Stick Shift: Scion FR-S

 

By: Brandon Randall 

Photo by Brandon Randall

In every other country the FR-S is called something 86; FT86, GT86, Toyota 86. The 86 is a tribute to the AE86 generation of rear wheel drive sport coupes and hatchbacks that Toyota named the Trueno and Levin—models likely unheard, because they never made it state-side from Japan. 

Unlike the big domestic boats pouring out of Detroit in the 60’s and 70’s, Japan was churning out small, spirited, front engine, rear drive sports cars like the Datsun 240Z and Toyota 2000GT. The 80’s and 90’s saw these cars evolve and gain more and more popularity. They were affordable, customizable and fun. By the mid 90’s cars like the Toyota Supra, Mazda RX-7 and Nissan 300Z were getting faster, more technically advanced and sadly, more expensive. The only thing not moving in the ‘more’ direction were the sales. Suddenly, the simple, affordable Japanese sports car had forgotten what made it great in the first place. When the tire smoke had cleared it’s no surprise that the only things left standing were the Mazda Miata and Honda S2000. Two cars that were still simple and relatively affordable…. And history-rant complete. 

Subaru and Scion decided to collaborate and rectify this problem by ushering in the return of the affordable Japanese sports car. From the two brands emerge one car. From Scion we get the FR-S, from Subaru, the BRZ. Differences between the two are minor. Some small exterior variances exist, and an interior that shows more polish on the BRZ over the FR-S. As I only drove the Scion I’ll focus my thoughts on that. 

Powering the Scion FR-S is a spirited and rev happy 2.0L 4-cylinder boxer engine. A clear sign of Subaru’s many contributions. It’s good for 200 hp. Due to its shape and compact size the engine can sit low, giving the car tremendous balance and a low center of gravity. With softer springs and stiffer shocks over the BRZ, instead of understeering the FR-S likes to oversteer… a lot. The sensitivity to driver inputs really brings the FR-S to life. It’s easy to transition from hard cornering to a controlled drift that will make you feel like a professional driver every time. Even if you’re not. 

I found the exterior of the FR-S a perfect modern day tribute to the Japanese sports cars of the 70’s. With a low ride height, short wheel base, raked roof line and attractive 17” alloy wheels, it stands out as something special on the road. The interior is simple but utilizes leather trim and high grade plastics to give the impression of a material quality that isn’t necessarily there. The cabin is fitted like a glove with seats that hold you firmly in place and a thick steering wheel that offers plenty of feedback and nice turning weight. A 6.1” Pioneer touchscreen will control all your audio desires and provides Bluetooth and hands free phone connectivity. The rest of the interior is clean and clear of clutter. Warning, the back seats can hardly be said to be there at all. Though advertised as a four-seater, it should really be thought of as a two.

The six speed manual gearbox my model came equipped with was a joy to use. The short throw shifter has a great feel, the clutch engages quickly and is paired to a pedal that eagerly snaps back to attention between shifts. I don’t know who’d purchase the FR-S with an automatic transmission, but the option is there.

This is a car that is well thought out, balanced and begging to be driven hard. Its upper limits are where the car shines brightest. While some might bemoan the lack of a turbo charged model from Scion, upset that the NA engine doesn’t make more power, there’s good news. The FR-S has robust aftermarket support, and for many owners, will be a blank canvas brimming with possibilities and full of potential for bolt-on power, wider tires, bigger brakes, stiffer suspension, oversized wings and that much needed turbo charger.

The more time I spent behind the wheel the more the mission of the FR-S became clear. Every part of its design contributes to the playfulness of the drive. It can slalom through lane lines like a go kart, stop on a dime and slide around corners with its ‘Prius’ sized rear tires with an effortlessness that always put an enormous smile on my face. The FR-S reminded me of one of my very first cars, a late 80’s FC3S turbo that I fell completely in love with. With that car, it was never about just ‘getting there,’ and more about all the fun you could have on the way. The FR-S felt the same way. 

 Price as tested: $25,850.00

 

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