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.
Car photography requires hours of parking, idling, and positioning to present various details in the proper light. The Datsun hates this. It registers a lumpy low idle that sounds sinister and forces us to constantly adjust the choke. The Scion, apparently envious of all the attention being showered on its older associate, throws a fit of its own around noon, when it abruptly stalls and then restarts in limp mode. After several tense minutes, it returns to full operation but still presents a check-engine light. Nelson volunteers to crawl back to the suburbs for an emergency appointment at Toyota of Cool Springs, where he’ll give the technician a first-ever chance to diagnose a Subaru boxer engine. I look to preserve our remaining car by setting off with photographer Jonathan David for a brisk cruise down the gently undulating parkway. I let my fingers nestle into the grooves of the Z’s thin-rimmed wheel and luxuriate in the feedback coming from the suspension as it loads up through gentle curves. It’s so ferociously hot in the cabin that David soon scrambles out gasping for air, and my iPhone eventually slips into a self-preserving coma. And yet, I’m beginning to bond with the car to the point that I’m somewhat reluctant to trade keys when the FR-S returns. The Scion’s issue — tentatively diagnosed because the car is so new and unfamiliar to dealers — is a cam gear that occasionally slips out of alignment, tripping the check-engine light. Rather than sitting around and waiting for it to happen again, we set off through the park. Climbing into the Scion after several hours in the Z is like moving from a rowdy and dingy city apartment to a new house in the suburbs. The shift linkage is tighter, the four-cylinder engine smoother and more powerful. And the cabin is much, much cooler. Still, part of me misses the sounds, the smells, the heat. The car nearly stalls the first time I lift the clutch because I can barely hear the engine, and the electrically assisted steering rack feels like a prosthetic limb with no nerve endings.
After a few more hours of photography, we stop to review our plans. We have beautiful photos, we have driven plenty of miles in both cars, and we have mechanical issues. This is when mature people hang it up and call it a story. But we’re not mature, and our atlas promises better roads farther east. With the sun setting, we bid our photographer adieu and climb onto I-40. An electronic road sign overhead morbidly informs us that 473 people have died on Tennessee roads this past year, causing me to glance nervously at the Z’s spaghetti-thin A-pillars and air-bag-less steering wheel. The front end begins to wander at speeds higher than 75 mph, so I soon back off to 70 mph, although it’s difficult to read the exact speed on the weakly glowing speedometer. Whereas the Scion feels like it could, at your command, go into a drift at speed, the Datsun feels as if it might do so of its own accord. (In later model years, Nissan added a front air dam for improved high-speed stability.) I’m certainly not bored, and I’m definitely not searching my phone for Carly Rae Jepsen songs. I settle instead for the snippets of country and sports talk that come through the AM/FM radio. By the time we reach our destination, a $35-a-night roadside motel in Cookeville, I’m too weary to walk to the nearby Waffle House for dinner. I settle for some frozen microwaveable mac ‘n’ cheese but fall asleep before I can finish unwrapping it. Driver involvement can be exhausting.
It can also be exhilarating. I take a turn in the FR-S the next day as we drive into a maze of wooded two-lanes. For all the well-deserved tourism of the Tail of the Dragon, which is located about three hours southeast, it’s often overlooked that pretty much any road in this region can serve up stretches of paradise. These more challenging roads perfectly suit the FR-S’s capabilities. It brakes harder, leans less in turns, and, with its more powerful engine, pulls out of corners better. I put the stability control system in sport mode — I’m happy to have a safety net when I’m not in the Z — and luxuriate in the Scion’s balance as the rear end rotates just enough to tuck around a corner at a faster speed than the Z could manage. Only, there it is, right in my rearview mirror. “That Z’s pretty quick, given the right driver,” a sweating, beaming Nelson says at the next switch point with a wink that I find absolutely infuriating. Actually, though, he’s right. What the Datsun lacks in structural rigidity and refinement, it mostly makes up for with balance as good as that of the Scion and steering that communicates the moment its fourteen-inch radials begin to give way. In other words, the forty-one-year-old Datsun Z approaches the capabilities of a new Scion FR-S, at least as measured by seat-of-the-pants, real-world driving. What’s even more surprising and splendid, though, is that the Scion FR-S feels a lot like a forty-one-year-old Datsun Z. Its normally aspirated boxer engine, which can be better heard with the A/C turned off, responds instantly to throttle inputs even though it’s not physically connected to your right foot via a cable. The brakes are firm and progressive, never letting on that computer-controlled sensors are constantly watching for signs of wheel slip. Unlike so many modern cars, it feels like a machine engineered to work through you rather than for you.
As afternoon approaches, we begrudgingly leave the rural two-lanes for the highway and return the Datsun, which is running more smoothly than when we picked it up 350 miles ago. Later, with the Scion safely tucked away for the night, we reflect upon our findings over some of Nashville’s finest sushi and warm sake. We have, over the course of two days, driven the stink out of two sports cars born forty years apart and found them pretty much equals. “I can’t even remember which corners I took in which car,” marvels Nelson.
There’s now no denying that the Scion FR-S stands on the shoulders of giants. But because its engineers and designers clearly understood and respected that tradition, it also stands shoulder-to-shoulder with them.
1971 Datsun 240Z
BASE PRICE $3596
ENGINE 12-valve SOHC carbureted I-6
DISPLACEMENT 2.4 liters (146 cu in)
POWER 151 hp @ 5600 rpm (SAE gross)
TORQUE 146 lb-ft @ 4400 rpm
TRANSMISSION 4-speed manual
SUSPENSION, FRONT Strut-type, coil springs
SUSPENSION, REAR Strut-type, coil springs
BRAKES F/R Unassisted discs/drums
TIRES Bridgestone Potenza RE92
TIRE SIZE 195/70HR-14
L x W x H 162.8 x 64.1 x 50.5 in
WHEELBASE 90.7 in
TRACK F/R 53.3/53.0 in
WEIGHT 2350 lb
EPA MILEAGE N/A
0-60 mph 9.4 sec
2013 Scion FR-S
BASE PRICE $24,930
ENGINE 16-valve DOHC direct-injected flat-4
DISPLACEMENT 2.0 liters (122 cu in)
POWER 200 hp @ 7000 rpm (SAE net)
TORQUE 151 lb-ft @ 6400 rpm
TRANSMISSION 6-speed manual
STEERING Electrically assisted
SUSPENSION, FRONT Strut-type, coil springs
SUSPENSION, REAR Control arms, coil springs
BRAKES Hydraulically assisted vented discs, ABS
TIRES Michelin Primacy HP
TIRE SIZE 215/45WR-17
L x W x H 166.7 x 69.9 x 50.6 in
WHEELBASE 101.2 in
TRACK F/R 59.8/60.6 in
WEIGHT 2758 lb
EPA MILEAGE 22/30 mpg
0-60 mph 6.2 sec