2013 Scion FR-S Review:
The all-new 2013 Scion FR-S is an evil twin—but in a good way.
It is unquestionably a sports car, which is what was intended, but it is naughty because it comes at you in unexpected ways.
Start with the basic concept. Toyota wanted to deliver a reasonably priced, rear-drive sports car for its youth-oriented Scion division, but didn’t want to go to the expense of developing it from the tires up.
So it teamed up with another Japanese manufacturer, Subaru, which provided the power train and fathered the fraternal twin of the FR-S, which Subaru calls the BRZ. The cars are identical except for some styling and suspension tuning differences.
That effort produced firsts for both manufacturers. Subaru, which specializes in all-wheel drive, got its first strictly rear-drive sports car. Scion and Toyota got their first horizontally opposed engine, giving them a sporting machine with an engine configuration not unlike that used by Germany’s Porsche.
The horizontally opposed engine—it also is called a flat or boxer engine—once was used extensively by Volkswagen in its storied Beetle and Karmann-Ghia cars. Subaru kept the flame alive, using the boxer across its lineup, and Porsche installs it in its famous 911, Boxster and Cayman models. The Boxster name is a combination of boxer and roadster.
In a boxer engine, the cylinders lie flat, feet to feet, on both sides of the crankshaft, instead of leaning or standing upright as in V or in-line engines. The compact design minimizes vibrations and helps deliver a low center of gravity for improved handling.
That’s exactly the way the FR-S came out. Scion claims a lower center of gravity than the Porsche Cayman, which is a mid-engine design with the engine behind the driver but forward of the rear axle. In contrast, the FR-S is a so-called front mid-engine design, with the engine up front but low and mounted toward the rear. FR-S stands for front engine, rear drive sport.
It results in balanced handling, especially at speed around curves. The FR-S simply hunkers down and follows steering inputs, but is also easily susceptible to attitude modification if the driver elects to hang the tail out. For competition, the stability and traction controls can be partially switched off.
Of course, as a sports coupe with a base price of $24,930, the FR-S is nowhere in the same league as the Cayman, which starts at more than twice that price. Still, the FR-S comes fully equipped, although plenty of performance modifications are available.
Yet the base FR-S delivers its own appeal. For one thing, it is unique in the marketplace. Except for the Subaru BRZ, there are no direct competitors. Cars like the Volkswagen GTI and Mazdaspeed 3 have front-wheel drive and in-line engines.
There’s only one FR-S version: a sleek two-door coupe, designated as a two-plus-two. That means it has a vestigial back seat suited mainly for watermelons or backpacks. Two smallish adults can actually squeeze in back as long as the driver and front passenger are willing to ram their seats far forward to produce a smidgen of knee and foot space in back.
So think of the FR-S mainly as a two-seater with extra luggage space—a good thing because the tiny, shallow trunk has less than seven cubic feet of space.
There’s only one engine with a robust 200-horsepower from the 2.0-liter boxer, mated to either a six-speed manual gearbox or a six-speed automatic transmission with a manual-shift mode controlled by paddle shifters behind the steering wheel.
This is where the naughty, unexpected behavior arrives. Conventional wisdom among enthusiasts holds that on sports cars manual gearboxes are superior in performance and enjoyment to automatics, sometimes derisively called “slush boxes.”
On the FR-S it is the polar opposite. The manual gearbox works well enough, although the shift linkage has a somewhat clunky feel and the clutch is a bit touchy. With an engine that is short on low-rpm torque, or twisting force, you have to downshift frequently to keep the engine in its happy power range.
But the automatic does it all, well, automatically—even to the point of blipping the throttle on downshifts to match the gear ratio to the engine speed. It makes for quicker, seamless power transfers, especially on a racetrack or autocross course.
Moreover, this automatic swamps the more aggressive manual on fuel economy. The EPA city/highway miles to the gallon rating is 22/30 for the manual and 25/34 for the automatic. So it’s worth the additional $1,100.
Inside, the FR-S has supportive, well-bolstered front seats upholstered in high-friction, suede-like cloth that hold the torso in rapid driving, ergonomically-correct controls (except for the audio systems, with their tiny buttons and screens), and a multitude of seat and steering wheel adjustments to accommodate any size driver.
On the downside, the dash has a cheap plastic simulated carbon fiber insert, although other surfaces are covered in softly textured vinyl. Visors, unfortunately, do not slide on their support rods to block sun from the side.
The test car, with the automatic transmission and one option—the “BeSpoke” premium 340-watt audio system, had a suggested price of $26,875.