New Car Reviews

First Test: 2013 Scion FR-S

As we learned a few months ago Subaru did the vast majority of the engineering work on the newest Toyota/Subaru/Scion triplets that will be sold here in America as the Subaru BRZ and the Scion FR-S. Amidst all the Internet armchair warrior demands that the sports cars need a turbocharger, our drive reviews have all concentrated on the cars’ handling. After all, sports cars have never been about speed — they’re about finesse and handling. Or at least they should be. And these two cars certainly are.

Subaru’s high-revving, direct-injection 2.0-liter flat-four produces 200 hp and 151 lb-ft of torque, which seems meager until you plug the cars’ light weight into the equation: the Scion we weighed pressed the scales with 2737 lb; the Subaru 2747. As a result, the cars were essentially neck-and-neck in acceleration runs, with the Scion’s 6.2-second run to 60 mph edging out the Subaru’s 6.4-second 0-60 sprint. That difference is within the margin of error.

The cars, too, were tied in braking and handling (the Subaru generating 0.94g on the skidpad, just 0.01g ahead of the Scion.) Both manufacturers are selling their cars equipped with summer tires that prioritize low rolling resistance for fuel economy rather than ultimate grip. You’d see much higher at-the-limit numbers with stickier rubber.

And it’s at the limit where these two cars are quite different.

Oversteer is something not very familiar to Subaru engineers, so it’s not surprising that, of the two, the BRZ is more given to understeer. That’s not to say that the BRZ is plagued with excessive understeer — far from it. It turns in willingly, but settles into mild and easy-to-manage push at the limit. Gentle manipulations of the steering and throttle do little to coax the BRZ’s rear end out. If you want to get it sideways, you can by flicking the wheel under trailing throttle or by flat-footing the throttle and waiting for the engine’s output to finally overwhelm the tires. It takes a second or so, but the result is a smooth, gradual power slide that’s supremely easy to hold. The BRZ is very much like a Mazda RX-8 in its moves: there’s no reluctance to turn, and the obedient chassis never bites back. It’s predictable, secure, and very fast.

The Scion FR-S, on the other hand, is more playful — and has a temper. Think of an RX-8 with some MX-5 Miata thrown into the mix. Stiffer rear springs and bushings help make the Scion more neutral at the limit. A tiny amount of initial understeer can be nixed by your right foot with no hesitation. Lift slightly in a corner and the FR-S’s rear tires come unstuck. Get on the throttle too hard, and without delay the rear end begins to rotate. Its actions are quick, so your reactions on the steering wheel need to be fast, too — but there’s more than enough steering feel coming through the electrically assisted rack that you’ll feel the back end coming around right away.

A beginner driver might have an easier time controlling the Subaru at the limit — more experienced drivers might prefer the Scion. As the near-identical performance numbers show, neither has a clear performance advantage — it’s all about the feel. The Scion offers the best balance of any sports car within three times its price. Well, except the Subaru, which trails right behind. Either way, as a track day smile-maker, these cars are the official bargain of the decade.

While the two cars score a 9.5/10 on the track (in my book, at least), they’re not quite as great on the road. Cars like the Mazda Miata offer up a more engaging experience in normal driving (with the benefit of an open roof and at the expense of rear-seat and cargo-carrying practicality, of course).

The FR-S’s steering isn’t hugely communicative on-road, but it’s highly accurate. The shifter feels great, and it’s easy to shift smoothly. (And, as much as I hate to admit it, the six-speed automatic works really well even if, philosophically, it has no business being in a lightweight sports car.) The suspension is just firm enough to do its job without ever being harsh, and it’s noticeably firmer than the Subaru’s. Outward visibility is very good by sports-car standards. The steering wheel doesn’t quite telescope close enough to the driver, but at least the seats are comfortable and supportive, and the driving position is otherwise nice. The rear seats offer an emergency spot for two limber friends. The Subaru wins hands-down on the convenience front with not-available-at-Scion optional HIDs, heated seats, dual-zone automatic climate control, and navigation — especially when you consider Scion’s aftermarket-looking, difficult-to-use and weak-sounding stereos. Thankfully, they’re a double-DIN aftermarket replacement away from being whatever you like. And, at least to this driver, the Scion’s playful handling reigns supreme.

So what makes these cars earn less than 9.5/10 on the road? The engine.

In terms of specific power output and torque delivery, this flat-four is impressive. It produces 100 horsepower per liter without needing 8000 revs, and other than a noticeable torque dip in the middle of the rpm range, it pulls cleanly from idle to its 7400-rpm redline.

At 6.2 and 6.4 seconds to 60 mph, these cars are certainly quick enough when giving their all. The problem is what happens when they’re not flat out. Remember the original Porsche Boxster? Its horsepower number (201) and weight (about 2750 lb) were virtually identical to the BRZ/FR-S twins, and it did 0-60 in the same amount of time — 6.3 seconds. There was one crucial difference though: the new cars make do with a maximum of 151 lb-ft of torque. The Boxster’s 2.5-liter flat-six produced 180.

That extra nearly 30 lb-ft of torque went a long, long way towards making the Boxster feel quick in normal driving. And perhaps even more important: when it came time to accelerate quickly, the Porsche responded with a musical intake snarl coming so loudly from the intake vent near the driver’s left ear that it rendered him hopelessly in love.

Twenty-nine fewer pound-feet of torque means the FR-S needs to be revved that much higher — which might not be an issue if there was an acoustic reward to doing so. There’s plenty of flat-four noise in the cabin (most of it intake noise made possible by a resonance tube) — but it’s all noise and never music. The engine note is a flat, passionless sound that changes pitch with revs, but never timbre. It never comes alive, it never becomes sharp, it never begs you to keep going. In fact, you mostly just want the noise to go away.

While the Internet is alight with demands for a turbocharger, let the record state that such a device would run the risk of ruining the FR-S’ immediate responses. A turbo — and the lag inherent in such a device — would do slightly better in the Subaru, thanks to that car’s slightly duller reflexes. Either way, though, a turbo would dilute the purity of these two sports cars. What they really needs is a vocal, low-boost supercharger to give it another 30 lb-ft of torque, available in an instant, from idle to redline. That would not only help at the track — where the additional output could be matched by gripper tires and still maintain that near-perfect balance or power and handling, but it would go a long way to make this very special sports car as good in normal driving as it is at its limits.