Don't look now, but the '80s are back. Thankfully, there's a bright spot among the nauseating resurrection of neon jeans, blue eyeshadow and shoulder pads: The return of the affordable Japanese sports car. And there's no better example than the 2013 Scion FR-S.
But hold onto your parachute pants, because the FR-S is anything but dated. The front-engine, rear-wheel-drive coupe is all new, built in collaboration with Subaru, which, along with Toyota engineers, co-developed a flat 4-cylinder, horizontally opposed, direct-injection boxer engine. The two companies worked together to develop both the chassis and the small, lightweight engine with a shape and size that allows it to sit very low in the engine compartment, equating to a lower center of gravity (which Scion loves to point out is lower than the Porsche Cayman) for better balance and handling. Paired with a choice of a 6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic transmission, the 2013 Scion FR-S makes a respectable 200 horsepower and 151 pound-feet of torque.
Performance-oriented features abound on the 2013 FR-S, including a front MacPherson front suspension, a double-wishbone rear suspension, and ventilated disc brakes all around. Inside, the cargo area was configured, per a Toyota engineer's request, to fit four full-size tires and a jack with the rear seats folded flat. In other words, it's ready to head for the nearest autocross or track day event. Like other Scions, the FR-S is mono-spec with a plethora of optional a la carte accessories, including a cold air intake, big brake kit, sway bars, and body kit.
EPA fuel economy estimates for the 2012 FR-S are 22/30 mpg City/Highway for the manual transmission and 25/34 mpg for the automatic. All cars will be built alongside the Subaru BRZ, sister car to the Scion FR-S, out of Subaru's Gunma assembly plant in central Japan.
The primary inspiration for the FR-S was the 1983 Toyota Corolla, the fifth-generation of the Corolla, code-named AE86. Called the Hachi-Roku in Japan, the AE86 was a breakthrough sports car for Toyota. Its lightweight and high-revving engine powered the car to many track, rally and autocross wins. Toyota gives a nod to the AE86 with a stylized 86 on the FR-S badge. You may also notice the tailpipes measure 86 millimeters in diameter. Two other models influenced the FR-S as well: The 1965 Toyota Sports 800 and the 1967 Toyota 2000GT.
With that much of an homage to its history, some are left scratching their heads over why Toyota would brand the FR-S in the U.S. as a Scion. First, the Toyota brand image in North America these days evokes about as much excitement as a toaster. Consumers buy Toyotas for practicality and reliability, not so much for eye-catching design or breathtaking performance. Second, Scion, which boasts the youngest owners in the industry, needs a halo car, an attainable object of desire that draws new customers to a lineup of econo-boxes. But will it work? Scion execs think so. They anticipate the FR-S will appeal not only to teenagers and college-aged kids, but to older enthusiasts in their 30s and beyond. With its low base price and customizable setup, Scion expects even well-to-do customers will step forward for the light, tossable track car.
The 2013 Scion FR-S competes with compact sports cars like the rear-wheel-drive Hyundai Genesis Coupe, a car that boasts more optional power and larger dimensions, but also a heftier price tag. Then there's the evil twin: the Subaru BRZ, sister car to the FR-S. While the platform, powertrain and most parts are identical, the FR-S packs a firmer, more sporty suspension, which should appeal more to weekend track warriors. Base versions of the Ford Mustang, Dodge Challenger and Chevrolet Camaro are also potential rivals, as is the Mazda Miata MX-5, all rear-wheel-drive cars.
Scion says the exterior design of the FR-S was inspired by the Toyota 2000GT of the late 1960s. And while the FR-S lacks the long hood and relatively short passenger compartment of the old car, one can see that it echoes the 2000GT's long, sleek shape and its pagoda-style roof.
The front fascia of the FR-S is much busier than its ancestor, with angular headlamps and upward-swooping fenders. The wide-mouthed front grille employs a unique mesh pattern (Stealth bombers? Bejeweled gems?) that's cleverly repeated behind the driver's instrument cluster. From the side, the pointy, shark-nosed FR-S clearly has abandoned the proportions of the old cars in favor of a shorter hood and softer-flowing lines over the passenger compartment. In back, the FR-S has a low, wide rump. In continuing the 86 theme, the exhaust tips are 86 millimeters across. A combination of round and sharp geometric lines on taillights and lower LED accents, which sit squarely between the twin tailpipes, evoke faces of strange Japanese anime characters.
Managing airflow around the car was a design priority, not only for better fuel economy, but to help keep the engine and other systems cool. To this end, the FR-S uses bumper covers in the back for improved aerodynamics. Add the aerodynamic treatment underneath the car and the FR-S earns a drag coefficient of 0.27, according to Scion, which beats the Hyundai Genesis Coupe's 0.32 Cd.
Unlike many performance-oriented cars that have a driver-focused cockpit, the 2013 Scion FR-S has a symmetrical dash, presumably to control costs in producing both left- and right-hand drive versions. Like all Scions, the instrument cluster and center stack in the FR-S is blissfully clean and simple. Climate controls consist of three large knobs that are easy to see and reach.
At the center of the cockpit is an all-new steering wheel, the smallest on any Scion. At just 14.4 inches in diameter, the wheel is easy to handle on the track. On cars equipped with the automatic transmission, paddle shifters are attached to the wheel, rather than affixed to the steering column. We like that the wheel can telescope as well as tilt, a feature not often found on lower-priced vehicles. Achieving a proper driving position is important on the race track or autocross circuit.
Fit and finish are admirable for price, with soft-touch dash materials, good fit and finish, and thoughtful touches such as aluminum pedals and the sporty mesh pattern behind instrument cluster that mirrors the front grille mesh. Some elements look cheap and plastic-y, though, like the removable cupholder unit in the center console and the fake carbon-fiber-print trim in front of the front passenger. All in all, though, the interior on the FR-S is well executed, and we think perhaps even better than the pre-production Hyundai Genesis Coupe we drove earlier this year.
The driver and passengers sit low in the cockpit, which can take a while to get used to, but visibility is still good. The fabric seats are highly bolstered and comfortable, although there is no lumbar support and the range of adjustability isn't as wide as we'd like. The cloth upholstery used on the seats is soft and grippy, almost like the much-pricier Alcantara, although we wonder how durable it will be, especially on the bottom seat cushions.
The rear bucket seats are ridiculously cramped. While there is enough hip and knee room for small adults or young children, the lack of toe room makes it almost impossible to carry people in the backseat. Most likely we'd use the rear seating area for storage, which, when the single-folding seat back is flat, provides open access to the trunk and enough room for four full-sized tires. Glaring omissions on the FR-S was a lack of a roof handle on the passenger side, as well as rear handles/hooks for rear passengers and/or dry cleaning.
Audio controls vary depending on what system you choose. We found the controls on the base stereo to be nonsensical and aggravating; the upgraded system with the touchscreen is much more intuitive and easy to use. Sound quality from the Pioneer audio system is fair, but since Scion customers tend to be big on customization, we expect music aficionados will roll with aftermarket speakers anyway.
The FR-S debuts a new, optional infotainment system called BeSpoke, powered by Pioneer's Zypr technology. While our test cars were not yet equipped with the new system, we were able to see a freestanding display outside of the car. The new system offers drivers connectivity via the usual apps such as Facebook and Twitter, but we were disappointed to learn that BeSpoke is compatible only with Apple's iPhone and iPod, which might not sit too well with a vast number of the younger set opting for Andriod-powered smartphones.
When it comes to performance, the FR-S will meet your expectations, as long as they are realistic. For a sub-$25,000 car powered by a four-cylinder engine, the 2012 Scion FR-S delivers tight handing, good feedback and plenty of fun. Electronically assisted steering, which can often be dull and dead, feels surprisingly responsive and engaging.
While driving on the street, we found the FR-S didn't have a ton of power at low revs, and acceleration performance was inadequate for safely passing on a two-lane road at higher elevations. There's no turbo here to help generate power in the thin air. In these situations, we had to allow ourselves plenty of space for passing.
The firm suspension, while great for performance, makes for a rough ride over speed bumps and into driveways. Wind noise was evident at freeway speeds, although we didn't notice a lot of road noise coming from the 17-inch wheels and summer tires.
On the track, the car was able and forgiving, and while the low end didn't throw us back in our seats, we had ample power in the higher revs. The car felt balanced and hunkered down, with very little body roll around corners. With its nimble handling, we preferred the lower-speed autocross to the high-speed track. Nevertheless, the FR-S was plenty impressive in all applications.
Although the naturally aspirated engine is currently the only available option, we expect it's only a matter of time before someone figures out how to shoehorn in an aftermarket turbocharger. Toyota engineers are mum on whether an OE turbo-charged version will ever hit the market, but we guess it could happen in the next year or two.
A so-called sound creator pipes engine sound into the cabin to give drivers an ego boost. We're not big fans of this ever-increasing practice but suppose it's good fun. The sound on the FR-S isn't as sweet and throaty as the one in the Hyundai Genesis Coupe, but it does put out a bit more grunt above 4000 rpm.
Cars equipped with the automatic transmission have automatic rev matching, which means it will blip the throttle while downshifting to match engine speed for maximum performance. This is particularly helpful on the track. Shifts with the automatic are relatively quick but not lightning fast.
On manual transmissions, the shifter feel strikes a nice balance between easy to move but not sloppy. Same with clutch feel. Engineers said they designed the clutch, shifter, and throttle feel to be similar and in synch, and it seems as if they were successful.
One interesting feature on the Scion FR-S is a rev indicator, which lets the driver set an alert at certain rpm. Common on race cars, it helps drivers shift consistently at the redline without taking their eyes off the track.
EPA fuel economy estimates for the 2012 FRS are 22/30/25 mpg City/Highway/Combined for the manual and 25/34/28 mpg for the automatic.
The Scion FR-S offers track-day fun at an attainable price. Its traditional rear-wheel-drive layout with double-wishbone independent rear suspension and low center of gravity make for an entertaining driver's car.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Laura Burstein filed this report after her test drive of the Scion FR-S near Las Vegas.