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Test Drive: 2013 Scion FR-S

 

Toyota knows a few things about building hybrids, so it’s about time it got around to making a fun one.

No, the FR-S from the automaker’s Scion division doesn’t have a big battery pack and electric motor, but it is the product of a joint venture between Subaru and Toyota that had the goal of building the world’s best affordable sports car. Talk about setting a low bar.

Subaru produces the car and handled most of the engineering behind it, while Toyota supplied the styling and the bulk of the cash to make it happen. It’s very much a surprise on both counts, as rear-wheel-drive coupes aren’t exactly what Subaru is known for and the looks of the FR-S are far sexier than your typical Toyota, which is what they sell it as outside of the United States. (Subaru offers a nearly identical version of it called the BRZ.)

Here, its mission is to inject some life into the recently moribund Scion brand while adding a little shine to Toyota’s overall image. Credit for this effort goes to Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda, himself a scion of the company’s founder and an avid race car driver who wants to bring excitement back to what has become largely a lineup of four-wheel appliances in recent years.

The formula for the FR-S is a simple, though rarely executed one: keep the car small and the weight low so you don’t need an enormous, expensive engine to make it perform well. Think Mazda Miata with a fixed roof.

The $24,995 FR-S weighs about 2,800 pounds, which is hundreds less than similarly priced competitors like the Hyundai Genesis Coupe and V6 Ford Mustang. The engine is a 200 hp 2.0-liter flat-4-cylinder of Subaru origin that’s been fitted with a unique fuel injection system from Toyota that uses both port and direct injectors to provide a combination of power and efficiency. With a six-speed automatic transmission, the FR-S is good for 34 mpg on the highway, but the shorter gearing of the more appropriate six-speed manual knocks that down to a still reasonable 30 mpg. Unfortunately, it requires 91 octane fuel.

Despite its trim dimensions – shorter in length and narrower than a Nissan 370Z – the FR-S offers 2+2 seating with useable accommodations for petite passengers or child seats in the rear. My sons’ Graco Nautilus and Turbobooster seats each fit perfectly, though I can’t say that I did simultaneously.

But with no one behind me there was more than enough legroom to stretch out my 6’ 1” frame comfortably, even if I came close to the width limit for the aggressively-bolstered bucket seats. Nevertheless, the seating position is surprisingly upright for such a low-slung car, and visibility excellent all around. This is especially true toward the front where the view is panoramic, framed by the bulging fenders marking the position of the wheels - - something autocrossers will appreciate as they negotiate cones in stadium parking lots.

The interior appointments feel slightly low-rent, but have a modern, driver focused design. A large tachometer with integrated digital speedometer is at the center of the instrument cluster and both the gearshift and emergency brake levers are close at hand – the latter surely a nod to the drifting enthusiasts who have pined for this type of car since the Toyota Corolla GT-S went out of production in the 1980’s.

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Thanks in part to the low-profile design of the engine – pop the paper-thin aluminum hood and you’ll find it sitting at knee-level – the FR-S has a center of gravity that’s reportedly closer to the ground than any other production car, a boon for handling. However, its limits have been restrained by a set of slippery, low-rolling resistance tires. This is ostensibly to make the car more fun to drive at low speeds, but I’ll be conspiratorial and suggest that it is also an effort to get those official fuel economy numbers up. Toyota rightly assuming that anyone serious about taking it to the track will be swapping them out for stickier rubber ASAP.

I did the first, but not the second, and had a blast anyway. The FR-S is light on the torque and not a particularly fast car in a straight line, but is the equivalent of stunt driving training wheels. With a weight distribution biased slightly toward the front, it’s quick to turn and all you need to do to execute a picture-perfect powerslide is increase speed or tighten your line until the rear end starts to come around, which it does very predictably. Then just use the throttle and near-telepathic steering to hold it through the rest of the curve. It's almost hilarious how easy it is. The FR-S lets you disable its traction and stability controls independently to customize the experience to your abilities, but left in sport mode it allows enough leeway to have a thrill without letting things getting out of hand.

The close-ratio gearbox offers short, precise throws and the clutch perfect engagement with a light feel that won’t wear out your left leg. This is important because you’ll be using both of them quite a bit, especially in the mountains. Most of the engine’s power is up high in the rev range and it’s happiest when it’s on the way to its 7,400 rpm redline, the sweet sound of those opposed pistons pumped into the cabin via a resonator attached to the firewall.

Still, if you’re in a really lazy mood you can through town at 20 mph without shifting out of fourth gear and the ride quality is far better than anything close to its sporting ilk, likely a product of those tires and the car’s relatively long wheelbase. Aside from the automatic transmission, the only major option is a premium audio system with a smartphone-based navigation feature, but the standard unit, equipped with HD radio and a Bluetooth phone connection, is just fine.

You can buy a lot of car for twenty-five grand, including a nice Camry or Rav4, instead of a toy like this, but the FR-S is everything those vehicles are not. It may also be something else: the ultimate mid-life crisis car. Cheaper than Corvette, more of a head-turner as a Porsche and just the ticket for a Sunday drive. Plus, room for the kids when reality sets in.

Scion has always had an image problem with older people buying its supposedly youth-oriented products because they represent a good value at any age. The FR-S may very well continue that trend.

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2013 Scion FR-S

Base Price: $24,995

Type: 2-door, 2+2, rear-wheel-drive coupe

Engine: 2.0L flat-4-cylinder

Power: 200 hp, 151 lb-ft torque

Transmission: 6-speed manual

MPG: 22 city, 30 hwy