Scion FR-S: First DriveS

If Scion sold cars like drug dealers sold drugs, they'd be giving away little bits of the FR-S in baggies to everyone they see. They'd have local news channels running panic stories on the "Scion FR-S problem." Keith Richards would be trying to snort one off Anita Pallenberg's naked behind. Yes, it's just that easy to get addicted to it.

Because what Scion has done (well, really what Toyota and Subaru have done) is something so straightforward and simple that it's hard to remember why it's now become so rare.

That's right, the FR-S is an honest-to-god old school kick-in-the-ass sports car.

Full Disclosure: Scion wanted me to drive the FR-S so badly, they flew me out to Vegas, put me up in the Red Rock Hotel, gave me food and booze. Plus, there was a friendly Scion handler/wrangler within 20 feet of me pretty much any time I was in a public space.

While there was certainly plenty of the usual marketing-speak horseshit flying around (overuse of the word "passion", and one guy who said FR-S stands for "Friggin Really Sweet." Puke.) the truth actually seems to be that Toyota genuinely wanted to build a real sports car. By "real" I mean a car that's light, powerful enough but not defined only by engine power, well-balanced, nimble, and relatively simple. Not a muscle car or some over-engineered land spaceship. A sports car.

Toyota looked to their sports car history, and picked three main inspirations: The '80s-era AE86 series of rear-drive cars, so beloved by drifters and racers; the lovely Toyota 2000GT, which provided much of the styling inspiration; and the tiny Toyota Sports 800, whose 2-cylinder opposed engine provided the key mechanical inspiration for the car.

The Scion/Toyota engineers told us that the Sports 800 was the first horizontally-opposed front-engine rear drive car (they're wrong), and this is the car that made them realize the inherent benefits of an opposed engine. And that realization is what brought them to the collaboration with Subaru, one of the two manufacturers (Porsche being the other) still making horizontally-opposed car engines. It helps that they own a chunk of Subaru, too.

That choice of the flat-4 engine is really the defining point of this car. The flat engine, positioned low in the car and right over the front axle to make the car (just barely) a front-mid design with a very deliberately chosen 53/47 weight distribution is what sets this car apart from the hot hatches and sporty coupes in its price range (starts at $24,200). The center of gravity of the FR-S is lower than a Porsche Cayman (and, at 18.1 inches, very close to a Ferrari 360), and you can absolutely feel it.

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The flat-4 engine itself is essentially a Subaru design with Toyota's D-4S direct-injection fuel system. The result is a 2 liter engine that makes 200hp and 150 lb-ft of torque. For those math challenged, that's 100 HP/liter. It revs to 7400 rpm. The bore and stroke are 86mm x 86mm, a little easter egg tribute to the old AE86 that inspired them. The "86" tribute comes up a few times, as the inside diameter of the exhaust (in mm) and in the center of the opposed-pistons badge on the side of the car.

The engine sounds pretty great, too. Though to hear that sound they had to develop a perverse "sound creator", essentially a tube to bring the engine sound into the cockpit. Designers from decades ago who spent years developing good sound deadening must hate this.

Styling-wise, you can see the 2000GT's influence in the side window profile especially. I like the profile of the car the best, as it has classic sports car proportions that remind me of cars like the Datsun 240z, with the long hood and sloping, truncated rear. I'm not as crazy about the front face of the car. The angled, snake-eye headlights feel a bit played out, and I'd have rather seen some of the headlight shape influence from the 2000GT or Sports 800 here. The rear is athletic and purposeful looking, even if the backup light/triangular rear reflector (fog light in Europe) feels a bit fussy. All in all, though, it's a good looking car that conjures the right kind of feelings.

Inside, things are tight, but in a good way. It feels more like you're wearing a big mechanized suit as opposed to sitting in a room, like most cars, and that's a good thing. The materials aren't bad, most plastics being soft-touch, and I was pleased to see they patterned the surfaces with a stylized "T" pattern (a reference, again to the AE86, and the "T" logo Toyota used then. This pattern also appears in the grille mesh) as opposed to trying to make me think it's leather or something. The seats are great, with tight bolstering around your sides for very firm support.

Scion FR-S: First DriveS

The trunk is decent-sized, and with the rear seat folded, Scion made the point to tell us it'll fit four full-sized spare tires. The rear seat is, well, more of the idea of a seat. Another journalist (about 6'1") sat in there, but only with the front seat pushed way up and his head meeting the rear window glass. Even the drawing provided in the press packet shows the rear seat passenger's legs magically absorbed into the front seat back. So, best think of this as a 2-seater with provisions for an occasional friend sideways or a pair of friendly amputees.

Instrument-wise, this is one of the few cars with two speedometers. The tach is front and center, and has an integrated digital speed readout. There's a traditional speedometer to the left, but I never even looked at it. They could lose that with no problem– the tach and digital speed is all you'll need. The shifter is well-positioned and has a great short throw, and the e-brake is right nearby, with a surprisingly big handle. This is a pretty big clue that Scion is expecting these to be popular drifting machines.

Scion let us try the car in four different contexts: road driving, track driving, a wet skidpad for drifting, and an autocross course. Let's take these one at a time.

Scion FR-S: First DriveS

What you realize on the road is that you could absolutely use this as a daily driver. With all the traction and stability control robots active, it's well-behaved and quick. It made 120 on the open desert highway with several thousand RPMs to spare. It's not the absolute fastest thing off the line, but acceleration feels good and the car's low stance and agility makes boring traffic much more fun.

On the track, the car really shines. With the stability and traction control off, the chassis comes alive. It's essentially neutral, handling wise, but you can lift off a bit in a turn and get it to oversteer enough to make things fun. The flat engine and low center of gravity really make the difference here. It's light enough (2758 lbs), but manages to feel like it's held to the road with magnets. Very little body roll, and surprisingly recoverable when you try and force a bit too much oversteer.

The steering itself feels precise and very direct, which goes against my prejudices against electronic power steering, which I usually think of as a bit numb. The wheel is Toyota's smallest (they were excited about that) and gets decent road feel, even if it's not quite the same visceral connection you'd get with a pure mechanical set-up. But, in real-world use, that's probably not a bad thing.

The 6-speed shifter is quick and precise, and the pedal position is great, even having a useful dead pedal. I drove both the manual and auto, and was quite surprised with how effective the auto was just on its own, without me playing with the little paddles. It downshifted pretty much when I wanted it to, and proved much more capable than I'd have guessed. I think this car is at its best with a manual, but the auto doesn't neuter the experience.

I've never (intentionally) drifted a car before, so this was a treat. Scion sent us out for a test spin with Ken Gushi who does this stuff so effortlessly I could barely tell he was doing anything at all. Except we were moving sideways, fast, under total control. When I got my chance out on the wet, I mostly ended up spinning the car around wildly. Near the end of my turn I think I was getting the hang of it (though this is most likely just in my head) but the important thing is that I was actually laughing out loud. Like what people imagine when they type "LOL." It was the most fun I've had in a car in a long time.

On the autocross track, the car's nimble handling was obvious, but so was the fact that you could get in trouble with this car if you pushed it. At one point my agression/talent ratio got way out of whack, and I lost it a bit, understeering into a bunch of cones. I was able to recover quickly, but it's a good reminder that, with all the electronic nannies off, you're dealing with a chassis that has the capacity to both reward talent and punish the idiot, if you're not careful. In a sports car, that's not necessarily bad, but it's something to be aware of, especially for the car's likely target demographic of men with imaginations more developed than their talent. Like me.

I recently drove the Fiat 500 Abarth around the same track, and while I had a great time in that car as well, there's absolutely no comparison between a tall, FWD economy car made quick and a car that was designed for agility and speed from the start. It feels like old sports cars I've driven, but with just enough modernity to inspire confidence. Oh, and there's no stupid plastic engine cover.

Scion FR-S: First DriveS

The real trick here for Scion, I think, is going beyond the enthusiasts. Any real car person, if they can get past whatever brand prejudices they may have, can see this is an earnest, purpose-built sporting car that promises real driving enjoyment. That part's easy. But how to they get the vast majority of other car buyers, many of whom have never even driven a rear-wheel drive car, to understand why it's great?

This FR-S has the potential to bring the concept of "fun to drive" back to a whole new generation. Sure, you could buy any number of boring FWD sedans for around $25,000. But why? Instead, why not buy a similarly priced car that can turn driving from being a monotonous chore to a real experience?