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Toyota’s $26,000 Scion FR-S Flutters Like Hummingbird

August 16, 2012

2013 Scion FR-S

A 2013 Scion FR-S. This model breaks away from the familiar boxy versions of Scion releases with the body of a small, conservative coupe. Source: Scion/Toyota Motor Corp. via Bloomberg

Let’s address this quickly. Yes, this is a review of a Scion, the Toyota (7203) sub-brand normally aimed at teenagers. Yes, you’re a grown-up and are probably about to click on the next internet distraction. Don’t.

At least, not if you have a taste for buzz-worthy fun on an extremely modest budget. Other Scion models may be boxy oddities, but the FR-S is a hummingbird on wheels. This small coupe delivers a flutter of fast, dive-bombing activity and starts at only $25,600.

Carmakers don’t design all-new models like the FR-S very often. Crossovers and eco-boxes are in greater demand than small two-door sports cars with tiny rear seats. If a manufacturer is looking for a halo-worthy sports car, they are likely to go way upmarket. Reference Lexus’s $375,000 LFA.

If you want a fast, fun and cheap car of the rear-wheel variety, you’re looking at the long-in-the-tooth Mazda MX-5 Miata for $24,000. Or you can pony up $52,000 for a Porsche Cayman, an awesome small car indeed.

The FR-S provides a viable new alternative. Less than 14 feet long and only 4.2 feet high, it weighs around 2,800 pounds and has an incredibly low center of gravity.

Working as a joint venture, Toyota and Subaru designed their rear-wheel-drive architecture and drivetrain together to save on development costs. The result is the release of two extremely similar cars, the FR-S and the Subaru BRZ.

Looking Good

The BRZ is priced about the same as the FR-S. Its grill is altered and the suspension set up differently, but otherwise the two cars are alike. Some buyers may opt for the Subaru nameplate simply because it sounds more grown up.

Take my advice: get over the Scion branding, because the car itself handles fantastically, and it looks great, too.

It may not be big, but the design is tricked out, with a complex interplay of character lines, indentations and a blacked-out rear diffuser. Unlike the Miata, the designers didn’t go for understatement on the limited expanse of sheet metal.

The powerplant is conservative, a 2.0-liter four-cylinder Boxer engine that forgoes turbochargers for a naturally- aspirated setup. It gets 200 horsepower and 151 pound-feet of torque.

However, a car this light doesn’t need 500 hp to push it down the road. You’ve just got to whip it rather strenuously.

Manual Transmission

The FR-S comes with a six-speed manual. That is, clearly, the right choice. Like matching a blue suit with brown shoes and belt, they just go together. The six-speed automatic is okay, but less entertaining.

In fact, eking the most out of the 200-hp engine will likely run against your car-conserving instincts. The engine redline is at 7,400 revolutions per minute, and to really get it to perform, that’s where you need to shift. You won’t be hurting the engine, even though it does seem a bit destructive. It’s also the only way to elicit any real engine noise.

With an automatic transmission, this necessitates pushing the gear lever to the left into “manual” mode. Then you’ll control the gears with the behind-the-wheel paddles. Importantly, the FR-S will hold shifts at the redline in this mode. The full 151 pound-feet of torque arrives at 6,400 rpm.

The suspension is wonderful, courtesy of sophisticated parts you’d find in very adult sports cars, including a Torsen limited-slip differential, MacPherson struts up front, and a double wishbone rear.

Handles Curves

When I took it on one of my favorite serpentine roads, which I drive weekly, I found I could carry a lot more speed in the corners than I’m accustomed to. It’s a matter of weight and nimbleness.

In a high-horsepower car like a Corvette, I’ll often power down straightaways, cram hard on the brakes to negotiate the turn, then blend back on the gas.

Since the FR-S didn’t have much more power to give on those patches of straight road, I was content with simply throttling lightly off the gas through corners. The car hangs on with very little body lean.

The car’s interior is craftily simple. The dashboard has interesting contours and undulations and the red-stitching along the doors seems to suggest it’s holding together pieces of leather, rather than plastic. The plastic also has a faint scale-like texture, which makes it easier on the eye.

The seats are fabric, with significant bolsters to keep you fastened down when cornering. However, those bolsters are tight and extend all the way up to the shoulder. Fine for protecting a 10-year-old, but I felt squished.

The low height and positioning of the FR-S’s door sills made it difficult to get in and of. I also wouldn’t suggest stuffing anyone in the rear seats for long.

Still, these are the sacrifices one makes for the price of the FR-S’s hummingbird nature.


                 The 2013 Scion FR-S at a Glance

     Engine: 2.0-liter four-cylinder with 200 horsepower and 151
     pound-feet of torque.
     Transmission: Six-speed manual or six-speed automatic.
     Speed: 0 to 60 mph in 6.3 seconds.
     Gas mileage per gallon: 22 city, 30 highway manual; 25, 34
     automatic.
     Price as tested: $26,166.
     Best feature:  Agile suspension.
     Worst features: Tight seats and difficulty exiting.
     Target buyer: The weekend driver with a taste for
     simplicity.

(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Richard Vines on restaurants and Lance Esplund on art.

To contact the writer of this column: Jason H. Harper at Jason@JasonHharper.com or follow on Twitter @JasonHarperSpin.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.


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