At first glimpse, the long-awaited 2013 Scion FR-S, revealed November 30 to an invitation-only crowd at a Hollywood studio, could be compared to a perfectly self-contained single episode. At the same time, to extend the show-biz metaphor, it also has the potential for variable endings, as you choose. Greeted with a techno serenade and pulsing lights, the FR-S drove down a runway flanked by a display of Toyota heritage models, including such immediate forebears as the Celica GTS and MR2, and by distant cousins like the Lexus LF-A and Toyota Supra Turbo.
When it goes on sale in the spring, the FR-S will immediately and ably fill a hole in the Scion (and Toyota family) lineup. The brand needed a halo. Dealers were pleading for a real sports car. Drivers wanted an inexpensive but capable car with the engine in front and the driving wheels in the rear. Rather than any of the hallmark automobiles named above, a more realistic comparison can be made between the FR-S and such icons as the Honda S2000 and Nissan 240SX.
The FR-S has no crazy scoops or grilles, no tremendously flaring flanks, no steroid-induced bulging muscularity. In its purity and simplicity, the FR-S is actually a bit unprepossessing. None of the Scion club members who’d showed up in their tricked-out xB boxes was heard to cry out rapturously as the new two-plus-two made its appearance. Instead, it was greeted with murmured appreciation, a welcome that implied, “That’s what I’m talkin’ about.”
And of course, in their minds, the audience members riffled through pages of aftermarket parts and accessories catalogs, imagining how they would equip and trim their own FR-S when they get one.
Form without excess
The FR-S shares its chassis and mechanicals with the Subaru BRZ, and Subaru led the engineering development. The chief objective was a fun-to-drive car that wasn’t compromised from the adaptation of an existing, mass-market platform. Engineers sought the lowest-possible center of gravity in the shortest-possible wheelbase for a car with two-plus-two seating. Also seeking low weight and high structural rigidity, they eschewed a sunroof (while including a sort of double-bubble form for headroom) and stayed with fixed trunk instead of a hatchback.
Styling is probably the best example of form-follows-function since, well, besides the previously named cars, since the Dodge Sprinter van. One look at this thing, and you know what it’s supposed to do. In the case of the FR-S, it’ll get you to work or the shopping center, but it’s also begging for an autocross course or track day. (Conveniently, by design, there’s enough space between the dash and doors for roll bars.) The FR-S has just a bit of fussy external ornamentation. There’s an insert high on each front fender, a concave form that bears a fake vent and the “86” badge referring to the engine’s square bore and stroke. Red side-mirror housings on black stalks are about as fancy as anything gets. Otherwise, a trip around the FR-S doesn’t yield much: a bit of home-improvement-center menace from the black mesh inserts on the chin and jaws, a minimum amount of badging and chrome, 17-inch alloy wheels finished mostly in black, and a rear fascia that accommodates dual exhaust outlets and a somewhat mystifying, centrally located backup lamp with triangular red reflector. Lamp design at each corner is a matter of taste; enthusiast forums carried some grumbling about the taillights, but we found them quite suitable.
The key thing, and here we repeat ourselves, is that in its simplicity the FR-S leaves the street-performance-mods maven and the pro tuner plenty of possibilities for a sequel. Scion brought a customized black car to the party, too, and people couldn’t take their eyes off it.
The interior is a recapitulation of the exterior: minimalism and functionality. The driver’s instrument cluster places the large tachometer in the middle, and the black indications on a white circumferential field are as easy to read as a Kardashian prenup. The three-spoke wheel is covered with perforated leather, the seams bound with the same red accent stitching seen throughout the otherwise dismal black environment. The center stack with audio and climate controls is so basic, it could almost be mistaken for a ham radio setup. The twin hoods, one over the I.P. and the other over the center column, are the only architectural flourishes.
But there’s evidently a substantial market for a basic, capable, inexpensive sports car. (No price was announced.) Sports and specialty models of the last twenty years have tended to sell well at first, but the volume has subsequently dwindled. Scion vice president Jack Hollis told us that his brand defies that typecasting. Relying on digital media, viral campaigns, and experiential marketing yields a different effect. For example, Hollis pointed out, the first generation tC sold better in its second season. “Awareness grows over time,” he said, voicing the expectation that the FR-S will accrue similar results as people learn that “pricing is attainable for a high-spec car.”
The rear seats offer but a token amount of padding and upholstery. (A saddle-shaped fuel tank helped designers to achieve the two-plus-two arrangement.) But with one seat folded down, there’s enough room to carry a full set of race tires, a jack, and toolbox while driving with two crew members to the track.
Compact engine is optimally located
The FR-S and its sibling the Subaru BRZ are the world’s only cars with a front-mounted boxer engine and rear-wheel drive configuration. (Another car in the Toyota heritage display, the S800, was the first-ever with this layout.) Hollis used the term “front-midship” to describe the engine’s placement, which results in 53/47 weight distribution. Contributing to this optimization are the relocation, compared to conventional cars, of the battery, starter, and electrically operated power steering box.
But the chief benefits come as the result of capitalizing on the advantage inherent in Subaru’s all-new, ultra-compact FA-series horizontally opposed 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. This unit makes 200 hp and 150 lb-ft. The square 86x86-mm bore and stroke are relevant in Toyota’s history. Toyota’s D-4S fuel-injection is used here. Other aspects include the Active Valve Control System that allows for Atkinson Cycle operation at low RPM, thereby improving fuel economy. The compression ratio is 12.5:1. Overall fuel economy estimates were unavailable.
The FR-S buyer can choose between 6-speed manual or automatic transmissions, both by Aisin. The manual, which is about 80 percent new, has been reworked for reduced internal friction, and the linkage operates with short throws of the shifter. The automatic features normal and sport modes with an emphasis on quick shifts under full lockup. Second-gear launches are possible on snow and ice. Rev-matching occurs when downshifting. Paddle-shifters are included. A Torsen limited-slip differential is also part of the package.
Front suspension is by exclusive MacPherson struts and a reversed lower-arm layout, with a box-shaped cross member for rigidity. Rear suspension is by a double-wishbone arrangement.
With a targeted curb weight around 2800 pounds, the FR-S comes in slightly under the Honda Civic Si and significantly less than such like-minded cars as the Mazda RX-8 and Hyundai Genesis Coupe.
Moving the brand forward
In its outward modesty and inward seriousness, the FR-S makes us regard Scion with new esteem. In a volume brand, the uncompromising approach that went into this car is rare—especially when the presumably affordable price is factored in. (Maybe the development team is eligible for a humanitarian award!) The FR-S is desirable. It has a respectable amount of power, balanced chassis, fair amount of practicality, and good enough looks. And it lends itself to personal flourishes. One tuner we spoke to said, “I like it that they didn’t overdo it.” In fact, he said the absence of body creases and indents is a plus. “If you take the car to the track and you wall it, you can buy a new fender for $350.”
Sure, but we appreciate the off-the-wall approach of the FR-S.