Every new car, let alone sports car, touts handling and fun-to-drive as a 'feature.' And in almost all of those cases, it's rubbish. It's not that those cars haven't made improvements or that they're bad, it's just that they're all too compromised to do handling right. To build a truly great-handling, rewarding car, you have to start with the best natural platform, build a bespoke engine nestled as low within the car as possible, and develop it for years to achieve a perfect balance and steering feel. It takes a considerable resources, simply not found in a sports coupe under $30k.
Except that's exactly what Scion has done with the FR-S. And by Scion, I mean Toyota and Subaru.
The cost to develop any new global new car is immense – think billion with a "b" and you're in the ballpark. Developing a new, somewhat niche-y sports car with rear-wheel drive and low weight as the main selling point is not quite the cash cow that enthusiasts might hope it is. So Toyota teamed up with Subaru to design and develop the FR-S as a joint effort and share their expertise. The result is a phenomenal little car unlike anything that's been on the market in years. And, importantly, it lives up to the hype.
First things first, how is that handling that the engineers sacrificed so much for?
Simply put, it's what you hope for in a sports car. Little-to-no understeer, and a seemingly perfect blend of suspension compliance, rigidity, balance, feel and tightness. There's a feeling of a direct link between the front wheels and the steering wheel, and the rear wheels and the throttle — it’s refreshing to drive a car where the steering feels so deliberate.
The suspension is firm, with practically zero body roll and no pitch/dive under braking or acceleration. It feels small. The shocks/damping feels really good, it's firm but goes over bump with a solid 'thunk' that feels substantial, instead of 'crashing' over bumps like a lot of 'sportier,' more expensive coupes.
All of these little 'buzzwords' about handling and connectivity add up to a package that is confidence inspiring, solid, and a blast to drive. To top it off, the ride quality is far more compliant than you'd expect, and it's low weight helps it react well to the many unpredictable road surfaces around town.
The seating position is so much lower than just about anything you're likely to encounter, which gives you a stronger connection to the road and a lower center of gravity. This sounds like a theoretical benefit, but it's one that's plain to see: it feels as if they designed the perfect seating position and then designed the FR-S around it.
Under the lightweight aluminum hood, you'll find the all-new 2.0L boxer four with direct injection. It pumps out 200 horsepower to make the FR-S... not all that fast.
It's true, the FR-S isn't exceptionally quick in a straight line. But what it does over is a flexible, trackable powerband with torque throughout the rev range.
Unlike more common "V-" or inline engine configurations, the pistons in the FR-S are horizintally-opposed — flat. This allows the motor to be mounted as low as possible in the chassis.
Visually, the FR-S is very small and compact, with classic proportions and an angry face. Some of the details, such as the expressive headlamps and taillamps, are top notch, while others are a bit lacking and give away its low price.
The FR-S hood peaks at the fenders and then sinks down in the center — it's like looking out of the windshield of the ultra driver-focused McLaren MP4-12C.
The FR-S offers a not-insignificant amount of trunk space, although there isn't a lot of height. The back seats (yes, there are back seats!) fold down flat for more capacity.
A purposeful, slick-looking gauge cluster puts the rev-counter and a digital speed readout front and center.
The FR-S is EPA rated at 28 mpg city and 34 highway, which is in line with what we observed.
The interior design in the FR-S is spartan and smartly laid out, but the materials fall short in some areas. The fake "carbon fiber"-looking weave on the most visible part of the dashboard is one area that could have been handled better at no added cost.
Another gripe is the lack of an armrest, or even a compartment to put loose items. It's nice to have a place to hide your parking pass or highly-visible white iPod cord from would-be thieves without having to reach over to the glove compartment.
The seats in the FR-S are phenomenal, and perfectly fitted to my slim frame. Complex bolsters and a headrest that can actually rest your head make these some of the best seats we've been in. For the ideal driving position, they're mounted very low in the car.
When I jumped in the car I had trouble finding the third pedal, until I realized this Scion was equipped with automatic transmission. It's was a shame to not get the full experience of the manual, but thankfully the automatic is actually an excellent piece of kit that won't leave you wanting for pace or enjoyment. It's a six-speed automatic with a set of very nicely-implemented paddle shifters and Dynamic Rev Managament, a system that blips the throttle on your downshifts. It all works very well, and performs remarkably quick upshifts and downshifts. There's no clutch, but there's another satisfaction to be had in gripping the steering wheel with both hands and hammering out seamless gearshifts with the paddles.
The Scion FR-S weighs 2,806 lbs with the automatic transmission, and about 50 lbs less with the manual.
Our time with the FR-S revealed a connected, deeply engaging sports car that's fantastic to drive and comfortable to live with. Historically, you'd have to pay a premium for a car with such driver-focused dynamics, but the Scion FR-S we tested retails for $26,097. It's a steal.
Scion (well, Toyota and Subaru) have delivered the car that enthusiasats have been asking for for years. Now that it's here... will they buy it?