The Scion FR-S. A car that a person could feel sorry for. If only for the ridiculous expectations placed on it.
The FR-S and its mechanical twin, the Subaru BR-Z, were developed as a joint initiative between Toyota and Subaru, and short of a few minor internal, external and suspension tweaks, are identical.
Because they promised a sports car for a reasonable price, and because the press has thrust these two cars into legendary status before anyone even drove one, they’ve had big shoes to fill. People were expecting stratospheric things, and as we humans tend to do, people were suddenly saying things about how disappointing the cars were versus the buzz.
The cars can’t help it. The buzz and the hype came from the people, and the cars were just along for the ride. I tried to keep an open mind and forget all the things I’d read or seen when I took delivery of the FR-S.
So, let’s talk facts first: the FR-S starts at CDN $25,990. There are precious few options – mine, as equipped with a block heater and the Pioneer stereo upgrade rang in at CDN $27,021. The only other option is the automatic transmission. Nice and simple.
Under the Hood
Let’s just get this out of the way. There have been plenty of folks saying the car is perfectly balanced and doesn’t need a shred more power than it has. There have been practically an equal number of complaints saying it needs more jam.
So what’s going on under the hood? It’s a 2.0-Liter, flat-4 (boxer). No turbos, no blowers, nothing fancy. The mill cranks out 200 HP at 7000 RPM and a surprisingly low 151 lb.ft at 6400 RPM.
The fact that it’s only schlepping around about 2750 pounds makes a big difference though. The power is pushed through a 6-speed manual transmission and to the rear wheels. Nice and simple. You’re going to see that become a recurring theme here.
Fuel economy is quite good. The FR-S is rated at 9.6 L/100 km (24.5 mpg) in the city, and 6.6 L/100 km (36 mpg) on the highway. I think it requires mentioning that the automatic version of this car pulls off measurably better fuel mileage – it’s rated at 8.3 L/100 km (28 mpg) in the city and 5.8 L/100 km (41 mpg) on the highway. Those are very, very good numbers. The fuel tank holds 50 Liters.
During my week with the FR-S, I managed an average of 10.2 L/100 km (23 mpg), which included mostly aggressive city driving and two sprints down the freeway.
Normally I don’t get into the weight distribution, but those buying this car will often care about it. Scion has managed a near-ideal 53/47 front-rear distribution. Also, have a look at the engine bay. Nothing in there sits higher than the struts. The center of gravity in this car is purportedly lower than a Porsche Cayman. HELLO!
The shift lever felt great. I thought the throws were perfect – short, and precise. I never had issues getting it into exactly the gear I was headed for, and I never had any doubts as to where it was. That might not sound like a big deal, but it’s one less distraction when you are focusing on driving hard. The clutch was a bit touchy, and the take-up happens in quite a short window. I found it wasn’t the easiest car to drive smoothly at lower speeds, but the reward was the exceptionally positive and precise action in the shifting when you’re driving fast and hard.
There are two buttons on the console. One turns off the traction control, and the other turns off the stability control and puts the car into Sport mode. Both of them turn up the fun factor a bit, but some of the electronic grannies stay in place, and if you kick out the rear end too much, you’ll feel one thing or another scrambling to bring you back into line. Not too much fun now, y’hear?
I was a bit disappointed by that. The car is so capable, but slide around a corner with a bit of hustle, and things start shuddering and the fun gets cut in half as the stern overlords of electronic control waggle their fingers at you and shake their heads. I’m here to help you beat them. Hold down the traction control button for about 5 seconds, and you’ve got the real “Fun” setting. It turns off all the electronic gadgets, and it leaves you with a car that will force a grin out of you every single time you go around a corner.
Let’s talk power. The FR-S has it, but it seems a bit short in a straight line. This is not a dragster, but it’s not tough to get over that. The sounds the boxer engine makes under throttle are simply fantastic. It is a nearly perfect sound in the car. I took a friend for a ride and he conceded that he had heard tuned boxer engines in Subarus that don’t sound as good. They did a great job with it. Step on it and wring through the gears, and you’ll get a decent, if not thrilling, sprint from 0-60 mph in 6.2 seconds. To be honest, it doesn’t even feel THAT fast.
Driving around town, the boxer is flexible, but pretty wimpy at low revs – no surprise there for anyone who has driven Subaru’s boxers. It will pull smoothly through the gears, but it loves to be above 3000 RPM. Keep things around 3000 to 4000 RPM and it will pick up the pace nicely from there. I’d appreciate another 30-50 lb.ft of torque to make the rear end a tad slipperier when I want it that way, and to make it feel a little snappier off the line.
The steering is unbelievable. It could actually qualify as perfect for me. It’s firm, not overboosted, the turn-in is remarkable, yet the car never feels nervous. It’s stable and on-center until you turn the wheel. Road feedback comes back aplenty, yet it never feels overwhelming where you feel every single pebble in the road. Pretty awesome for electric steering, y’all.
Handling is so, so, so good. Don’t get me wrong – it stays super-flat around turns, but I love that the car actually has a tiny bit of body roll, but that it feels as though it’s rotating around a pivot point. Turn into any curve, turn around any sharp corner, blast through any cloverleaf onto or off a freeway – you’ll never be surprised, you’ll never be disappointed. This is a 100% predictable car, and it will never leave you wanting more in terms of handling. Take some speed into a curve with you, and the rear end swings out a tad, only to slide back into place. Take some speed and some revs with some more throttle into that same corner, and you can push the rear end out. Yet I never felt the car wanting to bite me back. Steering with the rear end of the car is one of the greatest joys of driving a rear-wheel drive car, and the FR-S simply excels at it. I never felt it snap back into place too quickly, and you can essentially corner at will without bothering to use your brakes. Let off the throttle when required, get back on whenever you want to. It will never say no. I never felt the rear end coming around less than predictably and I never felt that I had lost even a shred of control. Drop a little counter-steer and some more throttle into the equation, and suddenly you’re a drift champ. OK, not quite, but it’s so easy to drive this car exactly how you envision yourself wanting to drive it. Think about that for a second. It says a lot.
The ride is firm. Quite firm, in fact. It never felt uncomfortable, but it certainly reminds you what the car’s purpose is. I did appreciate that the suspension didn’t get crashy over even the harshest surfaces, which shows how much effort went into it. Although it was smooth at highway speeds, the car’s length and wheelbase work against it, and I often found it jittery on the highway as it couldn’t quite soak up the undulations. I think that would get tiring on a road trip.
Braking – wow. The brakes felt absolutely perfect to me. This is how the brakes in every car should feel. The pedal is firm, and there’s no slop. You touch them, they start working. You push them down, they’ll bring you to a controlled stop. You step on them with authority and they will haul the FR-S down at an alarming rate. They were always easy to modulate, and very precise.
Noise isn’t always well-controlled. Wind noise is never an issue, and the engine remains subtle until you step on the throttle at which point it snarls at you – just the way a sport car’s engine should. I did feel that road noise intrudes into the cabin quite a bit, which would get irritating on the highway.
Visibility out of this car swings from one end of the spectrum to the other. Your view of the road ahead of you is essentially perfect – the hood slopes out of your view and you are looking at road. The exceptions, and they are glorious, are the upper parts of the front fenders. See how they blister out of the hood? When you look forward, all you see is the tips of those bulges which lets you know exactly where your front wheels are at all times. Brilliant. The view out the sides is spectacular and open as well. The story changes toward the back – looking out the rear is a bit constricted, and the B and C pillars act together to completely block your view for shoulder checking your own side of the vehicle. It did make me a Nervous Nelly occasionally when I was wanting to change lanes and realized I couldn’t tell what was beside me.
I do like the styling of the FR-S but it came up a bit bland in my books. I guess at first glance, I wish it looked more aggressive.
It’s a small car. When you’re standing beside it, it’s a surprisingly tight package. It’s short and low. The hood slopes down to swept-back headlight clusters, a gaping grille mouth, and some faux intakes on either side of the air dam. There are little fake air vents on the cowl, and a subtle 86 badge, in a nod to the Toyota AE86 – an epic sports car of lore. As a matter of fact, this car is sold as the Toyota GT-86 in other parts of the world.
The roof has a lower portion in the middle, and then slopes back into a line that terminates at the back edge of the trunk lid. There are some lovely rear flanks that sprout out behind the doors, and the rear end sports some (in my opinion) dated-looking tail lights, a nice dual exhaust and an integrated rear diffuser out of dark plastic.
The wheels are handsome. On paper, the combination of 215/45s on 17-inch rims seems small, but they look fine in real life, because the whole car is small.
The first thing you’ll notice before you even see the interior is how long slung this car is. Why? Because it’s an exercise in butt dropping just to get into it. It takes a few attempts until you get the hang of getting in without looking like an old person.
The seats. Oh boy, those seats. Well, let me start by saying they’d be fantastic if you spent each day at the track with the FR-S. They are firm, relatively comfortable and exceptionally well bolstered. Now, let’s say you spent more of your day doing driving on the road instead of racing on a track. In that case, you might not be the biggest fan of these seats. The manually adjustable buckets have an uncompromising side to them, and almost invariably, my passengers complained of one issue or another in terms of fit and comfort. For me, they were great except the upper shoulder bolsters really squeezed me and made me feel as though I had to push myself into the seat. I have broad shoulders and I’m not a little guy by any stretch of the imagination, so I wouldn’t imagine someone bigger than me finding a lot of comfortable ways to adjust these seats.
There’s tons of headroom in the front, and the foot wells are spacious. Although it’s a small car, you never feel cramped.
Once you’re in, you’re in. Feast your eyes on that steering wheel, baby, and grab on. It qualifies as one of the best I’ve driven with. No buttons, small diameter, perfectly circular, grippy, perfect rim thickness, adjustable for height and reach. Behind it sits a large central tach, right where it belongs. There’s a tightly spaced and difficult to read speedometer to the left, and temperature/fuel gauges to the right. There’s a digital speedometer inside the tach circle, as well as a multi-function driver information screen with odometer, trip meters, fuel economy, etc.
The materials are decent, and suitable for this vehicle’s price and class. The dash is sculpted – it’s not my favorite look, but it’s covered in nice, soft-touch plastic which I noticed does a great job in not reflecting the sun onto the windshield. There is nicely stitched padding on the door panels, but there is also an abundance of hard plastics. Fit and finish appears to be excellent, and everything felt solid.
At the upper center of the dash, you’ll find air vents. Below that sits the stereo system, and below that, a simple manual climate control unit that uses three chunky rotary dials.
The center console houses the fantastic shift lever and a traditional, perfectly placed parking brake lever on the left. I say perfectly placed should you want to, you know, yank it back whilst driving the car around corners and such. You can rest easy, should you be wondering about pedal placement. Rev-matching won’t be a problem.
The interior follows the theme once again – nice and simple.
Everything is powered – door locks, mirrors, windows. There’s a power trunk release button too. No push-start ignition – you use what we used to call a key. Remember those?
The stereo system is Pioneer-branded, regardless of whether you stick with the stock one or upgrade it. My review car had the upgraded one, which adds a small touchscreen. Sources are AM, FM, CD, auxiliary, USB and Bluetooth-streaming audio. There are 8 speakers, and it sounds OK but I was never that impressed with it. That matters little, because the music coming from under the hood sounded better anyway. The picture does not show the touchscreen system – I found it nearly impossible to photograph the dash of this car!
Honestly, you’re not buying this car because you care about rear seats but here’s what you need to know: if your friends are very small children or amputees, they’ll be fine back there. Nobody else will be.
There are 2 sets of LATCH anchors, should you hate yourself enough to want to transport little ones back there. Getting in there to buckle them up will be a different story. Oh, and if your amputee friends want to help navigate, there’s a single seatback map pocket for their convenience. And that’s it.
This will be a woefully short section, which is fine when we’re talking about a car with sporting intentions.
You get a decent glove compartment and door bins that are essentially bottle holders. There’s a little horizontal rubberized slot at the bottom of the center stack – it has a lip to hold a smart phone in there perfectly, and the auxiliary and USB plugs are right next to it. The back of the center console is an open bin containing a moveable double cupholder and a 12V plug.
The trunk is small and shallow. That’s right. It’s a trunk, not a hatchback. Why? Because it saves weight. It’s usable space though. The engineers planned it such that you can transport a set of 4 track tires if you fold the rear seats down. Now that’s cool!
You’ll find a great dead pedal in the footwell, alongside a set of perfectly placed pedals. Well done, Scion.
I liked the red shift light. It’s simply a bright red dot at the top of the tach that comes on when you rev the engine over 7000 RPM. No goofy “Oh please, would you consider shifting up now at 2500 RPM to save fuel” lights that just annoy the crap out of me on other cars. Nope, just a warning that you’re nearing redline and one that catches your attention even when you’re not looking at the instruments. That’s all I need, thank you.
There is no grab handle to close the trunk with. I just hate that! I know they’re all about saving weight, but the few grams a plastic handle would add would be worth it so that I don’t have to get my pawprints all over the trunk and the trunk’s dirt all over my paws.
The left rear tail light had condensation in it when I got it, and that didn’t change throughout the entire week. That may seem trivial, but that’s the kind of stuff that would drive me crazy if I owned this car.
After a couple of days of living with the FR-S, I finally understood this car. I understood what it was to enjoy simplicity again. I understood how well a basic, well-thought-out and well-engineered car can handle anything you throw at it. I felt the joy of getting into a car that didn’t over-promise and under-deliver.
I always appreciate honest vehicles. I like when they deliver on what they promise – visually, on paper, etc. The Scion FR-S never lied to me. The numbers on paper make it seem a little weak, certainly in a straight line. And it is.
The combination of a low curb weight and rear-wheel drive makes me think it will be easy to sling around corners. And it is.
The addition of a well-tuned suspension, a slick-shifting transmission and an incredibly low center of gravity makes me think it will take sporty handling to a new level, most certainly at this price level. And it does.
The no-frills interior makes me think I will be given everything I need to live with this car, and nothing that will distract me from driving it the way it should be driven. And I was.
This honesty and the FR-S’ ability to make me smile any time I was driving it lands the car an 8 out of 10.
I loved that the steering seemed to know exactly what I wanted it to do. I loved that this car never held back from me. It always felt as though it would work as hard as I needed it to in order to get the results that I wanted. This car is a partner on the road, rather than an adversary that you need to flog to get results. It’s easy to drive around town, and it’s easy to drive as hard as you can. And the driving position is near perfect.
People have complained about the fuel economy that is lower than they expected, and that the FR-S is slower than they wanted it to be. Well, great rear-wheel drive coupes aren’t always about scrimping at the pump, nor do they need to be the fastest in a straight line. This one is about being an enticing driving machine – on your roads or on the track.
As I mentioned, I do want a little more power (not a lot) and I’d want to see a little compromise from the front seats if I were to live with the FR-S. But overall, and especially for this amount of money, this is by far the most competent sports car I’ve driven in a long time. But the fact that it’s playful, and simply enjoyable, makes that competence infinitely more accessible. Add to that the fact that this thing is put together by Toyota and Subaru, and you can almost guarantee solid reliability for a long time to come.
Thanks for taking me back to what it means to enjoy a sporty drive, Scion and Subaru.
Thanks for giving us a car that says “The more fun you have, the happier I’ll be”.
Thanks for keeping it simple. Nice and simple.
Side note: In a week’s time, I’ll have the opportunity to drive the Subaru BR-Z in Ontario for a week, including some track time. I look forward to comparing the two.
Disclosure: Vehicle was provided by Scion Canada.
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