We live in an age that is endlessly and often exclusively obsessed with the present. We crown LeBron James as the greatest NBA player of all time and forget about Michael Jordan and Bill Russell. Kids read The Hunger Games and the Harry Potter books rather than Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Facebook Timelines zoom in on the last minute and compress everything that's come before (of the year 1985, my Timeline succinctly reports, "Born"). Progress is inevitable, and it's great, but how can we properly appreciate it without the context of the past?
It's for this reason that I read with skepticism the effusive praise heaped on the new Scion FR-S, which is being heralded as a great affordable sports car. To be sure, there's plenty to like, including a $24,930 base price and an emphasis on agility and involvement over stat-sheet braggadocio. But like so much that's new and targeted toward millennials, it also exists in the vacuum of its moment -- the Scion FR-S, along with its twin, the Subaru BRZ, is the only car of its kind on the market right now. In order to evaluate where the FR-S really stands, we must remove it from this vacuum. We also have to get the hell out of southeast Michigan. It's with these aims that road test editor Christopher Nelson and I climb into a hot-off-the-line FR-S on a Sunday morning and head south with little more than our overnight bags and an atlas of Tennessee.
The Scion's back-to-basics approach is embodied in a cabin remarkably free of distraction: no touch screen, no steering-wheel controls, no twenty-way adjustable seats. The only digital displays in our no-options test car are a small trip computer and speed readout nestled in the tachometer and a screen in the radio that's only slightly larger and more advanced than a Casio watch. The primary entertainment thus comes from the Scion's responsiveness. The suspension reacts so quickly and honestly to steering inputs that it feels as if you could, at any chosen moment, flick the car into a drift, never mind all those other cars on the expressway. The pedals and the six-speed manual gearbox feel like real mechanical instruments rather than video-game controls. Still, it must be said that we're getting pretty bored by hour three of our 540-mile interstate slog south. Having tired of the drone of the 2.0-liter boxer four-cylinder engine and of each other's voices, we remember that the Scion does have standard iPod connectivity and stream "Call Me Maybe" parodies through much of Kentucky. Thank God (and Carly Rae Jepsen).
We reach Nashville right around dinnertime. Before we stop for the night, though, we head to nearby Franklin, home to Nissan's North American headquarters, where we've been promised there will be a Z waiting for us. No, not a 370Z -- pitting the FR-S against a $9000 pricier two-door with 132 additional horsepower would be silly. We want a 240Z, the little sports car that debuted at the 1969 Tokyo auto show and proved, much like Toyota is trying to reassert today, that Japan, Inc., was capable of building more than just reliable transportation. Thanks to its strong performance, elegant styling, and base price of $3526 (about $21,100 in today's money), it sold like hotcakes -- nearly 150,000 in its four years on the U.S. market, sparking a new golden age for affordable enthusiast cars. Most important for our purposes are its uncompromising sports car bona fides: unassisted steering, a 2350-pound curb weight, and not a single electronic driver aid. The Z will provide the perfect relief against which to judge whether the FR-S is really a sports car in the classic idiom or an inferior modern facsimile.
Most owners of vintage cars are understandably leery about handing over their keys to journalists for more than a spin around the block. We're thus pleasantly surprised when Nissan PR man Steve Yaeger drives up in a company-owned, fully restored '71 Z -- worth about as much as our FR-S but much harder to replace -- and lets us drive it away with no proviso other than, "Try to bring it back in one piece." Well, first try to start it. On the Datsun's center console, precisely where the FR-S features stability control and traction control buttons, there's a small lever that opens the choke on the in-line six's twin side-draft carburetors. After topping off the tank with some high-octane unleaded fuel, I pull the lever all the way back and turn the slender metal key. The six fires up with what must be the loudest explosion heard around these parts since the Battle of Nashville in 1864.
As the backfire settles into a rough, rich idle, I begin for the first time to wonder about the wisdom of including a forty-one-year-old car on a Tennessee back-roads comparison test. I also wonder if perhaps my skepticism was misplaced: what if the good old-fashioned sports car I'm hoping to judge the FR-S against wasn't actually that good? Modern as the Z was in its day -- nothing else in its price range came with a four-wheel independent suspension -- it now feels practically antebellum. Accelerating to 30 mph, its 2.4-liter howls and rattles like a mangy dog, and its thin-gauge steel hide quivers over every road imperfection. Even though the sun has dipped below the horizon, it's about 90 degrees inside the cabin. Turning on the ventilation -- there's no air-conditioning -- sends a sickly, petrol-scented breeze onto my face.
Things seem better, and cooler, when we set off early the following morning for the Natchez Trace Parkway southwest of Nashville. Although all of the Z's controls, especially the steering and the long-travel shifter, are a bit heavier and less precise than I'm used to, they are, as in the FR-S, placed such that the driver feels in immediate command. Even the gauges and the dead pedal -- the latter was a luxury in '71 -- feel as if they were positioned according to the same logic that would guide Scion designers years later.
Positioning the two cars together on a bridge to catch the picturesque morning light gives us a chance to closely compare and contrast their appearance. Actually, there's a lot more that compares than contrasts. The Scion is predictably longer and wider than the Datsun but not dramatically so. Both designs hew closely to classic sports car proportions, with a long nose, a fast rear profile -- the Z is a hatchback, the FR-S is not -- and wheels pushed out to the corners. They even share a crescent-shaped upkick in the rear quarter window. If there is a critical difference, it's in the details. The Scion is, by modern sports car standards, a very restrained piece -- there's no deck-lid spoiler or hood scoop, and it rides on seventeen-inch wheels. Yet in this company, it looks positively overwrought. Widely credited to German-American designer Albrecht Goertz, who is best known for his contributions to BMW's 503 convertible and 507, the Datsun features a side character line that stretches from the tail all the way down to the long, Jaguar E-type-style hood. The "Z" emblazoned into both C-pillars is as memorable as the FR-S's derivative fender blister is forgettable. Much as we may fancy the Z, though, the people of Tennessee seem far more intrigued by the FR-S, inquiring everywhere we travel. "I thought it was some sort of Maserati," enthuses an Audi A6 driver in a suburban Starbucks parking lot. "That car looks lahk ah Fahrahri," drawls a truck driver in rural Tennessee.