs on the street where the FR-S allows you to work the car harder without getting up to arrest level or life-threatening speeds. Said the other way, the FR-S makes you work harder to get up to the same pace you might run with other, faster, cars. What some call work, others call pleasure. When things are too easy, some find that they aren’t that involving.
Another scenario involves track days. The FR-S is what is known as a momentum car, which means you can’t do decent track times in it if you aren’t fast in corners. The FR-S doesn’t have enough power to save you from bad behavior in braking zones, choosing your line improperly, or having generally poor car control. As a result, as most experienced racers will tell you, a momentum car is a better learning tool. Some will appreciate the FR-S as a track tool.
If right about now, you’re saying “hogwash” or some similar word, well, you’re just not an FR-S person. If you can’t imagine that what we’ve just said could apply to any mortal being with a brain, then this car is not for you.
Or at least the FR-S isn’t for you in its current guise. Scion will almost certainly roll out a turbocharged (or possibly supercharged) version of the car in a year or two. While we doubt that this car will be Evo- or 335i-quick, it should feel potent enough that some who dismiss the above scenarios will be drawn back to the showroom.
And, of course, there is the path of the tuner. You might actually find the limitations of the FR-S drivetrain a virtue if modding the car isn’t a necessity for you, but a desire. In March, well in advance of the June 1 on sale date, Scion held a measuring day for tuners to help get aftermarket parts out to consumers as soon as possible.
But for most, the FR-S is easier to understand if you forget about one group of possible comparisons based on turbo hot hatches and sedans—the Mazdaspeed3, the Mini Cooper S, the, the GTI, the  WRX, and the WRX STI, and the Evo. These cars, like the Mustang and Camaro mentioned above, are just plain different in character than the FR-S. This group is generally faster, often more exciting, and also cruder than the FR-S.
Closer comparisons come from the S2000 (sadly, no longer with us), BMW 128i, Porsche Boxster and Cayman, and the Mazda RX-8. While each of these cars has a desirable powerplant, in a way, most people think of the chassis dynamics and refinement of these cars first. What is astonishing about the FR-S is that it combines the cruising comportment and function of the 128i with the dynamics of the Cayman, or Boxster, or S2000. Which is to say that the ride and quiet of the FR-S are better than the old Cayman, with similar handling pleasure. Or that many people who liked the 128i for daily duty, could now pick the FR-S and get better handling in the process. And, of course, the FR-S is something between 40- and 80-percent of the money of these cars, while getting upper 20’s fuel mileage.
So, count us impressed. The Scion FR-S brings a level of coherence, refinement and driving pleasure to a price point that has seen interesting cars from time to time, but not something like this.
VS: Hyundai Genesis Coupe 2.0T
The Genesis Coupe 2.0T adds 74 horsepower, 125 pound-feet of torque, and 604 pounds to the FR-S package. The result is a very different feel. Both cars are comfortable, quiet cruisers. The Genesis has more oomph, though you may not be as tempted to wind it out. The Genesis also feels less connected on the road and struggles more on the track, though it isn’t so much that the Genesis is bad but that the Scion is so good. Mechanically, the Genesis doesn’t feel quite as sorted or refined. And while it is a bigger car, the interior seems less usable. The base Genesis Coupe 2.0T costs about $1000 more than the FR-S base.
VS: Mazda MX-5 Miata Touring
The MX-5 gives up 33 horsepower and 10 pound-feet of torque, but doesn’t feel like it because the engine is a willing revver and the MX-5 is even lighter than the FR-S (by 278 pounds). The spirit of the MX-5 bears a relationship to the FR-S, though if pressed we can point to noticeable differences. We’d say the MX-5 feels more agile, the FR-S more planted. The MX-5 is a touch more interactive on the street, the FR-S more balanced on the track. The FR-S is the better and quieter cruiser as you might expect, and, of course, the FR-S has a back seat, more trunk space but gives up the folding top. The base MX-5 Touring with a six-speed manual costs about $2500 more than the FR-S base.
FR-S Manual VS FR-S Automatic
The FR-S uses a torque-converter-based, six-speed automatic. Generally, as automatics go, we thought this one was quite good, with snappy shifts (including an auto-blip downshift feature) and decent paddle and console controls. The automatic also brings larger than normal benefits in fuel economy, with the manual registering 25 mpg combined and the automatic scoring 28 mpg combined on the EPA cycle.
However, as fans of tactile involvement, we think the manual has advantages for those who don’t need the automatic due to driving scenario or spousal demands. Besides the obvious difference in haptic skill required of a manual (which suits the nature of this car as described above), the shift mechanism on the manual is more solid, the timing of shifts is more controllable, and power application is more immediate with the manual than with the automatic. Some will, of course, prefer the quickness with which they can grab another gear with the automatic, say in traffic, or on the track when you are learning the circuit. Tradeoffs are ever present.
2013 Scion FR-S 6MT
Engine: Flat-4, 2.0 liters, 16v
Output: 200 hp/151 lb-ft
0-60 MPH: 7.0 sec (est)
Weight: 2758 lb
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy:
Base Price: $24,200
On Sale: Spring 2012