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Sporty Scion FR-S: Zippy and simply fun

The Scion FR-S is a fun, sporty ride.
The Scion FR-S is a fun, sporty ride.Richard Drew / AP file

Toyota has branded its zippy new sport coupe with the abbreviation “FR-S.” It stands for “front-engine, rear-drive, sport.” Cars in Toyota’s Scion brand are given abbreviated names, but the FR-S is truly a revival of Toyota’s once-popular Celica sport coupe.

That means the car is slick-looking, affordable, fuel-efficient and fun, just like the early Celicas. Sure, the FR-S seems certain to follow nearly every other similar car into fat, drunk, rock star oblivion as it gains weight, power and gaudy amenities over time in a bid to expand its appeal. Ironically, such moves usually destroy these cars’ appeal, as they fail to interest new buyers and become too expensive for their original target audience.

Here’s hoping Toyota can maintain the kind of discipline Mazda has shown with the MX-5 Miata over the decades, because the FR-S is a gem that doesn’t need the kind of “improvements” that ruin such accessible playthings.

It won’t be solely Toyota’s decision because the car is the product of a joint venture with Subaru, and that company’s version is called the BR-Z. The companies are vague about their contributions to the final product, but the drivetrain features a Subaru flat-four-cylinder “boxer” engine like the one in the Impreza compact car.

Toyota describes the FR-S as a “2+2,” a nod to the fact that it is not a true four-seater. But in this instance it is more of a “2+who?” because you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone who can fit comfortably in the back seat while the front seats are occupied. I tried the back seat myself and found that there are MRI machines that are less confining than the Scion’s +2 row.

Something I liked and appreciated about the FR-S’ interior design is its simple straightforwardness. There is no video display screen with interactive menus for adjusting the car’s various settings. Want to change the time on the clock? Press the “H” or “M” button to change the hours or minutes. Want to reset the trip odometer? Press the odometer reset button.

You won't be annoyed trying to figure out how to navigate  “simple” menus or otherwise trying to figure out how to do anything with the FR-S. Find the button and press it; it's as simple as that. Want to turn up the heat or the air conditioning? Twist a circular knob toward the red or the blue. Want the fan to blow harder?  Twist the other knob clockwise. Of course a proliferation of buttons has its aesthetic drawbacks, but that is a worthwhile sacrifice for simplicity of operation and low cost.

This philosophy provides a worthy metaphor for the rest of the car: simple, honest, inexpensive and easy to use.  That means that the car’s fun isn’t undermined by excessive cost, unneeded technology or inappropriate amenities. Maybe future iterations will be burdened with $40,000 price tags, automatic lane-keeping assist, and power floor mat fluffers, but for now we can enjoy the Scion’s raw accessibility.

Get on the gas, and the horizontally opposed Subaru flat-four engine gives a growl that is familiar to that brand’s enthusiasts. Older drivers might even discern the similarity to the sound of an old VW Beetle. Power is good for a relatively small engine, with decent torque from low speeds.

But a snappy throttle response producing quick revs is often a characteristic of sports car engines, and that’s one area where the FR-S is a slight disappointment. The shifter is notchy, and it clicks positively into and out of each gear, with short throws and light effort. The clutch is also light, with maybe just a touch less feel for the friction point than would be ideal.

The FR-S has nice, large round analog gauges of the sort enthusiasts love. There’s a digital speed readout embedded in the middle of the central tachometer. That’s helpful because the dark-faced speedometer is not only mounted to the left, but is numbered to an improbable 160 mph, which leaves the numbers that are relevant to everyday driving buried deep to the far left of the instrument panel. Hence, the digital speedometer.

One gripe about the dashboard is that the radio looks like a Best Buy special; it's a Pioneer unit with no rotary tuner control. The sound is not impressive, which makes me guess that Scion expects young audiophiles will install their own stereos upon delivery.

Speaking of DIY upgrades, the FR-S comes equipped with the hardest, least-grippy economy car tires seemingly straight off the Prius. There should be a healthy market for slightly used Prius replacement tires as FR-S buyers swap them for performance rubber on the first day of ownership.

Even with relatively little torque, the FR-S is prone to spinning the inside rear tire under acceleration while turning, because the factory Michelin economy tires have so little grip. In the rain, they are particularly terrible. 

But many of today’s rear-wheel-drive enthusiasts are fans of drifting, the driving style where you spin the rear tires and slide around turns. Rock-hard tires make this easier to do and the tires last longer, so maybe Toyota expects FR-S buyers will spend their weekends drifting around cones in a parking lot. Everyone else will need to ditch the tires and install real rubber.

But forget about the tires. And the radio. The FR-S is the most fun new car I've driven in my recent memory. It is exactly the kind of car that the doomsayers insist is dead because they say kids are forsaking driving in favor of going online to interact with their friends.  Nonsense, I say.  Sporty little coupes still attract young drivers. These vehicles just need to be designed for today’s young drivers and not those of decades past.

This is a car today’s first-time new car buyers will still remember fondly in 20 years, in the way the original Celica is thought of now.  


2013 Scion FR-S

  • Base price: $24,930 (including $730 delivery)

  • As tested: $25,066 (including $730 delivery)

  • EPA fuel economy: 22 mpg city, 30 mpg highway

  • Pros: fun, affordable, great looking

  • Cons: sluggish throttle response, laughable back seat, low-grip tires

  • Verdict: A new star in the sports car universe.

  • Standard equipment: 200 hp 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, six-speed manual transmission, torque-sensing limited slip differential, 300-watt Pioneer sound system, power windows, door locks and steering

  • Major options: Rear bumper applique, wheel locks

  • Safety equipment: Electronic stability control, brake assist with electronic brake force distribution, tire pressure monitoring, front, side and curtain airbags