Scion's all-new rear-wheel drive sports coupe pegs the fun-versus-value meter
Quick question: If you want to an affordable new sports car for less than $30,000 — a real sports car that is, with rear-wheel drive — what are your options?
Until very recently the options were limited to a very short list consisting of the Hyundai Genesis Coupe (starting at $28,064 including destination fees), the V6 Mustang ($25,549), the V6 Camaro ($29,460) and, almost, the Mazda MX-5 (which boasts a base list price of $29,145 but actually costs $30,940 by the time you pay the $1,795 destination fee).
Happily, for 2013 that list has now expanded to include two new entries: The Subaru BRZ and the Scion FR-S. The two new cars were co-developed by Toyota and Subaru and are near identical in execution. They are also, as I found out during a week spent with the Scion FR-S, brilliant fun to drive.
The fun actually starts the moment you plunk down your money, because at $27,485 including delivery fees the Scion is cheaper than all except the V6 Mustang, and since the Scion comes in only one well-equipped "monospec" trim level there's no temptation to go creeping up the price ladder (the base Mustang is actually rather well equipped, but there's plenty of room for temptation, with a loaded V8 Mustang GT topping out at over $50,000).
As well as being one of the cheapest cars of the bunch the Scion is also one lightest: at a very svelte 1,251 kg it carries only an extra 121 kg over the 1,130 kg MX-5. On the road this gives the Scion a tremendous handling advantage over the Hyundai (which weighs in at 1,525 kg) and the two pony cars (which weigh in at 1,588 kg for the Mustang and 1,700 kg for the Camaro).
Under the hood, the Scion has a 2.0-litre horizontally-opposed 4-cylinder engine that blends Subaru engineering with Toyota's combined direct-injection/port-injection fuel management system to produce 200 horsepower and 151 lb-ft of torque. These may not sound like staggeringly large numbers, but given the car's light weight there's certainly enough power to keep things entertaining: The FR-S will scoot from 0-100 km/h in about 6 seconds while emitting a characteristic throaty growl, and if you turn off the traction and stability control you can easily initiate power oversteer, letting you slide the car around corners at a nice, controllable angle of drift. It's great fun, and also part of the car's raison d'etre — with the growing worldwide popularity of drift racing, the youth-oriented Scion brand wanted a new car to do battle with the legion of 1980s-era rear-drive AE86 Corollas that are the current favoured drift racer.
Transmission choices include a 6-speed manual or a 6-speed automatic for an additional $1,180, and I had an opportunity to try both. The automatic is a certainly a decent transmission — it includes steering-wheel mounted paddle shifters for when you want manual control, it won't seize control and force an upshift if you choose to bounce the engine off the rev-limiter in manual mode, and it is intelligent enough to rev-match the engine when downshifting on the approach to corners or when preparing to pass. That said the manual transmission is undeniably better suited to the character of the car. Part of the joy of driving the FR-S is the direct, immediate feel of all its controls, but despite the automatic transmission's virtues it seriously dilutes this immediacy. In contrast, the manual transmission adds to the experience, making you feel like part of the drivetrain with its precise feel and its quick, easy throws. In terms of fuel economy the advantage goes to the automatic, although you could hardly call the FR-S thirsty with either transmission at 9.6 / 6.6 L/100 (city/hwy) with the manual and 8.3 / 5.8 L/100km with the automatic.
Weaving the FR-S through the corners, I was immediately struck by how responsive, balanced and light-on-its-feet the car feels. It's firmly sprung, but I didn't find it jarring even on some of the rather rough inner-city pavement surrounding my neighbourhood. Compared to the Mazda MX-5, which is a benchmark car in the handling department, the FR-S felt almost as grippy and every bit as responsive, but much more buttoned down. This is at least partly due to the fact that the Scion rides on a longer wheelbase than the Mazda (2,570 mm versus 2,330 mm) so it can get away with stiffer spring rates without ending up with a choppy ride. It's also partly because the Scion has an exceptionally low centre of gravity, lower even than the Porsche Cayman.
Inside, the FR-S takes a no-nonsense, driver-oriented approach. The seats are comfortable and well bolstered, holding you firmly in place without feeling restrictive. Red piping and double stitching adds a touch of flair to the ultra suede-like black cloth upholstery, and soft touch materials are used on the door uppers and dash.
The view forward from the driver's seat is dominated by a large tachometer and a pair of fender bulges that not only look cool, but are quite useful for determining where the corners of the car are and what angle of attack you have relative to the curves ahead. The steering wheel is clean and unadorned with buttons, its focus being on steering alone.
With a nod to Scion's target demographic, the standard AM/FM/CD audio system includes Bluetooth connectivity, auxiliary and USB inputs, and no less than eight speakers, though there's no satellite radio. The rear seats are undeniably tight (I needed to move the front seats forward some before I could even contemplate fitting anyone back there), but the seatback does fold down as a single unit in order to expand the trunk. As Scion explains, this allows you to fit a full set of track tires back there, but it's also equally useful for stuffing in snowboards, golf clubs or groceries.
An unexpected bonus inside the FR-S is just how little turbulence it develops when you open the side windows. Since the general demise of separate opening vent wings I've found that too many cars tend to beat your eardrums senseless and demolish your hairstyle if you open the window at anything above about 20 km/h (and no, I'm not claiming that the unruly mop of hair sitting atop my head ever has anything resembling actual style). The FR-S, on the other hand, remains remarkably serene inside whether the side window is open or closed — I'm not sure if this is by design, but it should prove to be a real advantage in a car likely to see track time, given that many tracks have rules requiring you to leave the windows open.
So, after months — years, even — of anticipation, does the long-awaited Scion FR-S live up to the hype? I'd have to say yes. It doesn't offer great gobs of power, nor does it boast the ultimate in refinement or gadgetry. What it does have is one of the most direct, unmediated and enjoyable connections between the driver and the road available in any car at any price. It's a car that you drive, rather than one you pilot along the road, and it's a car that makes driving fun again. That's something worth celebrating, and well worth checking out if you're in the market for an affordable sports car.
Story credits: Simon Hill, Canadian Auto Press
Photo credits: Simon Hill, Canadian Auto Press
Copyright: Canadian Auto Press Inc.